Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Sparks: Exotic Creatures Of The Deep and No. 1 In Heaven - Live Review

Sparks: Exotic Creatures Of The Deep and No. 1 In Heaven, Live at the Forum, Kentish Town, London. 21st March 2009.
Before I start this review, I'd like to once again say a big thank you to photographer extraordinaire Tony Bartolo. Tony is a committed Sparks fan, and was the only press photographer to cover every night of 21x21. He was back again for both nights at the Forum, and has once again kindly allowed me to use some of his stunning photos for this review. You can see more of his work in my 21x21 reviews (links at the bottom of this review).

After a horrendous journey I arrive late (but still before my friend who I was supposed to be meeting!)... it's taken me the best part of 3 hours to travel the measily 42 miles from Piley Towers to Kentish Town. Multimap rather cockily reckoned I could do it in a hour!! Mind you, Multimap has still yet to grasp the concept that there may be more than just MY car on the road! As it turns out, the world and his wife are out tonight, and I've been stuck in 4 separate traffic jams on route....

I'm a stressed, gibbering wreck on entering the venue, yet within minutes, the nightmare of the last 3 hours disappears, and I have a inane grin stuck to my face.... you just can't feel pissed off at a Sparks gig can you?! The handy thing with turning up late to a live run through of an album is you know exactly how much you've missed!! It could have been worse, I make it that I was 3 minutes and 37 seconds late (approximately!)... So it's midway through 'Good Morning' that I join the fun. Russell was well in his stride - strutting and skipping the length of the stage, safe in the knowledge that this audience was already in the palm of his hand.

It looks like I'm in for another one of those inspired Sparks performances, so much more than 'just' a gig. Once again the trademark video screen is in operation... but it's not there as a simple backdrop, theses days the screen is part of the band, there to be interacted with and provide further interpretation to the lyrics. The screen is bordered by a thick, golden, antique style picture frame. Either side of the screen are the band, Steven Nistor on drums, Jim Wilson on guitar and Marcus Blake on bass, each band member is also encased in an equally impressive wooden frame, leaving just Ron and Russ as the only members of the team not boxed in!

'Strange Animal' is a joy, and the band break into the frenzied chorus with ease. Next up is 'I Can't Believe That You Would Fall For All The Crap In This Song'.... which brings that famous Mael sense of humour to the forefront once more. Ron spends much of the song centre stage alongside Russell, joining his brother in performing the 'actions' that go with this track. I can't imagine anyone else getting away with something like this, it would leave just about every other artist looking ridiculous!! Yet for Sparks, it's a slice of genius and the oddness fits perfectly into their world. Top marks also must go to the crowd, the vast majority of whom have memorised the actions and join in! An impressive feat, made all the more so when you consider this is only the 3rd time Sparks have perform this album to a British audience (and the 2nd time was last night!!) The power of YouTube I guess!

Ron has competition on 'Let The Monkey Drive', as an animated version of the monkey from the albums cover takes to the keyboard on-screen! 'I've Never Been High' is as beautiful and moving as ever, and really shows just how incredible Russell's voice is sounding. '(She Got Me) Pregnant' is another slice of wonderful Mael madness!! The 'pregnant' dancers are a master-stroke, as they huff and puff their way through the routine, whilst holding on to their 'bumps'! Very funny, very enjoyable, VERY Sparks!

Next up is the gentle poke at one of their biggest fans... 'Lighten Up Morrissey' (how I'd love to know what he thinks of this song! my guess is he can't believe his luck!), followed by the majestic 'Renaissance'. Once again the dancers are used to great effect on this ode to the cultural period of the 16th Century.

Middle ages sucked,
Spent all day in prayer,
Judgement Day was everyday and
Witches burning everywhere
But now we are in luck
Beauties everywhere
Paintings filled with foxy women
No one's got a cross to bear

'The Director Never Yelled "Cut"' is almost hypnotic, and it's the first alarm bell in my head that this album is almost through. I've been in a timeless 'dream state' since I walked in! 'Photoshop' once again allows for more humour. The video screen has turned into a desktop monitor, with a freshly 'cut n pasted' piano on it. Ron, with his back to the audience, proceeds to 'play' the piano, whilst fighting throughout with the mouse operator who is forever manipulating the picture! it stretches, it shrinks, it twists, it turns, it duplicate... all the while Ron is battling to catch up and continue playing it! How do they come up with these ideas?! By the time the song has ended, I realise that I have hardly looked at Russell, transfixed on Ron's appearance in his very own Looney Toon cartoon.

