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Wire from the Bunker: Meet Graham Parker

I first heard Graham Parker sometime in the early 80s. My grandparents would come up from Florida every year in the spring. My grandfather – who we called “Poppee” – knew that I was way deep into music even at an early age and, after some perfunctory hellos to the family, he’d drive us over to Peaches records on Nicholson Lane in Rockville, Maryland and let me pick out a couple lps. Dylan, Springsteen, and Costello were very much on my radar by that point and Parker was compared to all of them in his entry in the very first Rolling Stone Record Guide (the red one that came out in ’79) which, to me, practically had the weight of scripture. Finding out about stuff back then was really hard: there were no search engines; you actually had to search with your own bare hands and whatever reference materials you could scrounge up. In that environment, the Guide was essential.

I found GP’s first two records (Howling Wind and Heat Treatment, both of which had earned the coveted 5 star review in the Rolling Stone book) and presented them to Poppee for his approval. The year before he nearly balked when I handed him London Calling which had a sticker on the cover concerning the lyrics. Now I was handing him Parker’s first, Howling Wind, which had him looking very much the tough guy petrol attendant he had been prior to being discovered – not to mention that cloud of smoke emerging from his mouth (or was that really just a howling wind?) – and looking like some sort of emaciated rock’n’roll lizard on the front of his sophomore release, Heat Treatment. No worries, Poppee paid for them and we returned home.

I will never forget first hearing those albums. The comparisons were fully warranted: Parker had the sophistication of Dylan, the R&B/soul underpinning of Springsteen’s early work, and Costello’s snarl. But he had his own thing too. I was amazed that Parker had put out both of these albums in the course of a mere year, 1976. Two full platters worth of bristling rockers, a couple hard-hitting ballads, and passion (no ordinary word) pulsing through every groove.

Dylan recently – in his book the Philosophy of Modern Song – stated that EC and the Attractions were “light years” ahead of their peers. This remark generated some concern from Chris Frantz of the Talking Heads (I mean, Talking Heads) who, while acknowledging the Attractions, thought that Bob had gone over the top. I think not, Chris. Have any of you put on a Talking Heads record recently? I am afraid they have not weathered the years especially well and, despite their cache with young people today, I challenge you to find a single song of theirs that compares favorably with the ones on those early EC and the Attractions’ records (This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, Get Happy, Trust, Imperial Bedroom, Blood and Chocolate) in terms of composition or performance. I guarantee you will be headed down the road to nowhere if you try.

Nonetheless, Bob may have overlooked GP and the Rumour’s records from the same period. You won’t find a bigger EC nut than me. But one must acknowledge that GP was there first (a full year before Costello emerged) and that the Rumour (a hodgepodge of the best of the English Pub Rock movement) was far from light years behind the Attractions. Their rhythm section – composed of Andrew Bodner on the bass and Steven Goulding on the drums (who incidentally backed up Costello on “Watching the Detectives” pre-Attractions) – gives Bruce and Pete Thomas a run for their money. I wouldn’t say that Bob Andrews (the Rumour’s keyboardist) ranks with Steve Nieve but, then again, the Attractions lacked a compelling guitar player in EC (he would surely agree) whereas the Rumour sported both Martin Belmont and Brinsley Schwarz, two of the finest axemen to emerge from Pub Rock or any other movement in British popular music.

But enough of the inevitably pointless comparisons. The point here is that the Rumour – to borrow a phrase from GP – rocked like safari chimps on acid. I, alas, was too young to have ever caught them in their prime. By the time I was finally able to catch Parker live – in 1988 on his Mona Lisa’s Sister tour – he had dismissed the band tho I do remember that Bodnar and Schwarz were still along for the ride. Yes, GP had a less aggressive – dare I say “adult” – sound by the late 80s, but he was and still remains a vital artist. Parker went on to release many records after that initial run with the Rumour and you will find masterly songs and performances on many of them (see below). At superfan Judd Apatow’s urging, Parker reassembled the Rumour earlier this century and they appeared in the film “This is 40”, cut two new records, and hit the road. I was lucky enough to finally catch them all together at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia. They did not disappoint.

