Sometimes, leading by example isn't enough. For well over three decades, Ron and Russell Mael have stood as fearless Canutes against the tide of cretinism in rock, perhaps in the hope that others might follow their lead (and if they didn't, well, hell, they were gonna enjoy themselves anyway).
On their last two albums, however, they've begun addressing the issue of imbecility directly. "What Are All These Bands So Angry About?" from 2002's Lil' Beethoven was their opening shot at the dumbass nu-metallers. On "Rock Rock Rock", from their brand new (and 20th) album Hello Young Lovers, they've reprised the theme, with Russell apologising for failing to be sufficiently noisy: "Soft passages, they get you into trouble/They imply a lack of passion and commitment... a lack of feeling and of fervour... a certain air of indecision/And since you put a gun to my head, I promise to rock, rock, rock!"
The tide, however, is turning. The last time I wrote about a Sparks show was in 2002, circa Lil' Beethoven. Back then, I proposed that they were the most underrated band of all time. But four years is a long time in pop, and suddenly the Mael brothers are right back on the agenda.
They've always been influential. Without Sparks there would have been no Eighties synth duos, no Soft Cell, Pet Shop Boys, Associates or Erasure. New Order and Siouxsie acknowledged them with cover versions, and it emerged that Morrissey had been an obsessive fan who collected half-eaten toast from their breakfast table. In the Nineties, I heard echoes of the Maels in Suede and particularly Pulp, and Blur picked them as support at their historic Mile End gig. And now, in the Noughties, they're an evident influence on The Dresden Dolls, Goldfrapp and Fischerspooner and local boys Franz Ferdinand. Most lucratively, they've had their greatest hit covered by Justin Hawkins of The Darkness.
So, rather than a fading farewell, this year's UK tour has a triumphant feel. The show follows a now-familiar pattern: for the first hour, the Maels - with their band hidden behind a semi-opaque screen to provocatively emphasise their loathing of the aesthetics of "authenticity" - play the latest album from start to finish, with computer-generated visuals and humorous mime routines to accompany each song. The heavily ironic "Can I Invade Your Country" is a brave satire, and "Dick Around" inflates a private break-up to the scale of collapsing empires. Then, after an interval, they return with the hits: "Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth", "Number One Song In Heaven", "When Do I Get To Sing My Way", "Amateur Hour" and, of course, "This Town..." (which receives an ovation longer than the song itself).
In his crisp white shirt and blue bank manager's tie, there's still something unnerving about Ron (whose fixed sideways stare used to terrify me on Top of The Pops as a child). Russell, in a white roll-neck and striped boating blazer, is still dynamic and puckish at 52, and uncannily able to hit the highest of falsetto registers.
One day, an enterprising music lawyer will untangle Sparks' multi-label career and pave the way for the most amazing greatest hits album of all time. Until then, make your own, and revel in the Maels' mix of wit, drama and, in their own phrase, music that you can dance to: a glorious melange of Gilbert O'Sullivan and Donna Summer, Bertolt Brecht and Harold Lloyd, Oscar Wilde and Richard Wagner.Reuse content