Friday, 30 May 2008

Sparks - The Simon Mayo Interview

Last week, Sparks gave a 22 minute interview to Simon Mayo on Radio 5, to promote their new album "Exotic Creatures of the Deep", and their 21x21 shows in London. I know a lot of people have been searching for it, and it's now gone from the 'listen again' feature. I managed to get an MP3 of it at the time, so for a limited time only, here is the full interview:

And while you're enjoying the interview, why not have a read of my reviews of the recent 21x21 shows. The Propaganda review is here, and the Hello Young Lovers review is here.


Sunday, 25 May 2008

Sparks: Propaganda - Live Review

Sparks: Propaganda, Live at the Carling Academy, Islington, 20th May 2008.

Many thanks to photographer Tony Bartolo for allowing me to use some of his stunning photos for this review, and also for my Hello young Lovers review. More about Tony and his photos in the links section at the end of this article.

You've got to take your hats off to em.. no matter if you're a fan or not, the idea that Sparks came up with this year was simply astonishing…

They formed back in the late 60s as Halfnelson, and since then have put out 20 albums -- and just about every one of them is great too, in fact album number 20 (‘Hello Young Lovers’) is possibly my favourite album of theirs to date. Album 21 ‘Exotic Creatures of the Night’ was released on Monday, and to celebrate its arrival, Sparks announced a 21 night residency in London… yup you guessed it, all 21 albums, in order!

I know the 'album concert' is not a particularly new concept, but I can't think of anyone who’s taken it to such mammoth proportions as this. I can't even begin to imagine the logistical nightmare of attempting it -- I mean, with encores you're looking at over 250 tracks to rehearse. A feat even for the Mael brothers, but spare a thought for the brave backing band signed up for these shows, learning the lot from scratch!

When these shows were announced a few months back, I felt like a kid in a sweet shop as I looked longingly at the dates (and the lure of the 'Charlie and the chocolate factory’-esqe Golden Ticket, was truly tempting), but alas, I could only stretch to a couple of gobstoppers, so had to choose very carefully. Tonight was the first of my picks, Propaganda, and I was obviously in good company, as this was one of the first nights to sell out. I've been a fan of Sparks for about 30 years, and this album is the one I've come back to the most during that time – every single track is perfection, the production is fantastic, and it still sounds fresh as a daisy.

Ron and Russell Mael took to the stage just after 9 p.m., accompanied by a very young looking set of backing musicians… all sporting a uniform of black, topped off with a propaganda album cover T-shirt. We start off with the 30 seconds of acappella that is the title track 'Propaganda', which seamlessly blasts into 'At Home At Work At Play'… and we’re off! The first thing that hits you is just how energetic front man Russell remains, as he spins, swirls and treads every inch of the stage. What really pleases me is that it soon becomes apparent that this show is going to be a faithful reproduction of the album. I remember seeing Alice Cooper live in the 80s, ‘Schools Out’ was 15 minutes long, ‘Elected’ was 20 minutes long, the songs were no longer the tunes I knew, and it ruined it. But tonight, all the tracks are reassuringly familiar. There's maybe a slightly rockier feel to the guitar sound -- almost as though Slash had joined Sparks for the night! But other than that, it’s a time machine back to 1974.

I've been listening to this album for the vast majority of my life, yet tonight I see a different aspect to it, that I've never seen (or at least appreciated) before. I've never particularly considered it an anthemic album, yet tonight, hearing the crowd chant along with just about every track, I suddenly realised this is perfect pop, that lends itself beautifully to audience participation! We rattle through the album, and during the penultimate track 'Who Don't Like Kids', Ron Mael, who has kept his trademark stony face throughout, can contain himself no longer! And he takes centre stage to display the ‘Ron Rumba’, complete with fixed cheesy grin! He stops as suddenly as he began, looks all sheepish and then apologises profusely to the audience “it’ll never happen again" he promises… (well not till tomorrow night at least!). This is a great example of the humour of Sparks -- speak to the casual music fan, and they’ll describe Sparks as morose or painfully serious, yet they couldn't be more wrong. Read their lyrics, see them live, hear them interviewed, these are very funny guys!

'Bon Voyage' was always an appropriate track to finish the album, but it seems even more appropriate to finish the gig with, and the sea of waving and swaying arms make it the ideal curtain closer. After much persuasion, they reappear for an encore of ‘Lost and Found’ - b-side of ‘Amateur Hour’ and strictly speaking, more appropriate to last nights show!, but it’s a cracking song and nobody seems to be complaining!

All in all a great night, I’m not sure the sound was quite all it could have been – it was shocking in some parts of the room as I wandered round for a better view – but you couldn’t fault Ron and Russell, who put in as good a performance as I’ve ever seen them give… as Russell said this evening “only 17 left”!

Here's an audience video of that encore 'Lost and Found':


Tony Bartolo is the only photographer in the world who took profesional photos 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

If you enjoyed this review, why not check out my review of the Hello Young Lovers show here.

