Sparks demonstrate their brilliance to a sold-out Albert Hall in Manchester
There have been a countless number of bands and artists that have come and gone over the years – perhaps releasing a few singles or a couple of albums here and there before dissolving and being swallowed up by the relentless marching of time. There is one band, though, that have seemingly been a constant fixture of pop and rock music since the late 60s, I am of course referring to Sparks. Originally formed in 1968 under the name Halfnelson, Sparks have undergone numerous reinventions, line-up changes, and have witnessed very varying degrees of success. The heart of the group, however, has been and will always be the brother Ron and Russell Mael – who have been playing together for over 50 years without growing to passionately hate each other (Liam and Noel, take notes).
After various pandemic-related delays, Sparks were finally able to get back on tour this year and their first post-lockdown English date saw them perform at Manchester’s Albert Hall to a long sold-out crowd. In lieu of a support band, Sparks treated the people of Manchester to a 2-hour set – no mean feat for two people in their mid-seventies, though it is perhaps less surprising when you take into account the fact that Sparks have 26 studio albums worth of material to fashion a setlist from. The brothers, along with their fantastic backing band, played a great selection of their biggest hits and fan favourites from their extensive discography, including two songs from the soundtrack to Annette, the 2021 Leo Carax film, for which Sparks provided the soundtrack. No strangers to the world of film (we won’t mention ‘Rollercoaster’ (1977) if you don’t), Sparks were recently the subject of a documentary, ‘The Sparks Brothers’, by legendary British director Edgar Wright and, as Russell told the audience in Manchester, are currently working on a musical film.
The performance given by Sparks at the Albert Hall was second to none, with Ron and Russell delivering banger after banger with the ease and casual nature which can only come with over 5 decades of experience. Whether you’re more into Angst in My Pants (1982) or A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip (2020), there was something for every type of Sparks fan within this set – Ron even treated the audience to his incredible dance moves during ‘Number One Song in Heaven’, moves which would have put Fred Astaire to shame. A particular highlight, personally, was the inclusion of the song ‘Johnny Delusional’ from the 2015 collaborative album FFS, made with indie rock giants Franz Ferdinand. The collaboration, along with Sparks endless desire for musical innovation, are good indicators of what sets Sparks apart from other rock bands of their age group – Sparks could have stopped making music 40 years ago and would have still lived a comfortable life releasing greatest hits albums and doing occasional reunion tours, but instead they have insisted on remaining at the forefront of rock and pop music.
After a beautiful rendition of their greatest hit ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us’, for which the band received a well-deserved standing ovation, Sparks returned to the wings before returning for an encore of ‘Suburban Homeboy’ – a cut from their 2002 album Lil’ Beethoven which has now been re-released featuring rare vocals from Ron – and ‘All That’, a song, which the band say, unintentionally summed up how they felt whilst being unable to perform throughout the pandemic. Perhaps not the most obvious choices for an encore, but they worked excellently none the less.
Travelling back up the M62 after the show, I reflected on what had been an unbelievably brilliant gig and took solace in the fact that, even after 50 years and 26 studio albums, Sparks remain one of the greatest and most fearlessly original bands to grace the airwaves. Long live Ron and Russell Mael!