Tag Archives: music

Sparks

Sparks


Words & Portraits Etienne Gilfillan


“Jacques Tati wanted us to be characters in a movie”

On a warm September night, just minutes away from bustling Soho, the prestigious ICA is hosting a launch party for the release of Sparks’ latest album, Hippopotamus, which has just rocketed into the Top 10 in the UK. The room, dotted with palm trees, is bathed in a cool blue light that evokes the feel of a swimming pool and echoes the image on the new album’s cover. In one corner, two puppets representing band members Ron and Russell Mael stand under a gaslight in an old Paris street. It’s a set from their darkly haunting stop-motion video for “Edith Piaf (Said it Better Than Me)”, their next single.

Guests are piling in for tonight’s Q and A session – fans, music journalists and musical luminaries including Muff Winwood and Tony Visconti, both of whom produced classic albums for the band in the 1970s. All have come to celebrate a band whose sharp humour, skewed pop sensibilities and eclectic career have made them beloved popstars and honorary Brits, despite them hailing from Los Angeles.

Brothers Ron and Russell Mael started their musical career as Halfnelson in 1968. With disappointing sales, their label suggested a name change. Russel explains: “Albert Grossman [who ran the Bearsville label] was disappointed that the album didn’t have a wider commercial impact. He thought maybe the name Halfnelson was too obscure – that that was the only thing holding us back – it wasn’t the music.” Albert told Russel and Ron that they reminded him of the Marx Brothers. “So, he said: why don’t you be the Sparks Brothers? We thought that was a terrible name so we said we’d meet him half way, as he was an important person, and we took Sparks.”

In 1973, with commercial success still eluding them, the band moved to Island Records, who sent them off to the UK, believing that their brand of eccentricity might appeal to the Brits. It was a smart move. Sparks played The Old Grey Whistle Test and a run of gigs at Soho’s famous Marquee club, where one night, incredibly, one of rock’s soon-to-be legendary bands – Queen – opened for them. “They all lugged their gear wearing blue jeans, and then they went on stage in their white angel costumes.” The two bands never spoke, though rumours still circulate on the internet that Brian May was once offered the chance to join Sparks.

Their TV appearances and live appearances in the UK paid off handsomely, with their next album, Kimono My House, spawning their most famous and highest charting single “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us”, an operatic glam-pop oddity which nevertheless got to number two in the UK charts, as well as hitting the Top 20 across Europe. Sparks had finally found a home for their unique brand of crazy and Brits took hyperactive Russell and deadpan Ron to their hearts. Subsequent albums Propaganda and Indiscreet cemented their popularity. An album recorded with Giorgio Moroder in 1979 ushered a change of direction musically. Moroder’s distinctive electronic sound propelled them back into the Top 20, with “The Number One Song in Heaven”. “Prior to that, Giorgio had worked with solo singers like Donna Summer – so we were coming from a completely different mindset.”

Sparks’ success was in no small part due to a musical, lyrical and visual style, artful and ironic, that appealed to a British audience on the cusp of what would become New Wave. They brought a cinematic flair to their album covers, too, which perfectly reflected their counter-cultural leanings: Propaganda saw them bound and gagged in the back of a speed boat racing across a vast expanse of water, while Indiscreet had them surviving a plane crash with uncommon style. And on Hippopotamus, once again, the scene looks like a still from a lost Surrealist film: Ron And Russell, dressed in bathrobes, look on in bemusement as a hippo invades their swimming pool. “We’re always hesitant to name an album after a track because it tends to point too much attention to that particular track. But in this case, it just seemed an arresting word, and the cover is literally translating what this song is about in a visual context. We’re very happy about the renaissance of vinyl and the chance to have prominent artwork, aside from the audio aspect. An image really matters now, and we were also able to return to those early Island albums where there’s no typeface on the front.”

