Penny Brown - Sparks in Belgium
The True History of Sparks in Cool Places.
Some years ago, I noticed that while Sparks’ career in the English-speaking world is well documented, there is very little detailed discussion of this very well-travelled band’s activities in other countries. So, somebody has got to do it…..
Sparks in Belgium
In mid-2109, Belgium was very much in the minds of excited Sparks’ fans, because the filming of the movie musical, Annette, with which Ron and Russell make their screenwriting debut, was taking place there. Although details of the actual filming were hush-hush, the Sparks official website teased us with pictures of Ron and/or Russell posing with images of icons of Belgian culture: Jacques Brel, and, of course, Hergé’s comic-book hero Tintin. One of the latter photos shows Ron against a mural depicting a scene from one of the Tintin albums, apparently ‘joining’ the passengers alighting from a train, another shows both Ron and Russell looking somewhat apprehensive in the midst of a jungle scene, with Tintin, Captain Haddock and Milou (or Snowy) the dog in the background. Clearly, they enjoyed a visit to the Musée Hergé. And, presumably, there was also some Belgian chocolate consumed in private.
However, Sparks do have considerable previous history with Belgium. They have performed, recorded, and worked with other bands there. As far back as 22 October 1972, Sparks were due to support Slade in a gig at the recently opened Vorst Nationaal, a large multi-purpose arena near Brussels, famed for its circular interior. For some unknown reason, however, although the band came to London, they did not make it to Belgium and were replaced on the show by Fumble.
So, when was the first visit?
On 6 October 1974, Sparks did a promotional appearance on the Belgian TV show TV Follies performing ‘Thanks but no thanks’ and ‘Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth’ from the new album Propaganda (released 1974) and ‘Amateur Hour’ (from Kimono My House). Russell, in a very 1970s outfit of white wide-shouldered and loose- belted jacket and white flares with a black spotted scarf knotted around his neck and white shoes, marches energetically on the spot on a small playing area against the word ‘Follies’ spelt out in flashing lights. The British band members, Dinky Diamond on drums, Ian Hampton on bass and Trevor White on guitar echo the black and white theme, as does Ron’s now characteristic white shirt and sober tie. Ron’s hair has undergone a transformation since the long curls of earlier years, and is now short and slicked back, as it was in the famous Top Of The Pops performance in May 1974.
The video on YouTube of the Follies appearance includes a nice close-up of Ron’s hands as he plays, an aspect that filmed live concerts rarely offer us. He also demonstrates his acute awareness of the camera, and exploits it with a series of comic expressions, some scowling, some seductive, some glancing in mock disapproval at his cavorting brother. He has since claimed that he learned early on how to upstage the rest of the band with minimum effort! It is true to this day that, despite remaining seated, for the most part, behind his customized ‘Ronald’ keyboard, he manages to be a focal point on stage.
Two months later (15 December), Sparks’ tour to promote the Propaganda album landed at the Vorst Nationaal. The set list included 6 songs from Propaganda (‘B.C.’, ‘Reinforcements’, ‘Something for the Girl with Everything’, ‘Bon Voyage’, ‘Achoo’, and ‘Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth’) as well as several from Kimono My House, which Belgium had not seen performed live (including, with nice irony given the date, ‘Thank God it’s not Christmas’). Videos of other performances on this tour show that the stage outfits for the band were the same, or similar, to those worn on the Follies show.
Less than a year later, Sparks were back in Belgium for a gig on 12 October 1975 at the Cirque Royal in Brussels, a venue established in 1878 and now specialising in live music events. The set lists seemed to have varied a little on this tour, but if this gig was like that in Paris on the previous day, it would have contained a mixture of songs from the recently released Indiscreet album, including ‘Hospitality On Parade’, ‘Happy Hunting Ground’, ‘Get In The Swing’, and ‘Without Using Hands’, and the perennial crowd pleasers ‘This Town’ and ‘Amateur Hour’. The performance of ‘Without Using Hands’ had closed with an intriguing stage effect whereby a spotlight focussed on Ron’s hands as Russell whispered the last line in darkness, an effect which perhaps can be seen to foreshadow the later Two Hands One Mouth concept. As elsewhere on this tour, Russell’s almost cheeky schoolboy look of red braces over a short-sleeved white shirt and short tie contrasted nicely with his flowing curls.
