By Kenny McMurtrie
July 18, 2013
Tosh Berman, a chap who looks in his photo on the inside back cover of Sparks-tastic like a cross of Martin Scorsese & Eugene Levy, is the son of the late artist Walter Berman and an American publisher of translations into English of French authors such as Boris Vian. He is also an obsessive Sparks fan and this book is, largely, his chronicle of watching the brothers Mael and their band play their entire album back catalogue over 21 nights in London in 2008, the “Sparks Spectacular”.
At under 250 pages you know from the off you’re not going to be getting the minutiae of each of those nights, just the barest details on the performances and thoughts on each of the albums as its show rolls around. This is no bad thing. Whilst a much bigger book on the event (happening?) as a whole could easily be produced the market for that is probably only made up of folk like Berman who live and breathe Sparks (and he certainly does that). This instead is the effort of a fan who, whilst a confessed loner in his own way, has a desire to share his love of the group with a wider audience both for their benefit but also for his own in terms of the cathartic nature of sharing.
Despite taking the above in to account, however, the book is marred early on by factual inaccuracies (for instance Berman seems to be under the impression that Gilbert & George are brothers), the belief that English & British are interchangeable, grammatical oddities (“The crowd is full and anticipating.”, “…the band is just raring into the songs…”) and numerous typos. You would expect there to have been greater recourse to an editor given the writer’s day job. Not all of the factoids about various parts of London that the author visits in his non-gig hours are of great interest & is beans on toast really a staple of the British diet?
Whilst a degree of background on the author’s life is obviously welcome in this type of account, indeed really indispensable when it comes to how he or she relates to the music of the artist in question, there are superfluous details in here. Most notably the pre-London visit Berman makes to Paris could readily have been excised from the text. Elements such as his early life in Topanga Canyon, LA, the fact that many of his early Sparks purchases were of imports of the band’s albums due to them enjoying a greater popularity in Europe than in the USA and the potted history of his father’s career do though provide necessary clothing for the body of the narrative.
Each of the 21 gigs and their respective albums are generally dealt with in about seven pages. The band’s mid- to late-Eighties output (In Outer Space, Pulling Rabbits From A Hat, Music You Can Dance To and Interior Design) are Berman’s least favourite albums but mostly they transcend the production styles of that decade when played live end to end, breathing new life into works that up till then have had a greater degree of artificiality and polish about them than even a hardcore fan such as himself can stomach. Whomp That Sucker, released right at the start of the Reagan/Bush years, is though written up in terms which mark it out as an album the uninitiated should check out (after of course the seminal Kimono My House and, sticking my tuppence worth in, the albums of the Noughties from Lil’ Beethoven onwards).
This is a book that on the face of it should be a quick and reasonably informative read about one man’s musical obsession and his brushes with the famous as a result of his parentage (sharing a taxi with William Burroughs on the way to Robert Fraser’s flat in 1967 being one), musings on what it means to be responsible for the artistic legacy of his father and on what it may be that humans require to make them feel safe and loved. Unfortunately those things have to be reached by struggles through accounts of Berman’s existence that at times border on the pre-adolescent in their mawkishness. “Cheer up!” you want to say on more than one occasion. Fellow obsessives may not enjoy it for holding up a mirror to them and the casually interested may just not have the patience with their self-deprecating guide through the world of Sparks. Thank goodness by the Afterword he appears to have got things out of his system following the experience.
Here‘s footage of Ron Mael ‘burning’ all of the band’s album covers on the final night of the shows.