21 March, 2009

Two Old Men and a Keyboard

He's one of the most unsettling characters in pop. Slicked- back hair,, a pencil-thin moustache, round glasses and a blood-chilling stone-faced expression that makes him look like Boo Radley at a Harry Potter-meets-the-Third-Reich convention. Occasionally, he smiles - or rather, his mouth slides into a rictus grin. A shark might flash his teeth just as readily, but you're not sure he's pleased to see you. And yet, his schtick for Chris Lowe-like static performances and his Calvin Coolidge verbosity means that when he does anything at all, the fans chant his name, egging him on to give them just a little bit more than nothing at all.

His brother, Russ might be doing all the vocal acrobatics and crowd connectivity, but as Russ himself admits, it's Ron Mael who writes almost all of the songs. It's Ron Mael who designs these spectacular scale-leaping assault courses for Russ. And, thanks to the glasses and the moustache, it's Ron you recognise as 'that one from Sparks'.

Like, I suspect, everyone else, I first became aware of Sparks thanks to 'This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us'. It's a song I've long suspected might make as much sense backwards as forwards - it's a pop song that begins with a fade and the lyrics rattle along at an incomprehensible speed. It doesn't matter that it talks about zoos with tacky tigers, Hiroshima and cannibals that 'need their protein just like you do'. All you get from this wailing popstrel and his creepy brother is an air of menace that any number of screaming metalheads fail to deliver.

Seeing them perform live last night at the HMV Forum in Kentish Town (formerly just 'The Forum', I'm told), I got a sense of why this unique duo have lasted beyond that breakthrough hit. Combining Kimono My House (the album that gave us 'This Town...') and their most recent recording, Exotic Creatures of the Deep (which filled the first half of the evening), the three-hour set piled acerbic lyrics onto surreal imagery. It began with a queue of women strolling onto the stage with shopping trolleys and, courtesy of a video screen centre-stage, it continued with a piano-playing monkey, a hilarious set called 'Photoshop' where Ron tried to play an onscreen piano while an unseen designer kept mucking about with it in Photoshop (with the checkerboard background and correct palette options and everything!), and finished with a sequence where the covers to each of their albums were projected onto the screen in chronological order. Ron set fire to them and chuckled as each one burned, until the final one appeared (the cover to the album they'd just performed) and the crowd roared.

There were 21 of those albums. Not bad for a band known for one huge hit (and had Abba not blocked it from Number One with 'Waterloo', who knows how much bigger Sparks might have been?). And after a short break, they continued with a full performance of Kimono My House - which, thanks to that incinerating slide-show of their covers, I was surprised to learn was their third album!

They might be famous for their bouncy jazz-operatic pop melodies, but their lyrics are far removed from the moon-swoon-Mills&Boon content of most pop. One track from their latest album sounds like Goldfrapp. Opening with the line 'I love you and only you' was a disarmingly romantic sentiment for Sparks - until the chorus came in with the title: 'I Can't Believe That You Would Fall for All the Crap in This Song'. 'She Got Me Pregnant' featured the women from the opening number, this time dressed as Ron Mael, with huge pregnancy bumps. As they surrounded him, Ron began to look nervous. The only other time he looked like that was when his brother put his arm around him.

We might think of Ron Mael as sinister and scowling, but from the front row we could see that Russell is hardly the fluffier one either. It's not that his smile never reaches his eyes - occasionally it barely reaches his mouth, being more a pained grimace. His mania, bouncing around the stage conducting the music, is a bit like Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters (who no doubt about it are hugely influenced by the band, even if they haven't quite matched their brilliance). Yet this is not a sour or cynical band. I got the impression theirs is a joke shared. At one point, during an extended rendition of 'Equator' from Kimono My House, Russell encouraged the audience to sing some of the jazz bits. It might have reminded us of Freddie Mercury's show-stealling rapport with the fans at Live Aid. Except here, the audience didn't quite know the tune, prompting Russell to sing 'Siiing in keeey'.

The fans loved him all the more.

So then, after the bitter lyrics and vaguely threatening performance, we were left with two brothers, Ron and Russell. One is in his late fifties; the other his early sixties. But as with Grace Jones, who I was lucky enough to see live earlier this year, I was stunned by how much more energy was onstage with these 'older' performers than I ever get from much younger acts. It's not just nostalgia - they don't make 'em like that any more. I know so little about Sparks, aside from about five tracks from their long career that managed to enter my psyche. But I'm far more interested in them than any of the dreary Coldplay-alikes around now.

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