See my Introducing Sparks article here, containing exclusive comments from Ron and Russell Mael!

While you're here, don't miss my EXCLUSIVE, extensive interview with ex-Sparks member Martin Gordon, and he had plenty of interesting Sparks stories to tell! Part 1 is here and part 2 is here

See my interview with upcoming indie popsters Silvery here, where we had a long chat about all manner of Sparks related things!

To celebrate these shows and the new album, fellow Sparks fan Klitzfrug has put a fantastic 'goodie bag' of rare Sparks albums to download on his blog - no less than TEN albums in fact! Get over to his blog fetusveneris now, they won't be there forever! link to fetusveneris here


Saturday, 24 May 2008

Marc Almond - Lavender

In my recent review of Marc live at Wilton's Music Hall, I mentioned the song Lavender, which at the show, was accompanied by a very striking slideshow, depicting a number of celebs and non-celebs alike, who in the past;

a) hid their sexuality for fear of losing their popularity (or just for fear); or

b) came out, and paid the consequences.

I've found that very slideshow, along with a demo version of Lavender. Have a look, and listen to the lyrics, it's pretty moving stuff.... oh, and note the two pictures of a young Marc that pop up in it too!



Monday, 19 May 2008

Ghost World

One of my all-time favourite comic book stories is Ghost World by Daniel Clowes. Initially it was serialised in his own independent comic book 'Eightball', where it took almost 4 years (June 93 – March 97) and eight issues to tell the tale of Enid Coleslaw (the anoraks among you may be interested to note that Enid Coleslaw is an anagram of Daniel Clowes!) and her best friend Rebecca Doppelmeyer. Eventually it was pieced together as a graphic novel in the late 90s, where it found a much wider audience. This story is such a rare treat, and one I find I have to 'top up' on at regular intervals -- you know, like you have to do with those most favourite films…..

Although Dan Clowes writes and draws all his own stories, the real art of this piece is how the hell this middle-aged man managed to nail the thoughts and characterisations of these two teenagers so well! The dialogue is spot-on, and the relationship between the girls and their ‘friends’ is agonisingly real. Everyone goes through that awkward 'no longer a kid, not yet an adult' phase, and I guess that's why this book is so easy to relate to. It's one of those stories where, on the face of it, little happens, yet dig a little deeper and it's pretty much the whole of life, wrapped up in eighty odd pages.

High school friends Enid and Rebecca are two alienated and very opinionated girls, who know exactly what they don't like -- of course, like most teens, they are less sure what they do like, as the realisation of a directionless future hits them (ring any bells?!). The girls live in an un-named town, but you almost certainly live in it too (or at least very near it)… All the life has been sucked out, and all the character buildings, and things that used to personalise it and make it unique are being torn down, replaced with cinema complexes, theme diners and shopping malls. The girls seem to despair at the loss of their towns identity, and to me, this suggests where the stories title comes from - although Clowes has never really explained it, saying only that he once saw some graffiti on a wall containing the words. Enid and Rebecca’s dream had always been to quit school and achieve adulthood, yet when it finally comes, it slowly tears their friendship apart. The ending is left up to the reader to decide, but many believe there are enough signs in the last few pages to show that Enid commits suicide… I however like to go for the thought that Enid has gone in search of a new town that still has its soul.

It’s a thought provoking read – with a lot to say about throw-away society and the decay of our surroundings.

The first whiff I caught of Ghost World being made into a film was sometime in the late 90’s, and I was mortified. Hollywood doesn't have a good track record of adapting comic books at the best of times, let alone subtle, underground titles like this. I had visions of it being rewritten as an ‘American Pie’ style teen flick… ugh. On its release in 2001, I somehow managed to find a cinema in Essex actually showing it (admittedly only for one day), so my partner and I nervously attended the first showing. But against all the odds, one of my top three comic books became one of my top three films! The film (starring Thora Birch as Enid and an at the time little known Scarlett Johansson as Rebecca) faithfully reproduced the book, and the additional storylines (all written by Clowes) added to and complemented the original perfectly - particularly the decision to expand the ‘Seymour’ character, played to painful perfection by Steve Buscemi – in fact it was nominated for an Academy Award for the ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’.

Lately I’ve seen the DVD kicking around in HMV at the crazy price of £3… which really is too cheap for this little gem. If you see it around at that price snap it up, you won’t regret it. However, do yourself a favour and make sure you read the book 1st.

I've managed to track down the original trailer for the film, which gives a good flavour of this underrated quirky flick:


Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Marc Almond - Live Review

Marc Almond Live at Wilton's Music Hall, 3rd May 2008

Marc Almond is almost certainly the artist I've seen live the most. I have never kept count, but I'd guess it must be 60 or 70 times, maybe more… and every single one of those shows has been totally unique (and I almost guarantee that every one had a different set list - including the times I've seen him on consecutive nights). I doubt there are many artists who keep it fresh and interesting enough to warrant attendance that many times, yet after 25 years of seeing him live, Marc still remains the one ticket I look forward to more than any other.