'Likeable' is the final, rather emotional song of the set. As the band extends the final few bars of the tune, Russell continues to loop those haunting end harmonies. This gives Ron the chance to once again leave the confines of the keyboard, and head towards the video screen. The cover of the very first Sparks album (1971's Halfnelson) appears to to a huge reaction from the crowd. Ron pulls out a lighter, flicks it, and bends down the the bottom of the screen.... Whoooosh!! the cover is engulfed in flames (well... video flames!), and as it burns away, the image is replaced with the second album (1972's A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing)... and so it goes on, as Ron systematically destroys each of their previous 20 albums. Each album receives a great response when it appears on screen, but for some, the cheers are deafening.... so much so that Russell (who is busy concentrating on keeping those repetitive harmonies going) can't help but take a sneaky peak at the screen behind him to see which album is creating such a reaction! He grins widely, then returns to face the audience. As album number 20 (2006's Hello Young Lovers) fades away, the current album cover appears, Ron throws the lighter over his shoulder and walks away.... It's quite a poignant finale to the set, although maybe not as poignant as it seemed when they performed this ending for the first time. Seeing this ritual performed on the final night of the 21x21 concerts last year, left many fans wondering what the significance was.... were Sparks really saying goodbye to their back catalogue? Had the previous 20 nights been a farewell to those albums loved by so many? In some ways I guess it was, it's unlikely they will ever perform them all again in their entirety like that, but it's a pretty safe bet that we will continue to enjoy seeing their many highlights performed live in the future.

By the time Sparks re-appear for the second half, all traces of picture frames and video screens are gone. It's a stripped down look and feel for the performance of the hugely influential album 'No. 1 In Heaven'. Make no mistake about it, although there had been electronic albums before this one, No. 1 (produced by Giorgio Moroder) influenced a whole generation of Euro electronic dance music when it was unleashed in 1979. The Pets Shop Boys, Soft Cell, Bronski Beat, Erasure and many more were all playing this in their bedrooms! Yet unlike so many of those early 80's electro albums, which sounded stark and tinny, No. 1 In Heaven has such a full and rich sound. So much so that it has taken almost 30 years for technology to catch up sufficiently, and enable Sparks to replicate the sound in a live environment (last year was the first time they had ever performed it live)... and boy was it worth the wait!

It's a stunning run through of this album that I have know for almost all of my life! It's faithful, yet so very fresh sounding. It sounds of it's time, yet still so futuristic. Russell seems to have unlimited energy, as he transports us back to the late 70's. The moment 'Tryouts For The Human Race' started, the whole venue seemed to be dancing, and they don't stop until the very last note of 'Number One Song In Heaven'. Every one of these six tracks is a masterpiece, and every one is perfectly performed... Russell still hitting that incredible falsetto on the chorus of 'Beat the Clock' with ease. Each track is greeting with an incredible reaction from the crowd, and the atmosphere is nothing short of electric (rather appropriately!). I'm left feeling breathless.

The band return once more to give us a few more treats from the 70's... Propaganda, At Home At Work At Play, B.C. and finally This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us.

As is usually the case at the end of a Sparks show, Ron and Russell seem a little overawed at the audience reaction.... they seem genuinely touched by the warmth and love in the room. I don't think I have seen any other performer who is as 'in tune' with their audience (and vica versa). Going to see Sparks is a real event, but I'm pretty sure it's a real event for the band too... and that's what make these shows so very special.


Tony Bartolo is the only photographer in the world who took professional photos every night of the whole 21x21 event. Be sure to visit his excellent website - Snazmusic here

See my review of the 21x21 Propaganda show here complete with exclusive professional photos.

