Graded on a Curve: Graham Parker, Squeezing Out Sparks

Celebrating Graham Parker on his 72nd birthday.Ed.

Some guys just can’t catch a break. Especially if their name is Graham Parker, who released four stellar albums from 1975 to 1979 and never came close to making the big time. Just how good was he in his prime? The English rocker’s first two LPs (1975’s Howlin’ Wind and 1976’s Heat Treatment) made the top five of The Village Voice’s annual Pazz and Jop poll. But has your average music fan heard his music? Not so much. The guy might as well be invisible.

Parker had his own suspicions about his failure to reach the big time, and it was Mercury Records, who in his opinion did nothing to promote his music. He laid out his argument in the scathing “Mercury Poisoning” with its lines, “I got Mercury poisoning/It’s fatal and it don’t get better/I got, Mercury poisoning/The best kept secret in the west, hey the west.” It’s a great song. It never made its way on to an LP. Parker’s new label, Arista Records, planned to release it as a single in 1979, but ultimately relegated it to a B-Side. Too risky to release–Parker could turn on you next.

Parker’s voice bears a distinct resemblance to that of Elvis Costello, but he doesn’t go in for Costello’s witty wordplay. Parker’s songs address everyday concerns in everyday language that Costello’s clever songs never do. Just check out “Local Girls” (don’t bother with ‘em) and “Saturday Nite Is Dead” (“I used to know a good place to go/But now it’s nothing like it was then”).

Parker had a crack backing band in the Rumour, who would go on to release three albums in their own right. Furthermore, ace guitarist Brinsley Schwarz has gone on to record six well-received solo albums, while rhythm guitarist Martin Belmont has released a neat dozen. Keyboard player Bob Andrews, drummer Steve Goulding, and bass player Andrew Bobnar rounded out the quintet, providing more than enough coloring and backbone to fuel the hard rockers and ample subtlety to add nuances the slow ones.

On 1979’s Squeezing Out Sparks, the fourth of Parker’s amazing run, Parker and the Rumour take it fast and take it slow, and deviate from the quotidian on both “Discovering Japan” (as close as they get to “New Wave”) and the uncharacteristically upbeat “Waiting for the UFOs.” Much more in the Graham mold is anti-anthem “Saturday Nite Is Dead,” with its lines “Saturday night is dead/It don’t matter what they say/I’m going to the funeral Sunday.” “Protection” has a ska feel and Parker worried (I think) about the A-Bomb, and features Schwarz’s power guitar and great piano runs by Andrews.

On the mid-tempo “Local Girls,” Parker spits out his bile on the girls around town, probably because he’s pining for one “stupid child” (She must be stupid? How can she resist his caveman charm?) He doesn’t “want her love.” Says Mr. Enlightened Feminist lying through his teeth–he’d sooner “knock her down.”I hope he’s channeling a neanderthal—if not, he should go back to his cave and sulk.

On hard rocker “Nobody Hurts You” a frustrated Parker sings “Hey baby, I’m out of favour/Can’t always be the right flavour/It just seems that no matter what you do/Someone, somewhere’s suddenly gotta punish you.” Schwarz tears holes in the song’s fabric, the backing vocals shine as they do throughout, while Schwartz’ shreds some more on“Don’t Get Excited.”

The ballad “You Can’t Be Too Strong” brings acoustic guitar and some bright and shining keyboards to that most important of issues: abortion. He comes at the subject from so many angles it’s hard to know Parker’s take on the issue, but what ultimately shines through is empathy for the woman forced to make the decision.

In “Passion Is No Ordinary Word” Parker says it’s a manufacturing product“Cause this is nothing else if not unreal,” sings Parker, “When I pretend to touch you, you pretend to feel,” and if you keep it up, he warns, “you won’t feel anything.” On the impassioned “Love Gets You Twisted” Parker can’t say it enough: “the hearts are enlisted to break each day” but go ahead and “screw yourself up.” A walking Valentine’s Day card he isn’t.

Squeezing Out Sparks is the work of an extraordinarily gifted singer and songwriter whose work has more pub rock in it than the slick New Wave of its time. He’s spent his career making great art from the materials available to us all, and he’s done it with zero flash. He makes it look simple, but as in the case with Tom Petty, the simplicity of his songs is deceptive.

Parker will never make the big time, that’s for sure. Write it off to bad luck, wrong timing, or record label fuckery, but as long as there are music fans looking for the real thing they can do no better than Parker, who’s dedicated his life to squeezing out sparks.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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