A crabby pug whose bark is every bit as ferocious as his talent, Graham Parker comes on like an arrogant bantam with the world’s bone up his butt — and then delivers the musical goods that justify his conceit and erase the ill will he so enthusiastically spreads. Remote and defensive in one song, Parker can drop his guard and be selflessly frank and incisive the next. And while he’s proven himself capable of truly obnoxious haughtiness, the self-appraisal that appears as a preface to his monumental 1993 career retrospective is unfairly harsh.
It’s never been clear what really motivates Parker’s strong-minded songwriting, but one of the buttons clearly marked DO NOT PUSH is attached to recording contracts. He’s been signed to loads of companies (one abortive liaison with Atlantic in the mid-’80s ended without any audible result), many of whom have waved goodbye with compilations. Pourin’ It All Out, Anger and The Best of Graham Parker 1988-1991 document his work on, respectively, Mercury, Arista and RCA. It Don’t Mean a Thing and The Best Of (greatly expanded in its 1992 reissue edition) are British collections of his early years. All are useful but, short of owning the essential albums, the two-CD Passion Is No Ordinary Word will certainly suffice as a well-annotated if slightly incomplete introduction to the first 15 years of Parker’s howlin’ wind.
Arriving on the mid-’70s London scene as a rough’n’ready product of the pub-rock era — an R&B- loving Nick Lowe with a sharper, more ambitious pen, as it were — Parker predated Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, both of whom would second his illustration that the singer/songwriter idiom could be recharged, giving intelligent rock fans an excitable and energetic alternative to (slightly) older guardsmen like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Randy Newman and Van Morrison. Produced by Nick Lowe, Howlin Wind is a classic debut album, full of fine ideas fleshed out with ragged enthusiasm. Parker acknowledges his roots throughout, singing original R&B boppers (“White Honey” and “Lady Doctor”) with sly wit and masterfully reconstructing rockabilly on the angry “Back to Schooldays,” complete with guest twangin’ by Dave Edmunds (who later recorded the song himself on Get It). Evidencing an equally powerful sensitive side, Parker checks in with the reflective “Between You and Me” and “Don’t Ask Me Questions,” the latter a chilling wail of anguish.
On Howlin Wind (and on all subsequent LPs through The Up Escalator), Parker received formidable backing from the Rumour: Brinsley Schwarz (guitar) and Bob Andrews (keyboards), both ex-Brinsley Schwarz band members; Martin Belmont (guitar), ex-Ducks Deluxe; Stephen Goulding (drums) and Andrew Bodnar (bass), both ex-Bontemps Roulez. Often compared to Dylan’s erstwhile ’60s cohorts, the Rumour displays the same self-assurance and finesse as the Band, but rocks harder. Despite a checkered recording career on its own, the Rumour was always a stellar support group.
Although produced by Robert John Lange, Heat Treatment is essentially a punchier continuation of Howlin Wind. For spirited soul, there’s “Hotel Chambermaid” and “Back Door Love.” Parker’s serious tunes are also more intense: “Turned Up Too Late” delivers a devastating romantic rejection; the anthemic “Fools’ Gold,” one of his finest achievements, affirms the need to search for the best, however elusive — it’s unaffected and inspiring.
The Pink Parker, an EP pressed on colored vinyl, combines non-LP studio renditions of the Trammps’ “Hold Back the Night” and a Parker original with hot live versions of “White Honey” and “Soul Shoes.”
With the vastly improved music scene as a catalyst, Parker evidently felt the need to assert himself more strongly on Stick to Me, but the resulting overstatement and stylistic diversity couldn’t be contained comfortably on one LP. Nonetheless, taken individually, many tracks are undeniably compelling. The title cut is Parker’s soaring declaration of dedication in the face of a hostile world; he unleashes exhilarating nastiness in Ann Peebles’ “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down.” But one need only look at Side Two to sense the confusion: it begins and ends with raucous throwaways designed to compensate for the massive epics in the center. No amount of party fun, however, could clear the air after the overblown theatrics of the seven-minute “Heat in Harlem.” Parker is sabotaged by his own indecision.
In classic contract-fulfilling tradition, Parker cranked out a two-record set, The Parkerilla: three live sides plus a second studio version of “Don’t Ask Me Questions.” Adequate but musically unnecessary, it did the legal trick, and Parker was free to switch to a different American label. The sour-grapes “Mercury Poisoning” (1979) was his first release on Arista, which declined to put its name to the promo-only gray 12-inch one-sided single.