My review of the 21x21 Hello Young Lovers 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 websitee here

Visit the official Sparks MySpace Page here


Not from the Forum show, but here is a great clip of Ron fighting with that keyboard during 'Photoshop'

Again, not from the Forum, but an audience video of Ron burning the previous 20 Sparks albums... VERY effective!

Sparks perform 'I Can't Believe That You Would Fall For All The Crap In This Song' on the Jonathan Ross show:


Monday, 23 March 2009

Sparks - Live at the Forum

My live review is coming VERY soon.... Complete with some exclusive professional photos by Tony Bartolo... the only photographer in the world who took professional photos of the whole 21x21 event.

But if you're all Sparked up with nowhere to go, why not check out some of my other Ron n Russ articles and reviews....

See my review of the 21x21 Propaganda show here complete with exclusive professional photos.

My review of the 21x21 Hello Young Lovers 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!


Friday, 20 March 2009

Save the DFC!

You've put up with me banging on about the British kids anthology comic 'The DFC' a couple of times already... Once when it started, and again earlier this month when news came through that the publishers (Random House) were pulling the plug on the title.

Well this week saw the launch of a brand new blog here on blogspot, Save the DFC. So strong is the belief in this comic that a group of readers\parents plus the creators of many of the DFC strips have got together to try and raise enough money to stage a subscriber 'buy-out'.

The artists and writers seem as genuinely upset about the news, as the kids who read it. They have worked hard to produce quality stories, some that have been serialised over many weeks and months - many of which will now not be able to have their conclusions published. So they are asking people who would like to see the title saved to pledge money and help them to buy out the comic from the publisher. A bold idea indeed! and a genuine show of solidarity and respect from those who have bought or contributed towards it. The blog is keen to point out that they "are not looking for any money unless we manage to raise sufficient pledges". I wont go on again about why this comic is so unique, and why it is worth saving (see my 2 previous posts for those details), but I've already been over and offered em a few quid (there is a pledging link on the site), and if you...

a) have fond memories of 'proper' comics when you were young;

b) believe in giving kids a quality product, with intelligent stories, aimed at introducing them to the world of reading; or

c) just really admire this amazing show of support from the artists and writers...

why not pop over and offer them a little something too... Let's see if we can Save the DFC.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Zodiac Mindwarp

It's funny how you get the sudden buzz to listen to stuff.... stuff you haven't played for years... stuff that's been lying dormant in the record collection, untroubled by a needle for a decade or more... All of a sudden it becomes essential listening again. And that is just one of the reasons I never chuck out old records, coz you just never can tell what's gonna be floating your boat next time... this last couple of weeks it's been Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction!

There were two things that put Zodiac Mindwarp back on my radar...

1) Bloggin buddy Planet Mondo doing a recent post about his days in an 80's Glam band, who supported the Zods a few times back in the day (Mondo went on to get an article publish in The Word magazine, regaling his tales of sharing a stage with the self proclaimed "love dictator").

2) Someone at work asking me what was the worst autobiography I ever read (worst as in filthy/outrageous, rather than poorly written!).... I may not have read them for some years, but BOTH of Mark Manning's (for t'was he that was, and still is, Zodiac Mindwarp) disgusting tomes have permanently scared my brain, so it was an instant reply. After my 'recommendation', the person asked if they could borrow them, so I dug them out and had a quick flick... Shit! Although I have them both lodged in my brain as pure evil, I couldn't quite remember why any more... the quick flick provided a handy reminder!! And I'd just agreed to lend them to a girl in the office!

Anyway, all this Zodiac talk got me a-buzzin to hear some of their stuff again, and in particular their defining moment (for me anyway), the mini album they made for Food records early in their career - High Priest of Love. Unlike some old treasures that you dust down, I was delighted to find that this LP still hits the spot, 6 dirty, biker rock tracks full of the sleaziest guitar riffs and Zodiacs trademark single-entendre lyrics!

