Sparks, Royal Festival Hall London

Sparks light up London
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The Independent Culture

The rumour surrounding the appearance of Sparks on Morrissey's Meltdown line-up suggested that there had been a difference of opinion between the curator and his eccentric Los Angeles idols. In a radio interview, the singer Russell Mael admitted there were issues about how Sparks were to be presented at Meltdown. The inference was that Morrissey had urged the duo to perform their electrifying 1974 album Kimono My House in full, but was reluctant to extend the same luxury to 2002's Lil' Beethoven.

The rumour surrounding the appearance of Sparks on Morrissey's Meltdown line-up suggested that there had been a difference of opinion between the curator and his eccentric Los Angeles idols. In a radio interview, the singer Russell Mael admitted there were issues about how Sparks were to be presented at Meltdown. The inference was that Morrissey had urged the duo to perform their electrifying 1974 album Kimono My House in full, but was reluctant to extend the same luxury to 2002's Lil' Beethoven.

If this was the case, you can understand his reticence. Where Kimono My House is a straight fix of prickly-tongued pop music, its recent sibling has something of the art installation about it. Songs like "Your Call's Very Important To Us, Please Hold" and "My Baby's Taking Me Home" resemble early Laurie Anderson on performance-enhancing drugs; the concern might have been that only the band's immediate family would stay to witness the second half of the show. But Sparks triumphed, and got to play both albums straight through. Good for them: it added up to a piquant and unorthodox menu.

It is easy to forget that no one else, with the exception of Frank Zappa and Mark E Smith, has ever filtered pop through such a stubbornly demented sensibility. Kimono My House sounds fresh ringing out from the stage of the Royal Festival Hall, partly because the vigour with which the songs are invested leaves no room for nostalgia. Who has time to reminisce about the 1970s when the band's drummer, Tammy Glover, is dolled up as a geisha, incongruously bashing her way through "Hasta Manana Monsieur" like Keith Moon in a black bob and lippy?

Chiefly the songs survive because they have transcended the genre - glam rock - from which they emerged. Of course, there are generous dollops of camp on their one smash hit, "This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us", and hints of bombastic rock opera in "Equator" and "Thank God It's Not Christmas". Humour has been a dependable preservative. Russell Mael's strangled pronunciation hints that he once received elocution lessons from Nico, but perhaps the real reason for his plummy delivery is that it's hard to sing straight when your tongue is buried in your cheek. The lyrics support this. "Amateur Hour" is about premature ejaculation. "Here In Heaven" has a dead man addressing the sweetheart on earth who reneged on their suicide pact. Evidently Morrissey, with his girlfriends in comas and vicars in tutus, learned more from Sparks than was previously apparent.

How comforting also that the years have been as kind to the musicians as they have to the music. Russell has lost his Marc Bolan curls, but he cuts a dandy figure in a too-tight collarless grey suit in the first half, and a baggy, cream, Jedi Knight affair in the second. Gloriously, his falsetto still chimes like a church bell. But it's Ron who provides the ongoing punchline to Sparks, even after 20 albums during which the joke could reasonably have been expected to wear thin.

The gag is that he looks like an accountant who accidentally woke up and found himself playing keyboard in a pop group. He has worn the same slicked-back hair, weaselly moustache and cadaverous expression for 30 years now, and the second half of the show wrings some absurdist laughs out of that starchy image. On "I Married Myself", Ron chases a projected image of a bride who remains beyond his reach. For "Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls", he takes a stroll with a bimbo on his arm. And during "How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall?", he wears a pair of elongated prosthetic arms that enable him to pound the keys from halfway across the stage. However, he reserves his most bizarre behaviour for last. During a 10-minute ovation, he looks out at the audience and actually smiles.

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