Dangerous MInds: I Don’t Appeal to the Masses and They Don’t Appeal to Me: The Genius of Graham Parker

I discovered GP in 1978 with the release of Stick to Me. Went back to Howling Wind and Heat Treatment and fell in love. At the time, I thought Elvis Costello (particularly with the Attractions) could not be surpassed. Such a fanboy that I went to Spencer’s and got them to make a shirt, with iron-on letters ELVIS COSTELLO on the front and MY AIM IS TRUE on the back (now that I think of it, all three of the EC shirts I have owned have interesting histories. There was the Spencer’s one, one I got at a 1980 concert in Chapel Hill – they weren’t selling shirts so I paid one of the ushers ten bucks for hers – she went into the bathroom, changed and gave it to me – too small but I wore that fucker anyway, and one I got in ’92 or so from a fan club I belonged to – a bitmapped reproduction of the This Year’s Model cover pose).

Didn’t know squat about pub rock at the time, had no idea that my producing idol Nick Lowe had been one of the founding members of Brinsley Schwarz, or that the swinging, hard edged folk of My Aim is True had grown out of it. EC left that sound resolutely behind when he went on to do This Year’s Model and Armed Forces (a trilogy of first three albums that will lick any other motherfuckers in the house). After that, there was the unfortunate Ray Charles incident, dating Bebe Buell and other shenanigans that had a negative influence on his artistic genius. The drinking and drugs didn’t help either. He did attain genius again with Imperial Bedroom, then after descended into something closely resembling mediocrity, failing to stay true to himself and hewing too closely to the trends of the time with Goodbye Cruel World and Punch the Clock. True, there are some gems on those two albums, among them The Comedians (which Roy Orbison did better) and Shipbuilding, one of my favorite elegiac antiwar songs. His career since has been erratic, flashes of the former glories interspersed with misguided forays into genres and styles which have been embarrassing at times.

But this was supposed to be, or started out as, a piece on Graham Parker. HIS first three can lick any other motherfuckers, pretty much, of that era. Not as artistically adventurous as EC’s first three but just as good. The fury of punk influences Stick to Me, and the swinging sounds of pub rock and R&B make Howling Wind and Heat Treatment instantly familiar yet sui generis at the same time. You wanna hear some shitkicking rock and roll? Seek out the Live at Marble Arch EP. He puts the ENTIRE Jackson 5 in an airplane spin and slams them to the mat with his cover of I Want You Back. Much, much, much better than the Parkerilla live album. I give him the benefit of the doubt on that one and chalk it up to his struggles with his label at the time, Mercury (you want acidic? Listen to Mercury Poisoning, his withering biting of the hand which was feeding him at the time). They wanted a live album, since an artist at that stage of his career was SUPPOSED to release one and besides, there were those niggling contractual obligations to fulfil.

He finally made his escape from Mercury, went to Arista and recorded Squeezing Out Sparks, one of the best albums of the 80s, right up there with London Calling. There were missteps along the way, The Up Escalator among them with its turgid production by Jimmy Iovine, one of the hot hands of the day after his work with Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen, among many others. Springsteen even makes a token appearance on Up the Escalator, contributing his trademarked “uh-uhh-uhhhhh” style to Endless Night. I love Springsteen – loved him a lot more at the time – but he does become a caricature of himself at times.

It was a strange time – major labels were beginning to flail around and making sometimes laughable attempts to retain credibility and relevance under the assaults from labels like Stiff and Sire (Sire owned by a major, true, but managing to release albums of quality and integrity which still stand up under the test of time). GP kept chugging along, releasing stuff like The Real Macaw (has some high spots), The Mona Lisa’s Sister (which I love, his cover of Cupid giving me a sense of his sweetness I hadn’t glimpsed before) and some other spotty output.

I catch up with GP once every few years it seems, he pops up in unexpected places. Went through a Bloodshot phase, and dang, there’s old Graham with an album on that label! I lose track of him again, and there he is popping up again a few years later, FINALLY getting some recognition in pop culture at large, nearly forty years after his debut, thanks to Judd Apatow, of all people. Hopefully making some money too. He has gone through his career underrated, underestimated, a prophet without honor, of sorts. Cheers to Graham Parker, one of the best songwriters of the past forty years. As is mentioned in the article, he belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, not that it really matters and it isn’t as if he, or I, really give a fat rat’s ass either way.