In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two in the process.
The artist: Singer-songwriter Graham Parker stormed out of the U.K. in the mid-’70s with gritty, R&B-influenced rock ’n’ roll that was unlike anything else happening in the pre-punk British music scene. Parker has remained active over the past 35 years, regularly releasing new albums of tuneful, energetic, acerbic rock. His latest album, Three Chords Good, reunites Parker with The Rumour, the backing band for his first five albums. In addition, Parker has a featured role in Judd Apatow’s upcoming comedy This Is 40, for which Parker says, “I’m ‘acting,’ and I’m putting that in quotation marks.”
“Snake Oil Capital Of The World” (from 2012’s Three Chords Good)
Graham Parker: I wrote the songs way before thinking about reuniting The Rumour. And when I enlisted The Rumour, I didn’t really think, either. If I had, I wouldn’t have done it. That’s basically been my war cry on this: “Stop thinking.” [Laughs.] I found myself with all these songs, and I had enlisted the band, and it started to dawn on me what a hassle this was going to be. Then I started to listen to the songs again, which I had put down on my little MP3 recorder with just me and the guitars, and started to think, “What does this have to do with The Rumour?” But then somebody pointed out to me that when I wrote the first songs that became the album Howlin’ Wind, The Rumour didn’t exist at all. So, I’ve never written for The Rumour. The first four albums I did with them weren’t written for The Rumour, they were just songs. Everything became clear then. They can play these songs, so why not?
“Snake Oil” is right up our street, because there were reggae influences on the first album that came out in ’76, and I’ve used that kind of groove throughout my career. Musically, it was perfect for these guys. Lyrically, if you want to get into that side of the song, I was writing it during the Glenn Beck reign and had the kind of blinding flash that this is all snake oil. It all came from England, back in the day, when the guy would turn up in the town selling Murphy’s Cure-All, an elixir which would relieve menses, gout, and make men vigorous. America did the same thing as it was growing. The snake-oil salesmen would come around—the carnival barkers—and in a blinding flash it occurred to me that this is what Glenn Beck was doing, and many others. “Buy into this scenario, buy into this anger, come onto my side, I’ll cure you. The liberals are taking it all away from us. The blacks and the gays. And, by the way, buy some of this gold.” [Laughs.]
Suddenly I saw the entire world through this prism of snake oil. And America is the prime example. It’s not England anymore. The song just wrote itself. Because everything—exercise machines, diet programs, health food, everything—I just started to see snake oil, snake oil. [Laughs.]
The A.V. Club: Did it always have a reggae rhythm, or did that develop as you were recording with The Rumour?
GP: No. Most of these songs were nailed. My M.O. these days is to get things finished way before I go into the studio. In the early days, I had very little idea about arrangements, and I wrote songs a little flat, as it were, just on an acoustic guitar. They didn’t really have quite enough nuance. Back then, The Rumour were more experienced than me. They’d been in bands that had actually played professionally, where I was completely naïve and had no professional experience whatsoever. Now, of course, it’s different. I have the arrangements pretty locked. So it was always reggae, this tune; it always had that groove that was totally natural to the lyric. These things work together for me. It’s a bit of lyric and a bit of rhythmic structure, and the song fires out of that, as it were.
I think when we rehearsed, I said, “Okay, second chorus, cut it in half and go to the bridge; it’s too long,” a few bits like that. But with The Rumour, I wasn’t going to overburden them by giving them too many riffs and things. Again, it was a case of “stop thinking.” We did it in about nine days, the entire album. Most songs were the second take or something. I told the guys, “Bring what you got,” and they did. They didn’t need to dismantle the song and take it apart because it was good enough in the first place. Whereas some of my earlier ones, there were a few things I didn’t really have together, and they needed to help me as far as structure goes.
“Back To Schooldays” (from 1976’s Howlin’ Wind)
GP: “Back To Schooldays” was one of the first songs I wrote, and it was probably writing that around 1973 that made me realize I was on the right track. Because in England at that time, a lot of people don’t seem to realize, there wasn’t punk rock or new wave. There was progressive rock, which is what people who thought they were intelligent listened to, and there were the pop hits, the gimmick hits, that were all over Top Of The Pops. And the real exciting thing that was going on, I guess, was what was erroneously called “glam.” There were some good writers there. There was David Bowie, who had stopped being a hippie wearing a dress and decided he wanted to be a pop star and write pop songs; and Marc Bolan, who didn’t want to sit around cross-legged anymore singing about people with stars in their hair, and wanted to be a pop star and started writing pop songs. That was the most exciting thing going on in that ’70s period.