Squeezing Out Sparks resolved Parker’s stylistic dilemma. It’s his toughest, leanest and most lyrically sophisticated LP; in a way a sad loss of innocence. Eschewing the lighter soul elements of his earlier work, Parker adopts a harsh, nearly humorless tone that suggests cynicism instead of anger. (Regardless, critics generally loved it and sales were decidedly improved over previous efforts.) Loaded with some of his most powerful songs — “Passion Is No Ordinary Word,” the nettlesome and ambiguously anti-abortion unwanted-pregnancy ode “You Can’t Be Too Strong” (a ballad full of disturbing imagery and emphatic phrasing which echoes the album title’s judgmental metaphor), the sizzling “Discovering Japan” and “Local Girls” — the album stands as Parker’s career high, a peak dividing intuitive youth from self-conscious maturity. (A novel 1979 promo album — live versions of every Sparks song in the same running order as on the studio version, plus two other live cuts — was issued to radio as Live Sparks, further strengthening the band’s concert reputation.) Arista later reissued Squeezing Out Sparks with Live Sparks included.
Parker somehow lost his sense of purpose on The Up Escalator. Although retaining the intense, driven approach of Squeezing Out Sparks, the material falls short, possessing fury without context, which results in unsatisfying overkill. Individually, “No Holding Back,” “Devil’s Sidewalk” and “Love Without Greed” crackle nicely; collectively, they produce a hollow roar. Those looking to assign blame will notice the increasing influence of the king of rock melodrama, Bruce Springsteen, who even joins in vocally on the bloated “Endless Night.” And the departure of Bob Andrews couldn’t have helped the situation. (The 1991 CD adds “Women in Charge,” the B-side of 1980’s “Stupefaction.”)
The rest of the Rumour followed Andrews through the exit prior to Another Grey Area, which actually constitutes a minor comeback, avoiding the noisier extremes of The Up Escalator. A band of New York session musicians provides precise though unspectacular accompaniment; Parker co-produced with Jack Douglas. Interestingly, the harder-rocking tracks are the least effective: “Big Fat Zero” and “You Hit the Spot” seem little more than halfhearted gestures. In contrast, ballads like “Temporary Beauty,” “Dark Side of the Bright Lights” and “Crying for Attention” have a graceful and unforced ring of sincerity never before heard on a Parker LP. Though Another Grey Area seldom overwhelms, it does indicate that, after six studio albums, Parker is still willing to take chances. (The CD reissue adds “Mercury Poisoning,” Parker’s 1979 frag attack on his first label.)
The Real Macaw, however, is one chance he probably shouldn’t have taken. Songs like “You Can’t Take Love for Granted” and “Life Gets Better” reach Parker’s required level of intensity, but the production and playing do not. Producer David Kershenbaum provides the kind of sparse, colorless setting he used to create for Joe Jackson; the musicianship is unnecessarily understated. The end product: a disc that is watered down and should have been harder. (With no chronological logic, the reissue tacks on Parker’s 1979 B-side rendition of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.”)
Billed to Graham Parker and the Shot, Steady Nerves rights the balance, toughening the band attack for a bracing series of characteristically pithy performances, from the cheerfully raunchy “When You Do That to Me” to the gorgeously romantic “Wake Up (Next to You)” to “Break Them Down,” a classic Parker fist-waver. A solid album that bodes well. (The CD has an extra song, “Too Much Time to Think.”)
Parker soon left Elektra and, following an abortive alliance with Atlantic that didn’t result in any releases, signed to RCA and, three years after Steady Nerves, came up with The Mona Lisa’s Sister. Getting excellent backing from the extraordinary Schwarz (who co-produced with Parker), Bodnar, ex-Rockpile drummer Terry Williams and keyboardist James Hallawell, Parker engages his sharp tongue and sketchy melodicism for another collection of smooth songs that has its ups (“OK Hieronymous”) and downs (“Get Started. Start a Fire”). Brittle sound tends to undercut Parker’s soulful strut (especially on “I’m Just Your Man” and a lovely reading of Sam Cooke’s “Cupid”); “The Girl Isn’t Ready” and “Don’t Let It Break You Down,” however, gain edgy tension from the same audio characteristic. Although not among his best, The Mona Lisa’s Sister confirms Parker’s continued artistic vitality.
The only thing Live! Alone in America, which was recorded onstage in Philadelphia in October 1988, confirms is that Parker really does need accompaniment to put his songs across. Naked solo renditions of classic material (“White Honey,” “Gypsy Blood,” “Back to Schooldays,” “Protection,” “You Can’t Be Too Strong”) are blunt but lifeless; of the provocative new songs, only the blistering “Soul Corruption” is strong enough to rise above the demo-like presentation. Live Alone! Discovering Japan takes a similar tack in another land. Live From New York, NY, initially released on an audiophile label, is also contemporary. Live on the Test and BBC Live in Concert, however, delve back to vintage electric sets with the Rumour.
Human Soul is much, much better. Fronting a band composed of Schwarz, Bodnar and ex-Attractions Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas, Parker bounces back with renewed enthusiasm and ambition. With nods to ska, brassy soul and swinging rock, he waxes romantic (“My Love’s Strong”), sexy (“Call Me Your Doctor”) and familial (“Big Man on Paper”); the songs all reveal newfound gravity and sensitivity. Distorted only in concept, the “surreal side” of the record addresses topics familiar (imperialism, the record industry’s torment of a certain self-important genius), unexpected (AIDS misinformation) and downright oblique (“Sugar Gives You Energy”).
