Graham Parker Perks Up

Rock's premier tough-but-tender songwriter flips on the tough switch again with Acid Bubblegum

Angry young men? Billboard's overrun with 'em. Angry old men? Congress has cornered the market. But angry middle-aged men? Not a big draw.

At 45, Graham Parker finds himself between a rocker and a hard sell, despite his protests that he's "as mellow as a train wreck." On his current tour, Parker's backed up by a fiery young band from Atlanta called the Figgs, which recently performed on the Graham Parker tribute album Piss and Vinegar.

Capitol, the Figgs' record label and Parker's last major-label home, is reportedly less than thrilled at its '90s "alternapop" band touring behind an artist who was making recordings when Billy Corgan was still in elementary school.

But the Figgs stuck to their guns, and Graham Parker has returned to his. What he calls his "corrosive yet chewy" new album, Acid Bubblegum, reprises the highly charged intensity of his earlier work. He's like an eternal flame, a reminder of a time when people listened to records intently, if only to make sense out of their own lives. Still, Parker concedes there's little hope of it turning up on many modern rock radio playlists.

"Radio locks out a lot of things," says Parker, calling from Detroit, en route to appear on a morning radio show. "Modern rock is sort of difficult. This album is modern and it rocks. But it's got my name on it."

That name has graced some of the most scorching indictments of the human condition ever recorded, picking off such touchy subjects as abortion ("You Can't Be Too Strong"), vanity ("Temporary Beauty"), self-destruction ("Nobody Hurts You") and blasphemy of a less-than-Supreme Being ("Don't Ask Me Questions") with a marksman's precision.

Back in this country's bicentennial year, when most radio listeners were being stupefied by the vainglorious sounds of Linda Ronstadt and Boston, Parker chewed up our neglected R&B heritage and spat it back at us, only the Motown and soul grooves were wed to G.P.'s cunning, sharply worded missives. Parker's two widely acclaimed albums from that year, Howlin Wind and Heat Treatment, topped many best-of lists, and gave noted rock critic Greil Marcus hope that "the decade was finally toughening up." The advent of punk the following year proved him right, but it was Parker who first had his finger on that exposed nerve.

"My reaction against what was then regarded as the pinnacle of music, Rick Wakeman and the Doobie Brothers, was kind of severe, really," Parker recalls with a chuckle. "Like, 'Let's do "You Can't Hurry Love" and shock the hell out of people.' And the horn section was a reaction against the drippy, postpsychedelic music that was still everywhere in '73, '74, '75, '76--c'mon already! I really think we started something in that respect."

By 1977, the playing field was no longer just G.P. and the Rumour. "Suddenly, there were lots of people. It was a whole explosion of new stuff, which was a good thing."

At this point, most accounts of Parker's saga dwell on his lost momentum. Despite glowing notices for G.P.'s first two albums, his ineffectual American label Mercury was only able to move a combined 90,000 units for both titles. And the third album, Stick to Me, lived up to its name--in a bad way.

"There was black stuff coming off the tapes!" exclaims Parker. "I think it was oxide. We took no notice of it, and when it came time to mix, every time you pulled a vocal or guitar part up, the high hat from the drums was bleeding onto it. It was really bizarre. We spent a whole month in London making an album we couldn't mix. In the dumper!"

The band only had a week between two tours to rerecord Stick to Me, but few people gave the band extra points for handing it in on time. The December 1, 1977, issue of Rolling Stone--whose lead review that issue was a rave for the debut of another angry Brit in glasses, Elvis Costello--dismissed Stick to Me as "a holding action," while taking producer Nick Lowe to task for the album's "amateurish technical presentation."

Parker quickly defends Stick to Me's chunky sonic textures. "What was happening was all this Fleetwood Mac, Journey type of stuff. And even critics that liked my stuff and hated that expected me to have some high production values, and Stick to Me was, like, grunge. If someone made a record like that now, it'd be heralded for its lo-fi nastiness. But then they were still thinking I should fit on the radio over here in America."

