It didn’t get off to a good start.

Dave, Head of Security, wouldn’t allow my camera over the threshold, declaring its detachable lens “professional” according to Bouncer Law, and therefore “banned”.

I protested that no pro-photographer would be seen dead with my bog standard non-zooming lens but Dave was unmoved. Growing bored, he conceded that I might photograph the venue when the concert was over, presumably imagining that I wouldn’t bother. So I meekly deposited my camera in the cloakroom to avoid ejection.

Sparks must be super-worried about being caught on film looking old, I thought.

Inside The Ritz, the decor was grubby greenish-beige with occasional glimmers of dull-gold:

I’ve not been in since the refurbishment. While it was a relief to find that HMV haven’t changed the place too much, it was also a bit sad to see the interior looking dowdy and drab; preferable to uber-slick or tarty, though, I suppose.

The basement is now no more than a mean dark corridor leading to a coat dungeon and toilets; the space is so narrow, it’s a wonder it satisfies fire regulations. I felt sorry for the cloakroom attendant, entombed below ground. Goodness knows what they’re doing with the rest of the space down there, but atleast the dancehall is being well-used.

Upstairs, the gallery still looks grand, thanks to the original features which have survived, presumably because the building is listed:

Oddly, the bar protocol on the night involved forming an actual queue, supermarket-checkout-style. Are we behaving like this because we’re all so old? I wondered, eyeing the other 40 and 50-somethings. It was £4.40 for a can of Red Stripe, compulsorily decanted into a plastic glass by up-beat youthful barstaff .

I found a good spot on one side of the gallery, close to the stage, where there were some tall comfy chairs pushed up against the ballustrade. A bouncer was minding them because they were reserved for important people who didn’t claim them. Half-way through the show, some of us were permitted to sit – although we were watched, and frequently scolded for ‘recording’ – so I was only able to get pictures with my phone; no films.

Sparks came on-stage at approximately 8.30pm, as predicted by various scrawled wall-notices. There was no support band. First Ron, spot-lit, took his position at the keyboard and embarked upon a medley of familiar and less familiar riffs, unaccompanied. Minutes later his brother skipped into view and the lights came up.

Here’s Russell in his strange plus-fours inspired outfit (like Sherlock Holmes?) and Ron, sitting po-faced behind his Roland:

The Ritz, with its music-hall interior, provided the perfect space for Sparks’ spartan but intense peformance which exuded vaudevillian intimacy and eccentricity. There were just two people on-stage – Two Hands and One Mouth, as promised by the tour’s monicker – but they easily mesmerised us with the strength of their projected personas and idiosynchratic body-of-work.

Ron’s keyboard style was unsophisticated – he didn’t use any percussive parts – presumably this was a positive choice. The absence of ‘beats’ encouraged the audience to clap in time to the music rather more than was necessary, which added to the music-hall vibe (but also grated, frankly.)

Russell’s distinctive voice was impressive as ever; he strutted the boards like a dimunitive castrato, his range and attack apparently undiminished. (Scissor Sisters’ Jake may have stage presence to match, but not vocals.)

Many songs echoed the ‘alternative’ operatic style made familiar by Sparks’ hit This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us (1974) which was a precursor of Queen’s more famous Bohemian Rhapsody (1975):

Recorded by whichway – 22nd October 2012

Russell explained that material from their most recent album The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman is in process of being produced as an opera, which will hopefully tour in the near future. But will anyone other than Russell ever be able to sing it?

Sparks are Californians whose artistic sensibilities belie their roots; somehow they remain stubbornly immune to American cultural cliches, operating within their own creative bubble. They are innovators who appear vaguely bored by the prospect of commercially exploiting their own ideas, often leaving others to do so.

To be in the presence of these charismatic free-thinkers, while simultaneously being treated like a naughty child by security staff, created a peculiar tension. The chair-watching bouncer’s comments revealed that he considered “sitting” to be a form of weakness… an unexpected glimpse into the alternative-reality inhabited by security staff. Meanwhile Russell was singing over and over again ‘My baby’s taking me home’… I assumed, with emotional intensity, but it was hard to remain receptive to Sparks’ intentions while sweating under the scrutiny of a large grumpy man who believed sitting was mard*; the culture clash was distracting.

Propaganda/At Home At Work At Play recorded by echostains

When we were treated to an encore, I was excited to hear No 1 In Heaven and Beat The Clock (even though Heaven’s arrangement was a bit laboured) because these were songs I really enjoyed on (the now-tainted) Top Of The Pops when I was 12/13. At the time, many of us considered Ron Mael to be pop music’s scariest man… how wrong we were!

Beat The Clock (1979)

No 1 In Heaven

I was delighted that we, the audience, gave Sparks such an appreciative reception. Older Manchester music fans may have grown dowdy with the passing years (just like The Ritz – and I speak for myself) but we still recognise QUALITY when we see and hear it! (I searched in vain for glamourous members of the audience.)

Conversely, for an outstanding example of growing cooler with age, you might study the Mael brothers… through whichever lens you can smuggle past security.

(I’m going to see David Byrne talking at the RNCM on Thursday. I hope he will be as inspiring but I’m not sure that he will be able to compete.)

For Sparks interviews see Radcliffe & Maconie and themouthmagazine.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

*Mard means pathetic/soft/weak/whinging; opposite of hard/strong/brave/stoical.

In this part of the world, an infinite number of reasonable complaints and grievances are routinely surpressed by accusations of ‘mard’. Meanwhile, fear of being called ‘mard’ lies behind a local tendency to encourage stoicism and distrust articulate self-expression.

When this area was a manufacturing hub, people’s ability to endure hardship would have been central to their survival, but in the 21st Century, these ingrained attitudes stifle creativity and strengthen class divisions.

Morrissey was brave and clever enough to be a very vocal mard and get away with it… but then he emigrated. I remember being flumoxed by his move to California… but I’d forgotten that Sparks live there, which must have been part of the draw.