Penny Brown - Sparks ‘Favoured Nation’ – Japan
If Japan is Sparks' favoured nation, as stated in a Newsletter of 2000 (vol. 19, no. 4), the love affair is entirely mutual. It is not an exaggeration to say that they are lionised there, and their live shows attract large, rapturous crowds. Ron and Russell have made numerous visits over the years, and have many friends there, including the members of the band Salon Music, Hitomi Takenaka and Zin Yoshida, with whom Russell has sung on two of their albums.
The same Newsletter announces the first live shows to be played in Japan, in January 2001, and features a picture of the geishas from the Kimono My House cover, one giving a V-sign, with the caption 'We've been waiting for you!'. This iconic album cover from 1974 is an early example of Ron and Russell’s love of all things Japanese: the two women dressed as geishas in Karl Stoecker’s photo were Michi Hirota and Kuniko Okamura from the Japanese Red Buddha Theatre company that was performing in London at the time. Their pose with smeared make-up, one winking at the camera, has been described by Madeline Bocaro has ‘laughing in the face of album art, while at the same time making history as one of its greatest examples’. Michi later attended the Kimono My House performance at the 21x21 Sparks Spectacular in London on 18 May, 2008 in full geisha attire.
Ron and Russell’s trips to Japan have been documented in many pictures posted on the official website in recent years: posing outside shops, Russell with a Hello Kitty poster, a Tokyo Midtown Halloween picture complete with bats and masks, Ron behind a line of cardboard Japanese figures, and Russell with an array of suitcases at the airport in 2017 in front of a sign saying ‘Welcome to Tokyo 2020’ (‘You’ll be there (in the future) if you don’t do nothing foolish!’). Of course, we realise now that, sadly, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics advertised here were to be postponed until 2021 because of the world-wide pandemic. Russell also posted photos from his trip to Japan and South Korea over Christmas and New Year 2019. In the same 2000 Newsletter, it is suggested that the Japanese aesthetic seems to parallel that of the Maels, and hence the mutual attraction, an idea that certainly would merit further exploration. Sparks’ love of Japan emerged fully when, after the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, Sparks’ management announced that, because Ron and Russell had been so shocked by events, had many friends in Japan and had spent wonderful times there, they wished to help in some small way by donating a month’s income from the Sparks Mart (‘retitled The Shopping Mall of Love) to the Red Cross Tsunami Appeal.
The January 1999 Newsletter (vol 18, no.5), entitled 'Sparks Land in Japan. Special Travel Edition,' its cover adorned with Japanese writing, recounts Russell's short-notice visit to Tokyo to spread the word to 'a land as yet deprived of the Sparks experience in the flesh'. In order to remedy this situation and 'spread Sparks’ intelligence over the globe', he had a busy schedule of meetings, interviews, press promotion, and, of course, power shopping and dining.
He met with the directors of Flavour of Sound, the company responsible for the distribution of Sparks' records in Japan and was interviewed for Rocking' On magazine by the well-known Japanese pop journalist Hisae Odashima, who surprised him by saying that Sparks were viewed as like that other duo The Carpenters (the first and probably the last time that comparison had been made!).
The 1997 album Plagiarism had been widely distributed in Japan with translations of the titles and lyrics into Japanese, and a commentary by Ron. Sparks' newly released back catalogue had also been exported to Japan by Oglio Records and Russell was pleased to find lots of Sparks’ records in the shops. We also learn that his friends from Salon Music filmed him for an hour-long programme on Sparks for Japanese digital T.V., but, unfortunately, I have been unable to find out more about this. Russell was at this time apparently learning Japanese so it is to be hoped that he will be quite fluent by now! There is also an image of him holding a traffic cone with Japanese writing, the caption announcing that this is a limited promotional item for Plagiarism, available in Japan only. Buyers beware!
It is stated in this Newsletter that Ron's and Russell's last visit together was in 1984. They appeared on a television variety show called 'Funky Tomato', broadcast in 1985, which featured a video of 'All You Ever Think About Is Sex' and the boys giving the weather forecast.
