TVD Live: Sparks at the 9:30 Club, 10/27

What do I know about sparks? Well, there was the time I got drunk and pissed on an electric fence and my penis—wait, you mean Sparks, the band from Los Angeles, whose brothers Ron and Russell Mael have been around since before Woodstock, genre-hopping like mad and putting out one hyper-intelligent and quirky album after another?

Well, I know this: I interviewed brother Russell—he’s the hyperactive singer/front man with the Ming-vase-shattering falsetto that makes Geddy Lee sound like Waylon Jennings, not the motionless songwriter/keyboardist with the pencil mustache and the permanent scowl—and he told me, in effect, that Sparks were too smart to ever become superstars, and I agree with him. They’re oddballs and perpetual avant gardists undone by their own superior intelligence, and they’re okay with that, because they have a following of fanatical fans all across the globe.

Formed in 1971 out of Halfnelson, Sparks are the cult act par excellence, what with their skewed—and usually hilarious—lyrics and their amazing ability to transform themselves like the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Whether out of ADD or a determination to always stay one hoof ahead of the rock’n’roll herd, no one I can think of has helped pioneer so many different musical genres. Sparks have been glam rockers, power poppers, synthpop savants, mainstream rockers, protopunks, New Wavers, electronic dance avatars, and most recently, chamber pop svengalis. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they founded yodel rock, or even grunge, although it’s nigh impossible to imagine Ron Mael in a flannel shirt.

Over the course of their career Sparks have released 23 albums bearing such great titles as Kimono My House, Angst in My Pants, A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing, and Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins, to say nothing of Introducing Sparks, which you would logically assume was their debut LP but was actually their seventh. Their latest—excepting 2013’s Two Hands One Mouth (Live from Europe)—was the fascinating 2009 radio musical, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, which originally aired on Swedish public radio (obviously not as terminally dull as NPR) and is being made into a motion picture, which I hope will star Richard E. Grant as Bergman.

For the past year Sparks have been hard at work on another musical drama, which—unlike the Bergman project, with its unwieldy 14 cast members—they hope to play live. Regarding their current tour, which the brothers are playing as a duo, Russell said it would include lots of back catalogue stuff. As for performing as a twosome, Russell told me, “It’s hard to go on stage with just two people and not be perceived in a bad singer-songwriter way.” Personally, I don’t see any danger in fans mistaking Sparks for James Taylor or England Dan and John Ford Coley, but you never know. Rock fans can be pretty darn dim.

Me, I looked forward to their performing ALL of my personal faves, including “Falling in Love With Myself Again,” “Lighten Up, Morrissey,” “Let the Monkey Drive,” “The Decline and Fall of Me,” “Baby, Baby (Can I Invade Your Country),” and “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth.” But you can never trust these prima donna types to play the songs you want to hear—would it kill them to call me and ask me to write their set list?—so I was prepared to be let down. Except not really, because Sparks have so many great songs I was bound to have a great time.

Sparks played an early (7:30 pm) show, so I figured I’d have no trouble getting there in time. Wrong. For I failed to anticipate—how on earth could I have forgotten?—that October 27 marked the 408th anniversary of the Spanish army’s occupation of Wachtendonk, and hereditary Wachtendonkers, who have notoriously long memories, thronged the streets of DC in angry protest. I couldn’t get a cab, so I had to walk, and wild-eyed Wachtendonkers kept approaching me to shake their fists in my face and cry, “We will have our revenge!” A phlegmatic people, those Wachtendonkers. Almost as angry as Mike Scott when I called him Irish.

Fortunately I made it to the 9:30 just in time to see Sparks go on stage. And the show was tremendous, magnificent, wonderful. I’ve never been a huge Sparks fan but the audience swept me up with their enthusiasm. Melissa to the right of me hadn’t seen Sparks in 40 years, and she went wild, shrieking and singing along. Dave to the left of me asked if I’d been to Altamont, since I was wearing my “Altamont Was Groovy” t-shirt, and he got swept up in the excitement too. Russell Mael was wearing a purple shirt, purple shorts, purple leggings, and brown shoes, while Ron Mael was wearing his usual, a white shirt and black pants with skinny tie tucked into his pants.

Sparks opened with the hilariously annoying “Please Hold, Your Call Is Very Important To Us,” a mid-tempo tune that featured Russell intoning the lines, “At first she said, “Your call is very important to us”/And then she said, “Please hold, please hold”/Then she said, “Your call is very important to us”/And then she said, “Please hold, please hold.” It was catchy as hell, and anybody who’s ever spent time in Please Hold Hell could relate to it. They then played “How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall,” which featured a big symphonic opening by Ron and Russell answering the question by repeating the phrase, “Practice, man, practice.” The song ended with Russell singing, “Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!” and it made me want to get to Carnegie Hall too, where I could wow ‘em out of their pants with my version of Barry Manilow’s immortal “Mandy.”

“B.C.” was a gallop of a song, with perky electric piano and more super-falsetto from Russell, who walked circles around the stage all night, hyperactive as ever, singing, “You just cannot believe in ABC/If you can’t believe in ABC/You can’t believe, you can’t believe, you can’t believe, you can’t believe.” Meanwhile, “Here in Heaven” was wonderful, what with Ron’s cool piano intro and Russell employing his falsetto at Factor 10 (any higher, and human ears explode). Sparks have the coolest lyrics ever, and “Here in Heaven” is no exception: “Here, there are many, many sheep/And the people only sleep/And awake to tell how gory and gruesome was their end/And I don’t have many friends.”

“Those Mysteries” opened with Russell singing to minimal piano accompaniment. The chorus was absolutely gorgeous and featured the lines, “I don’t even know what I don’t even know,” while the verses ran along the lines of, “And why is there is France/And why is there Spain/And why am I here/And why is there rain/And why when I ask my dad does he say/Go ask your mom or just go away,” at which point Russell shouted, “And okay, I’ll go away!/But they won’t go away!” only to fall back into the great chorus again. Then he let out a tremendously beautiful wail accompanied by some equally beautiful piano and the song came to an end.

“Good Morning,” a song about a blissful one-night stand the singer can’t seem to remember, boasted some very fast piano by Ron and more of Russell’s falsetto. Russell’s “Good morning/Good morning” would be a terrible thing to wake up to, and he still can’t believe his good fortune: “Good morning/I’m thinking/I must have/Been drinking/And said something clever/It must have been the best line from me ever.” As the song goes on he becomes convinced he’ll never see her again, wonders if she’s “just some high-priced service from uptown,” asks in a panic “Where are you going?/Where are you going?” and ends the song with the sad, “I need you/I need you/Who are you?”

As for the great “Falling in Love With Myself Again” it opened with a big church organ, and featured Russell singing very, very fast so that it was impossible to make out the words. Sample lyrics? “Similar mother, similar father, similar dog, cat and fish/And we’ll make the same wish/When the birthday candle’s lit/We’ll both be older/We won’t get our wish/Yes, I think that I’m falling in love with myself again.” Like I say, Russell Mael is a lyrical genius, and one of the cleverest humans wearing a skinny tie on the face of the Earth.

“Big Boy” was a blustery tune about a school bully with a pretty basic keyboard riff, and had Russell shaking his fist as he sang such lines as, “The earth is shaking, so am I/If you don’t run, it’s suicide,” and “He’s well-equipped, the girls are sure/Is that a guess, or something more?” Meanwhile the entire audience sang along with Russell’s cried chorus of “Big boy/Big boy,” and I can’t say why but it was the perfect lead in to the exquisitely beautiful “What Would Katharine Hepburn Say?” “I can’t hear her,” Russell kept repeating, before singing, “It’s not as if our love is like a mountain/It’s not as if our love is like a river/It’s not as if it’s deeper than the ocean/It’s the kind of love that gives me shivers,” before closing the song with a “Hey hey hey hey!”

Sparks then played a few numbers off The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, including “I Am Ingmar Bergman,” which featured a big symphonic opening and Ron speaking in the voice of Bergman about winning the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. “Good, evil, God, the Devil/Life, death/These were my usual concerns/This film though was a comedy, a comedy.” He asks, “Have you ever felt compelled to do something/Against your will?/I have/I have,” and then talks about going to see “escapist art of the worst sort.” It’s a great song about a confused genius, and Ron kept adding new layers of sound to his keyboard, and it was wonderful.

“The Studio Commissary,” a fast-paced romp with lots of weird laughter and a repetitive piano riff, featured Russell as a factotum trying to convince Bergman he’s not selling out by coming to Hollywood, “Ah, Ingmar Bergman,” he sang, “Look around, and hear the happy happy sound/Directors of all size and shapes are eating steak and munching cake/Directors of a foreign stripe who’ve done quite well, see if they gripe/Their vision made it here unscathed, none felt a whore, none felt he caved.” Finally Sparks performed “Oh My God,” which featured a jaunty keyboard riff and Russell singing, as a Bergman trapped in barbaric America, “Oh my God/Oh my God/Do you exist?/Do you exist?” Bergman wants to be taken away from “this barren land,” but just continues to repeat “Do you exist?” and “If you exist?” No answer is ever provided, of course, and Bergman is left unsatisfied.

The duo then broke into “Nicotina,” which opened with a portentous keyboard riff, and featured a great melodic chorus of “Nicotina/Nicotina/Nicotina/Nicotina is her name.” Unfortunately, the song points out, some people are born to be cigarettes, and Nicotina is one of them. Russell sang, Not every cigarette is a dead, dead thing/Some have a mind and try to be other things/Pushed in the pack, they crave some Virginia air/Softly, they pray to someone, but life ain’t fair.” In the end Nicotina gets smoked, and Russell sang sadly, “Nicotina’s gone but life goes on.”

They then played the very popular “Popularity,” with its big, funky synthpop riff, great chorus, and deliberately vacuous lyrics: “What a night, we all drive into town/Where we’ll park our cars, and meet the rest of our friends/At a place that’s called, I forget what it’s called/But it’s really great, and all of our friends will be there.” Then followed “Popularity” with the classic “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us,” which featured a very rapid and repetitive piano riff, as well as Russell putting down his mic and doing laps around the stage. The chorus (“This town ain’t big enough for both of us/And it ain’t me who’s gonna leave”) was great; meanwhile Russell sang verses such as, “Flying, domestic flying/And when the stewardess is near do not show any fear/Heartbeat, increasing heartbeat/You are a khaki-coloured bombardier, it’s Hiroshima that you’re nearing.”

“Suburban Homeboy” was great, all fake machismo and a constantly repeated and very jaunty keyboard riff by Ron Mael. Meanwhile Russell did some serious fist pumping as he sang, “I am a suburban homeboy with a suburban ‘ho right by my side/I am a suburban homeboy and I say yo dog to my pool cleaning guy/I hope I’m baggy enough for them/I play my Shaggy enough for them/I’ll pop a cap up some fool at the Gap.” He went on to sing about how his girlfriend is “From the projects in St. Tropez/She looks like Iverson in a way.” And ended with a repetition of the great lines, “Props to our peeps and please keep your receipts/And we are suburban homeboys.”

The big synthesizer opening of “When Do I Get To Sing ‘My Way’” morphed into some very pretty piano, but overall the song was a big pomp rocker, and Russell Mael gave it all he had, especially on the chorus (“So when do I get to sing “My Way”/When do I get to feel like Sinatra felt/When do I get to sing “My Way”/In heaven or hell”) but also on the verses, especially the last one when he finally gets his chance and things end disastrously: “There, this home which once was serene, now is home to the screams/And to flying plates and shoes.” The song marked the end of their set, and Ron Mael made the most uncomfortable bow I’ve ever seen in my life.

Fortunately they returned to play “Tryouts for the Human Race,” a song about sperm competing to be “your little daughter or your son” with Ron playing a catchy riff standing up that led to lots of hand clapping from the audience, and Russell employing his most extreme falsetto, the “No. 22.” His repetitions of “Let us out of here!” were about as frenetic as he got all night, and such lyrics as “One of us might make it through, the rest will disappear like dew/Pressure building, gettin’ hot, give it, give it, give it all you got/When that love explosion comes, my, oh my, we want to be someone” were hilarious.

They then played the smash hit “The No. 1 Song in Heaven,” a very beautiful crowd pleaser with a big, danceable synthpop sound. Russell skipped to the front of the stage, Ron played a very odd solo, and Russell’s voice was truly lovely as he sang, “If you should die before you wake/If you should die while crossing the street/The song that you’ll hear, I guarantee.” What song? “The number one song in heaven/Why are you hearing it now, you ask/Maybe you’re closer to here than you imagine/Maybe you’re closer to here than you care to be/It’s number one, all over heaven/It’s number one, all over heaven.”

But the best part of the song, and perhaps the entire show, occurred at the end, when Russell took over on keyboards and Ron—staid, unflappable Ron—launched into a great frantic scissors leg dance, that was sorta like a goosestep only 30 times faster.

The crowd exploded, then Ron returned to keyboards to play the last song of the night, the brand-spanking new “Revenge of Two Hands One Mouth,” which should not be confused with the song “Two Hands One Mouth,” the title track off this year’s European live album. Russell sang “Revenge!” a lot, but I couldn’t catch any of the other lyrics; still, it was a nice closer, and when it ended the brothers took another bow, and this time Russell gave Ron a brotherly push towards the front of the stage.

I’ll be honest; I wish some of the songs had featured a full band. That said, there was an intimacy to the show that I found touching; it was as if the brothers Mael were finally getting their well-deserved moment alone beneath the stage lights, and I for one felt privileged to witness it. Ron and Russell Mael have spent well over 40 years creating a sui generis music that has always managed to be not only up to the minute, but a minute ahead. It’s as if they wear watches that are one minute fast. And here’s hoping they’ll be around for 40 more years, still one step ahead of everybody else, and laughing at their sardonic lyrics and the failure of the rest of us to keep up.

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  • NancyMarion

    I get it, you’re not a Sparks nerd. Totally understandable, Sparks are definitely a love ’em or hate ’em
    group. But it seems an easy way out you to fake your way
    through a book report by quoting every song.
    Factchecking: Ron writes the vast majority of the songs (with a few written by Russell). Russell usually handles production.
    Research:
    the previous version of this tour, which happened in spring and summer
    of this year, consisted of only Ron and Russell. Also, you could have
    seen the set list from the previous night’s shows online—I found the
    setlist from the Atlanta show, and it was the same as the setlist for
    Sunday. But I’m a completist and made playlists of the songs ahead of
    time. Fanatical? Yes. But when you have a catalog that deep, it’s kind
    of necessary. And Ron’s dance happens every show—easily discovered on
    YouTube.
    I’ll just go snuggle up with my Ron and Russell pillowcases now.

  • Michael Little

    Why so nasty? 1. I love Sparks. 2. I quote every song because musically there wasn’t that much happening, and I love their lyrics. 3. When do I say Ron doesn’t write virtually all of the songs? I call him the “songwriter” in the second paragraph, and I knew that from talking to Russell, who told me he’d given up writing years ago. And why should I have mentioned their previous tour at all? I mentioned they were a duo in Europe, isn’t that enough? And why should I care–or anybody care–if Ron does that dance every night? And what’s all the set list stuff about? Once again, who cares? You’re right, I’m not a Sparks nerd. Or in your case, a Sparks insane person.

  • NancyMarion

    Wow. Nastiness definitely not intended on my part, but defensiveness
    on yours was not necessary. Nor the “insane person” jab. Low blow. 
    It’s
    simply my opinion that if you’re going to interview and write a review
    of such a cult band, that there’d be more research involved.  
     I’d
    mention the previous tour because “Revenge…” was deliberately billed as a
    follow-up to “Two Hands, One Mouth.” I’d mention Ron’s dance because it’s been a
    long-running joke.
    And isn’t that what the comments section is for? Discussion? Criticism?

