you just landed on the devil’s sidewalk: ruminations about the where, when, what and why on graham parker

These people dictate what we can and cannot listen to based on sales and profit. They determine which foreign artists we can have access to, and that the poor suckers living in Brazil will have an endless supply of Celine Dion records. Success in this arena has little to do with the crafting of the art, but rather with the making of money. This is the business of popular music and it’s rotten through and through….”

 

by mike morgan

 

The Where:

“It sure helps to know where it’s at” —Lord Buckley (Hipster)

When Graham Parker and the Figgs performed at B.B. King’s club in NYC a few weeks back, the setting provided an ideal backdrop for his song, “Disney’s America.” Oddly enough and surely a rarity in these times, B.B. King’s is an audience-friendly musical venue, with a large room (wide not long), plenty of seating, a lengthy bar that’s set dead-center, and a clear visual shot of the stage and the artists from any corner of the floor. Aside from the usual Manhattan club-inflated prices, the smattering of upside-down map-reading, digital camera-toting visitors and exceedingly loud, obnoxiously drunken businessmen, on the whole it’s punishment free. Punishment free that is, except for its actual location, which is 42nd Street, Times Square, between 7th and 8th Avenues, the world HQ of everything that is wrong with popular entertainment and those who own and control it. The neon assault of the Lion King/Nike/Sport’s Cafe/Disney Complex/Sony/Virgin Megastore/Madame Tussaud’s glare is blinding. And if that’s not all, with the obvious realization that the old streetlife, no matter how cheesy, cheap and downright sordid most of it undoubtedly was, has been replaced permanently by this sterile, money-sucking, in-your-face, blinking pablum, whose primary clientele consists of tourists and suburbanites (read white people), the attack intensifies itself into a steady barrage of greed-inflicted pain. This public obscenity is referred to as urban renewal, cleaning things up and progress by our city, state, banker, real-estate, corporate so-called fathers and mothers. The residential part of this community, formerly comprised of tenement buildings and cold-water flats and inhabited by lower income folks, now made up of condominiums and refurbished apartments and occupied by yuppies, used to be called “Hell’s Kitchen.” Its current name is “Clinton.” Say no more!

I first saw Graham Parker and the Rumour (horns and all) play in a space called “The Roundhouse” in Chalk Farm, North London in the early spring of 1978. I sat behind Brinsley Schwartz’s mum, who was very proud of her son, the guitar player. The Roundhouse is what its name suggests, a circular building. It was previously owned by British Rail and its function was a depot where the locomotives could be turned around 180 degrees. When it was deemed redundant by the train men, the place was bought by entertainment promoters and transformed into an art exhibit/concert/drama centre. Not unlike the original Globe Shakespearean theatre, the audience surrounded the stage from below and above, thus making it a perfect facility for live rock and roll. And in 1978, London was ablaze with scorching music. Regular acts on Sunday nights at The Roundhouse included Devo, 999, The Flamin’ Groovies, Dr. Feelgood, Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, Ian Dury & The Blockheads, Pere Ubu, and the never-to-be-forgotten Albertos Los Trios Y Paranoias. Around the corner from the Roundhouse, towards the Primrose Hill side, is the house once rented by Friederich Engels. It is said that Karl Marx walked daily from the British Museum to Engels’ place, where they mulled over the plight of the working person. Thanks for the help mates, we’re still trying! I don’t know if The Roundhouse is still there, bit if it is, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s now being used by that jingoistic Blair as a missile launching pad. Other weapons were fired the night of that Graham Parker gig.

In 1985, I was in attendance when Graham Parker did a summer pier set in New York City. The West-Side pier music shows were an inexpensive good deal for concert-goers. Situated to the starboard side of the warship museum, the U.S.S. Intrepid, an aircraft carrier/dreadnought floating homage to world domination (inexplicably and constantly referred to as “freedom” by George W. Bush), pier audiences faced east towards the stage and the collapsed West-Side Highway. This is at the far end of Hell’s Kitchen on the Hudson River, an area once controlled by the Westies, a notorious Irish-American criminal gang, who weren’t the sharpest knives in the cabinet, but surely used sharp knives. During that very period, Jimmy Coonen and his fellow Westies ran the street concessions in that entire neighborhood, including everything related to the Intrepid zone. They even had a shakedown of the various Broadway theatre unions. Parker himself had just completed a tour where he was the opening act for Old Slowhand, or God as some liked to call him, the classically boring Eric Clapton. Reduced to a half-hour set of purposefully muffled sound, designed to make the Layla man sound wonderful tonight (now that’s a gargantuan, if not impossible, undertaking), post his release from that misery, old GP was as acerbic as ever that night on the pier. “Feel right fucking safe next to the battleship, don’t I,” he squawked at his followers.

