Graham Parker – Woodstock calling
When Graham Parker sang “You Can’t Take Love For Granted”, I wasn’t listening. Oh, sure, I heard the song, and even liked it — the sinuous, midtempo cut that gave Parker more airplay in 1983 than he’d received since he’d split from the Rumour at the start of the decade. His return to radio was hailed as a bit of a comeback, his balladry a sign of musical maturity, signaling the emergence of a kinder, gentler GP.
There would be more comebacks. And I would continue to care less. I had come to take Parker for granted, even though I’d previously loved his music as much as I’ve ever loved any music. When Graham Parker & the Rumour debuted in the summer of 1976 with Howlin’ Wind and then followed that less than four months later with Heat Treatment, I felt as if this music had thrown me a lifeline, restoring and renewing my faith in rock ‘n’ roll redemption.
Those two albums represented an indictment of everything that had gone so horribly wrong with rock — and a determination, as Parker promised in “Back To Schooldays”, “to put them right.” At a time when arena rock represented a triumph of spectacle over substance, when progressive rock championed complexity over catchiness, when anything resembling basic human emotion was sacrificed to slick production values and any element of spontaneity had been lost to theatrical precision and commercial calculation, Parker emerged from nowhere to assault the bloated corpus of popular music and give it a good shake, rattle and roll.
Because music meant so much to him — which I could tell, because it meant so much to me — he seemed like a man possessed, driven by the inspiration of artistry that had sounded so great so recently and now seemed so lost. His vocal intensity suggested a raw approximation of Van Morrison’s — not the Van who had sailed into the mystic and settled into domestic bliss with Tupelo Honey, but the early, angry Van of Them, the ’60s group that practically every garage band from that decade had emulated.
Powered by the guitars of Brinsley Schwarz and Martin Belmont over the bedrock organ of Bob Andrews, Parker’s Rumour combined the swagger of the ’60s Rolling Stones with the textures of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde sessions. His songwriting reflected deep roots in soul music and rockabilly (with occasional excursions into the socially conscious reggae of Bob Marley). While Parker drew from disparate influences, they were all sublime influences, and the results sounded less like stylistic synthesis than primal impulse.
The music hit home, and it hit hard. If Parker had a kindred spirit that year, amid the rockets’ red glare of the American bicentennial, it was likely Bruce Springsteen, though even then it was obvious that Springsteen’s ambitions operated on more of an epic, even operatic scale. Parker wouldn’t have written “Jungleland”; Springsteen couldn’t have written “Pourin’ It All Out”. Where a Springsteen concert demanded a marathoner’s endurance from band and audience alike, a breathless Parker set had the pacing of a full-out sprint.
So, in 1976, Graham Parker & the Rumour were pretty much out there on their own. The music was urgent, angry, desperate, aggressive — all muscle and heart, with no flab — and it was as subtle as a shot to the ribs of rock’s sterile complacency. It was, in short, everything that would be ascribed to punk the very next year. For if the feral Parker had been a lone wolf in 1976, he was perceived as part of a pack in 1977. Or, worse, not part of it — as the last vestige of the old wave that the new wave would supplant.
“In 1976, I was being touted as somebody special and different, and I was,” Parker recalls. “I was the angry young man du jour. A year later, I wasn’t. Fair enough.
“There was a lot of it around. I knew change was going to happen, and sure enough, it did. I just didn’t foresee that it would be people singing in coarse English accents. For me, real rock ‘n’ roll had an American accent.”
Almost 30 years later, the title of Parker’s new album — Songs Of No Consequence, his second for Bloodshot Records — throws down the gauntlet at those of us who have taken him for granted. Ho-hum, another Graham Parker album, maybe even another comeback. Yet the album collapses the decades as if they had never transpired, renewing the bite and snarl, the edginess and the catchiness, of Parker’s brash emergence. Much of this material would have fit just fine on Howlin’ Wind or Heat Treatment. The best of it — the bittersweet “She Swallows It”, the Dylanesque “Dislocated Life” — could have highlighted Squeezing Out Sparks, the 1979 album generally acknowledged as Parker’s masterwork.
“It does hearken back, as some people say, to some of my older stuff, but I often do that anyway,” says Parker, 54, of the new album. “At first I was going to title it Balls, just for the hell of it. Then I was sitting in the studio while we were making the record and listening to ‘Bad Chardonnay’. And I thought, ‘Well, there’s a song of no consequence.’ And the band thought that was great. The other title I had in mind, but didn’t tell anyone, was The Kind Of Songs The Stones Can’t Write Anymore.”
Though it’s a harder-hitting collection than last year’s Your Country, it might not garner as much press attention. Because of the nature of the media — a thematic obsession that permeates Songs Of No Consequence — the last album’s country leanings (and his signing to the renowned insurgent-country indie Bloodshot) provided the sort of easy hook that put Parker back into the news. It isn’t likely that those who wrote their “Parker Goes Country” stories last year will return with a “Parker Leaves Country” follow-up this time around.