However, Russell did sing as a special guest on Salon Music's album This Is Salon Music (released 1987) and on a delicious cover version of Soft Cell's hit number 'Say Hello, Wave Goodbye' (track 9, featuring Sparks), on Salon Music's 1988 album O Boy. There are pictures of 'Russell's South East Asia trip' in the early 1987 Sparks Sounds newsletter (vol.13 no.1), which display a typical tongue in cheek view of life: Russell outside a Tokyo deli, with the Head of Sparks Japanese Record Company (a large robot), and (close your eyes now if you are of a nervous disposition), 'searching for a bit of nooky in Tokyo's Shimokitazawa district'. Oh, Russell!
Fans of Sparks will be aware of the years Ron and Russell spent in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including some time in Hong Kong, devising a movie musical of the Japanese manga comic Mai the Psychic Girl and attempting to find the funding and support to bring it to the screen. Unfortunately, in the highly competitive, mercurial and cut-throat world of movie making, the venture never came to fruition at that time despite attracting the interest of several eminent directors, notably Tsui Hark and Tim Burton. Little detail is known about the project itself apart from some information given in interviews, and this is largely about the practical difficulties. Of the two hours or so of music written, only four of the songs are in the public domain and can be found on YouTube.
It is not difficult to see why this particular manga with its dramatic plot and stunning, detailed artwork captured the imagination of Ron and Russell, and why it was, and still is, an attractive proposition for a movie given the continuing interest in super-heroes, monsters, megalomaniac villains and evil international conspiracies. (See my piece on Mai in the Sparks Newsletter 23:1 for further discussion.). It is still to be hoped that the Mai project might be revived one day (cue Edgar Wright?), especially now that Sparks have gained international recognition for Annette, the movie musical directed by Leos Carax that opened the Cannes Film Festival in July 2021. It would also be good if the rest of the music written for Mai could be made available for fans to enjoy.
Fast forward, then, to the promised gigs in January 2001. On two nights (January 22 and 24) Sparks played in Quattro Clubs, situated above department stores, in Osaka and Tokyo respectively, and on both occasions, were supported by Salon Music. The concerts celebrated the 2000 album Balls, which had been released and widely distributed in Japan by Flavour Records in a much sought-after black jewel case. Ron and Russell were accompanied by Tammy Glover on drums with a background of balloons that changed colour with the lights. If the set list was the same as elsewhere on the tour, it would have consisted of a mixture of several numbers from Balls, including, of course, ‘Bullet Train’, and earlier favourites. Russell demonstrates once more his love of stripes in a pair of baggy pants with wide horizontal strips and an equally baggy sweater.
A collaboration had been mooted between Sparks and Japanese band Pizzicato 5, whose leader, Yasuharu Konishi, had apparently met with Russell after the Shepherds Bush gig in September 2000. The result was a song called (appropriately) 'Kimono', which appeared on the Çà et là du Japon album released on 1 January, 2001. The female vocalist Maki Nomiya sings in both Japanese and English, and at one point Russell intervenes to say ‘Hi, this is Sparks. Kimono my house’. In the 2000 Newsletter referred to above, this was described as potentially a very useful collaboration, as Pizzicato 5 were influential taste setters in music, media and fashion circles in Japan.
It was to be five years before Sparks' next formal visit to play in Japan, when the 2006 Hello Young Lovers tour arrived in Tokyo (20 October at Shibuya-O-East) and Kyoto (at the P. Hour festival, Kyoto University Seibu Hall, 22 October). This album built on the critical acclaim of the radically innovative Lil' Beethoven (2002), and Sparks had announced in a press release in 2005 that it would be 'elaborate, excessive, adventurous, more extreme, with lots of vocals', with 'much more diversified instrumentation'.
The energetic live band consisted of Steve McDonald (bass), Josh Klinghoffer (guitar) and Steven Nistor on drums. At the first show, Sparks were supported by Netsuzo and the intriguingly named Spank Happy, featuring Maki Nomiya, and at the second, by Watts Towers and Spank Happy. As in London, the show was in two halves, the first featuring the Hello Young Lovers album in its entirety, and the second a Sparks Show of favourites ('This Town', 'Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth', 'Something For The Girl With Everything', 'Tryouts For The Human Race', 'Suburban Homeboy' and some surprises (including, to delighted acclaim, Russell's masterpiece 'Pineapple'!) The stunning visual effects were an outstandingly innovative feature of the Hello Young Lovers tour; the marching soldier boys (Ron and Russell), the cat headed figures, and, perhaps most memorably, Ron fighting with a screen version of himself for 'The Very Next Fight', and playing a constantly shape-shifting virtual organ for 'When I Sit Down To Play The Organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral'. Both Ron and Russell and the band, who were behind a black mesh curtain, wore dark clothing for these gigs, not to distract from the visuals, although Russell added a red scarf in the second half.
