Agora, Cleveland 1976 [no label 1CD Torrent #96622] Live at the Agora, Cleveland, 1976.

How quickly things change. In 1975, Sparks were living in England, the darlings of a devoted following, and an all but permanent fixture on the UK chart. A year later, they had relocated to LA, sacked the band, and were stumbling off one of the most disappointing albums (Big Beat) of the Maels' entire career. What better time could there be to record a live album?

Sensible heads prevailed - the album was shelved, as the brothers departed Island Records for pastures anew. But the tapes survive (albeit not in the pristine form one would hope, but courtesy of a slightly distorted radio broadcast), and the thinking behind the original project is apparent to all. The major consequence of the previous year's eruptions had been to realign Sparks from the quirky, Anglocentric-isms of the recent past, and portray them as an act that could fill stadiums with both fans and noise. And Cleveland 1976 fits that bill with room to spare, a welter of bombast and bluster that sweeps you up in the excitement whether you want it to or not. In an alternate universe, Sparks could have been as big as Peter Frampton. And this is their Comes Alive.

Of course the set list is modeled around Big Beat: "Nothing To Do" and "I Want To Be Like Everybody Else" open the show; "White Women" follows up an explosive "Something For The Girl With Everything;" "Talent Is An Asset" bleeds into a rather lovely "I Bought The Mississippi River," a choppy "Everybody's Stupid" sets the stage for a crunchy "BC"; and the raunch of "Amateur Hour" is succeeded by a blistering "I Like Girls." The night ends with "Big Boy," but "This Town Ain't Big Enough" remains the climax of the show, louder and more turbulent than you've ever heard it before and, if all stadium rock had sounded this magnificent, the history of music would have turned out very different.

The delight of the night, though, is "Equator," spiraling off Kimono My House and still as bafflingly beautiful and hauntingly heartbroken as ever, but transformed now into a psychotic talking blues that reminds you why you should never write Sparks off, even when their latest album leaves you sick with disappointment. Because there's always another surprise round the bend... - Dave Thompson

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