I only agreed to do it because I thought it wouldn't happen. Twenty-one albums in 21 nights? More than 270 songs? Are you nuts? Sure, let's do it. As Christmas 2007 approached, "Sparks 21X21" was evolCult rock act Sparks is in the midst of performing all 21 of its albums in their entirety during a month-long stand in London. Drummer Steven Nistor fills Billboard.com in from behind the scenes.
June 15: "Balls"
Highly influenced by the Prodigy, Sparks hit the world in 1997 with "Balls," an album rife with huge breakbeats and industrial sounds. Tammy Glover (Sparks' drummer circa 1996-2006) returned from a two-year hiatus to play the shows featuring "Balls," "Lil' Beethoven" and "Hello Young Lovers." I was going to be playing acoustic and electronic percussion.
Well, here's the thing. Nothing I was playing on electronics was really working. It was really just kind of distracting. I had the idea that I would just go up there and with Tammy holding down the fort on the kit, I'd be able to jam away on some electronic sounds. Not the case. I said I'd prefer to watch the show instead of mucking it up with my nonsense and no one really seemed to mind. So I watched the show from the balcony.
It was really great to see Sparks. Obviously I've never seen them because I've been playing with them, so it was a real treat to be able to kick back and enjoy a show. They played really well.
Ready to get conceptual? If you like Sparks, you better be. Following a long break after the release of "Balls," the Mael brothers decided to take on an album based around a symphonic concept and a show that is, well, musical theater-esque. There's full production, stage plot changes between songs, tympani as far as the eye can see and interactive projections that Ron and Russell, um, interact with. Ron also brings prosthetic arms and features a "beautiful woman" as a prop. You'd have to see it to believe it.
Since Tammy was playing for these three shows, I made the wrong assumption I had the night off. While looking into train fare, my plans for a great escape were squandered by an email from Sparks' management: "Ron and Russell would like you to play tympani." Sure, no prob. Well one prob: I didn't know the tympani parts.
So I quickly set out and re-listened to the record to discover, what sounded to me, like parts for three tympani. I requested three tympani, and looking back on my tympani "playing" in high school I deduced the diameter of the tympani to hold the specific pitches I heard on the record.
I get there for rehearsal the next day and there are two tympani. I asked, "Oh, where is the other?" The answer: "You and Tammy will both be playing one tympani on each side of the stage. It's more of a visual thing." Okay, now I'm freaking out how to make this work. My music school sensibilities want to break out and run, but I'm here to do a show and a show I will do. Well.
I then noticed the tympani was being miked. I thought it was just for looks but the soundman said me hitting a tympani and no sound hitting the audience looked ridiculous. I agreed, but only having one tympani. I wasn't sure how to make it work with the tuning changes, since tympani play a specific pitch. I wound up finding two different pitches that would work and made the tuning change halfway through the set.
Now, I've never seen the "Lil' Beethoven" show, so I had to remind myself to stop watching the projections behind me, since it was quite entertaining. Ron brought out the five-foot-long prosthetic arms for "How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall?" and was trying to grab a projected woman that kept disappearing and reappearing on "I Married Myself." It was a good night of music and theater.
"Hello Young Lovers"
This was to be the last night at the Carling Academy. I was still doing percussion duty, although this time I was armed with a tambourine and a three-foot pedestal to stand on. Got my own spotlight too. My mom would be proud.
Tammy and I both toured this record two years ago, so the music was still fresh in our heads. This album follows the pattern of "Lil Beethoven" but adds a metal element to it. Projections were in full effect.: the band is behind black gauze, so as to disappear when our lighting drops out. Fun effect.
My duties were pretty minimal tonight. I kicked back, relaxed, shook a tambourine on a few songs. It was fun. My favorite song of the night was the encore, "Profile," another brilliant, just released B-side on the new version of "Indiscreet." The band broke the operatic mold on this one and rocked one out. I felt like I was in the Turtles at Woodstock, had they been there, shaking my tambourine like an idiot. Tons of fun.
One more night. Brand new album. New venue. Rehearsing on our last day off. What will happen???
