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



Mondo said...

I really should have gone to some of those Sparks shows - I haven't heard a bad word yet, what a great idea too, who else do you reckon should do similar (the whole catalogue)theme?

Piley said...

I've been thinking the same thing PM - not many that fit the bill is there? The only people who have the back-cat to do it, are too big... your Bowies, Stones etc. They all charge an arm n a leg to go see em anyway, so it's be impossible for the fan to get to see many nights. Plus they'd have to do it at O2 or Wembley.

The great thing with Sparks is they are a bit culty - when i mention at work i'm going to see them i ALWAYS ge the reply "oh, didnt know they were still going". So they have a loyal following, but playing a 7-800 venue is viable.

Oddly, the only other person i could think of who's got the back-cat, has a hardcore following, and could do it at a sensible venue is Marc Almond! Although the memory loss he suffered from the accident means he struggles to remember the words at times, so unlikely he's attempt anything like it (good really, coz i'd have to go every night!)

Any other ideas of who could do a 20+ night album run?


Piley said...

BTW mondo - you still have time to go! we're only half way through! Admittedly some of the classics have gone, but personally you'll struggle to beat night 20 - meet you there??!


Anonymous said...

Flew over from NYC to see "Sparks/Halfnelson" through "Indiscreet" (A Woofer... and Indiscreet were the most electric shows, IMO, though they were all brilliant). Going back to see the last three - Lil' Beethoven through Exotic Creatures... hope to run into more fans there - the people we've met so far have been great (and have become mates)!

Piley said...

hi steve-o, thanks for dropping by! I'll certainly be at 'hello young lovers', maybe 1 or 2 more - so maybe i'll see you there!

Anonymous said...

I think I first knew the true meaning of the word jealousy when my brother saw Sparks in Oxford during the Indiscreet tour in 1975. Fair enough, he brought me back a programme and a couple of flyers, but still...

Piley, hearing the Propaganda night and reading your terrific account of the gig brought all those memories of envy flooding back ;-) Great stuff!

ally. said...

good to see they were hosting the preshow do's in the king edward - one of london's most fabulously dingy old school gay shame bars. lots of ugly men who've probably told the mrs they were just off to get some milk dear. highly recommended

Anonymous said...

A 20+ night album run?? Sounds like a recipe for Quo heaven (and possible bankruptcy) to me. Shouldn't have too much trouble remembering the chords either.