Before I start this review, I'd just like to say a big thank you to photographer extraordinaire Tony Bartolo. Believe it or not, Tony was the only press photographer to cover every night of 21x21 - ensuring this historic event was preserved. He has kindly allowed me to use some of his stunning photos for this review, and also for my previous Propaganda review. More about Tony and his photos in the links section at the end of this article.
Back in 2002, Sparks fans were looking forward to Ron and Russell's first album of the 21st Century… but with the best will in the world, I doubt many expected the masterpiece that was Lil’ Beethoven. The creativity of the Mael brothers never ceases to impress, but this album broke yet more new territory, and took them to an even higher level. Critics and fans alike put this, their 19th album, as their best yet. So, after more than 30 years in the business, Sparks had finally reached their peak right? Well no actually, because album number 20, 2006’s Hello Young Lovers, topped it!
I can't tell you how much I love this album, but suffice to say, eight and a half years into the 2000’s, it’s still looking like I'll have the easiest choice ever for my 'album of the decade' award. It’s just about as perfect an album as I think I'll ever find - this multilayered gem has so much in it, that it is almost impossible to 'get it' within the first few plays. This is no background music -- it's a complex album that demands your full attention for the full duration. The phrase "blown away" is severely overused (I actually heard someone at work last week claiming they had been "blown away with the new Coldplay album", now come on, is that really very likely?!), but I genuinely was with this album (and still am). I'd never heard anything quite like it and just couldn't stop playing it, even now it's impossible to just play once.
For me, Hello Young Lovers sums Sparks up perfectly – it’s intelligent, arty, funny and experimental. It's classical music and its rock, it opera, pop and it’s dance… quite often all at the same time! So here I am, waiting to see if they can possibly improve on this album, live. The stakes were high, could this gig possibly live up to all my expectations?
Ron and Russell enter to tremendous applause for this, their final night at the venue that has become their home in the last month or so. The stage is set up radically different to my last visit, due mainly to the inclusion of the jumbo video screen sitting on the stage – an addition which has become a regular feature to accompany the live shows for the more recent Sparks albums. As a consequence, the rest of the band are squeezed either side of the screen, and they perform behind a black mesh.
Straight away we're into the opening song, Dick Around. I've sung the praises of this track before, but suffice to say, live, this fabulously OTT opener is more intense than ever. The supporting band either side of the video screen are plunged into darkness, each member lit only by a single spotlight from the floor. As the band are rather cramped for room, by necessity they are all standing at different levels, and the result is very Bohemian Rhapsody looking -- which may well be deliberate... Dick Around has the feel of a 21st Century This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us, and many believe that song was a big influence on Queen when writing Bohemian Rhapsody.
Perfume sounds fresher than ever, and it’s already clear that tonight is going to be no disappointment. By the time we reach track three, The Very Next Fight, the jumbo screen has come into its own, and 'real life' Ron is taking on a 'digital' Ron for a no holds barred fight. The timing of each punch thrown is perfect, finishing with a sucker punch from live Ron that sends his 2D counterpart flying off screen! The Very Next Fight also gives the crowd their first real chance to join in, as they ‘help’ Russell out with the repetitive “open displays of affection” line!
Anti-war song (Baby, Baby) Can I Invade Your Country? is next…. Y’know, it’s a natural temptation for people to write off older artists -- as either 'past it' or living on their past, but watching Russell completely commanding the stage, as he marches up and down (accompanied by an on screen army of military Maels!), you realise he is still one of the best front men in the business. Ron straps on a Vintage electric for Rock, Rock, Rock, where he become guitar hero (for one track anyway) and cranks out a deafening heavy metal strum that would have Velvet Revolver heading for cover…indeed the on-screen stack of cartoon speakers are wobbling and bulging like something out of Tom and Jerry with every attack of the strings!
There have been some grumblings about the sound quality at some of these shows, but as the gorgeous piano sound kicks in on Metaphor, I suddenly realise that tonight, the sound (and just about everything else too!) is just perfect. Ron takes another trip to the screen to catch, and then discard, the falling words that drop as Russell sings them… “a diamond ring”, “the first day of summer”… The crowd have been very interactive throughout, but Metaphor is a fun song with lyrics just aching for a bit of audience participation, and it’s great to hear them take full advantage…
Russell: Whose up for a metaphor?
Crowd: We're up for a metaphor!
Russell: Are you chicks up for a metaphor?
Crowd: Yes, we're up for a metaphor!
Russell: Don't, don't, don't, don't, don't mix them
Crowd: We, we, we won't mix them!
Russell: Don't, don't, don't, don't, don't mix them
Crowd: We wouldn't dream of mixing ‘em!
Waterproof is as good a ballad as Sparks have ever written, and although it’s impossible for me to pick a favourite track, this would have to be a contender. I go all goose-pimple-ly for the entire song, as Russell gives a note-perfect performance. 20 nights in, and his voice is holding up wonderfully. The video screen provides Russell with the perfect set of backing singers for Here Kitty Kitty… four felines in their best suits!
There's No Such Thing As Aliens is hauntingly stunning, and the two creepy figures with the big hands directly behind Russell add to the eerie feel of this song. The show has flown by, and incredibly it’s already the final track, the frantic madness that is As I Sit To Play The Organ At The Notre Dame Cathedral. Complete with maniacal church organ and the scariest hallelujah chorus you're ever likely to hear! At one point, Ron takes to playing a cartoon organ on the jumbo screen! It looks incredible, and makes yellow submarine look quite sensible in comparison!
The encore tonight, unlike most of the previous nights, has nothing to do with the album performed. Profile, is one of their best ever b-sides (the flip of 1975’s Get In The Swing), and the crowd go crazy for it!
An incredible night, which leaves me completely stunned… yet the cherry for tonight's cake was still to be served. A fortuitous ‘bump’ into a friend of a friend, means I end up in the after show party, and within minutes, I’m standing 2 feet away from Ron and Russell. Surely no better opportunity to finally meet my heroes? Well, no, not really. They are happily winding down after the performance, and it's not really that kind of environment. Over in the corner we spot ex-Sparks bass player Ian Hampton, seconds later Ron and Russell spot him to. It's obviously been a long-time and there are genuine shows of affection all round as the three are reunited. It's my last memory of the evening, and what an appropriate one. This whole mammoth feat -- performing 21 albums in 21 nights -- was all about reacquainting ourselves with old friends, both musical and human…job well and truly done.
SPARKS RELATED LINKS:
Tony Bartolo is the only photographer in the world who took profesional photos every night of the whole 21x21 event. He has some very exciting projects under way, and you will soon be able to purchase some of his incredible work from the Sparks Spectacular. Be sure to keep watching his website - Snazmusic - for full details. Tony currently has a competition running to win a signed Sparks album cover... so be sure to check his site out here
See my review of the Propaganda show here complete with more exclusive photos from Tony Bartolo.
Download or listen to the full 22 minute interview that Sparks gave Simon Mayo to promote 21x21 here
See my Introducing Sparks article here, containing exclusive comments from Ron and Russell Mael!
My exclusive interview with ex-Sparks member Martin Gordon is here and here
My interview with indie popsters Silvery is here, and there's plenty of Sparks related chat!
Visit the official Sparks websitee here
Visit the official Sparks MySpace Page here