"Exotic Creatures of the Deep"
The day after "Hello Young Lovers," we had a rehearsal for the new record. We also got to see, for the first time, the dancers that were hired for some of the conceptual pieces. Ron and Russell needed to spend some time toning down their performance which was, not suprisingly, a little "too modern dance." I guess that's what you get when you ask modern dancers to perform at your show.
Anyway, they wound up doing a wonderful job. They rehearsed their entrance to the first song on the new album: pushing shopping carts with microphone attachments while singing the intro. They dressed as pregnant Ron's for the song "Pregnant," and did some posing for "This Is the Renaissance."
We arrived at Shepherd's Bush Empire at noon and didn't break until 7. We went on at 8. We had no time to rehearse the B-sides set, which I was totally nervous about (Sparks fans voted on the Sparks online forum on what the song list for the second set of this show would be). Of course, it turned into a pissing contest of who knew the most obscure Sparks songs, and we were to play them. We didn't even know what the set was going to be until the day before the show, and even after that, there were additions and substitutions. I assumed we were going to go over them in soundcheck, at least, just to run them, but we rehearsed the new album right until doors.
After putting a cheeseburger down in about 2 minutes, I put some ice on my head and waited for the stage call. I must say, the first set went great. The sound onstage was much better than at Carling Academy, i'm thinking due to high ceilings. Drums like high ceilings. Anyway, the set was as tight as the record, and rocked harder.
The venue was at 85% capacity but from the stage it looked like a packed house. The fans were wonderful and sang back most of the words.
The second set went really, really well. We all had the attitude that we were just going to rock it and see what happens. I made a few mistakes but the spirit was amazing. Everyone gave it their all and felt wonderful about their performance. We were joined by our horn section for "Get in the Swing" and "Looks Looks Looks" and felt like we did the songs better than we did the first time. Iit was good to have a second crack at those.
After the set we arrived back at the flat with four hours to pack and sleep for our trip to Estonia the next day. Ah, the glamorous life of the rock star.
What for the future? I'm not too sure. I'm sitting 22 stories above Tallinn, Estonia, overlooking the bay on a grey day. I haven't slept in 24 hours and a van is picking us up to take us to a festival location out in the country. We're playing a brand new set, one that we haven't rehearsed with this lineup of the band. I think we might have just replaced "Big Boy" with "Do Re Mi." Christ! Good thing I'll have my iPod with me for the ride there. "It's an hour long ride? Good, I'll need every second."
June 8: "Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins"
This record was big in Germany. Really big. For those who haven't heard it, it sounds like Rammstein mixed with Enigma mixed with, mmm, Sparks. This album truly embodies the '90s -- smooth grooves and well-sampled loops, mixed with state-of-the-art piano patches playing C+C Music Factory 6/9 chords. Totally weird. The interesting thing is that going back to this record, it's funny to hear Sparks rework what was already a popular genre. The single "When Do I Get To Sing My Way" is an amazingly beautiful song, whether you like dance music or not.
There are other treats too. "When I Kiss You (I Hear Charlie Parker Playing)" and "I Thought I Told You To Wait in The Car" and not only well-written and executed, but absolutely hilarious lyrically. This is the first Sparks album I put on and actually laughed out loud, especially after Russell's line, "I've got my bearings now, I know where I'm going now ... OUT!... You had your chance, but frankly, Scarlett, I don't give a damn."
The performance was a great success. Lots of fans said they loved it and I did too. From a drummer's perspective, it was challenging from an aerobic perspective. Intense disco beats followed by unflagging, quiet 16th note slow-jam grooves are a workout to keep up with. I did my best.
I also got another new pair of socks from the fans! Ahhh, the Union Jack. Somehow i doubt they make me any more English-looking in my Islington neighborhood.
This record is a sort of reworking of Sparks' favorite of their own songs and features special guests Faith No More, Jimmy Somerville and Erasure. To me, the real special guests are Tony Visconti's orchestral arrangements. Most of the songs are rearranged for strings like "Something for the Girl with Everything" or "This Town Ain't Big Enough For the Both of Us" or have totally original arrangements like the Dixieland version of "Change."
I had always been a big fan of Visconti because he was the guy who produced "Electric Warrior." I had no idea the depth of his musical knowledge. He is a true producer, in every sense of the word.
