HOW DO I GET TO ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL?
By Madeline Bocaro ©
Well, some of us got there by tube, some by plane, but Sparks got
there by sheer audacity! After a career spanning 30 years of “practice
man, practice” the band graced the UK with yet another sold-out
command performance, lasting two full hours!
As the nearby Big Ben struck the 9 o’clock hour on Saturday evening,
Sparks’ weird and wonderful opus, Lil’ Beethoven commenced with “The
Rhythm Thief”. We first heard the words, “I am the rhythm thief – say
goodbye to the beat.” In the darkness we envisioned the Mael brothers
in burglar masks, unplugging drum machines world-wide from disco to
disco like a pair of sinister Robin Hoods! The curtain rose to reveal
a mysterious figure hooded in black. Although we heard Russell’s
voice, it was Ron who presented the opening song with the assistance
of drummer Tammy Glover and former Faith No More guitarist Dean Menta,
both perched high above the stage on their own balcony. Two gigantic
kettle drums added lots of drama, as the grandeur of the new classic
Sparks sound enveloped the hall. Russell appeared in his gray
monikered hooded sweat-suit, and our anticipation mounted, for this
was the start of a very special evening!
The mischievous baton-wielding, sneaker-wearing character on the cover
of Lil’ Beethoven could very well be Ron Mael’s inner child. Devious
in his neat, respectable on-stage appearance and operatic
presentation, our maestro lashed out at hip-hop hypocrisy, popular
culture, and at life in general. The bitter bard conducted the live
proceedings, ‘scratching’ and ‘sampling’ behind the synth in his Air
Jordans, with Russell ‘on the mic’ rapturously rapping ‘the message’.
Move over Grandmaster Flash!
Lil’ Beethoven is not only Sparks’ Sgt. Pepper – in fact, it could
more likely be their Never Mind The Bollocks! It has more balls than
Balls, more angst than Angst In My Pants, and Plagiarism only touched
upon the plethora of musical genres emulated here. Each song is a
strange, smartass symphony that so eloquently and elegantly ridicules
everything that is wrong with music and with life today. Never mind
Pet Sounds…this is Sparks’ ‘Pet Peeves’! The classy presentation
undermines the rebellious nature of the lyrics. Sparks don’t mind
making public enemies because they so much admire Public Enemy! Once
again, to their credit, no one except for their fans will appreciate
this masterpiece for many, many years. And rightfully, many of us were
there to hear it live for the first time ever!
The evening’s second selection, “How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall?”
answered its own rhetorical question many times before the song was
over. Vaudeville is alive and well in this tune. Russell seemed
possessed by the ghost of Henny Youngman as he endlessly repeated the
question (almost as maddening as Abbot & Costello’s Who’s On First?
routine!) However, his golden voice returned to lament, “Still there
is no sign of you.” Ron’s piano antics were far-reaching – literally!
When he re-appeared, his arms had suddenly grown to six feet in length!
Never before have we seen such a stunning Sparks stage set,
constructed entirely of video images! Seven huge surprise-filled
archways presented films of Ron in various stages of movement (to
which he danced along live), song lyrics, illuminating visuals, and
metronomes ticking down the time between songs.
Yes, real-life affairs should really take precedence over some bands’
hissy-fits as stated in “What Are All These Bands So Angry About?” Ron
sat with his back to the crowd for a time, portraying an audience
member with a lighted match ready for an encore, raising his fist in
The romantic “I Married Myself” is simply beautiful. Congratulations
to Russell! He is a much better match for himself than that old
Jacqueline Kennedy! This song maintains a certain theatricality
despite its simple arrangement. Ron is still grappling with the
traditional concept of the ‘love song’. He can out-write anyone with
his beautiful melodies, but always throws in a curse word (as in “The
Angels”) or an odd situation as his signature mark. As Russell sang
the song, Ron was tormented by mystery celluloid brides appearing and
disappearing in the arched doorways. He chased the elusive beauties to
“Ride ‘Em Cowboy” wavered from Victorian to Wagnerian. The song is
simultaneously complex and minimalist. Ron has developed a new dance
step just for this song, and it’s quite catchy!
“My Baby’s Taking Me Home” began with simple piano, and an
old-fashioned megaphone affect on the vocals, but it became more
lavish and ultra-modern as the song progressed. The multi layering of
Russell’s voice seemed infinite. He used multiple microphones to
point up the vocals on this one. A rainbow filled the video archways
as Ron sang the line, “A rainbow forms, but we’re both colour blind”.
Then the song steadily expanded with a long, momentous crescendo,
filling everyone in the hall with grand cinematic visions.
“Your Call Is Very Important To Us. Please Hold” (who else would start
a second sentence within a song title but Sparks?!) picks up where
Kraftwerk’s “The Telephone Call” left off. Rather than making weird
computerized noises, Sparks allow us re-live the frustration of that
cold familiar teasing phrase repeated ad-nauseum over a strangely
beautiful yet angry classical piano trill amidst more orchestrations.
Tammy took the mic for this one. Red and green ‘mixed signals’
illuminated the archways as Ron was hypnotically lured toward the
‘operator’ when he felt ‘important’ and cowered away dejectedly
whenever she uttered, ‘Please hold’.
“Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls” is a humourous headbanger (disguised
by a sweet sounding intro and outro) about a preposterous topic that
has dumbfounded many since the phenomenon became prominent in music
videos in the 80s. Russell theorizes and expounds upon this subject,
as Ron plays the part of the ‘ugly guy’ – a real stretch, but he
played the part convincingly – flanked by a beautiful girl. Sparks
have cleverly deduced that “It ain’t done with smoke and mirrors.”
Dean Menta’s guitar made this song rock out!
Any Broadway show-tune composer would envy “Suburban Homeboy”. He’s a
modern-day “Yankee Doodle Dandy”! Now That’s Entertainment! Ron and
Russell alternated verses with Tammy and Dean in the chorus. Being the
closing new song, it certainly left us all longing for a lyric sheet –
the most entertaining aspect of a Sparks album (which is, by the way,
included with the CD)!
The end of the Lil’ Beethoven overture begat a long and thunderous
ovation, but the fun wasn’t over yet! After a brief intermission
(actually too brief to digest what we had just witnessed), Sparks were
back on-stage to encore some of their classics. Russell dressed up for
the occasion in an elegant black suit to perform “Hasta Manana
Monsieur” Dean delivered the riveting guitar solo that we’ve all grown
to love on Plagiarism’s “Something For The Girl With Everything”. But
even more surprises were in store…a long lost classic from Propaganda,
“Don’t Leave Me Alone With Her” and a stunning rendition of Sparks
first-ever single, “Wondergirl” which Russell sang flawlessly in the
same key as he did over 30 years ago!
During “When I Kiss You (I Hear Charlie Parker Playing)” Ron’s classic
shuffle – which has officially replaced Chuck Berry’s duck-walk as the
coolest rock move of all time – dazzled us once again! Stylistically,
it’s developed lots more attitude, and Ron stops just short of
grabbing his crotch in defiance. He doesn’t really need to – his
indescribable facial expressions tell us exactly what a mad genius he
is! “Balls” was the only other post-1979 song performed in the second
The stellar backstage cavalcade included Sparks pal Marc Moulin of
Telex, Kuntzel and Deygas…and the ghost of Liberace!
Roll over Beethoven – tell Sid Vicious the news!
– Madeline Bocaro