The other Graham Parker performance that completes this particular quartet of live gig accounts goes back to the summer of 1978 in England. Bob Dylan, merely months away from his pathetic foray into the Zionism/Jews for Jesus/Born-Again Christian wasteland, the explanation of which doesn’t warrant the price of the paper this is written on, was playing the U.K. for the first time since the Isle of Wight in 1966. The tour culminated in a huge outdoor concert at Camberley, Surrey, in the South East of England. The sight chosen was an old RAF WWII bomber/fighter base, then a deserted field, with the odd remnant of a nissen hut reminding one of Bomber Harris, Wellingtons, Lancasters, Spitfires, Hurricanes, Mosquitoes, Stukas, Messerchmitts, Fockewulfs, Heinkels, Dorniers, handlebar moustaches, “Watch out for the Hun in the sun,” “Bandits two o’clock high,” “Tally-ho” “Gott in Himmel” and other memorable flyboy banter and twaddle. The cast included GP and the Rumour, Joan Armatrading, Eric (yawn again) Clapton, and the Big Lebowski Zimmerman himself. Graham Parker was born and grew up in Camberley. He pumped gas there and escaped from there. This was “the local boy makes good and returns home triumphantly” dream come true. “Fucking dump, innit?” he snarled from the stage.

* * *

The When and The What:

Just the facts, Ma’am” —Sergeant Joe Friday

It was once reported in New Musical Express that Graham Parker began his odyssey into the world of rock and roll by placing an ad in a certain music publication. He claimed he could “play the guitar, write his own songs and sing somewhere between Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, and that he needed a band.” Whether this is verifiable or not, probably doesn’t matter now. But what does count is that between the years of 1975 and 1980, he produced five original shining gems of rock ‘n soul records, namely Howlin Wind (1975), Heat Treatment (1976), Stick To Me (1977), Squeezing Out Sparks (1979) and The Up-Escalator (1980). The Sparks record won critical acclaim, and was voted into many critics top ten list for that year.

His band on all of those records was the Rumour, perhaps England’s equivalent to the East Street Band when it came to bar-band chops. The Rumour comprised of pub-rock favorite combo Ducks Deluxe alumnus Martin Belmont on rhythm guitar, ex-leader of the Brinsley Schwartz band, old BS himself on lead guitar, keyboard player Bob Andrews, bassist Andrew Bodnar and drummer Steve Goulding. GP sang, wrote the songs, and played rhythm guitar too, just like the ad said. A horn section appeared on various songs on these albums, made up of veterans from ‘60’s John Mayall-inspired British big blues bands, such as “The Keef Hartley Band.”

Here’s a fact or two about these records. Heat Treatment was produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange — who went on to produce [gasp] AC-DC, and now 25 years later, is married to and produces that queen of Country” music, Shania Twain! Well, to be fair, she is a looker — Stick To Me by the ex-Brinsley Schwartz band bass player, Nick Lowe and Squeezing Out Sparks by the lonely surfer himself, the recently deceased Jack Nitschze. By the time The Up-Escalator came along, Graham Parker and his boys were attracting such guest musicians as Bruce Springsteen and sometime Rolling Stones piano player, Nicky Hopkins.

Stiff Records, the independent label and dreamchild of a certain entrepreneur, one Jake Riviera, released the early Graham Parker and the Rumour singles. Stiff was responsible for giving a number of that era’s local talent the necessary promotion, including Ian Dury & The Blockheads, Elvis Costello, Wreckless Eric, Ten-Pole Tudor, and Nick Lowe.

Similar to the first Elvis Costello records, Graham Parker and the Rumour were under a ton of pressure to release albums at the whim and financial terms of the record label, then Mercury Records. Graham Parker tells of completing Stick To Me in an unprecedented short amount of studio time to meet the industry’s deadline. They were due to release the Stick To Me record by such a pre-determined date, and he recalls himself and Nick Lowe listening to the master tapes for one final edit, when all this black stuff started pouring out of the recorder as they were listening to the tape. The original master was destroyed and the band and studio staff reassembled and rerecorded the entire project in less than a weekend.

Inevitable fights and disagreements with Mercury Records resulted in GP terminating his relationship with that bunch of suits. It also bought us the single “Mercury Poisoning,” a song I’m sure not relished by the bean counters at Mercury. Graham Parker and the Rumour parted ways, and what followed were a number of different records produced throughout the 1980s, all decent, with session musicians, and a variety of producers, whom Graham Parker occasionally refers to as “people whose names I can’t remember, except I was taller than most of them.” (See the attached discography for a full-blown list of all these recordings).

In 1988, Graham Parker brought out another defining album, The Mona Lisa’s Sister, reuniting him with his old Rumour pal, Brinsley Schwartz. A music video from that era, available only in the U.K., portrayes the lonely singer playing to an empty Albert Hall…empty except for a cleaning geezer with a mop and a pail, who, as the song progresses, gets closer and closer to the stage. When the music draws to a conclusion, we see that the janitor is none other than Brinsley Schwartz. His claps echo loudly throughout the vacant auditorium. Sidling over to GP, he remarks, “You’re not half-bad mate…ever thought of putting a band together.”

MTV refused to air a video of his song “Soul Corruption” from the Live, Alone In America album (1989) because it contained the word “nigger.” Of course, they got it completely ass-backwards. “Soul Corruption” is an indictment of U.S. and Western racism and collusion. The line in question, “They’ll never let any nigger in, Why do you think it’s called the White House?” speaks to the sincere understanding, grasp and insight that the MTV producers had of the role of white supremacy in America.