It’s no coincidence that Sparks’ visual flair seems to evoke the cinema, as their career has so many links to motion pictures. A little-known fact about the brothers is that early in their career someone at Island records put them in touch with legendary director Jacques Tati, who was planning his follow up to Playtime. “They hooked us up with him and we met in Paris. He wanted us to be characters in a movie for which he had written a rough screenplay.” The film in question, Confusion, a story of two American TV studio employees brought to a rural French TV company, never got made due to Tati’s declining health. But that didn’t end the Maels’ cinema career. When Kiss dropped out of 70s horror flick Rollercoaster, Sparks stepped in, featuring in the opening concert sequence playing two songs. More recently, Sparks have regained their cinematic mojo, working with cult director Guy Maddin, providing the music for one of his films and collaborating on a radio play/film proposal, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman.

 

Sadly, it proved too expensive to produce, but the brothers are working on a new film project, with Adam Driver and Michelle Williams already attached and cult director Leos Carrax at the helm: Annette, a musical drama written by Sparks, could well prove to be the perfect merging of the brothers’ musical and cinematic ambitions. They met Carrax at the Cannes Film Festival, after he’d included one of their tracks in his previous feature, Holy Motors. “He’s a very interesting director,” explains Ron, “so when we returned to LA, Russell said why don’t we just send him this project which we’d finished recording, and see what he says. The intention wasn’t that it would be a film project but a live theatre thing. He apparently had been looking for a musical project, but wasn’t able to find anything, and he really responded to this thing strongly. We were shocked and happy.”

Annette is currently in pre-production, but in the meantime Sparks are busy touring Europe, Japan and the US to promote Hippopotamus. Even this sounds like a walk in the park compared to their ambitious 21-night London residency in 2008 when they played every album they ever recorded, live and in full. “We rehearsed for four months! People don’t have 21 albums normally… but to say you’re going to do all the songs!”

Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club

Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club


Words Gordon Ritchie

Photography Etienne Gilfillan


“Jazz and Soho go together. There were basement dives here and there. It was the culture of Soho. We’re trying to build on that.”

Jazz. For those who choose to follow those tracks, there are many destinations, but there is one stop where you must get off. As a civilian or a soldier in the Jazz fraternity you must pay homage, make the pilgrimage, visit Mecca. Frith Street, Soho. The Jazz Club, Ronnie Scott’s. Jazz can mean many things to many people, but to many people Ronnie Scott’s only means one thing. JAZZ. A cliché? Perhaps, but I want to click with that clique.

Soho, bright neon lights, dark nights, a switchblade smell of danger, caffeine and an occasional reefer, fuel for nocturnal night owls. West Indians, American GIs, and sharp young London boys fill Soho’s side streets looking for life with a modern edge. Aristocrats and sophisticated cats dip into the lowlife where things are looking up. High aspirations, high times, hijinks and good times. Chinatown, below Shaftesbury Avenue, where the theatre crowds provide the cinema-scape captured in Absolute Beginners, to a Gerrard Street basement. No 39, sharp suited, shirt and tie, this is the modern world, the modern world of modern Jazz. Music with fire, the Be-Bop doesn’t stop. It stays up all night. Pete King and Ronnie Scott – it’s 1959. “30th October, when they opened, they didn’t even have a liquor license, they just had a license to play music,” says Simon Cooke, the current Managing Director of Ronnie Scott’s.

Ronnie could play and Pete loved Jazz, and when the club opened in Frith Street on December 17th 1965, Jazz began to love Ronnie Scott’s. “We’re coming up to 50 years in Frith Street and we were 55 years as a club last year. There’s still people around who went to and played at the old club. To a lot of the jazz world, it’s still really Ronnie’s club. You’re just looking after it. It makes you want to remain pure to its initial ideals, or people’s perception. It’s important.”

From the cellar where they started, the new club was uptown, upscale and upright. The music was out of sight. The low stage right in the centre, surrounded on all sides by the graduating steps of tables lit by table lamps with red shades, checkered tablecloths and velvet seats. The crowd sitting facing, waiting, anticipating. A low ceiling, seats at the front inches away from the musicians. The black and white portraits of legends look down upon the honoured, gracing the stage. A ripple of applause as the musicians take their places. A 1 2 3 4 arrrrrrrr-rat-at-at. A-rat-at-at-rat-a-tat, the drummer rolls, the bass begins to swing and the piano player starts to do his thing. “Gangsters were still running protection rackets, they were running gigs ‘til four, five in the morning, the whole Soho thing was very different.”