The early 1980s saw two Sparks’ concerts in Belgium. There were to be six gigs, but four of these were cancelled due to poor ticket sales. Of the two concerts that did take place, the first, on 20 November 1981 at the Salle Gérard Champs, in Verviers, a municipality of Liège, saw Ron and Russell accompanied by their American band, made up of members of the former group Bates Motel and employed for the 1980 European tour: Bob Haag (guitar), Leslie Bohem (bass), David Kendrick (drums) and Jim Goodwin (keyboards). These four later went on to form the band Gleaming Spires. The new band’s self-presentation was more sophisticated on this tour: Russell was elegant in a sparkly gold suit, bow tie and wing collar, with a fashionable new mullet-style haircut, while the other band members wore red. Ron, of course, was in a formal white shirt and tie, and gives an hilarious performance of disapproving glances at his brother, shaking his head and turning away when he approaches. A set list for this concert, and for the next day’s gig in the Vorst Nationaal in Brussels is not available, but from other concerts in the same tour in Paris (13 November) and Munich (6 December), we can deduce that it consisted of songs from Whomp That Sucker (1981), including ‘Wacky Women’, ‘Tips for Teens’ and ‘Funny Face’. Even at this latter concert, the venue was not full: Russell allegedly pretended to scan the horizon for fans. It would seem that these events were not well promoted.
A cool place to record
In the 1980s, Ron and Russell were to spend a great deal of time in Belgium. Their album, Sparks in Outer Space (1983) was recorded at the Belgian avant-garde techno band Telex’s studio, Synsound, and was the first to be self-produced. Ron and Russell had been friends with Marc Moulin, Dan Lacksman and Michel Moers of Telex since 1979 and they have spoken of their appreciation of the luxury of having plenty of studio time, instead of being limited to a time slot allocated by a recording company. The same musicians who had played on Whomp That Sucker and Angst In My Pants (1982) appear on this album (Bob Haag, Leslie Bohem, Jim Goodwin, and David Kendrick). There were also two duets featuring Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Gos which were not recorded in Belgium: ‘Cool Places’ and ‘Lucky Me, Lucky You’, the former of which was a rare big hit for Sparks in the US. The inner sleeve of Sparks in Outer Space shows Ron and Russell standing in front of the towering Atomium in Brussels, built for the World Expo in 1958 as a symbol of the faith in science. This extraordinary iconic structure of rods and spheres represents a huge magnified iron crystal, inside which visitors can walk and dine. Sparks were to work at the Synsound studio again in 1985-86 on the high energy album Music That You Can Dance To (‘dance music for people who don’t like dancing’ (1986)). As before, playing with Sparks are Haag, Bohem, and Kendrick, with the addition of John Thomas (keyboards) and Robert Mache (guitar on ‘Fingertips’). This was in fact to be the last time that this line-up worked together.
Crazy interviews and upstaging interviewers
The 1980s also produced some very entertaining interviews with Sparks for Belgian television. Fans will be delighted by two interviews, available on YouTube, that took place in 1981 to promote Whomp That Sucker. The first, from March, appeared on a RTBF programme called Génération 80. Russell, his hair in the then fashionable mullet style, is sitting on a low bench beside the interviewer Fabienne Vandermeersche, while Ron, still sporting his Chaplinesque moustache, is sitting on the floor behind them, only his head, shoulders and arms visible. Russell quickly takes control of the interview, speaking in fluent French of their work with Telex, for whose ‘vachement superbe’ (bloody good) album Sex, Ron and Russell wrote the lyrics (see later) and of their liking for ‘waterzooi’ (a Belgian stew). Ron’s contribution to the interview is restricted to shrugs and puzzled expressions. When Fabienne announces a competition for which the prizes are ten Sparks albums, Russell opines that this is ‘un peu trop, je pense’ (‘a bit over the top, I think’). He also demonstrates Sparks’ early propensity for teasing or wrongfooting their interviewers by flinging his arm around her shoulders, keeping her in a loose stranglehold, and even presumes to correct her French, pedantically illustrating the ‘correct’ way to pronounce ‘musicale’. It is axiomatic when interviewing Sparks that you never know what to expect, except the unexpected!
