Sparks have always been the daft uncles in my record collection, prancing with an arched eyebrow over everything they do. Ron & Russell Mael are one of the most singular double acts in pop history, with an art-rock intellect deflected by a sense of the absurd and the theatrical, whether they’re indulging in glam rock, synthpop, disco, minimal composition, opera, Vaudeville bawdiness or slapstick mime. Like Gilbert & George they’re a living work of art, never breaking character.
All of the above applies to their set at the BBC 6 Music Festival in Glasgow, as they try to squeeze their best bits into just over an hour, in their first gig in two years.
Plenty of other fanboys and fangirls are rammed into the Academy for the opening night of the festival, as DJ Mark Riley introduces Ron & Russell with barely concealed hyperbole – he’s got previous with Sparks love on the station. The LA pair are sandwiched in between Future Islands and Goldfrapp, two bands who can trace some of their electronic flamboyance back to the proto-synthpop on Sparks’ 1979 album with Giorgio Moroder, No. 1 In Heaven.
Sparks’ last tour was Two Hands One Mouth, with no back-up band, just Russell accompanied by Ron’s customised ‘Roland Ronald’ synth. I remember at another Sparks gig in the Academy in 2006, they hid the band behind a curtain, but in Glasgow they’ve five recruits. Featuring members of Mini Mansions and a Queens of the Stone Age live guitarist, the new band gives Sparks a live jolt they haven’t had in years – adding heft to the riffs on early 70s glam tracks from Kimono My House and Propaganda, solos flying all sides. As an aside, the band are all decked out in striped Breton tops while Russell’s in dandy sea captain clobber. Ron, as always, is in his uniform of white shirt, black tie and millimetre-thick pencil moustache, looking like Robert Crumb gatecrashing a funeral.
Opening with At Home At Work At Play and Good Morning, everything’s ticked off nicely – Russell’s ridiculous falsetto and swaying arms, Ron’s rigid playing and poker face, and the joyous cheers with every camp flourish.
Flitting between pulsing synthpop (When Do I get To Sing My Way, No. 1 Song In Heaven), orchestral pomp (Dick Around) and their only ‘ballad’, Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth, they knock out enough classics so there’s no chance of tuts when Russell introduces the new songs. And anyway, a gathering of Sparks fans really is the easiest room.
One of the greatest joys of Sparks is their song titles (I Married Myself; Lighten Up Morrissey; (She Got Me) Pregnant, What Are All These Bands So Angry About?, The Ghost of Liberace, for starters) and their upcoming new album Hippopotamus has some belters. They play four in Glasgow – the title track, Missionary Position, Edith Piaf Said it Better Than Me and What the Hell Is It This Time? – a song Russell says is about a lazy God who’s tired of people praying too much. It’s as infectious as anything they’ve ever done, with a camp glam chorus everyone’s already chanting halfway through.
The new songs nod to their noughties albums Hello Young Lovers and Lil’ Beethoven – minimal orchestral loops, techno-glam riffs and giddy repetition in Russell’s overly-enunciated lines: “There’s a hippopotamus, a hippopotamus, a hippopotamus in my pool… how did it get there, how did it get there, how did it get there, I don’t know.”
The daftest cheer of the night comes during No1 Song In Heaven as Ron leaves the keyboard for a showboating Vaudeville dance routine as Russell claps and the band piss themselves, realising they’ve just scored a hell of a gig for the next year on the road.
Nearly everyone’s path to Sparks is through This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us, and the 1974 Top of the Pops appearance with Ron giving daggers to the camera in his Hitler moustache and Russell swaggering around in a jumpsuit. You know it’s coming at some point, but that staccato piano intro and rifle ricochet is a mainline hit of glam-pop joy that hasn’t dulled any in 40-odd years. Along with set-closer Amateur Hour, it’s a one-two Kimono My House double-drop that ties a bow round the whole night, with Ron & Russell & pals bowing at the front to a final night ovation, even though the festival has just started and everyone’s barely out of their Friday work clothes.
John Peel famously said of The Fall that he loved them because they were “always different, always the same”. You can apply this wisdom to a Sparks gig as well – you never quite know what you’re going to get, but you’ll have the stupidest grin on your face by the end of it.