The DVD of the Hello Young Lovers show at the Kentish Town Forum, London, on 30 September 2006, called, unsurprisingly, Dee Vee Dee, has an interesting extra feature entitled 'Highlights of the Japan tour'. This includes footage of Ron at Tokyo airport and consulting a map, and of a somewhat bewildered Russell in the street. Shibuya is an area of Tokyo known for its youth culture, glamorous stores, restaurants and night life, and one of its most iconic images is the Shibuya ‘scramble crossing’, an extraordinary intersection deemed to be the busiest in the world, with multiple pedestrian crossings in all directions where hundreds of people can cross at the same time.
Surrounding the crossings is a dazzling array of huge screens and advertising signs. Russell is also seen in the countryside at what appears to be a temple, and with a small group of elementary school children who proudly declare their names in English (‘who don’t like kids?’). Their journey to Osaka on a bullet train (what else?) is documented, with some grumbles about carrying their own luggage ('Did the Beatles have to carry their own bags?', asks Russell) and views of the rapidly passing scenery. We are also shown the boys arriving at a meeting in Tokyo and the signing of records and the Sparks Guide Book (discussed below) at Tower Records in Osaka. Finally, there are brief glimpses of the show, which clearly played to a packed audience.
The year 2006 was an extremely productive one for Sparks in terms of promotion, as it also saw the publication of a Sparks Guide Book (1971-2006) edited by Yuichi Kishino. Containing a variety of material - essays, cartoons, games, photos, discography - with text in Japanese and English, this book has recently been made available again through the Sparks website. Although occasionally frustrating for non-Japanese-speaking fans, the translated essays and interviews, including Ron and Russell interviewing each other (in English, of course!), contain a number of interesting moments. For example, the Japanese translations of their song titles are sometimes a little strange: 'Angst In My Pants', was allegedly translated roughly as 'Elephant's Dilemma' (although this may be one of Ron's legendary deadpan jokes).
The extended interview by Ayesha Keshani and Yuichi Kishino draws out many useful insights about the process of writing and recording. Ron and Russell speak eloquently and honestly of their belief that there is strength in the very ambiguity of where they fit in the musical scene just as there is depth in the ambiguity of some of the lyrics; that they tend to see things cinematically and their songs as three to four minute movies without the visuals; that they strive always for freshness and new forms, including an ambitious stage musical; that they dislike the musical and lyrical predictability of current pop music, preferring unexpected juxtapositions and 'quick cuts'. The last lengthy piece, again by Ayesha Keshani, 'Drama Without Equal...In Its Strange Intensity', is clearly the work of a super-fan, coining the term 'Sparksjoy' for the 'greatest pop band the world has ever seen' and focussing on their self-presentation, citing Sparks' strength in their 'polarity, unity and impeccable self-parody'.
One might add constant self-reinvention and sheer genius to this, of course. Also interesting is an A-Z of people name-checked in Sparks' songs, which produces some bizarre juxtapositions: Scarlett O'Hara, Sergei Eisenstein, Shaggy, Sherlock Holmes, for example. The brief comments by Ron are often tongue in cheek if not downright hilarious: for Emmanuel Kant, for example, he writes 'Philosopher, but more a name that gives an adolescent band a chance for a double entendre'. Indeed.
Shortly after the mammoth achievement of the 2008 21 x 21 Spectacular in London, Sparks flew to Japan to play at the Fuji Rock festival at the Naeba Ski Resort, Yuzawa, on July 26. This is Japan’s largest outdoor musical event, drawing more than 100,000 fans over three days in a stunning mountain setting about an hour and a half from Tokyo by bullet train. Organised by concert and festival promoters Smash, the festival consists of seven main and several minor stages, with beautiful walks between them. Japanese fans were therefore amongst the first to hear songs from the new album Exotic Creatures of the Deep.