When he had that near fatal motorbike crash back in 2004 (leaving him with a broken skull, broken shoulder, fractured ribs, perforated ear drum and collapsed lung), the outlook was bleak, and the best people were looking at was that he might just live. Ever performing again was out of the question – in fact whilst in a coma, he was at one point just hours away from a tracheostomy. Yet after dozens of operations and much rehabilitation, miraculously Marc returned to the stage last year, with his highly successful and emotional shows at Wilton's Music Hall. He followed these with some special ‘bigger venue’ shows to celebrate his 50th birthday.

This year though it was back to Willton's, for another sold-out run. Marc is a great one for sniffing out interesting venues to play in, and this must be the best yet. The last surviving grand music hall in the world, Wilton’s was a host to all manor of entertainment from the 1850s onwards, long before the event of the ‘old time music hall’ shows, for which it is most famously known. In its day, Wilton's used to cram 1500 people inside, an incredible thought, especially when you consider that today it has a licence to hold just 300! The venue is a pure delight – it’s faded glory and the crumbly decay of its d├ęcor are the perfect setting for Almond's songs of unrequited love, prostitution, seedy sex and the like.

Wilton's is a million miles away from the corporate hell of venues such as the O2 arena, Wembley, Hammersmith etc etc, with their sponsors, uniformed security, plastic burgers, plastic glasses and grumpy staff. Wilton’s is a step back in time in every sense…. the staff are very friendly and helpful, there appears to be no security at all, the bar is makeshift and the food is home-made Tapas! Marc has a real affinity with places such as this, and seems genuinely passionate about trying to help preserve these venues. As he wrote in the programme notes:

“Every day I see aspects of London's rich and wonderful history disappearing, lost for ever. When they go we lose a part of ourselves. Of course, we shouldn't live in the past, cities are amorphous and ever-changing but London is in danger of becoming a city of Glass and concrete, a temporary city. London is arguably the greatest city in the world with the greatest history and should protect its old and special places where people can feel a connection with the past. This gives the city a soul and therefore enriches our souls. The music halls such as Wilton’s are an important part of London's theatrical tradition and it pleases me that many of today's performers, tired of the more soulless corporate venues, are looking for alternative settings for their music. More modern venues have their place as state-of-the-art that are right for particular types of shows and performers and give a choice to audiences. They mustn't however, become the only choice.”

The venues tend to set the scene for Marc’s set lists, if it’s a bigger ‘stand up’ show, then you are likely to get more up-tempo songs, and maybe even a bit of Soft Cell thrown in, but when somewhere as intimate and atmospheric as Wilton’s is on the menu, you know you are in for a real treat. Marc always puts a lot of thought into his selection of songs, and his delve into the back catalogue for this show was no exception, bringing us a great selection of material from throughout his career. As always there was a smattering of some unrecorded gems -- and if the past is anything to go by, many will remain that way, making these events extra special.

Entwined within his own material is Marc's passion for the work of others, from Russian folk songs to Charles Aznavour and Jacques Brel, from Richard Thompson to 1920's Music Hall (which has been brought into the set specifically for tonight's venue). He has a remarkable talent for taking these songs, injecting them with passion, intensity and reverence, and making them his own. The guy could sing nursery rhymes and I'd be welling up by the end!

The audience too completely understand the reverence of shows such as this. During the song 'Cosmic Boxer' he slowly walks around the auditorium, adding yet more intensity to the high drama of the song. Up close to their hero not a single person makes a grab for him, not one flash of a camera, not a single word uttered -- all you can hear is the quiet accompaniment of the band as Marc slowly and solemnly marches around the venue as though he were following a funeral parade. High art stuff, treated with the utmost respect.

One of the few songs to return from last years shows is Lavender. An emotional song about the trials and tribulations of being gay in less enlightened times. This time the song is given yet more poignancy as the slideshow behind Almond flashes up images of tortured stars forced to live a lie for fear of ruining their careers...

When returning from a gig, I normally start digging out a few CDs, to keep the buzz of the show going, but with Marc is not so easy. I've got a very comprehensive collection of his work, yet somehow after returning from one of his shows, nothing quite fits the bill. His knack for reinventing/reinterpreting his own songs means the ones you own are completely different versions to the one’s you're now craving, and many of the new songs and covers you've just heard have never been recorded. He's one artist who could get away with releasing pretty much every live show on CD, and it's no wonder that there is such an interest in bootleg recordings of these events, as fans clamour for what is sometimes his only rendition of certain songs.

I hope that these Wilton's shows are becoming an annual tradition, as there really is no one better to keep the spirit of this special venue alive.


Marc's Stardom Road album made my 'Best of 2007' list, you can read my review here

Visit Wilton's on the Web and find out more about this amazing piece of history

Visit the Official Marc Almond Website here

The below audience video is actually from one of last years shows at Wilton's, Marc performing one of his best (yet still unreleased!) recent songs, the aforementioned Lavender: