Saturday, July 26, 2008

Me and Paul

Fuji Rock 2008: Part 9

When I was 14 I had a classmate named Paul who was mad about Sparks. He entertained us with non-stop renditions of their early hits - This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us, Amateur Hour, Propaganda - and performed hilarious impressions of Sparks' Mael brothers - Ron’s sinister, wild-eyed nerd, Russell’s camp androgyne.

Sparks had exploded onto the British pop scene in 1974, planting themselves in the nation’s consciousness after an era-defining appearance on TV’s Top of the Pops. The next day, everyone at home, at work, at school was talking about Sparks. British fans took the two American misfits to their hearts.

Sparks' aesthetic - an oddball So Cal irony refracted through an Anglophile sensibility - did not play well in their homeland. But they went on to enjoy immense success in the UK and Europe. Their long career has been full of surprises and has seen them flirt with various musical genres, including glam rock, electro and mainstream pop.

Nevertheless, a recognizable Sparks sound has remained throughout, and they have maintained their quirky, operatic presence on the pop scene. Depeche Mode, New Order, Pet Shop Boys and Morrissey have all acknowledged Sparks as a major influence.

Sparks’ performance at Fuji Rock tonight was not simply an affirmation of their status in pop history. In personal terms it was a crystallization of why pop music has meant so much to me since boyhood, and Sparks were the only act at Fuji to make me cry.

The set spans their entire career, from the early twisted glam hits to their electro/Georgio Moroder period and their arch masterpiece L’il Beethoven. Hardcore fans greet their favorite songs like long-lost friends: Strange Animal, This Town, Let the Monkey Drive, Morrissey, Goofing Off , #1 in Heaven and more.

Backed by a superb band, the Mael brothers' quirky charisma is as compelling as ever: Russell, a gracious front man, still the greatest falsetto in rock; Ron - still hammering on that Ronald piano - his usual dryly hilarious self.
The show is simultaneously theatrical and intimate. Parts verge on performance art, including excellent background projections and Ron’s legendary tap-dancing routine.

In one priceless scenario the elder Mael sets fire to a slide display of Sparks albums - at once staking a claim to the band’s formidable influence while at the same time underlining pop’s transitory nature.

The themes which have engaged Sparks for thirty years are as pertinent as ever: ambition, seduction, the tragic secrets of suburbia.

Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth is given a glorious rendition and seems even more apposite - given Fuji Rock’s ecological theme - than it did on its release thirty years ago. The performance of Dick Around hilariously brings its tragic storyline to life.

And their classic Amateur Hour induces feelings of such rapture I don’t know where I’ve ever had such an experience at a pop concert.

My eyes flood with tears and I break down in an ecstasy of joy and nostalgia. The shattering moment passes, like all the defining moments of our lives: our triumphs, our sorrows, our great loves. Or a Sparks song.

And right here, right now, the Mael brothers - the greatest art-pop duo that America has produced - are the conduit for these profound emotions. Recognizing the perfection of this moment, their audience refuses to let them go, and the brothers are visibly moved.

They reaffirm tonight, beyond any doubt, that pop is a majestic, euphoric abstraction which illuminates and elevates our spirits.

Describing our quest for empathy and reality, it has a meaning beyond dreams, which will stay with us after we leave the auditorium and enter the great record booth in the sky.

And it's not just tonight.

It’s all the other nights, all the moments where pop provides definition and context, transports you to a higher plane and becomes something larger than itself. As big as life...and love...and me...and Paul.

VIDEO: Sparks, "My Baby's Taking Me Home"


Anonymous said...

I was at Fuji Rock and Sparks were easily the highlight for me. Reading this review I must say there were tears in my eyes, too.

Monte said...

I was fortunate enough to attend the first five shows at Sparks recent 21X21 spectaular in London (I live in the States but I had to do it). All the shows were great, but the Propaganda show was an extreme catharsis for me - all my years of loving this band came out, and I cried and cried, right there, as the final notes of "Bon Voyage" washed over me. It was almost religious, and I think I know exactly where you are coming from.

Shiffi Le Soy said...

Dear Shelley, Anonymous and Monte.

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Monte I so wish I could have been at the 21)(21 shows. It's a long way from Kyoto to London! But it looks like we had similar experiences in different locations!

Anonymous said...

Sparks 'live' summed up perfectly! I've seen them 5 times now - never dissapointed. The 'burning' of the album covers brought back so many happy and sad memories of events through my life, I was blubbing like a baby at the last 21x21 show in London. Long live Sparks and the bros Mael!