"There was a definite lack of energy and intensity before Graham Parker and the Rumour," Graham Parker says during a telephone interview. "You know, I did see a lot of those people who emerged from what was called New Wave and punk, playing in pubs around London, and they were really quite lame until 1977, like a year after I'd been making records. Then, suddenly everybody got really angry and intense, and started to write much better songs. You know, I think that the ante was upped."
Parker is speaking with his tongue halfway in his cheek but with the pride that comes from knowing he played a large role in changing the course of popular music. It's hard to remember now just what the musical landscape was like 23 years ago when Howling Wind, his debut album, was dropped into it. Believe it or not, even disco was an underground phenomenon at the time. Almost all songs, be they by Jefferson Starship, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles or Barry Manilow, were uniformly midtempo, and everybody seemed willing to meet in the muddled emotional middle.
In New York, the CBGB's crew was stirring up some breaths of fresh air, as the Ramones released their first album, with work from Blondie, Television, the Talking Heads and others in the wings. Meanwhile, the London press was wild about punk rock, as the Sex Pistols, the Damned, and the Buzzcocks were getting things under way. Bruce Springsteen had made the covers of Time and Newsweek simultaneously, and Warren Zevon was offering a twisted hope from the West Coast studio style. Change was in the air, but you had to dig pretty hard in a lot of isolated pockets to figure it all out.
Howling Wind was one of the great signs that year that rock & roll was about to revisit its energetic, emotionally edgy roots. It was not the only one, and I suspect that Parker and his backing band, the Rumour, benefited as much from the appearance of all the acts mentioned above as they did from his own work. But he was arguably the most polished songwriter of the bunch, and, when you consider the release of a second album, Heat Treatment, only four months later, Parker was responsible for more great music than any other artist that year.
"That was my intention," Parker explains, "that every song on an album should be really good. You've got to remember that at that time, people were still writing a couple of songs, going into the studio and jamming the rest. I became inspired, probably by the fact that I'd been into progressive music, and then I started to come out the other end of that. I started to appreciate the things I had liked when I was 17 again, which was American soul music and Jamaican ska, basically."
This love for classic three-minute singles, whether by Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson, the Maytals or the Wailers, was a real breath of fresh air at the time. Parker, though not as natural as his idols, was an effective singer who could carry somewhat complicated melodies, and his band was made up of people who had the chops to play whatever they wanted. The result was a disciplined release of youthful energy that allied itself with punk yet remained a separate stream. "I thought nobody else was doing what I was doing -- pulling a bit of Stones, a bit of Dylan, a bit of soul -- except for Van Morrison," Parker explained. "But Van Morrison had been around forever, so (I thought), maybe nobody will notice that I sound just like Van Morrison. I was heavily influenced by Van."
Parker released four more albums with the Rumour. Stick to Me came out one year after Heat Treatment, which yielded three strong releases in 16 months. After a disappointing live recording, The Parkerilla, came the masterwork of Parker's long and terrific career, Squeezing Out Sparks. Though the Van Morrison comparisons are legitimate for the first few records, with Sparks Parker made an album that sounded like nobody else. Horn charts were jettisoned and keyboards shunted to the background, and the slashing guitars of Parker, Brinsley Schwarz and Martin Belmont drove an amazing set of anthemic songs with riffs that could make Keith Richards or Angus Young jealous. The Up Escalator, which followed, was pretty good, too, but seemed a letdown after one of the greatest records in rock history.
The band split from Parker in 1981. "Making Another Grey Area was an anti-Rumour kind of record, very slick and controlled," Parker says of his next release. "You have to do that; you've got to refresh yourself. I didn't want to say, 'I have to please everybody.' I don't have that kind of attitude. My attitude is to say I've got to do something different, and that was a different record, a much slicker band. A lot of people really dug it and appreciated it, and other people didn't."
Since then, Parker has refreshed himself continually, releasing at least a dozen other albums with a variety of musical lineups and contexts for several labels. He flirted with the Top 40 once, in 1985, with "Wake Up (Next to You)," a gorgeous ballad from his only album on Elektra Records, Steady Nerves. "Elektra were really putting their backs behind it, because they saw a window opening," said Parker. "They saw it getting middle-of-the-road play, which my records don't usually get. You have to spend money to get a record on radio, even today, and you have to spend money to get it in the charts. They went to town on it, and good for them, but it still didn't rack up a lot of sales. So, I didn't get any kicks out of it. I knew what was going on."
Parker had written a scathing indictment of the record industry, "Mercury Poisoning," when he left his U.S. label, Mercury Records, after Stick to Me quickly became a cut-out in 1978. He still plays the song in concert. "I'm reading a lot of stuff about the record industry now, and "Mercury Poisoning" is as timely as ever -- the way bands get one album, and that's the end of their career if they don't sell a lot on a major label. It takes three weeks, really, to see if a record's going to do it or not. They give you all this bullshit about how they're gonna work the record for a while, but in three weeks, they know. You've got Soundscan telling you right away that this is a flop." For now, Parker has no label affiliation, after a couple of releases on the independent Razor and Tie label in the mid-'90s. His newest release, Loose Monkeys, is for sale only through the Internet, sold either at www.razorandtie.com or by linking there after visiting his highly entertaining personal Web site, www.punkhart. com/gparker. (Really, you want to read his spot-on analysis of how good Marilyn Manson's last album is, hidden away in Parker's essay from last October or November.) The album is mostly a collection of demo recordings of songs never put on his other records. I don't hear any lost classics, but I do hear a lot of fine material that stands up as a solid, enjoyable album for fans.
On Saturday, May 22, Parker will appear at the Side Door, playing solo in St. Louis for the first time in something like 10 years. "I'm much, much better now," he promised. "It's a much more fun, relaxed thing. The songs have taken on a much wider, more loose appearance. I've learned to play solo. It should really be a liberating experience, which it is for me now. Let the songs flow, go in different directions. It's a great thing, actually.