View more photos in the Sparks slideshow.
Sparks at UCLA Royce Hall, Sat., Feb. 14
To borrow the title from Sparks' 2000 album, it took balls for Ron and Russell Mael to stage their 21-night residency in London last summer, performing the entirety of each of their 21 albums. And if Ron — the brother behind the keyboards and songwriting-half of Sparks — wants to enter a stage rolling out of bed in front of more 1,800 fans (young and old, kimono clad and plain clothed), it's not because he's 60 and needs his rest, though not every man can wear a tie, high-waisted pants and sneakers, and still look like a rock star. It's just a pretty damn entertaining way to start a show.
The U.K.'s gain was L.A.'s loss when Ron and singer Russell moved across the pond in the early '70s; they've always been more aligned with the British sensibility. So Sparks' return to the “respectable, cultural” Royce Hall of their alma mater had extra special meaning to the former Bruins. And it was the perfect Valentine for the hometown crowd, not just from the Maels, but from their backing band, which included bassist Steve McDonald from another one of L.A.'s finest, Redd Kross, and guitarists Jim Wilson and Marcus Blake of Mother Superior. (Mid-way through the show, an audience member yelled out, “Thanks for bringing Redd Kross.”)
The first half of the evening was devoted to Sparks' current album, Exotic Creatures of the Deep, kicking off with the first single, “Good Morning.” While the band members were boxed in by giant picture frames, the brothers were free to bandy about. Looking at the two, not much has changed: Russell, minus the fro of his early days, ran, jumped, twirled and made use of every inch of the stage like a man half his age. And while Ron's famous Hitler 'stache is now pencil thin, he still looks as sinister as ever, like one of those villains tying Mary Pickford to the train tracks in a silent movie. If he wasn't scowling and devilishly arching his brow behind the keyboards, he'd do an interpretive dance or pretend to play the piano on a mock computer screen. (A life-size TV was used to further animate some of the songs, projecting images from stained glass windows to a Renaissance painting to black cut-out of Morrissey).
“Lighten Up, Morrissey,” on which Russell bemoans his girl's infatuation with the singer, was naturally dedicated to the man himself. The relationship between the two goes almost as far back as the band's beginnings. An entire website, wouldn't you know, has archived Morrissey's pre-fame letters to various music magazines, including one to the NME in 1974 that reads: “Today I bought the album of the year. I feel I can say this without expecting several letters saying I'm talking rubbish. The album is Kimono My House by Sparks. I bought it on the strength of the single. Every track is brilliant, although I must name 'Equator', 'Complaints', 'Amateur Hour' and 'Here In Heaven' as the best tracks and in that order. Steven Morrissey, 384 Kings Road, Stretford, Manchester.” (Of course, in another letter he also wrote: “The Ramones are the latest bumptious band of degenerate no-talents whose most notable achievement to date is their ability to advance beyond the boundaries of New York City, and purely on the strength of a spate of convincing literature projecting the Ramones as God's gift to rock music. They have been greeted with instant adulation by an army of duped fans.”) So go figure.
Thirty years later, Morrissey invited Sparks to take part in the Meltdown festival he curated in 2004, and included “Arts and Crafts Spectacular,” and early unreleased demo not available any Sparks album, on his 2003 compilation, Under the Influence. Hard as we tried to stal….er, spot him, Morrissey was not in attendance.
For the night's second half, the guys dispensed with the props when they finally dusted off Kimono My House; the 1974 landmark stands on its own merits without any gimmicks. Funny how Queen and Sparks, both poptastic rock bands with faux-operatic frontmen of equal camp, simultaneously started in the glam era, yet while Queen exploded as arena-size classic rock gods, Sparks went on to become the cult inspiration to future alternative and indie groups. “This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us” might as well be Sparks' “BoRhap,” 'cause no one has a clue what either is about: stampeding rhinos, elephants and tacky tigers? It's also a gun-slinging good-timer, covered by artists as disparate as Siouxsie and the Banshees and Faith No More. Justin Hawkins of the Darkness released his version, under the guise of his solo project British Whale, in 2005 and even included the brothers in the video. “Amateur Hour” is even more fun and rockin, and “Talent Is An Asset” had everyone clapping and stomping.
The band threw in some later tunes during the encore, including the Giorgio Moroder-produced “Number One Song in Heaven.” Not a personal favorite, but it finally had us out of our seats after Russell told the audience to ditch the house rules and head for the stage. All pomp and showbiz aside, Russell still has one of the best set of pipes in rock, especially on a bluesy torch song like “Equator, in which he neverendingly coos and doot-doot-doots and pulls at the heart strings. If it had been wet outside, it would've been from Freddie in his unitard crying from above.