That being said, this record was a logistical nightmare. We needed strings and horns to play very difficult parts, and we needed special guests. We also needed the endurance to play 12-inch dance mix versions of classic Sparks songs like Erasure's remix of "Amateur Hour" and "Popularity" from "Sparks in Outer Space."
We planned for a seven-hour rehearsal and soundcheck and used every minute of it. Can you believe i had to wake up at 10 a.m.?! Anyway, we were reintroduced to the horn players from Trinity College, who had strings with them. The played Visconti's parts unbelievably -- totally nailed them. And with computer assistance we were able to have Erasure in absentia at the show. No love lost.
The pinnacle of the show was Jimmy Somerville's appearance on a symphonic/disco version of "No. 1 Song in Heaven." He stole the show! I'd never seen him before but this 5 foot 6 inch Scottish man shows up and sings the most amazing falsetto I've ever, ever heard. Anyone who claims to be a fan of Antony and the Johnsons needs to check out Jimmy doing it 20 years before Ant did.
A really kind and gentle man who managed to get the crowd worked up and sing his ass off at the same time. He got down on his knees and sang the "Written of course, by the mightiest hand..." line directly to Ron and Russell.
After the show Jimmy told me my drumming on "Beat the Clock" made him feel like he was 18 again. I'm going to have to compile a list of "Unbelievably Flattering Compliments."
Good night. Everyone in the band will sleep well.
June 4: "Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat"
This was a breeze. Nothing much to write. In my opinion, this is the most straightforward Sparks album. Ron and Russell had streamlined their sound. I'm not suggesting that this record is without some good songs. "With All My Might," "A Song That Sings Itself" and the title track are all wonderful examples of pop craftsmanship.
After some fine-tuning of the house sound, we ran the album down in soundcheck. No problems or clunkers. The show rocked. Crowd loved it. That's about it for tonight.
"Music That You Can Dance To"
This album has always been kind of a difficult one for us to pull off. Unlike "In Outer Space" and "Pulling Rabbits," this album is far more experimental with its sounds and musical forms. The sounds are all totally tweaked to capacity and devoid of guitars. Imagine "Owner of a Lonely Heart" without the bone-headed guitar riff. I have no idea what that actually means ...
The challenging aspects of "Music" were apparent from the first time we rehearsed it. For an album with nine tracks (if you include the single "Change," for all you forum-obsessed Sparks fans) it takes about five times the album's length to rehearse it to satisfaction. The forms are incongruous and non-intuitive. Almost everything on the album was performed on keyboard so it was an added challenge to add real bass and guitar.
Today was our longest rehearsal. I was totally worn out by the end of it, but nothing a steak burrito couldn't fix.
The show went well. I screwed up some accents in the middle of "The Scene" but I surprised myself by actually playing the drum break in "Change" correctly, for the first time. I'll call it even. Looking forward to tomorrow's "Interior Design" and a day off.
June 2: "Angst in My Pants"
This is my favorite Sparks record. Once again, Mack produced, and while it has a similar tone and feel to "Whomp That Sucker," every song on "Angst" is better then the next. From the fake Beach Boys vocal textures on "Sextown U.S.A.," to the inside-out drumbeat on "The Decline and Fall of Me" it's clear Sparks was at yet another creative high point.
Rehearsals went smoothly and everyone was really excited to play this one. The music is challenging, as always, but it was clear that everyone in the band really enjoyed this record and that we all knew it intuitively, which allowed us to get into the performance. That is what made the evening rock harder than most.
For the show, Russell wore his green sequined suit he wore on "Saturday Night Live" back when the record came out and delivered a great vocal performance. Actually, he's been singing spot on every night. I've taken for granted the fact that Russell not only sings all of these song in their original keys and with the same energy he has 20 years ago, but that we've been rehearsing every day since January 1 and he hasn't blown his voice out. Amazing!
The show went perfectly. That's all there is to say, really.
"Sparks in Outer Space"
Here's where we enter serious '80s territory. The brothers took control of their recording process at this point and were starting to write hits that were appearing on California stations like K-ROCK. Two songs on the record were co-written with Jane Wiedlin, one of which, "Cool Places," brought Sparks another West Coast hit. It's also one of just two songs they've ever charted on the Billboard Hot 100.