A week later, they appeared on a Follies Special in 1981 which, according to the credits, also featured The Cure, Spandau Ballet and Dave Edmunds and the Stray Cats. The interview showcases their work with clips of videos of six songs, including the song that was a smash hit in France, ‘When I’m With You’ (in the video of which Ron acts as a ventriloquist), and ‘Tips for Teens’ and ‘Funny Face’ from Whomp That Sucker. Russell is wearing a black and red jacket and red shirt and Ron, more flamboyant for once and not a little eccentric, sports a black and white leopard print jacket, a black beret and shades. The interviewer, rock critic Gilles Verlant, has got into the swing by sporting a Ron-style moustache and the interview begins with a surprise: for once, we hear Ron speaking in French! He states that he likes Sparks because their music is ‘incroyable’ but has a question: ‘Etes-vous vraiment des frères?’ (‘Are you really brothers?’), he asks, as though he were the interviewer. (This, apparently, is a common question they encounter in interviews.) Russell goes on to discuss in lively French the ups and downs of their career, particularly the difficulties and disappointments of the early days. After a while, Ron feigns boredom, checks his watch, and, at one point, pretends to give his brother a haircut while Russell chats on undaunted and seemingly oblivious, his feet up on the table. He speaks of their work with Telex and the English version of the album by the Belgian pop icon, Lio (Suite Sixtine (1983)). These two early collaborations testify to the Maels’ energy and desire to engage in other musical projects beyond Sparks, and the opportunities that the Belgian music scene offered them. This whole interview, in fact, is a splendid example of the style, humour and dedication to their work that we have always associated with them.
More evidence of their offbeat and sporting attitude to interviews appears in one from 1985 with Ray Cokes for the Belgian show Rockbox. It opens with Ray sitting on a train and grumbling to himself about a recent encounter with Sparks, only to be joined by the brothers who, in turn, are grumbling about the weather and the disorganization they have encountered. Russell, in a pale blue jacket and yellow sweater, his hair now quite short, tells Ray that his interview ‘sucked’ and Ray abuses them in turn by demanding to know what Sparks have done in the past five years. When Russell replies that little countries like Belgium probably ‘don’t get much about what’s going on’, Cokes proceeds to challenge them about their lack of knowledge of Belgian pop groups. Ron mentions Jacques Brel, who, Cokes retorts, is actually dead, so ‘he does less than Sparks’. Currently, it emerges, they are in Belgium working on a new album and to promote the single ‘Change’, written while Ron and Russell were working with Dan Lacksman, which was released as a one-off single in the UK in June 1985 on London Records, with an acoustic version of ‘This Town’ on the B side. Described by Easlea in his book Talent is an Asset. The Story of Sparks (p. 196) as ‘a biography in song’ and a ‘watershed in their career’, both acknowledging what had gone before and pointing towards a new musical direction, this song is allegedly one of Russell’s favourites. In this interview, Ron proceeds with quite aggressive questioning about Cokes’ ‘failure’ to show their new video, insisting that the hapless Cokes will show it. Although the anger is fake, an angry Ron is nonetheless quite scary! They must have had fun with this one!
New friends: Telex
The relationship with the members of Telex clearly indicates that collaborations do work. The lyrics on Telex’s album Sex ((1982), prudishly renamed Birds and Bees for the UK release) are unmistakably the work of Sparks. Titles like ‘Brainwash’, ‘Exercise Is Good For You’ and ‘Sigmund Freud’s Birthday’ would not be out of place on any Sparks’ album. The gentle ‘Haven’t We Met Somewhere Before?’ was released as a single in the UK, together with a rather spooky video involving jellyfish, bees and other pale larvae -like creatures. In the liner notes to the 1993 re-release in the ‘Belgium….One Point’ series (a jokey reference to the Eurovision Song Contest), Telex write that they have been the biggest Sparks’ fans since 1974 and claim the Number One Song In Heaven album as an influence on their own work. Because Sparks returned to make two albums of their own (Sparks in Outer Space (1983) and Music That You Can Dance To (1986) at Telex’s studio, they have earned, it seems, the award for ‘the American act staying for the longest time in Belgium.’ (An accolade earned once more in 2019.) In November 2013, Ron and Russell took part in a televised Homage à Marc Moulin in Flagey, Brussels. Marc, who died in 2008, was a close friend, Russell explains in French, and was the first person to interview them in Belgium. They had corresponded frequently,
Marc visited them in L.A. and sent them copies of Telex’s CDs. Ron had contributed brief inter-song comments to Marc’s album Top Secret (2002), which was engineered by Russell and in 2009, Sparks had dedicated The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, their superb pop opera, to the late Marc. At the Tribute, Ron reads, in English, a letter from Marc about his latest disc, containing the advice not to listen while driving ‘in case you fall asleep’. Then, Ron offers the heartfelt realisation that since 1979, his best friend was a Belgian, ‘That’s weird’, he adds, clearly very moved. A tribute indeed. Ron and Russell then perform ‘Tell Me It’s A Dream’ from Telex’s album Wonderful World (1984) and ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’.
