20th September 2017
Edinburgh Queens Hall
It was not terribly often during my teens that I found myself at the forefront of musical fashion so to speak, but there is no doubt (in my mind anyway) that my school classmate P and I “got” Sparks way before many of our contemporaries. Many of whom never “got” them, I have to say.
I had bought their Kimono My House album as soon as it was released, not on the basis of the two associated hit singles, but the surreally quirky Talent is an Asset, which I had heard played on Radio One.
Soon, as was the way back then, I was parading around school with the album under my arm, and the sleeve pic featuring those two unimaginably exotic and wonderfully sexy looking Geishas, initiating intrigued glances from the rest of the class musiceratti. Every song on it (with the marked exception of the plodding Falling in Love with Myself Again) was an object lesson in the art of the three minute witty pop song. The only other collection I can remotely compare it to is 10cc's masterpiece Sheet Music.
P went one step further and started digging back into the band’s history, and I would not be surprised were it to be confirmed he was the first person in Scotland to own a copy of the Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing album. This collection was (Girl from Germany, apart) a rather more challenging affair musically speaking. But we nevertheless played it to death - until I dropped a hammer on it by accident one evening. The circumstances behind that event, as I think about them, are just too weird for me to even contemplate relating.
So it was perhaps apt that P was my gig-buddy this evening. Forty-odd years after we would have liked to have seen Sparks perhaps, but Hey-ho.
Before the brothers Mael and their band took to the stage, we spent a slightly disorientating half-hour in the company of support act Mr. Goodnite. On the face of it the lad appeared a rather odd choice, for he initially came across as a run-of-the-mill MOR act, crooning away to a recorded backing.
But there were peculiar things going on. His back-up music for the most part was not digital, nor even recorded on tape, but came from a vinyl LP. Each backing track he initiated by the simple old-fashioned method of dropping the stylus onto the disc on a turntable. “Dropping” being operative word here, for he did not appear terribly fussy about his aim. The needle often squawked across the disc, as he sought for the gaps between the tracks. And on more than one occasion he appeared to get bored with a song midway, and stop the performance by abruptly lifting the arm off the record.
And, I could not be sure, but I had the suspicion his lyrics appeared a murkily subversive collection. One song mentioned masturbation, I think, whilst others referenced death, murder and even Stephen King. All presented with jaunty bonhomie. Either he was one minimally talented dude who had somehow got very lucky to land this gig – or was in reality a subtle parody act; melding the self-unaware amateurism of John Shuttleworth with the cheesiness of Mike Flowers.
In either event Mr Goodnite was moderately entertaining for about 15 minutes, after which the joke (if indeed there was one) began to wear thin; as evidenced by the incrementally increasing chatter-level around us.
|Russell Mael - Edinburgh 2017|
|Ron Mael - Edinburgh 2017.|
Hats Off to P who noticed the subtle defacement of the Roland organ sign.
Sparks' latest album Hippopotamus had just entered the charts at No.7, something Russell was keen we were all informed about not long into the show. Although in my more cynical moments, I could not help but wonder exactly what level of sales that equated to these days. I note, as I write, that that the album has a week later dropped to Number 53, after a sole week in the Top 10. A rise and fall which suspiciously looks like some sort of record company manipulation to ensure all sales were squished into a single week. But then again, in these days of download units being counted, perhaps that is what always happens.
Seven songs we got from the new collection this evening, the majority, it pleases me to relate, sounding as strong as anything on those classic 70s albums. What the Hell Is it This Time introduced us to a weary god, fed up being plagued by earthlings' petty requests and prayers, the lyric reminding us “If Arsenal wins, he really don't care”. Whilst Missionary Position had the lads extolling the virtues of the "tried and true". Between these two gems, the Pet Shop Boys influenced When Do I Get to Sing “My Way” was another highlight.
The title track of the new album I was less keen on, I have to say. Seemingly a vehicle for the lads to come up with as many rhymes for the word hippopotamus as they could (Hieronymus, anonymous, Microbus, abacus and Titus Andronicus); it was musically weak gruel and the joke soon wore off. The song heralded a perhaps less entertaining section to the set. Sherlock Holmes was a bit of a dirge, whilst neither Dick Around (from the album Hello Young Lovers) nor the new 'un Scandinavian Design hit the mark, I felt.
But, I Wish You Were Fun was (ahem) fun, as was My Baby’s Taking Me Home – both enjoying a pleasing 1940’s retro feel to them. Neither would have sounded out of place had they popped up being lip-synced to in Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven.
The big guns were brought up for the show climax – although their Euro Disco-pop fest hit Number One Song in Heaven was sadly shorn of its lengthy intro. I am sure the boys knew what they were doing here, but the dock did mean we were all denied what I think is one of Ron’s (I assume) sharpest few lines:
“This is 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 think.”
“This Town…” elicited the expected roar of delight, but I found it strange the lads chose to close the main set with Hospitality on Parade. This opener to the Indiscreet album, exploring Anglo-American relations is a fair enough enough composition, but it really just killed the atmosphere, albeit briefly.
Thankfully the encores of the Franz Ferdinand cover Johnny Delusional, and Amateur Hour had the Queens Hall aisles bouncing as I am sure they never did during the venue's spell as a Church of Scotland kirk.
I was more than a little surprised by the roar of approval in response to pretty much every song performed this evening, including the newbies. Which suggested that a fair number of the attendees were amongst those who had hoisted the Hippopotamus album to its (albeit brief) lofty perch in the charts.
At the end of the gig, both brothers looked rather reluctant to leave the stage, bathing in the warmth of the (perhaps unfamiliar, these days) adulation. Russell foisted the mike onto Ron, who looked disarmingly flustered, his sangfroid momentarily lost, before mumbling a few words of thanks.
Either these guys are consummate actors, or both were genuinely taken aback by their reception on this triumphal return to Caledonia. I rather think the latter.
|During "Number One Song in Heaven" Ron enjoyed a wee jig to himself.|
|...and later even treated us to a few kind words.|
|Sparks - Edinburgh 2017|
What the Hell is it This Time
At Home, At Work, At Play
When Do I Get to sing “My Way”
Edith Piaf (Said it Better Than Me)
Never Turn your Back on Mother Earth
I wish You Were Fun
My Baby's Taking Me Home
The Number One Song in Heaven
This town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us
Hospitality on Parade