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Sparks, Shepherd's Bush Empire, London, review: one of the most innovative outfits in pop

The Mael brothers' pace never slackens as they play hits from across the four decades of their career

David Lister
Thursday 28 September 2017 09:06 BST
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Sparks performing live in 2017 with singer Russell (left) and Ron (right) Mael on keyboards
Sparks performing live in 2017 with singer Russell (left) and Ron (right) Mael on keyboards (Maiken Kildergaard)

Having seen Sparks many times, and followed their career, I knew that the Mael brothers from Los Angeles were one of the quirkiest, most innovative and original pop outfits. But even I was unprepared for their entrance on stage tonight.

The accomplished four-piece backing band ran on in sailor-style striped T-shirts. Then came songwriter Ron, his persona unchanged since they burst on the scene in the early Seventies – white shirt, tie, jacket, big glasses, small moustache, greased-back hair, taking his seat at the keyboards and staring throughout at the audience, the look on his face one of utter puzzlement at being at a rock gig, or perhaps utter puzzlement at just being. And then on bounded brother and vocalist Russell, also in stripes, but with Japanese summer runway-show shorts and black shiny shoes with bright red laces. It looked like he might have landed at the wrong address and should have been auditioning for a Christmas panto.

But then he leapt Jagger-style into the first pulsating number, “What the hell is it this time?”, a typical Ron Mael song that takes the pop genre to places it hasn’t been before. It is from their new album and is about an irritable, overworked God, impatient with the endless supplications from us mortals. This album Hippopotamus (the title track tells of a wealthy Californian who wakes to find a hippo in his pool) has sparked, if you’ll excuse the pun, yet another Sparks revival, reaching number seven in the album charts over here, the highest position since their breakthrough album Kimono My House in 1974.

The pace in this gig never slackens. Russell, in his late sixties, has remarkably kept not just the falsetto that is intrinsic to Sparks’ melodic sound that is both driving rock and operatic, but also his athleticism, which sparks (sorry again) their stage act, and forms the mesmerising contrast between the two brothers.

With a 40-year back catalogue, 25 albums and a range of styles that include eccentric art pop, disco, and new wave/synth pop, Sparks can serve up a range of different gigs. Tonight was a good chunk of new stuff and several highlights that spanned the years. One stand-out was the change of pace with the beautiful and haunting mid-Seventies ballad “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth”. I could have done with more of this vintage, but the packed house, with an impressive variety of ages, had no quibbles.

At the end, came two other great Sparks’ classics. “The Number One Song in Heaven” from 1979 was performed in its original, rousing disco style. In the middle of it, Ron rose from the keyboards, laboriously took off and folded his jacket, unbuttoned the top button of his shirt, then did a manic solo dance at the front of the stage. Behind him Russell and the band drove the song on at frenetic pace, then it segued into their biggest and best-known hit, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us”. As gig climaxes go, they don’t come much better than that.

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