It's almost exactly twenty three years since I discovered Zodiac Mindwarp... 27th March 1986. They were the 'filling' in a 3 band sandwich at the Queens Hotel (a legendary Southend venue in the 70's and 80's.. now a block of flats). Zodiac were the only group in the line-up that I didn't know. First band on were Mondo's Ladykillers and the main act were Dr and the Medics. In between stumbled the dirtiest bunch of reprobates I think i'd ever seen! all decked out in Nazi regalia and German helmets.. It certainly got your attention, as did the blistering set they proceeded to perform. I went on to see them a few times in the next year or so, they had an aura of danger about them, they were edgy and not a little psychotic (the two autobiographies have since proved my initial instincts to be completely correct!).... But looking back on them now it all looks quite comical!! More 'Bad News' than anything else!! but time's a funny thing isn't it?! They still sound pretty convincing though, check out these videos...

My favourite Zodiac Mindwarp track 'High Priest of Love'... Fast forward to 1 minute 30 as the song doesn't actually kick in till then! Some great early footage weaved in to this compilation vid.

The big 'hit' Prime Mover:

Hows this for an odd-ball match up? The Love Reaction mime backing band for Belinda Carlisle!


Thursday, 12 March 2009

The Sweet: Soft Centres to Hard Rock

One of my all time favourite bands is The Sweet... I've always felt that they never got the credit they deserved, and are often dismissed as some sort of novelty joke band. Yet the truth of the matter is they were always a bone-fide rock band, struggling to break free of the restraints that record companies, marketing departments, song writers and ultimately the fans put on them.

You have to go back to the mid 60's to find the origins of The Sweet... when in 1965 a certain Mr Brian Connolly joined a band called Wainwright's Gentlemen. Connolly was signed up as a replacement for their recently departed lead singer, Ian Gillan. The band continued until 1968, when Connolly and the drummer, Mick Tucker decided to call it quits and start a new band, Sweetshop, later to be shortened to The Sweet. A bass player, Steve Priest, was recruited, and the search was on for a guitarist.... Frank Torpey came and went (but not before playing guitar on the debut single Slow Motion), as did Mick Stewart (who was in the band for the next three singles), finally Andy Scott joined in 1970 and the line up was complete.

Their first hit single - Funny Funny - soon followed, starting a love\hate relationship with writers Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman (the 'Stock, Aitken, Waterman' of the 70's). The band had always seen themselves as a rock outfit, but RCA, Chinn and Chapman had other ideas, and the lightweight hit singles continued (Poppa Joe, Little Willy, Wig-Wam-Bam), with the band sounding more like The Archies than Aerosmith! The only saving grace on these early singles was the band insisting they put their own material on the b-sides, where they were finally able to find an outlet for their real sound (and no doubt causing a fair few raised eyebrows when played for the first time but the unsuspecting punter!). Despite the now regular hits, the bands first proper album (Funny How Sweet Co-Co Can Be) did nothing in the charts, and left them branded as a 'singles only' band.

The onset of glam pushed the band in that direction, and with it came a ballsier sound to their recordings, although at this point the hits were still all being written by Chinn and Chapman. Monster glam hits came thick and fast in 1973 and 74... Blockbuster, Hell Raiser, Ballroom Blitz, Teenage Rampage... Incredibly, nobody at RCA thought of giving the band another try at an album whilst they were having all this success. The band grew sick of glam as well as all the puppet masters controlling them, and decided enough was enough and turned down a string of potential new glam hits (including Dynamite and Tiger Feet, that eventually the band Mud went on to have big hits with). They dropped the glitter, replacing it with a tougher rock image, and set about writing an album on their own terms. Over the next four years, the band would release 4 cracking rock albums (plus a live album too), not only writing almost all of the material, but eventually even producing themselves.

They released two albums in 1974; Sweet Fanny Adams, and Desolation Boulevard. Sweet Fanny Adams is still a great album. Opening track 'Set Me Free' tee's you up a treat for what's in store... and check out the 6 minutes that is the title track - Andy Scott's guitar musta been on fire after that! Desolation Boulevard was yet more of the same... heavy riffs and those incredible trademark harmonies. Check out their frenzied cover of the theme to the Sinatra film The Man With The Golden Arm... it still blows me away!

In 1975 the double album Strung Up was released... two sides were the band live at the Rainbow, whilst the other two sides mostly hoovered up recent singles (A and B sides) and a new track too.

