An Adult Kind of Situation:
Graham Parker is Sticking to It
When Graham Parker came on the music scene in the mid 1970s, he was pegged as an angry young man of the new wave movement. And while that label always overstated the case, there was an acerbic and barbed quality to both Parker’s lyrics and his manner of delivery. Still, at his best Parker created R&B-flavored songs that were equal parts word-pictures and memorable, sharp melodies.
And from the start, London-born Parker developed a reputation as a compelling live performer, one of those about whom many would remark, “Sure, his records are good, but you’ve really got to see him live.” A tacit acceptance of that reality – that the studio can’t always fully capture the true essence of the man and his music – may be part of the reason that to date, there have been nearly as many live Graham Parker albums as studio releases.
Parker’s debut album was 1976’s Howlin’ Wind, credited to him and his always-excellent band, The Rumour. Heat Treatment followed later that same year, with Stick to Me in 1977 and his most commercially successful release to that point, Squeezing Out Sparks, landing on record store shelves in 1979. In that same period, Parker’s label released an EP (The Pink Parker) that included two live tracks, and a live album, 1978’s The Parkerilla.
He notes that the EP and The Parkerilla were done in the spirit of what he liked about the music he grew up with. “I remember that in the ’60s in England, a lot of those sort of four-song batches came out from the Beatles and the Stones. The cover versions were on EPs with picture sleeves, and they were very alluring for a kid because you could get your parents to pay for them more easily than you could for a whole album.
“And they were just marvelous things,” he says. The Pink Parker “was an example of me doing the same thing, and the same with the live album. Because, let’s face it: I heard Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out and Rock and Roll Animal by Lou Reed before my career started, so that seemed to me to be a logical thing to do.” He acknowledges that he and The Rumour “were so well known as a live band – and we did so much touring – that it was just an obvious choice.”
Parker thinks that live albums help capture the excitement of a successful tour. “You can’t help but think, ‘Wow. That was a good one tonight. If only we’d been recording it.’ And then maybe the opportunity comes up further down in the tour, or you talk to the tour manager and say, ‘Can we get someone to record this?’ There’s really no deeper thinking about it than that.”
Parker chuckles when it’s pointed out that there are more than 20 live albums credited either to him solo or with The Rumour; two of those are six-CD box sets. “I guess there’s quite a lot of them out there by me by now,” he says. “I haven’t really counted. I know the official studio albums are getting up around 25, soon to be 26, I suppose. And yeah, I guess there are quite a lot of live works as well, which is good for the fans. They like that.”
Variety has been a hallmark of Parker’s long and winding career, as well. He’s performed and recorded variously with The Rumour, with two other bands (the short-lived group The Shot and The Figgs), and as part of a duo. His deep catalog offers myriad choices of material for live shows, but he acknowledges that some songs are more suited to one approach than another.
“I think there are some songs that are pretty rip-roaring with a band, and that’s probably the way to do them,” he says. “But it’s surprising how over the years I’ve looked at a song and thought about doing it solo, then thought, ‘No, no, no. That needs a band,’ and then I’ve found a way of doing it that suddenly gives the song a whole new life.”
Sometimes that means changing a song from the way its was recorded for an album. “It usually means a different tempo. It might mean a different arrangement.” But some songs only deserve to be done one specific way, he says. “If you take a song from Howlin’ Wind, like ‘Between You and Me,’ it works very fine solo,” he says. “And it has never worked with a band.”
The song’s sweet and romantic – but heartfelt and authentic – feel never lent itself to a band reading, Parker says. “It didn’t suit what we were doing back in the day. We weren’t geared for sweet. We were geared for extremely violent. We were geared up for punching people in the chest,” he says with a laugh.
The Rumour has taken on some of Parker’s slower material, but they deliver it in seething fashion. On the band’s 21st century reunion tour, they played “Watch the Moon Come Down” from the Nick Lowe-produced Stick to Me LP. “It was epic,” Parker says. “We were even doing ‘Black Honey’ from Heat Treatment for one of the tours.” He uses the word epic again, explaining. “That’s only because we know how to do a song now, instead of a full frontal assault. And that has helped improve those kind of balanced songs. And for solo or duo shows, they just work beautifully. There’s a lot of different ways to skin the cat, as it were.”
Parker was a mere 25 years old when Howlin’ Wind was released. Today he’s 67. Because of the straightforward, heart-on-the-sleeve quality of his lyrics, it’s fair to wonder if those early songs resonate with him. Or, when he sings “Soul Shoes,” does he feel that he’s a man in his sixties covering the songs of a twenty-something artist?
“That’s an interesting point,” Parker acknowledges. “But you know what? It’s all seamless to me when I play these things live. Obviously, there are a few lyrical things that I might think, ‘That’s a bit embarrassing,’ or ‘That’s odd.’ Especially when it comes to topical references, [those] kind of make you feel weird sometimes, but most of the songs don’t do that in any literal sense.”
