I suppose, if the world at large knows anything at all about Sparks it's this: they were a mid-seventies electro-glam band. Had a singer who leaped all over the place. Keyboard player who just stood there shooting quizzical glances this way and that. Had a few hits. Currently residing in the Where Are They Now File.
Well, all that is correct up to a point. Sparks did indeed enjoy a certain flush of success in the immediate pre- and post-punk era; their hit songs from that time are still well-known today. They do indeed have a singer who leaps all over the place, and their keyboard player does indeed maintain a quizzical demeanour in the midst of the mayhem. But far from vanishing into the dreaded WATN file, Sparks just kept on going. In recent years they may not have troubled the chart compilers overmuch (or indeed at all), but they've built up an impressive catalogue of releases and an equally impressive history of touring. Their latest album, Hello Young Lovers, is just out, and here they are again, taking a swing through the theatre venues of the rock 'n' roll world to the delight of the fans.
Sparks are their own support band. We're getting two sets tonight. To kick off, a very 'performance art' realisation of the band's new album, acted out in front of a large back-projection screen while the backing musicians lurk behind. Ron Mael (the quizzical keyboard player) shadow-boxes a virtual version of himself, and then, with many extravagant hand gestures, plays a similarly virtual organ. Slogans and images flash up, surreal and disconcerting. It's like watching a Power Point presentation put together by Andy Warhol. Meanwhile, Russell Mael (the singer who leaps about all over the place) addresss the audience with a combination of hellfire preacher conviction and manic, chief-executive brio, striding to and fro in his all-black outfit, as if he won't rest until we've all signed up to his latest sales targets. The songs are classic Sparks: oblique and witty, smart and surreal. We're informed that 'Chicks Dig Metaphors'; we explore the logistics of names and noses in 'Perfume'. At one point, Ron approaches the front of the stage, and diffidently remarks that while at one time Sparks "...had the word 'apolitical' tattooed on our chests, recent events have well and truly wiped it off." Then it's straight into the band's first ever anti-war anthem, 'Baby, Baby, Can I Invade Your Country?' although, in true Sparks style (and as you might guess from that title), it's so completely soaked in irony I'm sure the venue staff will have to swab down the stage afterwards. The entire performance is a genuine tour de force - all that real/virtual interaction must've taken days on end to rehearse. Most bands would have been satisfied to call that a headline set. But not Sparks. The main performance is yet to come.
An intermission, and they're back. This time, the back-projection screen has gone, and in its place we have the full rock 'n' roll stage set-up. Sparks may have made their name as the original electro-duo, but on stage they're a no-shit stonking rock band. Here we go, into a greatest hits set which brings home just how many classic anthems Sparks have lurking in their catalogue. 'Number One Song In Heaven' is thrown in almost casually, just one big tune among many. 'Tryouts For The Human Race' comes next, apparently only the second-ever time the song has been performed live. But it's 'This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us' that is, quite literally, the showstopper. As the song crashes to its crescendo, Russell hitting the final falsetto note of vocal as accurately as a sniper hitting his target, the audience sets up a roar, and just doesn't stop. Russell 'n' Ron simply stand there, taken aback, looking endearingly bashful. That sets things up for a riotous, storming, romp to the finish, the band carried along by an almost tangible surge of devotion from the crowd that greets every song from the band's extensive past like a long-lost friend. Eventually, it's final encore time, but here Sparks throw us one last curve ball. Instead of the big anthemic finish we might expect, the band take things right down into the minimalist zone - just the essential duo on stage. Ron sits, impassive as ever, at his keyboard. Russell stands alongside, bedraggled but unbowed after his exertions, and relates the problems the band have experienced in getting their new single, 'Dick Around' on the radio. Apparently, the title is offensive to the kiddies and the housewives, or somesuch feeble excuse. One radio station, Russell remarks, disgust virtually running in rivulets from the corners of his mouth, "...didn't even take it out of the shrinkwrap." And so, by way of a finale, Sparks perform a stripped-down version of the song, defiance in every soaring chorus. Well, that was a gig, all right. A glorious performance by one of the few bands around these days that can still put on a real show. The kiddies and the housewives don't know what they're missing.
For more photos from this gig, find Sparks by name here.