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.
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"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."
Indeed -- but it was the fury of tunes such as the title cut and "Don't Ask Me Questions" that stung most, turning Howlin' Wind into a popular breakthrough in England and a critical smash in the States. But subsequent attempts to turn glowing notices into U.S. sales were problematic. Parker's next five studio albums range from worthy to excellent, but with the notable exception of 1979's searing Squeezing Out Sparks, they're all hampered to one degree or another by inappropriate production that tried but failed to make Parker palatable to a mass audience. The most obvious of these missteps is The Up Escalator, released in 1982, which sports a stadium-rock sheen courtesy of Jimmy Iovine (currently co-chairman of Interscope Records), as well as a showy duet with Bruce Springsteen. But Parker believes that even 1976's Heat Treatment, widely regarded to be a masterwork, suffers from questionable arrangements and unsuitable sonics courtesy of heavyweight producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange -- a view he expresses in liner notes for a reissue of Treatment put out in Great Britain last year.
"We were opening for Thin Lizzy in those days, and for some reason Brinsley and Martin got into these dual-guitar things, where one plays low and the other plays high -- harmony guitars. And I never liked that," Parker says. "And Mutt Lange recorded the album in such a bizarre fashion. He was looking for separation to the utmost degree -- so much so that me and Martin were sometimes playing acoustic guitars in another building. It was a self-conscious attempt to gentrify, and to me it sounds a bit stodgy and overly fussy. But it works for some people. Years later I heard Def Leppard, who Mutt worked with, on the radio, and I thought, 'Oh my God; it's all coming back to me.'"
Parker is equally scathing toward much of the material on Treatment, which he had to pen from scratch mere months after completing Howlin' Wind: "'Fool's Gold,' 'Pourin' It All Out' -- these are powerful works. But 'Help Me Shake It' is not; it's a weak song. And 'Black Honey' is tremendously evocative, but it's a bluff. There's nothing in the lyrics. It's bullshit -- and I know it's bullshit."
But even as he runs down fan favorites, Parker the contrarian takes pride in praising unappreciated ditties on overlooked or forgotten long-players. He insists that 1992's Burning Questions, the recipient of perhaps his most tepid reviews, is brimming with "incredibly interesting songs" such as "Just Like Joe Meek's Blues," which "I think is marvelous." Likewise, he calls 1995's pleasant but somewhat underwhelming 12 Haunted Episodes, his first disc for Razor & Tie, one of the only first-rate acoustic-rock albums since Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, and he views Deepcut as proof that simplicity and depth are not mutually exclusive. "I'm actually quite a conservative songwriter," he says. "I use the same structures over and over -- which to me makes it rock and roll. But you can use those structures in a dull way or you can use them in a brilliant way -- and I think I've used them in a fairly brilliant way."
Nonetheless, Razor & Tie has been unable to get any significant airplay for Deepcut, a quandary Parker blames on the broadcasting industry. "Radio is a phenomenon of such arrogance and inequity that it's stunning, and the public are being shafted. The entire thing needs to be exposed, ripped up and turned off, and a lot of supercilious, very arrogant people need to be knocked off their pegs."
Parker is so irritated about this state of affairs that he recently sent an e-mail to the head honchos at Razor & Tie suggesting that they sponsor a summer tour called Rock Against Radio. "My idea is to get a backing band and a bunch of great artists who are being ignored and do a twenty-date tour," he says. "I wrote, 'I'm sure that considering the crisis in radio that you as a record company would love to get behind this, so please put a budget together post haste. Judging by the way the industry got rid of Napster and replaced it with something entirely inferior, we could wrap this up in a year.'"
Predictably, the Razor & Tie execs responded to this notion with silence. Parker says he didn't mind, because the concept "was kind of a gag" in the first place -- but the more he thinks about it, the more viable it seems to him. "Maybe I should do it," he says. "I'm sure we could find a few acts willing to stick their necks out. Because with radio the way it is, there's really no throats to cut."
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Since radio's door is effectively closed to him, Parker must travel to get out the word about his music, enduring discomforts along the way that he thought he'd left behind. He and the members of the Rumour get along well (drummer Goulding even plays on Deepcut), fueling talk of a possible reunion, but Parker quashes it. "This is a bunch of very, very grown men who'd have to be dragged through at a much lower standard. We were successful: We had two tour buses, our own lighting rig, our own sound man, even a monitor system I bought for $50,000. So to get all these old geezers together and put them in a van instead of a tour bus to play clubs would be stupid."
This opinion was reaffirmed after Parker recently got an opportunity to relive his days near the top of the heap. He was driving to a gig in Baltimore "when the phone rings and my agent says, 'Can you get to the arena as soon as possible? U2 needs somebody to open for them, because the singer in Garbage is sick. That's the opening act, and he's too sick to play.'" (Parker and his agent obviously aren't Garbage aficionados; the combo's singer, Shirley Manson, is female.) In response, Parker raced to the city, meeting his backing band, the Figgs, at the venue approximately thirty minutes prior to show time. "But we got there," Parker says, "and when we walked on stage and hit the first chord, I thought, "This is the way music should sound.' It sounded incredible, and the audience loved it. We went down great. We killed." After the set, though, Parker and the Figgs still had to play the club date -- and the next night, they wound up at a joint "with a stage the size of the desk I'm leaning on. There's nothing good about clubs. Let's be honest: To play an arena is awesome."
Upon being informed that the club where he's scheduled to perform in Denver has one of those desk-sized stages, Parker says, "I know -- and I can't wait. Really. In fact, make sure you say that what I was just talking about was said with the laughing intent that's there -- a sort of tragicomic intent." He cackles before adding, "Don't let anyone think I was angry."