If it’s Wednesday, it must be 1981. Such is the weirdly adjusted time-space continuum in the Sparks world at the moment. The indestructible Mael brothers of Sparks find themselves living out their entire recording life, some 37 years’ worth, over 20 nights in a venue in a shopping centre in north London.
Then, to beat the clock and get back to the future, they’ll travel west a little way to perform their new piece of recorded reality, the 21st Sparks album, “Exotic Creatures of the Deep,” at the capital’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire June 13.
Sparks have rightly received considerable media attention in the U.K. in recent weeks for what must be one of the year’s most extraordinary creative (not to mention logistical) achievements, for which they and manager Sue Harris deserve loud applause. They even managed an album chart entry last Sunday, when “Creatures” debuted at No. 54 on the Official U.K. Charts Company survey. The sales may not be comparable, but it’s 33 years since they last charted higher on the album bestsellers here.
Rehearsals for this rock’n’roll high-wire act began about four months ago, and drummer Steven Nistor’s Billboard blogs are providing a rare insight on the assembled group’s current parallel reality. Other bands with half the catalog, meanwhile, can merely sit and admire the proficiency, and sheer audacity, of the undertaking.
Tonight, then, it’s show (and album) No. 10, which takes us to one of more than several hidden gems in the Sparks oeuvre. “Whomp That Sucker” came out in 1981, during the band’s Giorgio Moroder years, a collaboration that had hit U.K. paydirt two years earlier with the singles “The No. One Song in Heaven” and “Beat the Clock.” The album found less of a British audience at the time, but did nudge onto The Billboard 200 for a couple of weeks.
One sensed that many in the predominantly male crowd were practically on season tickets to the entire run of shows. They were certainly word- and note-perfect on this engaging album and its performance.
Russell Mael was soon thanking the crowd for supporting “the lesser-known albums,” but from the opening “Tips for Teens” onwards, one remembered that “Sucker” lacked none of the commerciality or amusing guile of its more celebrated forebears. The rather more gregarious of the Maels also explained that this was the first time the album had ever been performed in the U.K., since Sparks were busy with U.S. work on its release, especially in Los Angeles.
A truly snappy set zipped by in 45 minutes, fueled by collective bonhomie, Russell’s magnetic persona, Ron’s hilarious lyrics and his usual deadpan presence. Those eyes follow you around the room, as they say. “Funny Face” and “I Married a Martian” were especially snappy, and “Wacky Women” also exemplified the album’s breathless power-pop, with a hint of the European dance edge of the day.
Each night at the Academy sees the band return to perform one collectible B-side or rarity. This time, “Get Crazy,” from what Russell described as a “lame” film of the era, was an appropriate footnote. These are historic nights in Islington, and Sparks are flying at them until June 11.