This project was initially instigated by Swedish national radio, who approached the brothers and asked them to write a radio musical for them. After mulling through a number of ideas ('Ikea the Musical' Russell will joke later tonight!) they settled on a piece centred around Ingmar Bergman. Unsurprisingly, the resulting piece was mostly (all?) in Swedish, but they have now created an English version to be released in November.
So last Wednesday (28th October) I wandered up to the BBC Radio Theatre at Portland Place in London for the unveiling of this curious project. Having finally made it through the Beeb's Heathrow-esque security - they even made me remove my belt!! - we were ushered into the small theatre, where a small booklet was awaiting each audience member, providing more details on the project and that all important track listing. A large screen with a striking black and white image of Bergman was the centre piece of the auditorium, and below it were three chairs ready for the interview. Stuart Maconie welcomed us all, and after all the obligatory 'domestics' about fire alarms and what to do if you feel unwell, it was quickly on to the inaugural play of the album.
I have to say it was an odd experience sitting in a theatre just listening to audio... I'm not sure I've ever been in that situation before. It was quite weird actually, and whilst my ears were happily enjoying the sounds, my eyes were demanding some stimulation too!! But what do you do whilst penned into a seat with nowhere to go and nothing to see? Well I did what any self respecting nosey parker would do... I 'people watched' for a full 65 minutes!! and what an interesting array of people there was to watch too! My only wish is that I Should Be Working had picked up a couple of tickets too, as she would have captured it in words so much better than me! but for the record, here are just some of the people who kept my eyes entertained...
1) Just in front of me was 'Mr Analyst'. A young lad who seemed desperate to show everyone that he was obviously enjoying the play back much more than anyone else... Now me, I can listen to music without changing the appearance of my face... it's a gift from god I guess. But Mr Analyst, had a smug, Robbie Williams style smirk on his face for much of the hour, combined with inquisitive rolls of the eyes that said "yes, yes, I completely get this album.... ahh yes, I see what you've done there, very good, verrrry good...". He combined this face with a sagely nod of the head at convenient intervals, as if to provide Ron n Russ with confirmation of his approval. Phhewwww! I bet they were sweating on that one! Mr Analyst also laughed at every piece of spoken dialogue... regardless of whether it was funny or not! Again, it was if he was implying that he understood this album SOOOO much more than the rest of us plebs.
2) 'Mr and Mrs Weak Bladder' had rather handily managed to bags themselves second row seats. However I'd imagine a good half of this album is still unheard to them, and they were continually popping in and out of the theatre to go to the lav. At one point it was like a flippin' relay race, as one returned only to relieve (pun not intended) the other.
3) In the row behind me were a couple who particularly intrigued me... 'Mr and Mrs we go to anything that we can get free tickets for'. It seemed obvious that Mr and Mrs WGTATWCGFTF had no idea who Sparks were, or what this album was all about. This could easily be deduced by the pained 'I no understand' look on their faces for the whole hour, and the blank looks into each others faces. Or perhaps they were just hoping for a rendition of 'This Town Ain't Big Enough' to make it all worthwhile...
4) In the row directly in front of me was 'Mrs well it's warm and dry, so i reckon I can get an hours kip in here'. She seemed to be able to fall asleep almost on cue, and was away within the first few bars... not regaining consciousness until well into the interview!
5) But as always, I managed to find the most annoying person much closer... yes, sitting right next to me was Mr sneezy-fuck. He spent the whole evening sniffing and then sneezing into his open hands followed by an audible "ohhhhh", as if I were to feel sorry for him. I've seen those Swine Flu ads, this bastard was spraying over everyone. I could actually see the particles of his snotty excretion flying through the air and landing on me. A few Paddington 'hard stares' were put into action, but to no avail.
