Graham Parker: Rumour Becomes Fact

After ten years of struggling, the English rocker finally finds an audience

Graham Parker
Michael Putland/Getty Images
Graham Parker
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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.

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"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.

Parker is an intense, wiry man who stands only five feet five and can't weigh a whole lot more than a hundred pounds ("Everyone looks tall and fat next to me," he joked during the photo session for this story). My first indication of just how intense he can be came the night after the first Agora show when we were discussing the band's tour of Japan, which inspired at least two songs on the album – "Discovering Japan" and "Waiting for the UFOs." "It's really a weird country," Parker said, taking a sip of Grolsch beer as we sat at the bar in Swingo's hotel, just a few blocks from the Agora. "You go into a bar over there, and they're eating raw whale meat. I mean, can you believe that?" I offered a slight chuckle, thinking Parker was going to joke about such odd food, when he added: "I mean, fucking whales are going extinct, and here are these people eating them!"

The next day we met in his road manager's hotel room to talk about the new record. "What we were trying to get across was the songs, the emotion, the lyrics, rather than any kind of extravaganza," said Parker, who was seated on the edge of a bed, busily rolling a cigarette. "In the past, I occasionally found the music running away with itself, and I was fighting in the middle of it. This time I wanted it to be absolutely direct – the whole thing like a heartbeat. All the riffs, like in 'Passion,' I wrote them with the songs. We didn't elaborate on them much. I wanted it totally my show, and that's why it's different. It sounds like a Graham Parker album."

Parker gives much of the credit for the album's more direct sound to producer Jack Nitzsche. "The album took eleven days to record," Parker explained. "It took two days to get the studio [Lansdowne Studios in London] working because it had only been used by Acker Bilk and things like that. The third day we managed to play a song, and Jack said, 'Come and listen to this.' There was just this big mess coming out. So Jack and I went up to his hotel room and I told him we wanted to get back to fundamentals but we didn't know how to. I said, 'Jack, you gotta say what you think.' He was a bit paranoid about criticizing the band. I said to him, 'Jack, we're English. We sneer, we're cynical, we're miserable. But we really don't mean it.' So the next day we came in, and anything he said, I said, 'Yeah, come on. Carry on. Wot? Wot? Come on, say it. Here, have another beer.' And eventually we got it out."

Parker nervously rolled another cigarette ("It's an acquired taste. It's a little easier on the throat," he said) and began to talk about "You Can't Be Too Strong," the one song that perhaps best illustrates the "less-is-more" production approach to Squeezing Out Sparks. The song – done with just acoustic guitar, bass and keyboards – is about an abortion that involved an intimate friend of Parker's. It has been praised as one of his most passionate songs, but it has been criticized by those who feel Parker blames the woman in the song.

"When you're sixteen, or eighteen or something, you haven't got any money or anything, and the only thing you can think about is, 'God, I only hope she gets rid of it.' " Parker paused for a second and stared down at the bed. "But I'm not eighteen now, and it just makes you think . . . . But when I say, 'You decide what's wrong,' I'm not putting any blame on a woman. I'm saying the fact is that a man doesn't have to decide. A woman does. If it's saying anyone is weak, it's the men, because they don't feel it."

The album's title also comes from a line in "You Can't Be Too Strong." "That title's the best one we've had," Parker said. "It means death, for one thing. I mean, 'Saturday Nite Is Dead' – there you go, you're squeezing out a spark. Then there's the abortion, there's that level. Plus it's very sexual. And it's about writing songs. You write a song, and you're squeezing out a spark. A few people didn't like the title, including my manager [Dave Robinson]. He thought, 'What the hell is that? I mean, how can we market it?' I said, 'I don't care. It makes people think.' I'm still thinking about what it means. But you know what it's like in the record business: 'Hit me, hit me, hit me. Give me something I can market. Stick to Me, something like that.' And it's not quite that easy with this title."

As Graham was heating up to the subject of record companies, a representative from Arista knocked on the door and told us it was time to leave for Record Revolution, where the record-signing session was to take place.

"I mean, I just want to make records," Parker concluded. "I want a record company to sell them. I want to be baked beans – a product. You know, because I don't care. The record speaks for itself. They ain't gonna change that. I think everyone should hear my records and buy them. I don't think that's unreasonable. I mean, I really don't think it is."

Two weeks later, Graham Parker and the Rumour arrive in New York for a show at the 3000-seat Palladium. As we ride in the tour bus from yet another record-store autograph session to a fire station where some photos are to be taken, everybody's spirits seem to be much better than they had been in Cleveland. Squeezing Out Sparks is still climbing the charts, "Local Girls" has just been released as a single, and the tour has steadily been picking up steam since the Agora shows. At one of three sold-out shows at Chicago's Park West nightclub, the audience had refused to leave, demanding a third encore after the houselights had gone up. In Philadelphia, Parker and the Rumour received a warm reception from some 12,000 Cheap Trick fans at the Spectrum, despite the fact that they had not been advertised and that, because they got no sound check, the sound was awful. And the band was ecstatic about the four shows it had just played at Boston's Paradise Theater. "You shoulda been there," Martin Belmont tells me. "I mean, they were really incredible."

But everyone is still a little nervous about the New York show, which had been sold out for weeks. "We just don't want to jinx it," Bob Andrews says.

It turns out they have little to worry about. After getting off to a rough start, the band begins to heat up around the time of "Don't Get Excited," the fourth song of the set. "Protection" follows, and a good portion of the crowd is up on its feet. The next song, "Mercury Poisoning," Parker's diatribe against his former label ("The company is cripplin' me/The worst trying to ruin the best/. . . I've got Mercury poisoning/I'm the best-kept secret in the West"), is dedicated to Clive Davis, Parker's new boss at Arista. The group then plays the title songs to its first three albums, as if to let some more people in on the secret.

Onstage, the band forms a visual hodgepodge. At the far left, Brinsley Schwarz, with his neatly styled hairdo and white suit coat, looks like one of those well-heeled college kids who turned up for the second Agora show. He belies that image, however, with his occasional Pete Townshend-like leaps and sudden bursts on his Gibson Flying V. On the opposite side of the stage, Bob Andrews, the manic "minister," has a difficult time staying put behind his keyboards. He continually runs to the edge of the stage to encourage the audience, then dashes back to his station just in the nick of time. Martin Belmont, standing to Andrews' left, brings to mind a young Keith Richards, not only in his scraggly appearance, but also in his soulful riffing. Inevitably, his lead break on "Don't Ask Me Questions" draws one of the biggest cheers of the night.

But the focus of attention is almost always Parker, whether he's slamming his fist into his palm to bring home a point on "Mercury Poisoning" or wrenching his face into a twisted sneer during "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down." As I watch him this night at the Palladium, I can't help but think of something he had said to the Cheap Trick audience in Philadelphia the week before, something that just about sums up everything he and the Rumour stand for: "This isn't a show," he said. "This is for real. Don't you understand that?"

This story is from the June 28th, 1979 issue of Rolling Stone. 

From The Archives Issue 294: June 28, 1979
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