Since then GP has reverted to playing mostly solo gigs – a forum where he is fully capable of making his mark – and I am delighted that Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner and I will be supporting him at his upcoming show this Friday, May 5th at the Sellersville Theater.

For more info >>> TICKETS

In the meantime, here’s a few to introduce you to GP and, to paraphrase the man himself, help you shake it!

Don’t Ask Me Questions: Here they are in all their glory: GP and Rumour in 1978. If this clip doesn’t convince you, you may have come to the wrong place. In a debut filled with great material, “Questions” was easily the stand-out track. Lennon had taken on the big man in the sky in “God” but he sorta crooned it (vs. “Mother” where he screamed) and Randy Newman’s song on the same topic is ultimately done in by his archness. No such problem here. On the title track of Howling Wind, Parker posits a “strange religion without any god.” “Questions” is how he arrived at this position: raw-to-bone words and music to match. Check out the rare air-piano by GP at 3:01.

Protection: After the amazing one-two knock out punch of 1976’s Howling Wind and Heat Treatment, Parker seemed to lose the trail for a moment. To be sure, 1978’s Stick To Me contains some of his fiercest material, especially the title track. But the amazing thing is that 1979’s Squeezing Out Sparks (his fourth) somehow transcended even the extraordinary promise of Parker’s earlier albums. Much credit should be given to legendary producer Jack Nitzsche (yes, the same guy who worked with Neil and the Stones) who allegedly told the Rumour that they were all over the place and needed to actually listen to what Graham was trying to say. The result was Sparks whose tautness and utterly brittle sound make GP’s earlier efforts almost sound fussy. Again, every single track will grab you but I chose “Protection” for its first line: “So all of you be damned, we can’t have heaven crammed // So Winston Churchill said, I could have smacked his head.” Another Father slayed. Check! And Brinsley Schwarz may be the only person who can make a Flying Vee look cool.

Temporary Beauty: Parker busted up the Rumour following 1980’s Up Escalator (which, by the way, included a duet with GP supporter Springsteen) and the next record he recorded, Another Grey Area, was criticized for its allegedly slick production by Jack Douglas who had just come off producing Double Fantasy for John and Yoko. I dunno. This record still sounds pretty damn good to my ears and in “Temporary Beauty” GP wrote a soul ballad on the level of his hero Sam Cooke whose songs he has covered throughout his career (cf. “Cupid” on the Mona Lisa’s Sister and “A Change is Gonna Come” on Live! Alone in America which was actually recorded at the TLA on South Street in 1989). How anyone could have thought that the attached video was a good idea is beyond me. Had to be the cocaine talking, right? This otherwise unimpeachably beautiful song is badly compromised by GP singing to and caressing an ice sculpture. See 2:45. Parker acolytes like me often wonder why he never found a wider audience. Clips like this surely didn’t help! Freezing like a soul on ice, indeed.

Back in Time: Like many members of the class of ’77 (or ’76 in his case), the 1980s were not especially kind to GP. But with 1988’s Mona Lister’s Sister, Parker pulled together one of his strongest collections of songs for many years and presented them in an immediate, unadorned manner. The Dean, Robert Christgau, complained that they sound like demos but to me that’s a strength! “Back in Time” is another heartbreaking Parker ballad which, in this case, cautions against the lure of nostalgia. I’ve always loved and respected GP for resisting this move in favor of writing new songs and presenting them as a proper solo troubadour would. No going back in time for Graham.

Wrapping Paper: And, finally, after covering GP in the 70s and 80s, we arrive in the 90s (his work in the present century is worth exploring too!). “Wrapping Paper”, here played solo, appeared on 1995’s Struck By Lightning release. Parker had been a longtime Woodstock resident by then and the songs have an earthy, bucolic feel that one may associate with that region – notably, Garth Hudson of the Band appeared on Lightning which I think is my favorite GP release from the decade following the decade that music forgot. Parker’s ability to crank out one wondrous ballad after another was and remains undiminished though the refrain “pull your skin like wrapping paper around my heart” is borderline creepy. And I guess that’s a wrap, Hannibal!


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