Meltdown Festival, London Royal Festival Hall Saturday June 12, 2004
Sparks are too actively smart and inquisitive to be a nostalgia act, but at Morrissey’s request they gamely perform Kimono My House (their astonishing 1974 breakthrough album) as a one-off for his Meltdown Festival. The condition being that the Californians then, after an interval, present their most recent (19th) long-player, Lil’Beethoven.
If many of us made the trip to behold the glam-punk-opera swoops of the 30-year-old album, we left equally dazzled by the manic repetitions and Broadway stagings of the later work?a testament to the Mael Brothers’ continuing (ir) relevance. They are?still?unlike any other band. Too brainy for pop, too much fun to be art. Uniquely refreshing and exhilarating. Their merchandise reads: “Let’s Art Rock”. Franz Ferdinand might want to buy T-shirts. The Kimono set, raucously applauded by tear-stained devotees, begins with the familiar fairground rides of “This Town Ain’t Big Enoug…”and “Amateur Hour”. With musicians borrowed from Faith No More, Red Kross, Daniel Lanois and Henry Rollins, this Sparks incarnation is decidedly aggressive. The rawness, though, is offset by the energetic Russell’s far-out falsetto, Ron’s deadpan stasis, and those inspired lyrics which spun the heads of a 10cc/early-Queen generation caught between Ziggy and Berlin Iggy. “Falling In Love With Myself Again”, “Thank God It’s Not Christmas”?no one quite believed what they were hearing back then, and still can’t. Somehow these songs merge abandon and restraint. In “Here In Heaven”, Romeo’s pissed off that Juliet didn’t die with him as agreed: “It’s hell knowing that your health will keep you out of here for many, many years.”
It’s a sad fact that comedy, however dark, won’t win you the kudos a straight face will. Which is why Kimono My House isn’t as revered as the first Roxy album or Aladdin Sane. It’s one of its decade’s top ten bursts of genius, and if Morrissey’s pitching it to a new troupe of teens, good on him. Not that Sparks need sympathy: when Russell throws his castanets into the crowd, someone uses my shoulders as a trampoline to claim them.
Maybe we stick around for Lil’ Beethoven through politeness, but we’re soon rapt by an extraordinary spectacle. Fuelled by wit and not budget, it uses slides, films, slogans and the brothers’interaction to create a Michael Nyman-meets-Mary Poppins-at-the-Mudd Club monolith. Ron dons five-foot-long arms, holds a lighter up to Russell’s warbling, struts across stage with a Marilyn lookalike on “Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls”. On “I Married Myself”he chases an elusive celluloid ‘bride’across the backdrop. On “Your Call Is Very Important To Us”, he’s teased, tempted, then frustrated. The concept’s theme: money defeats love. It has you thinking it’s satire, then leaves you moved and marvelling. That’s Sparks all over: theirs is a light that will never go out. Bravo!