Graham Parker’s New Wave classic turns 40
Graham Parker was perpetually ticked off. In the mid-’70s, when he blasted on to the scene with the back-to-back albums Howlin’ Wind and Heat Treatment (both released in ’76), he came across as a modern version of the blustery antiheroes of black-and-white kitchen-sink British dramas like Look Back in Anger and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
On stage, his band, the Rumour, had the pent-up sense of aggression and aggrievement of soccer fans rooting for an especially hapless team. They were, in a word, brilliant. They combined the sturdy verities of rock & roll—the players (Brinsley Schwarz, Martin Belmont, Andrew Bodner, Bob Andrews and Stephen Goulding) were vets of the pub-rock movement of earlier in the decade—with the attitude that would come to full (im)maturity in punk, and naturally, the critics were besotted, because what did we like more than lean, unpolished, against-the-grain rock that had the kind of fury that was, at that moment, in short supply? Alas, the reams of raves were not enough. Howlin’ Wind failed to chart at all in the U.S., and the follow-up did only slightly better.
You could, as Parker did, point the finger at his American record company, but that wouldn’t be entirely fair. Stick to Me, the third Graham Parker & the Rumour album, was slack and muddled, and then they delivered a live album, The Parkerilla, that was perversely unexciting, the kind of product an artist delivers to fulfill a contractual requirement and get on with his life. That’s what The Parkerilla did—he was now a free agent—but, being Parker, he couldn’t resist taking a pointed shot at his label. “Mercury Poisoning” (how lucky for him that Mercury was the American arm of his U.K. company: he was handed a song title) was a litany of insults: “The geriatric staff think we’re freaks” and “I ain’t a token hipster in your Monopoly set.” As kiss-offs go, it was riveting stuff.
Other labels lined up to woo Parker and his band, including Arista Records. This was great news for those of us who worked there, many of whom were huge fans. So when Arista won the bidding war, it was a kind of validation, a coup, and when he delivered his first album for the label, 1979’s streamlined blast of adrenaline that was Squeezing Out Sparks, everyone was on board for what we were confident would be the major breakthrough, the type of about-time success that Springsteen had with Born to Run and Tom Petty would have later in the year with Damn the Torpedoes.
Certainly, we believed he’d earned it. Working for the first time with producer Jack Nitzsche—best known for his arrangements on Phil Spector’s explosions of pop noise, and at the time helming the punk-soul records of Mink DeVille—Parker kept everything that was thrilling about the ’76 albums, scrapped the horns, and went for a more blunt, in-your-face approach. Left intact were the lyrics lobbed like grenades: “There’s nothing to hold on to when gravity betrays you,” “You look all right in the cheap print dress,” “All the odds are stacked against you,” “Every bomb is detonated, every switch is thrown.”
And the shows around the time of the album, a bunch of them simulcast live on AOR stations across America, were stunning. The band started on the West Coast, playing the Roxy in Los Angeles and the Old Waldorf in San Francisco (that one can be purchased and streamed as Live in San Francisco, and is essential), and by the time they hit New York for shows at the Copacabana and the Palladium, they were un-toppable. Having the Sparks songs as the setlist foundation helped, and Parker continued to dip into the soul catalog for covers: Ann Peebles’ “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down,” the Trammps’ “Hold Back the Night,” the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” Reviewing the Palladium gig for the New York Times, Robert Palmer praised the band’s “unflagging intensity” and said, “The show was the sort on which reputations are made.” Reputations, perhaps. Airplay and sales, somewhat less. At least not commensurate with Arista’s hopes and expectations.
Not that the effort wasn’t made. Arista stuck with it, clandestinely (initially) getting the heretofore “underground” “Mercury Poisoning” out into the world to grab some attention, releasing a single of “I Want You Back (Alive),” making videos, sending out promo items. With the live GP&R shows getting so many stellar reviews, Arista’s head of publicity, Dennis Fine, and head of rock promotion, Scot Jackson, thought it’d be a cool idea to service press and radio with a promo-only album of all the songs from Squeezing Out Sparks, in sequence with a couple of bonus tracks, recorded live. The tracks on Live Sparks—as far as I know the first time a complete live version of a studio album was released on the heels of the original—were taken from the April 9 Old Waldorf show that aired on KSAN and an April 28 show in Chicago broadcast on WXRT. Live Sparks is now, by the way, officially added on to Squeezing Out Sparks. The Arista team loved this project. And it was a vindication when the album—against such competition as the Clash’s U.S. debut, Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps, and Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces—was voted the best of 1979 (by a solid margin) in the Village Voice’s annual critics poll. It also shows up frequently on lists of “best ever” albums, and as terrific as Parker albums recorded before and since have been, Squeezing Out Sparks has proved career-defining.
In the 2012 Judd Apatow comedy This Is 40, Paul Rudd’s character signs Graham Parker to his “retro” record label. “If I can just sell ten thousand records to his hardcore fan base, we’re golden,” Rudd tells his skeptical wife, who just wants him to sign a hot teenaged girl so the family can eat. He’s overestimated that fan base by quite a bit—Parker is good-naturedly complicit in acknowledging that his albums don’t sell that much—but when we see Parker in the film, he’s doing a stripped-down version of “Local Girls,” and then, with the reunited Rumour, “Protection,” both from Sparks, and the songs still sting. (Although you can’t help thinking of another lyric from the album: “The movie might be new but it’s the same soundtrack.”) The complete set from the movie shoot, filmed at L.A.’s Belasco Theater, had three more songs from that album. And Parker’s new album, out in April ’19, is the self-explanatory Squeezing Out Sparks: Solo Acoustic 40th Anniversary. “I shouted sayonara,” Parker sings on “Discovering Japan,” the lead track; “it didn’t mean goodbye.” Not when you can keep going back, and still make sparks.