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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan

Islington Academy
Islington, London
May 18th 2008

Do you remember Sparks, Serge? You know, the two weird brothers from LA, Ron and Russell Mael. Ron’s the funny one with the weird stare and the Adolph Hitler moustache who does all the piano playing, and Russell’s the can’t-keep-still high- pitched singer.

They came to the UK in 1973 and blew everyone away with their, er, weirdness, scoring a huge hit with ‘This town ain’t big enough for the both of us’ from their third album, Kimono My House. It was one of those albums that everyone had when I was at college. Why I even went to see them play it in Lancaster. Boy, they were weird. And then almost as soon as they appeared, they disappeared, back to the States to relative obscurity (by which I mean they had a hit record in France) and a dramatic change in musical style incorporating what was then called ‘Disco’ and electronic – all frankly quite weird.
And it was probably only a few years ago that they came back to my attention seriously when the press started talking about their 2002 album Lil’ Beethoven (according to their website a “genre-defying opus”), which was followed by a number of one-off appearances in London, and the equally well-received Hello Young Lovers (“quite simply an extraordinary masterpiece” says their website). Now, in a gesture of genre defying weirdness Ron and Russell have decided to perform all their albums live in London over a period of twenty-one nights, finishing with the premiere of their new release, Exotic Creatures of the Deep (“Should it be possible for two people to be so fresh, so vital, so unpredictable and so incomparably individual?” says you-know-what). Sparks
That’s right, twenty-one albums in twenty-one nights. How weird is that? If you do the math (the brothers did on their website) it comes out as over 250 songs, or 4,825,237 notes. And as the brothers said themselves, “Only Sparks would dare to take on this challenge, this mammoth undertaking, this melodious epic, this ground-breaking concept, this celebration of musical greatness past and present.” Weirdness epitomised.
Actually it’s not weird at all. The 21-night series has been a huge PR coup for the brothers Mael, who for the past month have hardly been off the pages of the broadsheet press, off both popular and ‘highbrow’ radio shows, or off the culture programmes on the box in the corner. And as the gigs are being streamed live, they have a world-wide audience. They’ve certainly sold out the Academy tonight, and I would think will be taking a fair revenue from these gigs, in addition to the anticipated boost in sales for their new album. All very clever and very calculated. Why, even Ron’s wacky appearance was apparently conceived as a way of capturing the attention of television cameras.
Shame to relate that they’ve chosen to perform the first twenty albums at the Carling Academy Islington, a small rectangular and soulless concrete box in the middle of a newish shopping development bordering posh, middle class Islington and tough gangland Islington. When it was first opened Eurythmic Dave Stewart had promised it would be a revival of the famous Soho Marquee Club, but that lasted barely four months before it closed, eventually reopening under the tutelage of the brewery-sponsored Carling Academy chain. We did hear Jim White perform an almost studio- perfect rendition of Drill a Hole in that Substrate there, so there’s nothing particularly wrong with the sound. But then it was only about two-thirds full at the very most.
Russel Mael
Tonight it’s about one hundred and twenty per cent full. It’s night number three, and it’s Kimono My House. We’re tightly packed like suffocating sardines in a claustrophobic hot and jostling crowd. It’s not fun, and it’s slightly frightening. Next to me is apparently one of Islington’s famous rock stars (I haven’t got a clue who he is, but with long hair, too many pounds and a Yorkshire accent I suspect a heavy metal bass guitarist). He’s drinking iced vodka by the half pint and regaling wide-eyed civilians (who appear to be buying most of the vodka) with tales of touring in LA, whilst evading his wife’s calls on his mobile ‘phone.
There are Sparks fans of all ages, sizes, genders and trans-genders in this increasingly unpleasant place, which is becoming reminiscent of the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta.
After what seems like interminable trash from a DJ whose only applause was earned when he put on his jacket to end his set, the brothers take the stage.
From a distance, their appearance has changed little since my last encounter with them in 1973. But it’s really hard to say as I can barely see a thing (which means the diminutive Photographer might just as well be witnessing a soccer match for all she knows). Occasionally I manage to get glimpse of Ron, and whenever I do he’s staring straight at me with a disapproving glower, just like one of those old paintings in a horror B-movie. Sparks
His brother is jumping energetically round the stage and working hard to make his high notes. Their band, none of whom could have been born when the record was released, are surprisingly loud and heavy (with initially, a very over-bearing bass, as vodka rock star and I agreed). And as they break into the first track, ‘This house’ many of the crowd start exhibiting dervish-like tendencies, which only adds to the unpleasantness of the experience. We last seven songs, all very well executed, before fighting our way out to the cool air of a London spring night. Inside, Sparks went on to finish the album and play as a special track (one is promised as an encore for each night) ‘Barbecutie’, the B-side of ‘This House’. And I couldn’t help thinking, as we drove back west, that I’d heard enough to convince me that Sparks really were very, very clever, but like English footballer Martin Peters, were probably ten years or more ahead of their time. And perhaps victims of their own ‘weirdness’ too, with punters failing to see the real substance in their work through the novelty. So a worthy time then for twenty-one nights of reassessment. It’s just a shame that they chose such a shithole poor venue to perform in. - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Nick)
Listen: Sparks' MySpace page

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