Sparks' manager Sue Harris has described the atmosphere at this show-stopping performance at the Orange Court Stage: 'You looked out and there were thousands and thousands of young Japanese fans just going crazy'. Thanks to their label and a great promoter, Japan was really 'getting Sparks', she adds. They put on a full show of numbers from Exotic Creatures of the Deep and ten other songs. The band consisted of Steven Nistor on drums, Marcus Blake and Jim Wilson on guitars and Steve McDonald on bass, and the show employed all the projected images seen elsewhere. Videos of both 'Good Morning' and 'Suburban Homeboy' can be seen on YouTube.
Exotic Creatures returned to Japan in April 2009 with the same line-up, with Sparks playing three shows to 'totally appreciative and freaked-out crowds' as guitarist Jim Wilson recalled. This time a different approach was taken: the first night (April 23) at the Shibuya O-East, Tokyo, was entitled ‘Exotic Kimonos’ and featured Kimono My House in the first half and Exotic Creatures in the second, for the next night (‘Heavenly Creatures’), they performed Number One Song in Heaven and Exotic Creatures, at the same venue, and for the third at the Big Cat Club in Osaka (‘Then and Now’), a mixture of songs from the past and present. As a tribute to the occasion and the locality, six geishas were hired to parade the stage for 'This is the Renaissance'. The boys do love a kimono or two.
On that subject, the Maels’ fondness for Japanese clothes and artefacts is evident. Recent images of Russell at home reveal several Japanese iconic ornaments in his house (including a picture of Mai the Psychic Girl and a model of Astro Boy, characters from Japanese manga comics) and both Ron and Russell have spoken of, and demonstrate in their outfits their liking for Japanese fashion. Russell has been captured on camera with a Hello Kitty phone case and for the fortieth anniversary of Kimono My House in 2014, both came on stage wearing kimonos. Of course they did. Russell has said that he prefers the yukata, a casual shorter summer kimono, and at the BBC One Show in 2017 he appeared in what looked like an hakama, loose floor-length pants (like a divided skirt), as worn by the samurai. These were customised in a uniquely Sparks way, however, teamed with a black and white checked jacket, striped sweater and long scarf, and certainly created an interesting effect when he performed!
A new direction for Sparks began to take shape when in January 2012, Ron and Russell were invited to perform at Tokyo's O-West club as guests at Yuichi Kishino's birthday concert, which Ron described as an informal affair, like playing in someone's living room. They played only a handful of songs ('Propaganda', 'Dick Around', 'Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth', 'This Town', Change', 'Something for the girl with Everything' and 'I Married myself'), and the experience of performing alone without a band apparently gave rise to the concept of a whole stripped back show with just the two of them, with no added instrumentation, backing vocals or special effects. Thus, the wonderful Two Hands One Mouth was born.
In January 2013, Two Hands One Mouth arrived for shows at the Shibuya Club Quattro in Tokyo (8 January) and at the Umeda Club Quattro in Osaka (9 January) where it played to enthusiastic audiences. After the marvellous Overture, played by Ron alone on stage at his keyboard, wearing a dashing beret, Russell bounded on in a brown suit with cut-off pants and striped socks to sing a lengthy set of twenty numbers from different stages of their career, including of course the standard favourites, a few surprises (the brief 'Wedding of Jacqueline Kennedy to Russell Mael', 'Under the Table With Her') and excerpts from their 2009 pop opera The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, for which Ron played Bergman.
This range of material was a superb demonstration of 'the essence of Sparks', highlighting the core elements of their work and their uniqueness in an intensely dynamic way. Ron's and Russell's ability to do more than justice to songs that originally demanded more complex arrangements allowed the listener to focus more directly on Ron's interpretation of the melodies and Russell's energetic delivery of the lyrics, no longer having to doing battle with a ‘wall of sound’. The shows concluded with the exquisite, specially written 'Two Hands, One Mouth', a typical Sparks song with ambiguous lyrics which clearly delighted audiences everywhere. The shows were a triumph; as the video of 'Rhythm Thief' on YouTube reveals, there is no reserve on the part of the audience, their cheers reaching almost manic proportions at the end. This format proved so popular in Japan that Sparks were invited to appear again as a duo at the 2013 Fuji Rock Festival on 26 July, a date that interrupted an unusually lengthy tour of the USA. For the festival, the set list differed to include 'BC' and 'Angst in My Pants'. Around this time, a brief video was made of Russell in a karaoke bar in Tokyo, hat clamped on his head and tambourine in hand, singing along to ‘This Town’. He keeps his eyes on the TV screen (fearful, obviously, of forgetting the words!) and nearly falls off his stool striving for the final high note. What one would not give to have been present on that occasion!