All of the songs have the band replaced by sequencers, keyboards and drum machines, so it was up to us to translate that to our current lineup. Real guitars and bass were added, and I used plenty of electronics and added a lot of processing to my drums. Hello, gated reverb!
We had a few problems after a near-perfect, but long rehearsal, but it was a spirited show anyway. Russell gave Ron a pie in the face after the encore, to which he replied, "We were only supposed to recreate the albums on a musical level, but tonight we've even recreated the cover for you ... at my expense."
May 29: "Introducing"
This is a unique Sparks record, not in how unusual it sounds, but in how polished and "studio-fied" it is. For that reason this album has a bad reputation, even within the band, for being a bit too polished. But I've loved this record ever since I first heard it, not just due to the fantastic writing, but because I'm kind of a "studio guy." The name Lee Ritenour has come up multiple times at rehearsals, not only among bandmates, but also with the crew. Ha! Poor guy.
"Big Surprise," "Occupation" and "Over the Summer" all feature Beach Boys-style harmonies so I got to jump in on some vocals. I sing all of the Mike Love-style parts. I've always been thought of as the late-phase-Sparks-Mike-Love. Our motto, in rehearsals, was that if the vocal part was dumb or silly enough, I would be the one singing it. My dumb backgrounds will be featured a few nights later ...
We played the songs better than on the record, and Ron thought that the band gave the songs more life than they've ever had. High praise, indeed.
"No. 1 in Heaven"
Here is a completely different shift in Sparks' music. The brothers decided to work with Giorgio Moroder, famous for the songs he produced for Donna Summer. So this is definitely a disco record, by definition. Of course, it's not without Ron's "Ron-like" lyrics and Russell's vocal acrobatics (Jesus, I'm starting to write like one of those Rolling Stone a*sholes.)
There are only six songs on the record, but they are all about seven to nine minutes long. From my perspective behind the drums, this record is only difficult because it's like an uphill jog: pounding bass drum, "pea-soups" on the hi-hat and plenty of synthetic toms (once again, I used the original Syndrum samples taken from the record).
This is also the first night we used computer backgrounds. We were able to use the original tracks, straight from the tape, and use them as backing tracks. Overall, the evening was fantastic, with another sold out audience. Plenty to be happy about.
This is a very strange record. After the success of "No. 1 in Heaven," Giorgio Moroder agreed to produce Sparks' next record, but he was so busy that he turned most of the actual work over to Harold Faltermeyer, famous for soundtrack themes such as "Top Gun" and "Axel F" from "Beverly Hills Cop." The record certainly reflects this. Harold also co-wrote most of it, so even the writing is really different.
Rehearsals went really well. We had John Thomas, of Sparks circa 1983 and Captain Beefheart fame, join us on keyboards, which filled out the songs nicely. There's lots of synth lead and "groovy" clavinet funk patterns and they needed to be covered, in addition to Ron's melodic runs and accents.
This was by far the least attended concert yet. The crowd was about three deep, but from the stage it looked really good. More of the gay fans are starting to show up, I suspect because of the dance component, and they aren't afraid to show their enthusiasm for the music.
We played the songs better than we ever had in rehearsal and, despite the shape the record is in, we made some great music.
"Whomp That Sucker"
Here is yet another stylistic left-turn in Sparks' music. Although Moroder still oversaw the making of the next two records, Mack is the man who recorded and engineered them, and the music greatly benefits from it. Back are Ron's fantastic lyrics and Russell's wonderful and challenging melodies. What is also new is a great backing band, featuring members of L.A.'s Bates Motel/Gleaming Spires, which add a New Wave element to the music.
I was excited to play this record since it and "Angst in My Pants" are my favorites. I get to get inside the mind of David Kendrick, the drummer who played on both of these. His playing is such a great combination of groove, inventiveness and a bizarre "trashiness," made even more interesting by Mack's unusual drum sounds. Growing up as a "jazzer," it has been wonderful for me to get to imitate so many unique drummers over the past two weeks.
The show went off without a hitch. "Tips for Teens," and "Funny Face" were both rocked up and the crowd was singing back most of the lyrics. Great spirit in the crowds lately.
Can't wait to dig into "Angst" tomorrow!
