While more than a few people had problems with yesterday’s broadcast — I had a bit of choppiness near the start but it could have been worse — Sparks’s full album performance of Gratuitous Sax unsurprisingly went down a storm; even with the full rock band lineup on-stage it actually felt like the pop/rave spectacular it is, helped by a great light show that must have brought back more than a few early nineties flashbacks for folks. Ron’s explanation of the song “Tsui Hark” — and his none-more-deadpan standing-in for that director on the spoken-word parts of said piece — was unsurprisingly a highlight for the ages in terms of wonderful strangeness, while “The Ghost of Liberace” stood out yet more than ever as a secret masterpiece.
With Plagiarism‘s performance today, things get both potentially very unusual — will all the guests show up? will there be tons of string players? — and, for me, a little nostalgic for the first time. That may sound strange given the nature of the entire concert series, but as I might or might not have talked about here on the blog before, I’m actually a latecomer to heavy-duty Sparks knowledge and fandom, having inherited the mael-list shortly after its start in 1995 and only first seeing them at a concert in LA that was more or less the hometown release show for Plagiarism in 1998, a year after it came out in Europe. So from here on in are where my Sparks-in-concert memories start — I’ve now seen them something like six times, possibly seven, all in LA or its environs — and as a result the next few shows will be a feeling of the familiar mixed with the different, given the lineup changes over the last ten years, not to mention the current band setup for this series. I’ve seen most of Balls performed on stage in the past, while both Li’l Beethoven and Hello Young Lovers were given the full runthrough in the most recent tours, so this’ll all be a bit of comfort food in the run up to the live debut of Exotic Creatures of the Deep.
But Plagiarism will be one heck of a joker to play today. Can’t wait.
With Gratuitous Sax demonstrating that the band had almost as many lives as a cat, it would have made perfect sense if Sparks decided to explore the sound a bit more on a follow-up. They did – a bit. Indeed, what turned out to be Sparks’s 17th release was on balance the most unusual of their career until then, partially because it wasn’t meant to be an album with them on it initially. Instead, the idea of them curating their own tribute album was proposed to them, which they agreed to do, if in someone desultory fashion. The stroke of inspiration lay in Ron and Russell deciding to go ahead and pay tribute to themselves instead – revisiting their now massive back catalog and rerecording the selections in new or different styles. In ways it was the antithesis of the already tired ‘unplugged’ approach that the likes of Eric Clapton had turned into sludge – rather than stripping the selections down, often Sparks aimed at something far grander.
The perfect extra ingredient for this turned out to be another factor from the past – Tony Visconti, who had done such a stunning job with his production on Indiscreet. With Visconti handling full orchestral arrangements throughout the album, plus an eight-person choir to boot, the brothers themselves touched on everything from their new techno-influenced style to using the Visconti efforts and nothing more – something that was a pointer towards where they’d yet be going in the near future, as the dramatic opening take on “Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat” showed. A further example of Plagiarism’s inspiration lies in its choice of songs – relative obscurities like “Big Brass Ring,” from the misbegotten Interior Design, and In Outer Space’s “Popularity” received wonderful makeovers, the latter turned into a lovely high-speed gallop, while recent hit “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’?” became a choir and string-driven epic, toning down but not removing the strong beat of the original. Hearing Russell still able to sing numbers like “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us” with all the falsetto glory of the original, meanwhile, was a treat enough on its own.
The original plan of a tribute album wasn’t forgotten, however, and a variety of tracks also appeared that turned out to be full-on collaborations, including an absolutely mindblowing dance/rock take on “Angst In My Pants” by Eskimos and Egypt, though only Russell sings on it. Faith No More, whose fractured, spazzed-out metal is clearly in retrospect derived from Sparks’s own maniacal exercises in the early seventies – and whose guitarist, Dean Menta, would later join the band full-time in the following decade – proved to be perfect partners on “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” and “Something For the Girl With Everything.” Mike Patton’s yelping bark is a perfect contrast to Russell’s sweetness in particular. Erasure takes a bow on “Amateur Hour” (though arguably Vince Clarke’s former bandmate in Depeche Mode Martin Gore would have been a better choice), while one of the few singers to sound even more angelic than Russell, Jimmy Somerville, knocks the ball out of the park with his stately take on “The No. 1 Song in Heaven.” The end result is near unique – a ‘tribute’ album that’s actually worth listening to more than once.