Don Silver is author of the book, Clive: Working for the Man in the Age of Vinyl, an intimate, insider account of working for Clive Davis at Arista Records. —Ed.
In late 1978, I was hired by Clive Davis to do A&R, which is essentially to scout talent at Arista Records. What sounded very exciting at first, after a year, lost much of its luster. Day after day, I listened to demo tapes and went to clubs and showcases put on by wannabe rockers, formula pop balladeers, and some of the most contrived music I’d heard since I was a little kid begging my parents to change the car radio station. One day, I got a cassette of Graham Parker’s first record for Arista, Squeezing Out Sparks.
It was actually Parker’s fourth album and it was quite a little masterpiece of coiled up energy, cynicism and craft, explosive, snarky and catchy as all get out. He’d built quite a following in the U.K. but his first U.S. release pretty much died stillborn. There was also a gray vinyl 12” single that we didn’t include in the album that Parker had written in accordance with what was the ethos of punk–a scathing rebuke of his former label called “Mercury Poisoning.”
Squeezing Out Sparks didn’t sell like Fleetwood Mac or Foreigner, but it was critically acclaimed for its fine songs, high voltage performances, and irreverence. For me, at least for a minute, it was like the old days when I first dreamed about being in the record biz; everybody thought Squeezing Out Sparks was a really good record by a guy who someday was going to make a great one.
Graham Parker’s second album for Arista, Up the Escalator, was produced by Jimmy Iovine right around the time Iovine produced Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes. Maybe Parker hadn’t had enough time to write new material. Maybe expectations were too high. It didn’t have the magic.
Over the past thirty-four years, Parker has released over twenty studio albums, a handful of live records and has toured almost continuously, headlining clubs and smaller halls and opening for acts that have long since come and gone. This year, he and the Rumour reunited to make a new CD. And Parker played an aging rock star in Judd Apatow’s movie, This is 40.
I wondered what it felt like to be a rock musician for forty years in an industry that reveres stardom without ever delivering on that early promise of greatness.
What sticks out to you about being a recording artist in the late ’70s and early ’80s? What did you think at the time and what do you think now when you reflect back on those years and the way it was, having Mercury poisoning so to speak, then being signed by Clive, making and releasing records that were critically well received but didn’t sell through?
When I signed my first deal with Phongram in the UK in 1975 it was a much friendlier time regarding the belief and patience that major labels had in their artists. You signed a deal for four albums and they usual kept you on for the duration, based on the idea that a career could grow and record sales could increase accordingly. They stuck by a lot of acts in those days and let them grow, even though many of them didn’t have much hope of becoming extremely successful.
My career in America was hampered by Mercury, which was the American arm of Phonogram and had the choice of whether to release my records in the states or pass on them. They picked up the deal but really didn’t have a lot of faith in my work. They had no context in which to fit it. It was about a year and a half before new wave and punk became a force and so I was in a field of one. I understand their problem very well now. At the time it was just annoying to see the complete lack of serious promotion, but I doubt if anything they could have done would have made much difference.
As my four album deal with Phonogram/Mercury reached the end, my manager Dave Robinson found himself being courted heavily by Clive, who subsequently gave us a deal with way too much money in it than was healthy. To expect huge promotional money after getting a deal like that was perhaps a bit naive, and before long my manager was just as pissed with Arista as he was with Mercury! Which led to me going into Arista’s offices about once a year before a new album came out and having my annual argument with Clive and his sidekick Abbey Konowitch.
I can’t say that this deal was much healthier than the Mercury one in that respect, but I got large advances, all of which got spent on absurdly expensive records with expensive producers in expensive studios and good sized tour support. But I was quite comfortably off, however, in this period, because Arista also gave me a hefty fee upfront aside from the recording advances.
I’ve been lucky in many ways because even after the Arista period I kept on getting major record deals, even if some of them only lasted for one album, as the Elektra deal did. As far along as 1991 for instance, RCA signed me and I made a bunch of albums on that label. Then Nirvana arrived and all bets were off! It was Indie land from then on.
What was it like to work with Clive? Were there creative interactions with the legendary music man?