The house band, echoing the past, Ronnie Scott’s Soho spirit rises, as the nature of improvisation dictates, different every time. Drinks clink and dinner is served, smart staff weave between the tables. Feet tap to every hit, hands clap at the end each number. Once upon a time it was always smoky but those days have gone in the dizzy haze of a past daze. The walls don’t talk, they listen, rebound the sound. Art Blakey, Roland Kirk, Buddy Rich, Pharaoh Sanders, Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker, Herbie Hancock, Ella Fitzgerald, legends everyone, and everyone has played in Soho at Ronnie Scott’s, and they still do. Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, whoever might be in town might just turn up late one night and join in the jam. The 200 people who paid for seats didn’t see that coming. “We created the Late Late Show, putting a band on at 11 o’clock and they would play through to three. Halfway through it would turn into a jam session. It grew and grew and we have great nights. You do get guys coming and sitting in, you don’t know who it will be. All of Beyoncé’s band turned up one night, took over the stage.”

A trip to Ronnie Scott’s was a treat for me the first time, it was everything I wanted it to be and probably more. How often do things actually match and exceed what you hoped for. I always mean to go back more than I have. If you live in London and love London life, London lives, you have to go to Ronnie Scott’s. It should be compulsory. What goes on there, Georgie Fame every year for weeks at a time, Yeh Yeh. Charlie Watts and his Big Band, slicked hair, sharp suit and sticks. Friends tell tales of walking past, ‘Miles Davis playing tonight’ reads the sign. Nina Simone creating an atmosphere and her own agenda, working on her own timetable. Ronnie Scott’s has seen the lot, and seen a lot.

Now it’s slightly more upmarket, the food’s better, the cocktails are better. “Now we have a proper Head Chef. We sold 79,000 cocktails last year,” says Simon“Ronnie always did it, but we’ve made it better. The club itself is a family affair. Our floor managers have come up from being waiters or bartenders.”Look closely behind the bar though and you will see one bottle that harks back to the serrated edge that was Soho in the sixties. The Krays had tried to lure Ronnie and Pete out of Soho, but they decided to stay. “Opposite was a Maltese Gambling Club. This guy called Albert Dimes set up there and he was the local protection and he protected the club from anyone else. It was his turf. Albert was a bit tough, good with a knife. He gave the club a bottle of champagne, a magnum of Mumm’s champagne as a symbol that this was a safe house. It was neutral territory. We’ve still got it unopened behind the bar.”

The discreet club upstairs lets in the new Jazz generation to play, learn in public and polish skills, gain confidence. “We run a Wednesday jam up here, because the whole thing about Jazz is improvisation and sitting in with each other. On a Wednesday we have one up here and one downstairs as well. We are Jazz Central. One of the owners has quite left-field taste and we push the boundaries. If in doubt, go more jazz.Jazz and Soho go together. There were basement dives here and there. It was the culture of Soho. We’re trying to build on that. We’re working harder on that Soho and Jazz thing. In the homogenisation of Soho that’s taking place at the moment, what’s going to set Soho apart? Perhaps jazz is the answer.”At the centre of the scene, still creating a scene. The legend of Ronnie Scott’s continues its Soho story.

Ageless & Bold

Ageless & Bold


Words Peter McSweeney

Illustrations Luke Stuart


Here is a low down on some of the faces of Soho over the years. All connected to Soho is many different ways, mostly legal. They represent the creative, edgy vibe that Soho brings to The West End. They are Artists, and all are unique with their defined identity. You don’t have to love them (some you’re not meant to) but they are have contributed to the rich culture and help to start new trends which were born on these streets.

 

– David Bowie –

 

Turned down a knighthood, had a hit TV show names after one of his songs and humiliated Rick Gervais in Extras for being a ‘Silly Little Fat Man’, David Bowie proves he is more than your typical Music Legend, he is also a Soho Legend. An over used term by stupid media who lack imagination but in this case it is more than appropriate. The Marquee Club (now no longer) was where he built a fan base appealing to both sexes and what ever side you batting for didn’t matter, Bowie was the man! He drank in The Ship and his fashion and style was developed by vintage cast off on Carnaby Street, not to mention he would rub shoulders with The Krays.  Sir David, as he would have been known had he accepted the call of the Queen, might not have had such an authentic Soho feel.