They think it’s a show,” English rocker Graham Parker muttered one night last fall, coming off a stage in Phoenix. “But it isn’t a show, it’s real.” The Parkerilla, three sides of live material (side four is taken up by a new studio version of “Don’t Ask Me Questions,” reduced to just under four minutes for the benefit of AM radio), is a show.
We find Parker and the Rumour, who at their best greet a crowd like a storm warning, on something less than a hot night; rather, they’re very competent, which is to say that The Parkerilla is close to pointless. Parker and the Rumour don’t take off from their three previous albums, they clone them: the live version of “Don’t Ask Me Questions” offered here misses the original studio take by a mere six seconds.
The only vital differences are negative. Stephen Goulding, whose drumming on Howlin Wind and Heat Treatment is so clean and full of snap, overplays constantly; like a nightclub hack who can underline a phrase only with his cymbals, he sounds cloddish. Bob Andrews’ cute, emotionally barren piano capsizes the “Maggie May” romanticism of “Gypsy Blood.” A certain amount of bullshit has crept into Parker’s singing: he pumps up “Don’t Ask Me Questions” with melodrama, and the natural intensity of his attack sometimes crosses the line into ersatz hysteria. You can hear him pushing.
What truly makes this record a waste of time is the song selection. Parker’s last album, Stick to Me, was miserably recorded, virtually snuffing the power of the three blazing, intelligent tunes he then proceeded to rescue on-stage: “Stick to Me,” “Soul on Ice” and the magnificent “Thunder and Rain.” None is included on The Parkerilla — nor is “Pouring It All Out,” as perfect a rock & roll song as anyone has written in the Seventies, and the essence of Parker’s live dose of “reality.” What we get instead are seven and a half minutes of “The Heat in Harlem,” a clichéd fantasy that only Carmen Miranda could save. And so on.
Parker’s career has clearly hit a snag, both in terms of commercial failure — FM airplay hasn’t sold his records — and in terms of his ideas of what to do about it. The enormous critical support he received for his first two albums — all of it deserved — has been pretty much transferred to Elvis Costello, who has a far more distinct (i.e., marketable and easy-to-write-about) image, and who projects the pop (as opposed to Parker’s personal) obsessiveness that critics, pop obsessives themselves, respond to most deeply. It’s not inconceivable that a nicely titled live album could put Parker across. Such artifacts have worked for other stalled performers recently: Peter Frampton, of course, but also Bob Seger, with whom Graham Parker has a lot in common. Vegas, however, is not posting any odds.