May 24: "Indiscreet"
"Indiscreet" is the last of Sparks' albums for Island Records and was produced by Tony Visconti. It's different from the other two as it is far more ambitious with the arrangements. There's a full-on big band on one track, a marching band on another (quite a few years before "Tusk") and a few songs with a string quartet.
We rehearsed these songs, "Get in the Swing," "Under The Table With Her" and "Looks, Looks, Looks," without this accompaniment, so I figured that's how we would perform them. But I was told the day of rehearsals we'd be joined onstage by a 7-piece horn section and a string quartet. I asked, "Did someone transcribe it and rehearse it?" Management told me that they were listening to it on a laptop and that everything would be great.
Are you kidding? Okay, I'll admit it. I went to music school and knew that this was virtually impossible. Then I saw the horn section. They all looked about 19 or 20 years old. I almost cried. How is this going to go? Who's going to be the one to tell them that this isn't going to work out?
I'm convinced that this is the week I should be playing the lottery or betting on horses, because after an hour of listening, one of these kids transcribed the parts by ear and the section sight-read it on the stage. It sounded amazing; absolutely like the record. Same thing with the string section. Stunning.
The rehearsals went wonderfully, to everyone's amazement. This is a long and diverse record and usually took two days to rehearse. We went into it feeling confident.
Well, it was bound to happen one of these nights. There were a few clunkers. i wasn't sure how many mistakes were just things I noticed or were glaringly obvious to the audience. We still carried on with joy and fervor and had a blast. This show turned out to be the best received yet. People loved it! There was a writer from one of London's top papers who told us it was the "best concert, ever!" Go figure.
WARNING: SPOILER ALERT:
I spent my day off after "Indiscreet," my birthday, watching George Lucas take a royal dump on everything that is holy. After wiping the tears of mourning of my inner child's death from my face, it was time to focus on "Big Beat."
After living in London a few years and changing labels, Sparks moved to New York to make a straight ahead rock record. Not to suggest it's bad; it is fantastic, but compared to the previous it is quite different in that it relies more on heavy rock riffs and road shuffles than quirky keyboard lines and complicated arrangements. It still has the Ron Mael stamp of wit and dark humor, but if you didn't listen to the lyrics you might not think it was a Sparks record at all.
Of course, attendance wasn't quite what it was, as the previous three nights were totally sold out, but it was a mighty crowd anyway. I must say, we completely rocked it. Nailed it. Russell took control of the audience like Shia LaBeouf commanding an army of monkeys. Our performance sounded as good as the record, maybe better. In a way, I felt bad for the Sparks fans who might've missed it because the fans who showed up had a great night. So did we.
And at the very end, a flying saucer took off.
May 21: "Kimono My House"
"Kimono My House" is, by far, the most well-known Sparks album. There was a lot of pressure surrounding this performance, not only from the management, but from fan expectation. A few years ago Morrissey asked Sparks to perform "Kimono My House" in its entirety at the Meltdown Festival and it set a precedent of excellence for tonight's show.
I have performed the album's first two numbers, "This Town Ain't Big Enough For the Both of Us" and "Amateur Hour." numerous times, but the rest of the album is totally new territory. In fact, [Sparks leaders] Ron and Russell [Mael] haven't performed most of the other tracks, ever. To make these concerts a bit more authentic, and since I've been getting into using electronics lately, I have sampled a lot of the original sounds from the records off the original tapes. "Falling in Love With Myself Again" went off without a hitch and featured the original gong hit I sampled.
Everything went fine until right after the last song, "Equator." Steve the bass player's bass fell off the stand and hit the floor. Hard. Really hard. The encore number, "Barbecutie," not only starts with the bass but features it prominently. Luckily the neck didn't snap and Steve was able to carry on.
Joe Elliott from Def Leppard was in attendance tonight and was hanging out at the after-party. Let me tell you, Joe Elliott is one charming, sweet and funny dude. Whether you like Def Leppard's records or not, he'll make you forget how corny they were. He swears he'll be showing up for "Propaganda."
Tonight was the most difficult album yet. Although "Woofer" was a big challenge, "Propaganda" was going to be far more demanding. While "Woofer" is difficult in a quirky, all over the place kind of way, "Propaganda" is difficult in a technical way. The Island-era records were a serious high point for Ron Mael's writing. Within the span of few years, Sparks recorded and toured three very challenging records, some of which are considered, commercially and critically, their best work.
