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Graham Slams

New-wave pioneer Graham Parker is still squeezing out the sparks.

With the release of his debut album, 1976's Howlin' Wind, British-born singer-songwriter Graham Parker was pegged as the classic Angry Young Man -- and ever since, most reviewers have ranked his works according to where they fall on the anger scale. Scribes who were largely unmoved by his work during the '80s and '90s frequently griped that the recordings lacked his trademark bile, while those who defended them often insisted that the platters in question contained more rage than was readily apparent. Take the unintentionally funny headline of a Baltimore Sun article from 1985: "Parker's Still Pretty Angry."

Speaking from his home in bucolic Woodstock, New York, the voluble Parker, who's no longer so young at 51, doesn't get particularly, well, angry when this rating method is noted, but he's clearly annoyed by it. "There's a lot of judgment about the level of anger, a lot of assessment," he says. "It's like, 'Can you weigh the anger? How much does it weigh on this album?' Which is especially ridiculous when you consider that Howlin' Wind has two of my most romantic songs on it -- and one of them, 'Gypsy Blood,' is maudlin to me. It's not a good song; it's a huge rip-off of Van Morrison, and the lyrics are maudlin."

Statements like this one are guaranteed to get a rise out of the Parker faithful, and that's fine with him. He proudly confesses to being "sort of a contrary person," and this quality has helped sustain him throughout a career in which he's gone from being a critic's darling capable of selling out 5,000-seat arenas to an artist struggling to survive on the commercial fringe.

Graham Parker cuts deeply on a new album inspired by his youth in East London.
Graham Parker cuts deeply on a new album inspired by his youth in East London.

"It would be really easy to say, 'I'm not doing this anymore,'" he admits. "But that passes. What's important is that I'm still alive and still making records that people deserve to hear. And it's my job to make sure they hear them."

Deepcut to Nowhere, released in August on the Razor & Tie imprint, is Parker's latest reason to leave the house, and it provides more ammunition for the anger-is-good crowd. The tunes that dominate the middle portion of the CD are literate and smart, but they have comparatively little bite either musically or lyrically; for instance, "Tough on Clothes," about a kid who frequently rips holes in his trousers (ho-hum), is followed by "Socks 'N' Sandals," which focuses on Parker's preference for dressing casually (yawn). But these ditties are framed by compositions with considerably more edge. "Syphilis & Religion," a pointed jeremiad against imperialism, falls near the end of the disc, while "Dark Days," Parker's most vibrant number in ages, kicks off the proceedings with portents of doom -- couplets like "There has been a seismic shift/I felt the whole earth quiver," a reference to conflict between India and Pakistan -- that ring loudly in the wake of September 11.

"People were calling me straightaway and saying, 'Jesus -- your song. What were you thinking of?'" Parker notes. "But it wasn't anything that occurred to me like an epiphany. I was just trying to express the general feeling a lot of us have that something very bad could happen at any minute, and we're reaching a crisis point. And unfortunately, we did.

"I'm not optimistic about the future of terrorism," he allows, "because there are so many young men in the Middle East who are incredibly idealistic and will fall for the kind of one-dimensional thinking these groups specialize in. And I understand that feeling. I remember very well being in my twenties and thinking, 'I'd like to machine gun all the rich people.' But luckily there wasn't any fanatic cult around to get me -- and besides, I was always too cynical anyway."

The gloominess of Parker's worldview is reflected in his most recent LP's title: Deepcut -- the place that leads to nowhere -- is the name of the southeast England burg where this East London native came of age. His parents made ends meet via menial jobs (Mom toiled in a restaurant, Dad stoked coal), and his early employment history was similarly depressing: At seventeen he bred guinea pigs for scientific experimentation, and he later worked at a gas station, thus earning the nickname "Petrol Pump Parker." But he also wrote songs in his spare time, and in 1975 a demo tape caught the attention of Dave Robinson, co-founder of Stiff Records, a label that up until then was associated with England's pub-rock movement. Robinson assembled a crew of pub-rock veterans (guitarists Brinsley Schwarz and Martin Belmont, keyboardist Bob Andrews, bassist Andrew Bodnar and drummer Steve Goulding) to back up his new discovery, and in short order, Parker and the band (dubbed the Rumour) were inked by Mercury Records -- the first of more than half a dozen labels for which he'd record.

Produced by Nick Lowe, Howlin' Wind was aggressive enough to be lumped in with punk rock by American journalists of the day (the term "new wave" wasn't yet in common usage), but its primary influences were more eclectic, as Parker acknowledges: "I took from all the greats -- Otis Redding and Levi Stubbs and Wilson Pickett -- and used that as a style. It was natural to me, and all my soul roots came back to me. But those guys only had love to sing about, and by the time I came along there was a lot more, because I'd listened to Pink Floyd, I'd listened to Dylan, I'd been into Captain Beefheart. I could use surreal imagery, political imagery, sexual imagery, and love and romance, too, and all of that was in my music."

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