  • Michael Little

    Guilty as charged in the defensiveness department. I apologize. But I still don’t see what “research” you’d have had me do, especially since I get two or three days tops to write an article. Every band, cult or not, probably deserves more attention than I have time to give them. And frankly, I was kind to them. I could have played up the beginning of my last paragraph, and said what part of me really felt, namely that their songs were rather shallow in the duo format, and really needed the filling out that only a band could provide. But I was ambivalent about going there, even though listening to their records proved to be a much richer experience than listening to them as a twosome. They were still great, mind you, but I thought something was lacking. That said, I still don’t think it at all important that Ron does that dance every night, or that they toured as a duo previously. Even had I known those things, I wouldn’t have mentioned them. But you’re right. This section is for dialogue and criticism. Thanks for reading the article so carefully, and for loving Sparks. They deserve our love. And I apologize again for being so defensive, and for calling you insane. You’re clearly not insane. Now me, on the other hand…

  • Martijn

    Wow, a hornets nest I’m stepping into. Or not? Perhaps all has been brushed under the carpet and everybody is the bestest of buddies again, slapping each other on the shoulder, wiping away a few tears like Chekhov characters and laughing it off. I hope so anyway… I’m a big fan of interpersonal harmony around me. We’re all on the same (Sparks’) side after all…
    I have nothing to add. Just thanks for the review of a band I’ve never seen and have learned more about vicariously. And you’re obviously an enthusiast. Rock on! Sparks wheyhey!

  • NancyMarion

    Michael LittleThank you. I work in publishing myself, so I know about crazy deadlines!
    To me, the silly dance, the reworking of all the songs in the catalog as a two-man show are just part of the experience—I’d love to see them with their full backing band, but it is much more intimate this way. Like the Mael brothers are putting on a show for you in their mother’s living room, or Sparks Unplugged.
    That’s all I meant about the research: just more insight into why they decided to stage the shows this way, especially after having done a very similar tour earlier this year. (I think you referred to that in your earlier interview with Russell, actually.)

    Standing up front, you could see the surprise and joy in their faces at having expected a small turnout in a town not known for its rock cred and ended up the response they did, no matter how small the crowd.
    And you’re right—the crowd was WONDERFUL. It was like Sparks camp, or a Grateful Dead show without the tie-dye or hash brownies. (I even recognized some people from a show earlier this year!)

    I don’t expect everyone to have gone the total fanzilla route like me, to have read every article and unauthorized bio and seen every interview!

  • Michael Little

    Nancy, I agree about how intimate it was, and in my review called it touching. Which it was. It was a special experience, and I may never have called it touching had I seen them with a full band. So that’s for the good, and I hope to see them again, with a full band next time. That way I’ll get to compare experiences. Martijn, the brush fire has been put out, although my hair is still smoldering. And I love Chekhov! But I know from Chekhov that if there’s a gun in the room, watch out! And thanks for thanking me for the review. Not many readers, again. I’m obviously doing something wrong. Long Live Sparks!

  • Martijn

    Perhaps you’re doing something right… No, I’m SURE you’re doing something right. It’s just that people today shun from texts longer than 100 words. Your reviews are long. They keep some entertained and gloriously excited like being on a white water cayak run, but the average reader get’s scared when they see more than 10 words without an emoticon.
    But take no notice (if you can)… your writings are perfect (apart from the flaws some of the die-hards like Nancy Marion will point out, for which we should love them) and worth anybody’s while. Success is hollow succor…
    If there’s a gun in the first act, it will shoot a Tartar from half a verst in the fourth… Such perfection! (I’m reading all of Chekhov’s short stories now and loving them so much…) Hey Mike. You do something right!

  • ElT111

    great review; happy to have read it.
    there is one sentence where I believe you might have the two brothers’ names confused:
    “Like I say, Russell Mael is a lyrical genius, and one of the cleverest humans wearing a skinny tie on the face of the Earth.”
    surely, you mean Ron!

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