Parker's supporters found further disappointment with his quickie live album The Parkerilla.

"People say I did that to get out of my Mercury deal," Parker says. "I did it because people said, 'You're such a great live band, but your studio records don't have that kind of magic, you gotta do a live album.' For some reason, it got a mixed reaction."

The album is far from the three-ring holocaust reviewers held it up to be, even if it does sound in places like Graham and the boys are racing through the set to catch a midnight bus. But the set's lone studio cut, a clinical, disco stab at "Don't Ask Me Questions," must've left even the Man Upstairs scratching his head.

"Oh, really?" feigns Parker. "That was a big hit in Germany. They played it in transvestite clubs."

Regardless of the motives behind The Parkerilla, the recording fulfilled Parker's obligation to Mercury and opened up a fierce bidding war, which Arista won. While recording his landmark Squeezing Out Sparks album, Parker still had time to record "Mercury Poisoning," the infamous pot shot at his former landlords.

"My manager, Dave Robinson [founder of Stiff Records], suggested I do a whole album of scathing Mercury songs. I thought 'Mercury Poisoning' was enough." Arista, unsure if attacking one's old label under the auspices of a new one constituted "bad sportsmanship," left its logo out of the dogfight. The label issued "Poisoning" on a highly collectible, promo-only 12-inch, pressed on gray vinyl with blood dripping letters and a skull and crossbones on the label. "You could do more fun things like that in those days," muses Parker. "Now they wouldn't let it out the door."

Parker label-hopped throughout the '80s, the worst experience being his abortive stay at Atlantic Records in 1987, which resulted in no releases.

"My manager at the time was into 'working with the record company,' which is why he isn't my manager anymore," Parker says. "That's the biggest load of bullshit. I don't work with the record company on songs. It doesn't happen that way.

"Atlantic in '87 was 'Phil Collins this, Phil Collins that.' They were like, 'You've got to do this right.' I was saying, 'Look, there isn't any "right." The most "right" is me producing the record.' So we just argued for a year. I wrote more material, which became The Mona Lisa's Sister, and they didn't think that it was up to much. I got to RCA, said give me the money and I'll make the record and everything will be fine. And everything's been fine since."

In 1995, Parker signed with the Razor & Tie label, which he jokingly refers to as his 'minor-label debut.' His first effort for the label raised a few eyebrows. When a friend suggested he should make an aggressive album, Parker got pissed off and wrote an entire acoustic recording called 12 Haunted Episodes, self-described as a cross between Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks (Parker's favorite album of all time), and Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. It's unequivocally one of Parker's best efforts.

"I haven't heard anything much like that for a while, so that's the direction I was aiming for [on Acid Bubblegum]. I prefer listening to acoustic music. Aggressive music is okay on the radio, but I don't normally put it on and listen to it at home. I've found a lot of new punk unlistenable. Acid Bubblegum and this whole thing with the Figgs is a reaction to that."

The deliberately soft focus of 12 Haunted Episodes seems to have left Parker with a surplus of hostility on Bubblegum: "I don't know where I found it. It's just applying certain areas of one's talent, going in one direction and staying with it. That's what I do these days, as opposed to a whole mish-mosh of songs. On a lot of my albums, I was trying to cover all the bases. I like to be more centralized now, so you're going on one trip when you listen to it, even though I still have to put some ballads on it. "The Girl on the Pier" is fairly pleasant until the monkey gets it in the bridge."

There's even a song called "Obsessed With Aretha" that documents the Queen of Soul's (and everyone else's) corresponding loss of soul.

"Look, I don't blame Aretha for hawking Wheel of Fortune," he allows. "I'd do the same. It's a good money gig. But if I'm commenting on something, somebody's going to get clipped about the ears."

Graham Parker is scheduled to perform on Sunday, November 10, at the Rockin' Horse in Scottsdale, with the Figgs. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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