Parker finds that the practice of playing a song in a different format – solo when the original was a full-band arrangement, for example – breathes new life into the music. “It just feels like reinventing,” he says. “And so none of them are dated to me, apart from those that just seem to be stranded in a certain time. Most of them fit seamlessly with new things.”
And as is always the case with the prolific Parker, there are indeed new things on the way. “I’ve got a new album in the bag now,” he says. “Some of the songs could have been on Howlin’ Wind, apart from that they’re obviously sung by a 67-year-old and not a 25-year-old,” he says. “That obviously makes a difference; you can’t help that. That’s the way it goes: do not try to be a young man any more.”
Parker feels there’s a continuity in his work. “This is not where you stopped. This is not where you ended up,” he says. “People tend to think, ‘Oh, you’ve gone like that.’ Well, I haven’t gone like anything, really. I’m just writing songs, and some albums have the onus more on the rock style, some more swing. But it was all there from Howlin’ Wind. The whole blueprint, really.”
Despite consistently positive critical response to his albums, Parker hasn’t ever broken through as a major headlining act. With that in mind – coupled with the economic realities of the music business today – it’s something of a gift that fans across the U.S. still have the opportunity to see and hear him in concert. He acknowledges that his audiences are often made up primarily of people who have been following his career for a long time. But occasionally he meets fans who haven’t bought one of his albums since, say 1982’s Another Grey Area, the superb album that included his minor MTV hit, “Temporary Beauty.”
“It’s surprising,” he says, “when I meet someone and they say, ‘I haven’t seen you since 1980.’ And I think, ‘Well, I’ve been making records all along.’” He laughs inwardly when he recalls being asked, “Where have you been?”
He had a ready answer for that fan. “Well, I’ve been working, pal. That’s what I’ve been doing. It’s just that what you did was what a lot of us did. You fell in love, got married, had kids.” He acknowledges that that’s just what happens. “I did the same kinds of things,” he says. “I lost touch with all kinds of music. I don’t know who’s doing what out there, because I don’t follow it. All I know is what Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift are doing, because you can’t get away from it. When one of them’s acting out, it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s what they’re doing now.’”
Parker admits that keeping up with artists requires some effort. “I don’t know what Bruce Springsteen’s doing,” he says. “And he’s a superstar. I’d have to punch into the internet ‘Bruce Springsteen’ plus the letter T, and then it comes up ‘tour.’ ‘Oh, my goodness! Look, he’s touring all over.’” He’s appreciative that his fans today make that effort. “They follow what I’m doing. They know I’ve got a Twitter account. They know I’ve got a website. They know they’re not going to see me in the local paper that often, or on CNN. That’s what following an artist is like now,” he says. “If you don’t follow their social media, you’ve got nothing.”
Still, he can be surprised – pleasantly so – when his audience includes younger people. “I think, ‘How on earth … why are you here? It must be embarrassing for you to like me!’ And some of them are just over the top about how much they like me.” Some younger fans show up with their parents. “That’s always good,” Parker says. “I often ask them, ‘Do you really like this? Do you really like me?’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah. Love it. It’s great.’ Okay. Far be it from me to complain. ‘Thank you. That’s weird.’”
And for his fans who still buy albums, Parker is readying a new album for release later this year. He says that while making records is “an addictive thing,” he might not keep doing it much longer. “I think it’s got to stop for me soon” he says. “I’ve got to rethink this, because it costs money.” His method of working involves recording without a record deal. He finishes an album, only then shopping it to labels. “I go to them afterwards and say, ‘Here’s what it cost me. Can you pay me that?’ And of course, as time goes on, they do not want to pay you anything. They just don’t have advances.” Parker believes he has been fortunate up to this point. “I’ve been very lucky,” he says, “but I can tell it’s wearing off.”
Graham Parker’s current solo tour brings him to several City Winery venues, and he’s not ashamed to admit that he enjoys the slightly upscale setting of those rooms. “It’s not a sticky beer floor,” he says. “There’s wine, there’s food, and it’s sort of like an adult kind of situation.” He laughs as he recalls the words of an old friend and associate who caught one of his recent City Winery shows. “He said, ‘It’s kind of a bigged-up Bottom Line, really, isn’t it?’” Parker was one of countless performers who performed at that famed New York City club in the 1970s and ’80s, one of the nicer venues in the city.
And if City Winery evokes memories of that room for Parker, that’s a good thing. “Yeah, it’s like a classy, Bottom Line-type place, without the pillars in the way.” After pausing a beat, he laughs and adds, “Although, there’s always something in the way.”
Photo by Laurence Watson.