Upon the release of the Two Hands One Mouth Live In Europe album in March 2013, Sparks suggested that this would most likely be followed by a move in some new and, hopefully, puzzling direction. Their next venture succeeded on both counts: the collaboration with Franz Ferdinand that produced the super group FFS, a superb album and hugely successfully live shows. The formula for the live shows was a winner: a combination of new songs from the FFS album and covers of songs by both groups that produced intriguing new versions. Russell and Alex Kapranos shared vocals on all the numbers with Ron on keyboard as usual, backed by members of Franz Ferdinand: Nick McCarthy (guitar), Bob Hardy (bass), and Paul Thomson (drums). A highlight was ‘Collaborations Don’t Work’, which paradoxically demonstrated that on this occasion they definitely did. One of the many festivals played was the Hostess Club All Nighter on 15 August, 2015 at the Summer Sonic festival, in Chiba, Japan. The only concession to eccentric stage gear for this show was Russell’s striped poncho. The next day, the Tokyo Reporter review claimed that FFS were ‘the real highlight of the night’, and that for the first time that night, the event really felt like a festival. It also describes the set as a little like ‘drunken karaoke’ (!), and that ‘Russell could hardly contain his excitement at playing in front of a large crowd of kids’. There are videos of ‘When Do I Get To Sing My Way’ and ‘Call Girl’, and Franz Ferdinand’s ‘Do You Want To’, on YouTube, but the quality is poor because of the lights and crowd.
And so, we come to Hippopotamus, yet another reincarnation of Sparks as a live band, and the album that took them to number seven in the UK charts, for the first time in forty years. Once again, Sparks demonstrated their ability to produce something fresh, dynamic and incredibly varied both musically and lyrically in terms of wit, emotion and drama, with echoes of elements of different stylistic periods. The hippo came to Tokyo for two nights, 24 and 25 October 2017, at the Kinema Club, Tokyo, where the audience was as enthralled as they had been everywhere else on the tour. The new band, consisting of Zach Dawes on bass, Tyler Parkford on additional keyboards (both from L.A. group Mini Mansions), Evan Weiss and Taylor Locke (guitars) and Steven Nistor on drums, were superb and the coordinated striped outfits were a nice touch.
Ron's striking striped jacket and tie contrasted nicely with Russell's striped sweater, Japanese-style loose cut-off pants and bare ankles above formal lace-up shoes. The by now iconic drawing of the hippo was featured on the big drum. Unlike the Lil' Beethoven, Hello Young Lovers and Exotic Creatures of the Deep shows, the new album was not performed in its entirety, but mixed eight new numbers with earlier classic favourites. 'What The Hell Is It This Time', galvanized audiences everywhere from the start, and the wistful 'Probably Nothing' was followed by 'Missionary Position', 'Hippopotamus', 'Scandinavian Design', 'Edith Piaf Said It Better', 'I Wish You Were Fun', and 'Life With The Macbeths'. It was a treat to find FFS's 'Johnny Delusional' included in the Encore.
The audience can be seen in YouTube videos to be revelling in this thrilling blend of rock, synth pop and opera, bouncing up and down and clapping along delightedly. The second Hippopotamus tour also reached Japan in summer 2018, after a further tour of the U.K. and Europe, with two shows, 18 August at Summer Sonic and 20 August at ‘Summer Sonic Extra’ at the Shibuya club, Tokyo, with a partially new line-up of Evan Weiss and Eli Pearl (guitars), Patrick Kelly (bass), Alex Casnoff on additional keyboard, and Steven Nistor on drums. A glimpse of Russell addressing the audience in Japanese is featured in a video from this gig. Is there no end to the man’s talents?
Of course, all plans for the 2020 and 2021 A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip tours had to be put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, and it is not yet known whether Japan will be included in the new itinerary for 2022. Japanese fans will also be eagerly awaiting news of whether and when they will get to see both Annette and Edgar Wright’s documentary The Sparks Brothers. However, we can be sure that Ron and Russell will be keen to return to one of their favourite places before too long, as they genuinely are ‘big in Japan’.