It was back in to the studio for 1976's Give Us A Wink. The first album completely written by the band, and also the first one to be self produced. This album is even heavier than the previous two, is full of attitude and swagger and contains plenty of instrumentals\solos, showing what great musicians these guys really were. The album contains their classic song Action, which has remained in my all time top ten for over 30 years.

1977 saw the release of their last heavy sounding album (and also their last release for RCA) Off The Record. Again fully written and produced by the band, this carries on where Give Us A Wink left off.

So these 4 faultless albums finally showed the British music fans what the band was all about then eh?? Well unfortunately... not really. Unless you moved on pretty sharpish (Bowie, Roxy, Sparks etc), being lumped in with 'glam' meant you were pigeonholed, and it was hard to be taken seriously later on. As Andy Scott said on the subject years later 'You are not allowed, or very rarely allowed, to change your spots: you're a leopard, mate.' When The Sweet moved from glam to their rock sound, the were throwing down the gauntlet, and demanding to be taken seriously. Sadly, it didn't work for them, well not in Britain anyway... Purist 'rock' fans seemed to spurn The Sweet because of their glam past, and glam fans spurned them because they didn't like the new 'heavier' sound. The Sweet found themselves alienated, sitting somewhere between the fans they once had and the fans they wanted. It wasn't all doom and gloom though, as much of the rest of the world were happy to embrace their new sound... USA, Canada, Australia, Germany, Holland, Sweden, Norway, Austria, they all loved these new albums, and bought them in big numbers. In fact, guess the ONLY country where Desolation Boulevard, Give Us A Wink, Strung Up and Off The Record all failed to enter the top 100 album chart?? Yup , you guessed it, Great Britain!

The weird thing is, The Sweet were Queen before Queen! yet nobody was really interested in The Sweet. Whilst they were churning out these great albums, Queen hit the big time. The sound and the harmonies used in tracks like Killer Queen and Bohemian Rhapsody have a real likeness to what The Sweet had been doing for some 18 months prior.

In 1977, The Sweet signed to Polydor and went into the studio... New label, new album, and new sound as it turned out. 1978's Level Headed was a much mellower affair, a sort of classical rock kind of feel. The one song everyone remembers from this album is Love is Like Oxygen... the only trouble is, most people always think it's ELO!

Brian's alcoholism had been causing a problem for some time - some say as far back as the glam years, but by 1979 he had become a real liability, and was kicked out of the band. Brian stumbled (no doubt quite literally) into a solo career, and The Sweet spluttered on as a three-some for another three albums... but the magic was gone from both camps. There was a very brief re-union in the late 80's but Connolly had still not dried out and it came to nothing.

I was too young to see The Sweet in the 70's, but I did get to see bits of them in the 80's and 90's, as various original members started up their own versions of The Sweet - (a Sweet selection you might call it!). In 1984, after the failure of his solo career, lead singer Brian Connolly took his version of The Sweet (AKA: New Sweet) out into the nostalgia circuit (often on bills with the likes of the Rubettes and Mud). He would carry on this band (which had an almost constantly changing line-up of young musicians) pretty much until his death, pumping out all the hits to the best of his ability. These gigs were pretty lively affairs at the start, but by the 90's, it was a sorry sight to see this once beautiful man, ravaged by alcohol, and allegedly in later years Parkinson's disease, so obviously on his last legs. I say 'allegedly' on the Parkinson's disease, as there now seems to be little mention of this. However, it was a stock answer from his management during the last few years, when people used to complain after gigs that Brian performed like a shaking shambling wreck. I will always remember the last time I saw him perform... he was shaking uncontrollably on stage, and was holding on to the mike stand grimly with both hands just to support himself. During a guitar solo, he slowly made his way to the back of the stage to get himself a much needed drop of liquid (strictly non-alcohol by this time). He picked up a pint glass of orange juice, but was shaking so much that not one drop made it to his lips. He returned the empty glass to the stool, and made the slow return to front stage to continue the song. I don't know now if it was Parkinson's or just a completely wrecked body from years of alcohol abuse, but it made me want to weep there and then, and was just about the saddest thing I've ever witnessed at a gig. Brian passed away in 1997 aged just 51. In 2002, Mick Tucker died aged 54.