A long gap…
Although the 1980s were rich in Sparks’ activities, those of the 1990s passed the country by, and their next live performance was not until 19 October 2012, for the extensive Two Hands One Mouth tour. The gig took place in an impressive hall with a gilded roof at the historic arts centre Vooruit Balzaal in Ghent. As elsewhere, Ron and Russell dazzled with their virtuoso performance of a wide range of songs from their back catalogue in this new stripped back format, which showcased with stunning clarity the music and Russell’s voice without the distractions of guitars, drums and computer-generated sound. Highlights were the versions of ‘Suburban Homeboy’ the selection of pieces from The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman and the specially composed ‘Two Hands, One Mouth’, with its typically Sparks-like innuendo (‘That’s all I need to satisfy you’). Particularly memorable from these shows, apart from Russell’s plus-four style pants and striped socks, was the Overture, a medley of hooks from Sparks’ songs, played by Ron alone at the piano before Russell came bounding on stage. The ‘sequel’, Revenge of Two Hands One Mouth did not stop over in Belgium.
Arrival of the Hippo
The years 2017 and 2018, the Hippopotamus era, were marked by two gigs in Belgium, in Brussels on 16 September 2017, shortly after the release of the album, and in Antwerp on 7 June 2018. In an Instagram photo to announce their arrival in Brussels in 2017, Russell is seen posing in front of a poster depicting the Atomium, echoing the photo accompanying the Sparks in Outer Space album of some thirty-six years earlier. The Brussels gig took place in the Ancienne Belgique, an important entertainment venue in the centre of Brussels that hosts international concerts, specializing in contemporary music, and boasting three stages. A photo posted by Sparks after the gig shows to good effect the rectangular hall with striking red-pillared balcony and a packed crowd amongst which is hoisted a huge banner proclaiming ‘Ron, Russell, Thanks for Your Genius. Belgium Loves You’.
Ron and Russell were once again accompanied by a band, this time a talented combination of Evan Weiss and Taylor Locke on guitar, Zach Dawes on bass, Tyler Parkford on additional keyboards and Sparks’ stalwart Steve Nistor on drums. Zach and Tyler are both from Los Angeles based band Mini Mansions, and Tyler also provided the support act in the shape of his suave alter ago Mr Goodnite. This line-up proved to be a splendid asset for both their tight and energetic engagement with the musical complexities of the new songs and their enthusiastic rendition of Sparks’ classics. The band’s outfits were colour coordinated, with stripes as the motif, a choice that surely created rocketing sales of striped tops as fans eagerly embraced the look! The band members wore blue and white sweaters, while Ron wore a spectacular black and white striped jacket and tie with wide-legged dark trousers, and Russell a slightly curious but striking combination of a white striped sweater, cut-off trousers and formal brogues with red laces and no socks. As elsewhere, the set list featured favourites from earlier albums as well as new songs from Hippopotamus.
