Iconic pop duo bring their hippo to the house at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire…
Over forty-five years since their formation, the inimitable Sparks continue to delight and surprise fans and critics alike. Fresh from the critical and commercial success of their latest album Hippopotamus, the first of two nights at the iconic London venue – and the penultimate night of Sparks’ UK tour – saw the Mael brothers and their ‘reinforcements’ delivered a rapturously-received 90-minute set.
It was in June 2008 that Sparks last graced the stage of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, with the band playing their then-upcoming 21st studio album, Exotic Creatures Of The Deep to a packed house. The performance was the culmination of the Sparks Spectacular, in which Ronald and Russell Mael had performed their previous 20 studio albums in full (including their 1971 debut as Halfnelson) during an astonishing 20-night residency at Islington’s Carling Academy, audaciously performing over 250 songs from their stunning back catalogue. That they managed to pull it off was not only testament to the band’s staunch professionalism, but it was also indicative of the brothers’ ability to think outside of the box, almost 40 years into a career that has seen the band transcend numerous musical genres, influencing a wide-ranging number of artists along the way (including New Order, The Smiths, Nirvana, They Might Be Giants and many more).
The same venue provided the setting for one of Sparks’ comeback shows in 1994, something that was acknowledged by Ron Mael towards the end of their latest soiree in the capital. The excellent Gratuitous Sax And Senseless Violins album had put Ronald and Russell Mael back on the map after a period of commercial decline in the previous decade. Indeed, it would be easy to draw parallels with Gary Numan who has recently registered his first top ten album since 1982’s I, Assassin. Numan himself went through his own period of decline in the same decade, before recovering his mojo on 1994’s excellent Sacrifice album. Despite enjoying success in some European territories, Sparks had not enjoyed a hit single in the UK since 1979’s ‘Beat The Clock’, and now they have scored their first top ten album since 1974’s Propaganda.
Since their well-received appearance at the 6 Music Festival in Glasgow in March this year, the live band has included members of Mini Mansions, Queens of the Stone Age and The Last Shadow Puppets. Tyler Parkford, the band’s second keyboardist, was recognizable as the evening’s support act Mister Goodnite, who crooned his way through a bizarre 20-minute, sample-heavy set that provoked virtually no reaction from the incredulous West London crowd. Sadly, Parkford’s self-described “intoxicating expo of under-lit romance, mystery, horror, adventure and much much more” didn’t quite live up to its billing and most people were left scratching their heads as Parkford exited the stage to muted applause.
There was a break of half an hour before a slightly impatient (and space-deprived) sell-out crowd were treated to the sight of Sparks entering the stage, resplendent in eye-catching sailor-like outfits. With the band continuing to add to their impressively vast and diverse back catalogue, putting a set list together must be an increasingly difficult task for the Mael brothers. But what eventually transpired was a tight, 90-minute set that largely drew from more recent albums, particularly their latest opus Hippopotamus. As the 68-year old Russell Mael recently told Exposed magazine, “We take pride in the fact that we don’t rely on the past.”
The wonderfully-titled ‘What The Hell Is It This Time?’ served as an effective set opener, typifying the quality of the band’s new opus with its inventive arrangement and adventurous wordplay (“Our God is great, our God is good, he loves every man/ But there’s a limit to what even he can withstand”). This was followed by the popular double-header of ‘Propaganda’ and ‘At Home, At Work, At Play’, a throwback to the mid-1970s when the band were in the midst of considerable commercial success.
The often-overlooked Exotic Creatures Of The Deep album was represented solely by the excellent ‘Good Morning’, driven by an infectious piano hook, while 1994’s comeback single ‘When Do I Get To Sing “My Way”?’ saw Russell Mael up the energy levels as they tore through one of their landmark songs.
Three tracks from Hippopotamus followed, kicking off with ‘Probably Nothing’, an ephemeral tale of memory loss which slightly upset the show’s momentum. Current single ‘Missionary Position’ has already asserted its place in the firmament of Sparks classics, and was greeted with euphoric applause (“A lot of lovers of the missionary position, I see,” quipped Russell Mael). The quirky title track provided some further lighthearted fun, with its hilarious childlike lyrical couplets featuring paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, Volkswagen Microbuses and, of course, hippos.
Next up was ‘Sherlock Holmes’, a track that had originally appeared on the Reinhold Mack-produced Angst In My Pants. It was later covered by Mini Mansions on the B-side of their ‘Death Is A Girl’ single in 2014, so its inclusion in the set wasn’t that surprising. This was followed by ‘Dick Around’ (famously banned by the BBC in 2006), and Russell Mael further impressed with his versatile vocals.
On Hippopotamus the band have unveiled a number of bona fide Sparks classics that sit comfortably with the best of their work. Whilst the band could easily have played the album in full, it was the standout tracks that dominated the rest of the set, including ‘Scandinavian Design’ which, on paper at least, sounds like an advertisement for IKEA furniture (“Time and space intertwined/ Elegance, simple lines/ Scandinavian design”), and ‘Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)’ which harks back to their mid-90s period. And then there’s the delightfully whimsical ‘I Wish You Were Fun’. Showcasing the Mael brothers’ more playful and Vaudevillian side, the enthusiastic audience didn’t resist the opportunity to join in with some infectious ‘la-la-la’s, while the band impressed with some tight tempo changes and a beautiful piano coda.
Elsewhere, the classic ballad ‘Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth’ (as covered by Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore and the late Billy MacKenzie) revealed the band’s more sensitive side, replete with some authentic guitar work that recalled the period.
In its Lil’ Beethoven studio version, ‘My Baby’s Taking Me Home’ tests the patience with its repetitive title refrains, but it works surprisingly well in a more energized live version. The track’s more classical leanings contrasted nicely with the classic synth-pop of ‘The Number One Song In Heaven’, which also afforded the largely expressionless Ron Mael the opportunity to leave his ‘Ronald’ keyboard set-up and cut loose with a manic crowd-pleasing dance that belied his 72 years. And there was no let-up as the band launched into their signature song, ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’, with Russell Mael effortlessly hitting the high notes. This would have been a perfect end to the set but, rather than roll out another classic, the band chose to finish with the more downbeat inflections of ‘Life With The Macbeths’. But the audience didn’t seem to mind, and the band duly returned for an encore of ‘Johnny Delusional’ (from FFS) and ‘Amateur Hour’. “Thanks for making our homecoming so special tonight” declared a seemingly overwhelmed Russell Mael. It was indeed a special evening.
Set list: What The Hell Is It This Time? / Propaganda / At Home, At Work, At Play / Good Morning / When Do I Get To Sing “My Way”? / Probably Nothing / Missionary Position / Hippopotamus / Sherlock Holmes / Dick Around / Scandinavian Design / 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 / Life With The Macbeths / Johnny Delusional / Amateur Hour
Photo care of Sparks Official