Swinging back into the other lane of the stylistic highway, Struck by Lightning is rustic and mostly acoustic, with Parker’s lonesome harmonica underscoring the Dylanesque leanings. “She Wants So Many Things,” the six- minute rant that opens the sprawling album, paints Parker in the worst possible light — he’s the jerk in the aisle seat who launches into a creepy tirade about a tormentor you don’t know — but the song is merely misplaced, and the record quickly finds more solid footing. Although Parker devotes his attention to intimate, personal lyrics rather than intricate music here, the tunes — played by Andrew Bodnar, Pete Thomas and guests, with Parker handling all the guitar work — are sturdy, graceful and occasionally (“The Kid with the Butterfly Net,” “That’s Where She Ends Up,” “A Brand New Book,” “Children and Dogs”) memorable. As usual, GP leads with his chin, blurting out lines that either miss by a mile (try to find the music in a refrain that goes “Pull your skin like wrapping paper round my heart”) or hit their mark with heat-seeking accuracy (“Some believe in a heaven up above / With a God that forgives all with His great love / Well I forgive you if you forgive me hey! / Who needs the third party anyway?”).
Fighting his way back to a comfortable studio medium on Burning Questions, Parker uses crisp, unobtrusive soul, folk and rock backing as a platform for affectingly expressed heartfelt thoughts that cut the unease with warmth and poison the love with doubt. The fond and knowingly detailed “Just Like Joe Meek’s Blues” is not so much about the late British producer as about the pointlessness of “waiting breathlessly for the Joe Meek revival / But it didn’t stand any chance of survival.” “Mr. Tender,” he says, “is something I’m not…I rave and rant,” but he resolves, in the name of love, to “smooth the edges from my roughness and lose the venom in my toughness.” The subtlety of Parker’s vision, and the various levels on which he can appraise himself and his world, make Burning Questions justify its title. Excellent.
Parker’s seasonal record is a between-labels one-off: three originals (including the appropriately jaundiced “Christmas Is for Mugs”) proffered in needless demo versions and merry full arrangements starring a New York crew led by producer/guitarist Jon Tiven. Jimmy Destri (Blondie) plays keyboards, Gary Lucas adds mandolin and banjo, Crispin Cioe blows sax; Nona Hendryx shares lead vocals on “Soul Christmas,” a name-checking tribute to R&B greats.
“People think I’m filled with hate / They’ve got it wrong / That’s out of date,” Parker announces helpfully in an otherwise ludicrous song of lust entitled “Pollinate” (a botanical successor to “Sexual Healing”). He proceeds to spend most of the ominously titled 12 Haunted Episodes reiterating the good humor behind his discouraging exterior. A humble, unpretentious production on which a drummer and organist are the singer/guitarist/bassist’s only collaborators, the Dylanesque album contains a few intentional sideswipes (“Disney’s America,” “See Yourself,” the ego- scraping “Cruel Stage”) but is basically a drive in the country of undying love: “Partner for Life,” “Next Phase,” “Loverman” all pledge that troth with evident devotion. The music is, at times, lackluster; if Parker’s upbeat mood is scarcely infectious, the tight connection to his heart pours out a foundation of humanity that’s both sturdy and inviting.
Acid Bubblegum is a studio album. Piss & Vinegar is the inevitable tribute treatment. High Times is a compilation of songs cut with the Rumour. It Don’t Mean a Thing is a mix of early album tracks and singles.
It’s tempting to compare the Rumour’s relationship with Parker to the Band’s with Bob Dylan. Highly respected but unsuccessful bar band (Brinsley Schwarz and Ducks Deluxe versus the Hawks) hooks up with talented singer/songwriter (Parker versus Dylan) to create some of the decade’s best music (’70s versus ’60s). Of course Parker is not Dylan, and Max, the Rumour’s first LP on their own, is not Big Pink, although they would obviously have loved it to be. Often enough, the Rumour (Brinsley Schwarz, Bob Andrews, Martin Belmont, Andrew Bodnar, Steve Goulding) captures the sound of the Band, minus Robertson’s lyrical profundity. What’s really strange is that the Rumour is far more natural and interesting as a minor-league Band (on great tracks like “Hard Enough to Show,” Nick Lowe’s “Mess With Love” and a sublime Band-like arrangement of Duke Ellington’s standard “Do Nothing ‘Till You Hear from Me”) than when attempting to forge their own identity on the subsequent albums. Max may not be terribly original but it is utterly enjoyable.
Frogs, on the other hand, seems to be an attempt to recast the Rumour in a vein that conforms more with Stiff’s offbeat image. As a clever pop-oriented band, the Rumour succeeds mainly in sounding stiff, with only a couple of songs (“Emotional Traffic,” “All Fall Down”) standing out from other failed experiments.
Purity of Essence succeeds in recapturing some of the looseness of Max. The band had been reduced to a quartet with the departure of Bob Andrews, whose voice — the group’s best — and keyboards are missed. Even so, the album has its moments, although most of them are on non-original material.