From the very beginning Dave Robinson made sure that in the deals there was no allowance for record companies to get involved with the songs, the producer choice, or any other artistic decisions. Clive seemed to totally respect that and let me get on with it. I know he was blown away by Squeezing Out Sparks and liked The Up Escalator. He was keen on the choice of Jimmy Iovine. From then on I don’t think he was all that impressed with the other records and the writing was on the wall by then that I was not going to break big in the states.
Where have you drawn your creative energy from—how have you stayed in touch with the Muse all these years?
I use the same crude process to write songs: I sit with a guitar and something to write in (my iPad notebook these days!) and bash away until some interesting take on the classic pop/rock chord progressions magically appear or a nifty phrase pops into my head and I’m off and running. It’s always a pleasant surprise to find I’ve just lost two hours but have a song in front of me that holds water. It’s not easy, and still fraught with anxiety that one day nothing will come (and much of the time it doesn’t!) or that what does come will be rubbish and I wont recognize that, but somehow it keeps coming and I’m confident that I’m still writing at a high level.
What was your frame of mind as you wrote Squeezing Out Sparks? Why the references to Churchill and Uboats? Can you talk a little about the ballad, “You Can’t Be Too Strong?”
When I wrote the Squeezing Out Sparks songs I was into the touring life full-bore. It makes me wonder how I found the time to write these tunes, but I do recall being on a plane flying back to England from a Japanese tour and feverishly writing lyrics for what would become “Discovering Japan.”
I do know that the horn sections that I’d used on quite a few of the tunes on my first three albums had to go. New wave and punk had happened and it seemed to me that I was sometimes thought of as old hat, perhaps an R&B stylist like Southside Johnny, who also used a horn section. In fact we had done two tours with him and the Asbury Jukes. I picked up on the clean and often minimal sound of new wave and used that to some degree on Sparks. As far as mentioning Churchill goes, I recall seeing a clip of him saying “So all of you be damned, we can’t have heaven crammed” and found it quite offensive so I used it verbatim as the opening salvo on “Protection.”
“Can’t be too Strong” started as a fairly uptempo country song until producer Jack Nitzsche realized that the lyrics were pretty heavy and got me to slow it way down. A very good idea! It comes from personal experience but is in no way meant to be judgmental. Things happen sometimes and you find out about them later. The best thing about that song is that it made a list of the 50 conservative rock songs of all time! I guess you can take what you want from it…
The recent movie, This is 40, seems to make the point that your music and most music (except what is contemporary) isn’t very important to more than a handful of people. You seemed very good-natured and at ease in your role in the movie and in interviews. How do you feel about having such a long and satisfying career without quite achieving what people consider stardom?
Regarding the movie This Is 40, I was cast as “Himself,” it’s true, but I was playing a character. When I saw what Judd was after, I played it to the hilt. Judd had some lines about my foot hurting and I turned it into gout, which was an old man’s disease in all the comic books I read as a kid: the granddad always had this huge foot wrapped in bandages and some kid would bump into it and granddad would shout: “Ouch, my bloody gout!” I played an old granddad cause that was the part that was called for. I also had five songs in the movie. What can I say? It was the highlight of my career at the age of 62!
I see a lot of hype about new bands now that are apparently having great success. Many of them are playing the same size venues as I played at my peak and in fact played just recently with the Rumour. And a look at their record sales often shows that they are selling less than I was at my peak with Squeezing Out Sparks. They would be have been considered failures had they been making records back then when sales of a million records was the standard we were supposed to be at.
Rumours of my terrible hard luck have been greatly exaggerated! All things being equal, it’s no surprise that I am now locked in with an audience size that won’t set the world on fire, and many of these current acts, if they get that far, will eventually be, too. Yes, it’s true, my music is not relevant to many now. So it goes…
That doesn’t mean you don’t stop trying. It also doesn’t mean I’m making records and playing shows hoping I’ll suddenly break out into some new bigger level of popularity. It just means I don’t stop trying to write great songs and record great records and do great shows. After six months the very thought of the last record depresses me a little and I look forward to the next one. Sometimes I’m already gathering ideas and writing songs before the last record is even mixed.
I’m already looking ahead. It’s just what I feel compelled to do. One day I won’t.