In the spring of 1974, Britain was ruled by an unsteady minority government, had been in the EU for barely a year and already wanted out, and was burdened by repeated terrorist attack and industrial unrest. In the grip of a three day week that turned the lights out every three days and the television off at 10:30 every night, we were running out of everything from sugar to vinyl, and Abba had just won the Eurovision Song Contest.
And yet, in the midst of all that gloom, came the flowering of a wacky, swashbuckling musical movement epitomised by flamboyant clothing, big hair and a camp androgyny. Shoe-horned into that movement were two brothers from California, who were already in their late twenties when they had their first, and biggest, hit in May of that year, but who then (despite a fervent cabal of loyal fans) looked to be gradually slipping from the public gaze. Amongst all those that served in ’74 – Marc Bolan, Sweet, Slade, Mud, Roxy Music, (cough) Gary Glitter – who could have possibly imagined that Sparks would be the sole survivors? Yet there they were, up on stage at the Waterfront in Norwich, an extraordinary forty-three years later, celebrating the first night of their UK tour and their first proper album for a decade.
Ron and Russell Mael must have a pair of fairly grim looking portraits up in the antic, because they both looked in great shape for men hovering either side of seventy. Ron has, if anything, grown into his “look.” Now bespectacled, and with a pencil moustache replacing the Chaplin/Hitler model, he looks dignified rather than weird. Granted, Russell is not quite as pretty as he used to be, but he still bounces round the stage like a puppy and his voice is as fine as ever. While added value was provided by an excellent backing band, colour coordinated straight out of the Gap catalogue and obviously having a great time, for the most part, and for most of the evening, all eyes were on the brothers Mael.
After a brief, and very odd, appearance from Mr Goodnite singing along to backing tracks, the band started as they meant to go on, with the blistering question, "What the Hell Is It This Time?" Starting proceedings with one of over half a dozen tracks taken from the new album "Hippopotamus", this was surely a signal that the evening was not one for wallowing in nostalgia, and the new material proved to be some of the strongest. Although the heaving, sweaty, fetid atmosphere of a sold out Waterfront is not the best place to reflect on lyrical nuance, it was clear that the boys are now in a more reflective mood. While the whimsy of "Scandinavian Design", the acerbity of "I Wish You Were Fun", or the word play of "Hippopotamus" (who knew that Hieronymus Bosch rhymed with Titus Andronicus?) were as witty and sharp as ever, it was the admission of fallibly within "Probably Nothing" and "Edith Piaf" that lingered longest in the mind.
Of course, this is not to say that the classic numbers are without substance - "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth" has surely been revealed as astonishingly prescient – but Russell and Ron know their audience well enough to gauge the mood to perfection and as the evening drew to a close, we were treated to a trio of crowd pleasers. Rocked up versions of "My Baby's Taking Me Home" and "The Number One Song in Heaven" were followed up, of course, with the song which kick-started everything.
Contrary to the last, the band squeezed one more tune afterwards, the quirky if inconsequential "Hospitality on Parade", before the obligatory encore added "Johnny Delusional" (a nod to their brilliant collaboration with Franz Ferdinand) and the “other” hit "Amateur Hour", but nothing matched the ecstatic rendition of "This Town ain’t Big enough for both of Us". As a grey-bearded, bald-headed fifty-something crowd swayed and clapped and probably cried a little, both band and audience alike seemed to acknowledge that we should not go gentle into that good night, and that old age should burn and rave at close of day.
Perhaps all of Sparks’s gigs are as exciting and moving as this one, but judging by the Mael brothers’ reaction to the adulation and love coming from the crowd, I doubt it. Lingering long after the rest of the band had departed, they seemed genuinely moved and even a little bewildered as wave after wave of applause-fuelled affection sent them on their way. I think I may have even seen Ron smile.