Guitarist Andy Scott has been touring his own version of The Sweet since 1985, and they are still going strong. As you might expect, Andy's band have always had the best sound of the spin offs (his incredible guitar playing is still top notch). However the lack of Brian on vocals (they have had something like 6 or 7 vocalist since the formation) has always made me feel this is little more than a glorified tribute band. Bass player Steve Priest also has his very own Sweet, which tours predominantly in America.

A really under-rated band, who rocked much more than people think. Here's a few video clips of The Sweet at each stage of their career... but if you're in a rush, my tip is to go straight for number 3 (Action)... Enjoy!






Sunday, 8 March 2009

In Praise of Freddo!

Y'know, chocolate bars they come and they go.... and the ones that stick around, they go up and up in price, 60p now for most of your average choc bars. But there is one little fella who has been kicking round since I were a nipper, offering the lure of a tasty treat and acne to kids for generations.... the credit crunch bustin' Freddo bar! Yup, Freddo's are a regular staple in my diet, and of course, it all helps to get that all important 5-a-day...

Still only 15p, Freddo offers a surprisingly decent amount of chocolate for your money, yet apart from me, does anyone ever buy one??! Believe it or not, the 'ol Freddo bar has been going since 1930, but originally it was made by MacRobertsons (who??!). In 1967 Cadbury's bought out MacRobertsons and the bar started to turn into the bargain bite that we know today.
Freddo facts that will rock your world!!

1) Freddo is the number one chocolate in Australia! They get through 90 million of them every year (not sure if it's the most popular based on quality or thrift tho!)

2) Due to it's incredible popularity, in Australia there are no less that eight, yes EIGHT, variations of the Freddo bar: dairy milk, dairy milk with caramel filling, white chocolate, rice crisp, strawberry, peppermint, rainbow crunch (no, I don't know either!) and milky top (a Frankenstein's monster of a bar where one half is milk choc and the other half is white choc)... Finally emigrating starts to appeal...

3) The creator of the Freddo bar (Harry Melbourne) only died in 2007, aged 94. I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear he put his long life down to a daily diet of all eight varieties of his invention!

Can anyone beat the Freddo for quality AND price? Any other gems past or present??


UPDATE: Over on the Cadbury's website they have a whole page devoted to long gone Snacks from the 70s.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

The DFC: Dead F**king Comic?

You may remember me championing the launch of a new 'anthology' kids comic last year, The DFC. A brand new (admittedly rather middle-class) title that has real morals, aimed at children aged 8 to 12 (although this 40-something has enjoyed the ride too!). The serialised stories within (a mix of humour and serious) are of great quality and, unlike the dumbed down pap we tend to expect these days, actually treat kids with a bit of intelligence. To date there has never been a single advert inside, no cheesy promotions for products or plastic toys stuck to the cover... just wall-to-wall original stories.

As a subscriber from the start, I've really got rather used to it arriving in the post each and every Friday (oh yeah, that was the other thing, rather than be held hostage to the like of WH Smith who demand something like 35% of the cover price, they went it alone and made it a mail order only affair).... but today I hear the comic is in deep trouble, and in a press statement has been labelled "not commercially viable". The title has been offered up as a 'going concern' if anyone wishes to take it on, but when labelled by its own publishing company as not commercially viable, I doubt they will be queueing up to take it on. That being the case, the comic will cease on the 27th March.

As a life long lover of the British comic this is sad news, and possibly the final nail in the long tradition we have with anthology comics for kids. Who knows why it didn't work... Maybe it was the cover price (£3)?, but the production quality was such that it was actually worth it, maybe it was starting a new luxury comic for kids during a recession? Maybe it was the lack of awareness of the title and the fact that nobody 'bumped' into it in Tescos or Smiths? It certainly wasn't down to the quality of the stories, artwork or the effort that went into getting it out there every week.

I've been filing my copies away safely, and was looking forward to introducing my son to the comic when he was old enough, sadly that's unlikely to happen now. His only glimpse will probably be as a defunct piece of history.