Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Sparks - The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman

A few weeks back I added myself to the already heavily oversubscribed BBC 'hat' that was to pluck 100 pairs of tickets to be present at the UK premier play of the new Sparks album - The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman. The event was to be recorded for BBC 6 Music (for Stuart Maconie's Freak Zone), and would be topped off by an extensive interview with Ron and Russell Mael. I never really expected to hear any more, but on 23rd October I got an e-mail with two e-tickets attached!

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.


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!!



Kolley Kibber said...

That's got to be virtual perfection, hasn't it? An evening out involving Stuart Maconie, Sparks, Ingmar Bergman AND with a Human Zoo thrown in for good measure! I'd have fairly died of bliss. LOVE the descriptions, especially the Analyst's 'Robbie Williams Smirk' (that'd be the one that always makes me want to reach for a custard pie, yes?) and the couple sharing a bladder...wonderful stuff.

Sparks are unique, and I weep for anyone who doesn't love them. One of the best gigs I've ever attended was when I saw them down here about fifteen years ago. They never cease to amaze me.

Thanks for another great post; I'm off to check out some of those references.

Mondo said...

Result with the tickets P, top night by the sound. That sneezy sod, I'd bet it was tactical honking, so when the show goes out he can mail his mates 'listen out for the sneezes, that's me that is'

Piley said...

Ta ISBW! Glad you liked it!! The album is well worth checking out when it's released. Sort of a film soundtrack album, but more than that, as the soundtrack has to tell the whole story. Sparks are complete genius, and should be the biggest band in the world... although if they were, they probably wouldn't be as great as they are!!

Mondo - will listen out for that arse on Sunday!


Cocktails said...

Now, that sounds like an interesting night! You gotta love a concept album and one about Ingmar Bergman has to be worth a punt.

I haven't ever listened to Sparks circa. 2000's/naughties/whatever its called. I shall try and remember to listen in on Sunday (thankfully it doesn't clash with Elaine Paige's musical show on R2). And if I get bored I'll just think of the audience!

Dan said...

Great post, Piley.

I didn't apply for tickets purely because if I'd got a couple and you hadn't, I would never have forgiven myself. Additionally, you may have constructed me a new orifice with a blunt pencil.

Really looking forward to the Freakzone on Sunday - it promises to be a good one.

Great stuff describing the other audience members. The 'Robbie Williams Smirker' is a creature that I've encountered before. I once went to a restaurant in London with live jazz. The musician was a plinky-plonky, twiddly-fingered, seemingly-improvisational pianist whose style didn't appeal to me then, but would now.

I was, however, more entranced by a smirking woman who would, apparently at random, hear a little tinkly bit and, eyes closed, grinning from ear to ear, mimic it by waggling her fingers over the surface of the table, apparently in paroxysms of joy over how ruddy clever the whole thing was.

Music is a broad church and all should be welcomed, but can we make an exception for smug, holier-than-thou, self-important toss-monkeys who are convinced they're appreciating the music so much more than the rest of us gurning simpletons? For these people, I propose nothing less than death by a thousand cuts.

Perhaps, as they slowly bleed to death, shaking with adrenaline and screaming, we could all stand around smirking and nodding sagely as we discuss how inspired that last gurgling shriek was and why most torturers would probably fail to grasp the subtle intricacies of its cadence.

Piley said...

Cocktails - Do please try some of their recent stuff, it is jaw-droppingly good! with only a couple of months to go, I think I am safe in saying that 'Hello Young Lovers' is officially my album of the decade. I still can't get tired of it. The new album has real promise too.

Dan - You should have applied, then given em to me if I didn't come up trumps... selfish bugger ;-)

I've got a feeling that your smug jazz woman did indeed think the music was clever, but i'm sure she thought her finger waggin' was the real cherry on the cake! Just like 'ol matey boy at the Sparks bash.

Death by a thousand cuts eh? You always were a lilly liberal Dan... get some backbone, and lets make Britain Great once again!!!

Thanks for the comments by the way!


Dan said...

As a brief aside, Piley, I think you've successfully converted me to Sparks now.

As you know, I'm completely in love with Hello Young Lovers (thanks for lending it to me), very much enjoying Exotic Creatures of the Deep and about to give Lil' Beethoven another listen (thanks for lending me that too).

Interestingly, I'm currently listening to Kimono My House and have discovered something interesting - if I'd listened to it 6 months ago I would probably have dismissed it as camp, shallow, twee nonsense and never given it a second chance. However, since being introduced to some of Sparks more recent work and, through the magic of your blog, learning a bit more about 'the boys' and their sensibilities, I've been able to listen to Kimono from a different perspective. And you know what? I'm really liking it!

There are a ton of Sparks albums out there, all of which I'm going to gradually acquire and listen to. Thanks for making me more aware of who Sparks are. I owe you one.

Now, a cup of coffee, warm duvet and that Sparks DVD (once again lent to me by you) are calling me. Keep up the good work, chief.

Martin said...

Sounds like a fascinating night. You can't beat a bit of people watching to keep you entertained. Ain't it amazing how there's never a pistol and silencer handy when you really need one.

Piley said...

Thats great news Dan - I knew you'd 'get' it! Kimono is quite a jump from the recent works, but a classic none the less (it is often described as their greatest ever album). I like Propaganda (the follow up album) even more than Kimono, and until HYL's it was my all time favourite Sparks album.

As you say, there are loads of albums out there for you to discover... i kinda envy you in a way, hearing all that stuff for the first time!! What a treat!!! All 22 albums are pretty much winners too. Just the odd dip here and there, but nothing too serious. and even the 'not so good' even have redeaming features... ok,ok i'm a fan!!

Look forward to hearing your view of the HLY live DVD.


Anonymous said...

Piley, a joy to discover your blog, via the sparks forum. I've just uploaded a new entry, with many unseen photos from the gig in Wolverhampton from 2006CE. In the future, i'll be adding the photographs from Hackney Empire and The lowry, Salford shows. Added myself as a follower, how could I not ... best wishes. mark / bitterapplephotography

Piley said...

Hi Mark, Weclcome... and many thanks for your kind words, much appreciated.

Will be sure to keep a good ee on your site and see those pics. Fab stuff!

Look forward to seeing you back here!


Anonymous said...

I was there! The musical Russell said he loved was 'The Umbrellas of Cherbourg' and I too was well amused by Rons comment that he doesn't like 'camp' or musicals - 'he doesn't like that kind of singing'! I met them briefly when they arrived at Portland Place and they were lovely but so SHY. I like your descriptions of some of the members of the audience. I was wearing a very large beret that night(sort of for Ron and Bergman) and looked like a mushroom. Fab night!

Anonymous said...

Great write up - funny and informative. Thanks.