But I digress... So what was the album like I hear you cry?? Well, it was different!! a real departure from any of their previous 21 albums, yet at the same time, it was so very 'Sparks' too. The brothers have had a real revival in the 2000's thanks to the recent trilogy of albums they have put out (Lil' Beethoven, Hello Young Lovers and last year’s Exotic Creatures of The Deep). This new album has nods to all three of those albums... the orchestral pomp and arrangement, the flip from rock to pop to classical (and back again!), and of course, that unmistakable Mael sense of humour! Yet it was also like nothing I've heard them do before too... 24 tracks, many instrumental, fusing dialogue, music and song to tell a proper story from start to finish.
The story starts at the 1956 Cannes film festival, where Bergman is picking up an award for his film 'Smiles of a Summer Night'. We then follow the director being tempted by the lure of Hollywood. On arrival in tinsel town he is welcomed by Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock ("Alfred Hitchcock, bless his soul, there chomping on a dinner roll, The Man Who Knew Too Much done twice, in Hollywood, done twice as nice"), but Bergman soon realises that the whole place is corrupt, and it's not long before he is somehow captured inside his own film and his life becomes in very real danger. As the plot twists and turns, it provides the Maels with an opportunity to really play with different sounds and styles - especially when Bergman is 'locked' inside the film, enabling them to tip their hat to the 'sounds' of other directors and film scorers. After a few hairy moments, Bergman eventually escapes... with the aid of Greta Garbo!
This 24 track masterpiece was a lot to take in in one go. I can see it's going to take several plays to fully appreciate, but I think the boys may well have done it again!
Maconie quickly introduces Ron and Russell to the very appreciative audience (well, apart from Mr and Mrs WGTATWCGFTF, who display the facial expressions reminiscent of two cartoon characters, stuck together with glue who have just discovered a hand-grenade attached to their person).
We are then treated to an hours of conversation where Sparks talk in depth about the album and take questions from the audience. The brothers say they were really inspired by this project. Having release 21 albums, it was interesting for them to create something different, something that didn't revolve around 10 or 12 'pop' songs, all lasting 3 or 4 minutes. They tell us that The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman has allowed them to explore 'pop' in a different form. Russell says that the idea of producing a musical radio drama really appealed to them, as in America the radio play is all but dead, which he feels is a travesty. Both Ron and Russell are genuinely grateful to BBC 6 Music for playing the album in its entirety. They say it is something that has to be heard as a whole to understand\appreciate, and doesn't really work when a station says "we'll play track 7 for you". Someone asks if the plays is based on any fact! They reply "well... he did get that award at Cannes"!! The quote of the night though has to be given to Ron. A question from the audience asked the brothers if they were fans of 'musicals' in general, and if so, which ones. After much 'ummming and arrrring' Russell mentions an arty musical whose name escapes me. Ron then says something like "this is going to sound weird coming from Sparks, but I'm not really a fan of 'camp', and I don't really like musicals"!! Not a fan of camp indeed!! It's my lasting memory of the night! Genius!
Throughout the interview, BBC employees were places at regular intervals down the isles to ensure no photographs were taken. I was much too scared to break the rules, but the moment recording finished, I decided to try and snap a crafty one... my reasoning being that they could throw me out now if they wanted as I've seen and heard it all!! The results were a little shaky I'm afraid due to the haste in which they were taken. But for what it's worth, here are the two shots I took:
The show is to be broadcast this Sunday, 8th November on 6 Music between 5.30pm and 8.00pm.
SPARKS RELATED LINKS:
If you are all buzzed up on Sparks with nowhere to go, why not check out some of these Mael related bits and bobs?
My review of the Exotic Creatures Of The Deep and No. 1 In Heaven live show is here complete with exclusive professional photos.
My review of the Propaganda live show here complete with exclusive professional photos.
My review of the Hello Young Lovers live show with exclusive professional photos is here.
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 website here
Visit the official Sparks MySpace Page here
Oh, and finally, why no take a look at this fabulous performance of 'Get In The Swing' on Top Of The Pops from 1975.... these boys INVENTED camp!!