CLEVELAND – Bob Andrews looks like a middle-aged minister who's gone off on a bender at a church social. Dressed in black pants, shirt and suit coat, the balding keyboard player for Graham Parker and the Rumour darts around the dance floor at the Agora Ballroom, jumping up and down, clapping and shouting at the singer up onstage.
It's Wednesday night – "ladies' night" – at the Agora, a showcase-dance club located on a seamy side street in the desolate downtown area near Cleveland State University. The previous evening, a packed house turned out to see Graham Parker and the Rumour, and now Parker and company are back, doing a special show that was announced over a local radio station only a few hours earlier. Unfortunately, because of the short notice, the group finds itself facing not another crowd of fanatics, as has been the case for much of this first leg of Parker's three-month U.S. tour, but a sparse, unattentive audience of a few hundred clean-cut college couples who no doubt showed up to hoist a few brews and listen to cover versions of late-Sixties and early-Seventies hits performed by a local group called Lefty. And Andrews is trying his best to set an example for the crowd.
"Get that heckler out of here," Parker shouts, pointing toward the keyboard player. "He's been following me all over the country." Andrews continues his antics, and Parker bends down to take swigs from cans of Michelob and Miller offered up to him by the few faithful at the foot of the stage. "Why do they call Cleveland the rock & roll capital of the world?" Parker continues, a sneer crossing his face. "What the fuck do they mean by rock & roll – buzz-saw guitars or something? Well, don't worry, we'll be doing our Beatles medley in a minute."
Instead, the Rumour rips into a roaring version of "Soul Shoes." Andrews scurries back up behind his keyboards as Parker prowls the stage like a caged leopard, occasionally stopping at the edge to lift his large, tinted spectacles and peer into the eyes of the crowd. By the end of the song, Parker and the Rumour have stirred up enough enthusiasm that they are called back for an encore.
But it is still far from the victory Parker had hoped to win when he agreed to do the show for free. Backstage, Andrews begins talking about the couples who walked out during the performance. "It was the girls," he says. "Did you see them? The kind who sit at home and watch the detergent and fabric-softener adverts. The guys seemed to be getting into it, but their girlfriends were grabbing them: 'Come on, Henry. We've got to get home and do the laundry.' "
Parker, slumped down on a love seat in the dressing room, is not in a joking mood. "It's depressing," he moans. "It's so fucking depressing."
Graham Parker has been waging such battles against indifference for years. Born in 1950 in London, Parker grew up in Deepcut, a country village in southeast England. His mother worked in a cafe and his father was a coal stoker. Parker left school when he was seventeen and began working in the Animal Viral Research Institute, breeding mice and guinea pigs. But he soon found that job, like most other aspects of working-class life in England, a dead end.
His way of breaking through that was music. In 1975, after a series of odd jobs and stints in several bands, Parker, then a gas station attendant, sent a tape of some songs he'd written to London's Hope and Anchor pub. Dave Robinson, who ran a recording studio there, heard the tape, got in touch with Parker and matched him up with the Rumour, an all-star band made up of veterans of England's then-waning pub-rock scene.
The following year, Parker and the Rumour – guitarists Brinsley Schwarz and Martin Belmont, keyboardist Andrews, bassist Andrew Bodnar and drummer Steve Goulding – released two albums. Howlin' Wind and Heat Treatment contain some of the most intense music of the Seventies, showing off a variety of influences, from Bob Dylan and R&B to Van Morrison and reggae. With Parker's growling voice pulling everything together, it was clear that Graham Parker and the Rumour had risen above pub-rock to create their own distinct brand of rock & roll. As critic Greil Marcus put it: "Parker's advent was a sign that the decade was finally toughening up: in its anger, its lyricism, its sophistication, its lack of artiness, its humor and its punch, his music cut a swath through most everything around it." But despite the critical acclaim, those first two LPs sold only 30,000 and 60,000 copies respectively.
The group and its management put much of the blame on Mercury Records, their label at the time. "Let's use Howlin' Wind as an example," Allen Frey, Parker's U.S. representative, told me over dinner the night before the first Cleveland show. "We were out there touring in support of that album, which had such incredible reviews, and here Mercury had done an initial pressing of only 8000 copies. At that rate, you're lucky if there's even one copy in every city you play."
(A Mercury representative contends that although the company initially pressed 8000 copies, "substantially more records" were in the stores by the time of the tour.)
The third LP, Stick to Me, released late in 1977, was not as well received by the rock press, which criticized Nick Lowe's production, as well as some of Parker's songs. And the two-record live set that followed last year, The Parkerilla, was at best a flawed attempt to capture the band's powerful live presence on vinyl.
The day of the second Agora show, Parker defended Stick to Me. "I think it's very hard sounding, very English sounding," he said. "It's not meant to be played on an expensive hi-fi; I don't think it works then, perhaps." He added that the album had originally been recorded with producer Bob Potter, but that version was scrapped when they found it was impossible to mix ("The hi-hat kept going over everything, and there was something missing in the bass frequencies"). The Nick Lowe version had to be recorded in a week, crammed in between tours of Sweden and the U.K.
Parker did admit that The Parkerilla was not as good as it should have been. But he maintained that this was not because he rushed it out just to fulfill his contract with Mercury – the reason most often cited in the press. "There wasn't enough care taken on The Parkerilla. I wasn't experienced enough, so I left it up to my manager and whoever he got to do the sound. And I think we botched it."
Despite his lack of commercial success, Parker had no trouble finding a new label. In fact, an intense round of bidding reportedly preceded his signing with Arista Records. His first album for the label, Squeezing Out Sparks, and the accompanying tour have gone a long way toward regaining the momentum that was lost after the first two LPs. The critical response has equaled, if not surpassed, that given Parker's first two records. And at press time, the LP was in the Top Forty with a bullet and had sold more than 200,000 copies.
In addition to being the first album for a new label, Squeezing Out Sparks also marks the beginning of a new musical era for Parker. The horns and complex musical arrangements that had reached a zenith on Stick to Me have been dropped in favor of a simpler, guitar-dominated sound. And lyrically, the album is his most introspective.
When I arrived in Cleveland, it was immediately clear that this time around Parker was determined to achieve the commercial breakthrough that had been predicted for him for so long. In addition to the two Agora shows, he had two radio-station visits planned (one to cut a station ID tape, the other for an interview) plus a record-store autograph session. The bulk of my interview was to be sandwiched between all of these activities.
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