There was a rousing start to the show with ‘What The Hell Is It This Time’ that got the audience bouncing up and down, before the familiar combination of ‘Propaganda’ and ‘At Home, At Work, At Play’. This momentum contrasted with Russell’s moving rendition of the sweet and melancholy ‘Probably Nothing’, followed by the delights of ‘The Missionary Position’, the humour of ‘Hippopotamus’, the steady rhythm of ‘Scandinavian Design’, the glorious ‘I Wish You Were Fun’, which created a loud chorus of ‘lalalalala’ from the delighted audience, imitating Russell’s waving finger, and the melancholy yearning lament of ‘Edith Piaf Said It Better’. The official stop-motion video for ‘Edith Piaf,’ created by animator Joseph Wallace, is widely felt to be one of Sparks’ best: an animated fairy tale portraying the vain pursuit through Paris by the two downcast figures of Ron and Russell of a beautiful but elusive bird with coloured plumage, that draws on Russian fairy tales, Stravinski’s ‘Firebird’, iconic images of Paris and the bird imagery associated with Piaf (‘the little sparrow’) herself. The audience clapped along responsively and cheered throughout, especially when Ron got up to do his now famous ‘dance’ to ‘Number One Song In Heaven’, first removing and carefully folding his jacket.
The gig in Antwerp the following year took place at the Arenbergschouwburg theatre. This time, Ron and Russell were accompanied by a different line-up of Evan Weiss, Alex Casnoff, Patrick Kelly, Eli Pearl and Steve Nistor. The colour theme for this tour was pink, with the band in pink denim jackets and Ron with a pink tie (that got thrown into the audience before his customary dance). A collective cheer of approval greeted Russell’s elegant military style pink jacket. Added to the set list on this tour were ‘Unaware’ and, to the surprise of the audience, a verse of Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ as lead in to their own ‘When Do I Get To Sing My Way’. As the previous year, Belgian fans clearly showed their love of Sparks: another huge banner can be seen with the words ‘Merci! Sparks Forever’ emblazoned on it.
Stepping into the movies
And so to 2019, and the filming of Annette, the movie musical performed entirely in song in the style of Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, on which Ron and Russell have been working for some time. The music had allegedly been intended originally for a Sparks’ album, until, having met the famous French director Leos Carax at the Cannes Film Festival, they sent the music to him and he wanted to make it into a movie. It stars Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver with Simon Helberg. The fact that Marion Cotillard won an Oscar in 2007 for her superb portrayal of Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose is a nice coincidence. Leos Carax, for whom this is his first English language film, is an avowed Sparks’ fan and his surreal Holy Motors featured a song by Sparks (‘How Are You Getting Home?’). He also participated on the Hippopotamus album in ‘When You’re a French Director’ and actually took to the stage with Sparks in Paris to reprise his role.
The Executive Music Producer is Marius de Vries, whose previous work includes the box-office hots La La Land, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Moulin Rouge. Filming for Annette began in Belgium in August and took place in several cities: Liège, Brussels, Bruges, La Louvière and Ghent, before moving on to Germany (Münster, Cologne and Bonn), and Los Angeles for the final shoots. Some Belgian Sparks’ fans were fortunate enough to obtain parts as extras in the film, which is highly appropriate since Sparks have had a very loyal following there over the years. The intriguing question is whether Ron and Russell themselves have cameo roles in the film. This writer is betting that they will! The news from production company CG Cinema that ‘Annette’s a wrap’ appeared on 19 November after some sixty-two days. The story-line involves a stand-up comedian married to a world-famous opera singer who dies tragically, leaving him with a young daughter who turns out to have unusual supernatural powers (a cousin of Mai, the Psychic Girl, perhaps?).
News has recently arrived that Annette has been chosen to open the Cannes Film Festival in July 2021, and fans can expect to see the movie on Amazon Prime later in the summer. Both the trailer and the first song to be released promise an exhilarating experience. The song, ‘May We Start?’, featuring the stars, Carax, and Sparks themselves is an intriguing address to the audience in a kind of Brechtian style, alluding to the preparations for the show that they are about to witness if they ‘sit down and shut up’. So exciting, so Sparks.
Summer of Sparks
Despite the delay in plans caused by the pandemic of 2020-2021, including the postponement of the European tour for the new album, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip (2020), with the release of Annette and the upcoming documentary, The Sparks Brothers, by Edgar Wright, which has already received ecstatic reviews at its screening in film festivals and is due in cinemas shortly, 2021 is going to be a huge year for Sparks. In fact, in this ‘summer of Sparks’, it is a great time to be a Sparks’ fan! Amongst the dates for the tour, rescheduled for 2022, Sparks will be back at the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels on 22 April. All the treats that we have been given by Sparks should ensure that they have an even bigger audience of fans old and new to welcome them back to Belgium.