If soundcheck was to be any indication of how the evening would go, I was convinced that if there were going to be any glaring mistakes made, tonight was the night. In rehearsal we botched a few endings and forgot some transitions. I counted out the wrong tempos and blew the front end of "Bon Voyage." I was quite concerned about how the show was going to go.
But from the first song, "Propaganda," which segued into "At Home, At Work, At Play," the performance felt amazing. Honestly, we've never played these songs better than we did tonight. It was kind of shocking to everyone that the show went as well as it did, but it absolutely killed! Not one mistake was made. Ron even went into his patented dance, featured in the video "Cool Places," totally on the spot.
I'm not big on self congratulations, but the 21X21 event has made me feel it's okay, just this once.
Oh man, and forget what I said about Joe Elliot's music being corny. I'm now the world's biggest Def Leppard fan. Man, that guy is cool. He explained to me how the drum parts in Sparks songs were like Shakespeare and were not to be meddled with, and that I did a great job of bringing it to life in a live setting. Drumming compared to Shakespeare. That's a first!
Yes, "Armageddon It!"
May 19: I only agreed to do it because I thought it wouldn't happen. Twenty-one albums in 21 nights? More than 270 songs? Are you nuts? Sure, let's do it. As Christmas 2007 approached, "Sparks 21X21" was evolving from a questionable idea to a reality. I started listening...
I have been a member of Sparks for two years and have performed a lot of Sparks music, but I realized I had probably only heard a quarter of their catalog. Having met Sparks fans, I also realized they were much more familiar with the songs than I was. I needed to begin an intense period of listening and learning songs to properly prepare.
Being a pessimist sometimes has its upsides. As rehearsals began, it became clearer and clearer to me that this project was indeed more doable than we thought, but not without a lot of work. Everyone in the band seemed excited but overwhelmed. Maybe it was just me. Who knows?
After four months of rehearsals, it was time to leave for England. All I could think was, "What the hell am I going to eat for four weeks?" The morning I was to leave for the shopping mall/airport named London Heathrow, I received a call from Sparks' management: "There is a problem with your paperwork. Your work permits have been assigned for a 12-month period and you require a work visa (which I didn't have). You'll be refused entry into England if you fly today. We're working on new paperwork for you and hope to fly you in three days late."
As a matter of fact, the bass player, who had left three days earlier and had the same paperwork problem I had, had been detained and subjected to seven hours of "English hospitality." My first thought was, "Being refused entry into England sounds like a gift from God," but the reality of the situation sank in; you just lost three days of rehearsals and will have to go directly from the airport to the rehearsal hall to make up for lost time.
What I had said earlier about being a pessimist held true, and after the paperwork was settled, the band had an enjoyable flight, quick entry into London, and an easy-going rehearsal. "Sounds great boys! Time to pack up and go to the venue." Great.
The next day I arrived at Islington Carling Academy, which to me was a moniker that sounded like a prep school but turned out to be the British equivalent of Miller Lite Rock Club. After a four-hour technical delay, it was time for dress rehearsal of album no. 1, "Sparks/Halfnelson." The band sounded tight and confident. Or maybe it was just me. Who knows?
The doors opened and the crowd gathered. A surprisingly robust audience, considering how unique "Sparks/Halfnelson" is. It was also surprising was how the audience was singing most of the words back at the band. Great gig.
"A Woofer in Tweeters Clothing":
The Carling Academy is one of those unfortunate venues that makes extra money by opening a disco after a musical performance. This nasty trend seems to be taking over the club circuit all over the world. Apparently there was a stabbing right after our Sparks/Halfnelsen show and we weren't allowed into the club the next day. For a while there it looked like the whole event would be called off. The cop/waste-of-oxygen who was "guarding" the venue told us that a show that night would be "unlikely." Thank God for bad information.
At around 5 p.m. -- or 17:00 as the English call it -- we were able to have a slightly abbreviated rehearsal. Despite the situation, we had a good rehearsal and an even better show. It was against all odds, really. This record has seemed to be the show that needed the most rehearsal and attention, so there was a little nervousness on my part. But after all was said and done it was a better night than the previous. Not sure why -- it just seemed like more fun.