Since Mona Lisa, Graham Parker has released a steady stream of extremely listenable, intelligent records, namely Live, Alone in America (1989), Human Touch (1989), Struck By Lightening (1991), Burning Questions (1992), Haunted Episodes (1995), Acid Bubblegum (1997), Loose Monkeys (1999), and the brand new Deepcut To Nowhere. There are additional greatest hits and live albums that have been issued during this period as well.

He is also the author of a book of short stories, published last year and entitled Carp Fishing On Valium, (very funny, especially the one about Mick Jagger stumbling home pissed out of him mind one night, getting run over and snuffed by a double-decker bus, Keith Richards asking GP to replace him, and Graham trying out for a bunch of bored Stones and their hookers in some humongous warehouse in NYC). Since the nineteen eighties, Graham Parker has been a resident of upstate New York, living with his wife and the usual kids in his hair.

These are the facts as I know them.

* * *

The Why:

“They Put People In Charge of Pens
That Shouldn’t Be In Charge Of Brooms
They Have The Nerve To Slice Up A Man’s Life
In A Paragraph Or Two”

—Graham Parker (from “Don’t Let It Get You Down”)

It is a sad truism that over 90% of the world’s available music is owned and controlled by a handful of behemoth record companies. These people dictate what we can and cannot listen to based on sales and profit. They determine which foreign artists we can have access to, and that the poor suckers living in Brazil will have an endless supply of Celine Dion records. Success in this arena has little to do with the crafting of the art, but rather with the making of money. This is the business of popular music and it’s rotten through and through.

Very few musicians who are lucky/unlucky enough to have a recording contract with these rascals are willing to stand up and call them on their larcenous behavior. Those that do are usually shown the door. There is only a handful of enormously popular ones that can transcend the greedy desires of their corporate bosses and call their own shots (Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen), but even they have to tread carefully, if not in a servile fashion, on occasion.

Graham Parker has not only made kick-ass, clever, adult rock and roll for over a quarter of a century, but he has taken on the music industry publically, exposing it’s enormous appetite and corruption. This explains his juggernaut journey through various labels, Mercury, Arista, Elektra, RCA and his current home, Razor & Tie. The song, “Mercury Poisoning” spells it out graphically indeed: “I’ve got a dinosaur for a representative, it has a small brain and refuses to learn.” The psychological and emotional cost of dealing with these corporations on their terms is obvious in the line “I’ve got Mercury Poisoning, It’s fatal and it don’t get better.” The song also poses the more important question…Exactly why do we need these assholes?

The importance of taking such a position cannot be underestimated. It questions the very core of what make things tick in our society, why we grasp for sense in a soulless backwater, why we cherish those who stand with their fists cocked in defiance, and abhor those who suck up to the lowest-common denominator gobbledy-gook. This is why I admire Graham Parker.

But I also admire him because he makes such good, goddamned music. His songs have a mix of the essential ingredients that make rock and roll deserving of its claims to be both rebellious and the property of Beelzebub…the soul of Philadelphia and Memphis, the ska and reggae two-three of Kingston and Brixton, the garage angst of the housing estates and the projects, the heat in Harlem and the frozen soul on ice, the black and the white, the croon of Sam Cooke and the scowl yell of Johhny Rotten, the vigor of youth and the wisdom of age, the swagger of both Elvises, the yin and the yang.

Finally, there is something to be said for sticking to one’s guns, at whatever the cost. The poohbahs call this artistic integrity. To me, it’s soul. Right on, brother!

–mike morgan

Graham Parker Discography

“Howling Wind” – 1975
“Heat treatment” – 1976
“Live At the Marble Arch (Bootleg) – 1976
“Stick To Me” – 1977
“The Parkerilla” (Live) – 1978
“The Pink Parker” (EP) -1978
“Squeezing Out Sparks” – 1979
“The Up-Escalator” – 1980
“Mercury Poisoning” (Single) – 1980
“Another Grey Area” – 1982
“The Real Macaw” – 1983
“Steady Nerves – 1985
“The Mona Lisa’s Sister – 1988
“Live, Alone in America – 1989
“Human Touch” – 1989
“Struck By Lightning” – 1991
“Burning Questions” – 1992
“Discovering Japan” – (Live, Solo) – 1993
“12 Haunted Episodes” – 1995
“Acid Bubblegum” – 1997
“Loose Monkeys” – 1999
“Deepcut To Nowhere” – 2001

 

Play ‘em all loud — MM

 

Originally published:
Issue Fifteen
November 2001

 

(Thanks to Squeezing Out Sparks, a Graham Parker Web site for assistance with the original images used for illustration of this feature. Check their excellent site out here.)


A Brooklynite by way of Wales and South Africa, Mike Morgan is the founder of Burrow Magazine and serves as one of its Senior Editors and Contributors. In addition to these duties, he has been and continues to be at the heart of a thriving literary, art and music scene and is a regular at several neighborhood bars, where he can be found discussing global and local affairs, rock and roll, various New York sports teams, and whatever books he happens to be reading at the time. More from Mike Morgan can be found in the Vault of Smoke.

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