Still, what ruled in the provinces was prog rock. You’d be surprised at the amount of people—even my age, when I was 22 or 23—who were just getting into Uriah Heep. But I was digging into something else; I was digging into the influences I had been into when I was a kid, when I was 15 and 16, which was soul music and ska and Eddie Cochran. I was getting away from the prog rock and the psychedelic scene, and I was starting to think I was on a new track, that I would reinvent pop music with three-and-a-half-minute songs with a lot of aggression. I wrote “Back To Schooldays” probably from hearing Eddie Cochran a few times on the radio, those very old hits. And I was like, “This is really something. No one else is doing this right now.” I didn’t hear anything like it. I didn’t hear lyrics like it from new bands, new acts. I didn’t hear music like it. I was combining these rather intense lyrics about education being a farce, because my education was a farce. I was a working-class kid, and we were educated to be mechanics, or to go work in a gas station—which was one of the many jobs I did, as a matter of fact. “I’m going back to schooldays to put them right,” to show them, “I just educated myself, pal, and it’s nothing like your system.”
So it was a very powerful song for me, in that respect, and really made me think I could do this. You have to realize, I had no experience. I wasn’t in bands playing in bars, like people think I was. To a tiny extent perhaps, inasmuch as I left home when I was about 18 and traveled around a bit. And by the time I was 20 or 21, I found myself in Morocco and joined a psychedelic band called Pegasus. [Laughs.] I met them in Gibraltar and we took the band to Morocco, but we didn’t practice, we just jammed on minor chords doing psychedelic stuff. And I played with various other configurations of musicians, but we were never really bands, because bands mean discipline and work, and I never did that. So when I hit upon that song and also “Soul Shoes” that appeared on Howlin’ Wind, I realized I was really onto to something here, you know?
AVC: Did you mind being categorized as “pub rock?”
GP: Yeah, I did. I didn’t understand what that was. I had this backing band put around me by this guy I’d met through serendipity in London. I went to London and somehow imposed myself on a few musicians and they said, “You should meet this guy Dave Robinson, he might like your songs.” And he did, as it happened. And he also managed this band called Brinsley Schwarz that I’d seen in the papers. I didn’t know anything about the London scene. I was living in the country, in the suburbs, back with my parents, deciding that now I’d write songs and be somebody. I met Dave, and he put these musicians around me, and I thought, “I’m meeting people who’ve had their name in Melody Maker. That’s incredible.” I didn’t know who they were, but they could play my music. And then I started reading these words “pub rock” in my early reviews. I thought, “What the fuck is this all about?” And then Dave gave me some Brinsley Schwarz records; Brinsley was in The Rumour, and our guitarist Martin Belmont was in this band called Ducks Deluxe, so he gave me one of their records. Ducks Deluxe was a pretty tough band, but Brinsley Schwarz? I heard that and literally thought, “What’s this lame country music got to do with me?” [Laughs.] “This Nick Lowe sings like a wimp; I don’t get it.” I was guilty by association. [Laughs.] It happens, man.
AVC: At some point did your opinion soften on Brinsley Schwarz and Nick Lowe?
GP: Well, my tastes became much wider. My tastes at that time were very tunnel-visioned, because I thought I was the only person with the secret. That was my idea of things. There was nothing else like me. And I was right, especially in the first year of my career, in 1976. It wasn’t until mid-1977, when the first Sex Pistols records came out, that everything changed. Suddenly there were a lot of people saying, “Well, that’s a lot like GP. Angry, three-and-a-half minute songs.” I love Nick Lowe’s work now. I grew to appreciate it, and to appreciate a lot more things as well. It’s one of those things where you grow up a bit. Back then I didn’t think anyone was any good. I really didn’t. I think that’s what drove me. You need a driving force sometimes, especially in the early days.
“Pourin’ It All Out” (from 1976’s Heat Treatment)
GP: Again, that’s an expression. It’s that youthful thing of, “Nobody really understands me, so sometimes I feel like pouring it all out, how I really feel.” It’s a cliché, really. But I always had the passion and power to pull it off. I was doing that in every song, anyway; it just kind of was embodied in that song.
AVC: It’s surprising that song was never a single, because it’s one of your catchiest early songs.
GP: Mostly I’ve never let record companies become involved with my music, which was a very smart thing that my first manager Dave Robinson did, to keep them out of it. “Let’s take their money, make the record, and turn it in.” But I was always interested in other people’s opinion of what was the catchy song. I always had the same trouble with record companies, in that they couldn’t decide. My first single was “Silly Thing,” from Howlin’ Wind, and it was undeniably catchy, but it wasn’t a hit. None of them were really hits. I just think people were confused as to what would be the right thing to send to radio as a single. I don’t even remember what came out from that album as a single, if anything. I thought of things more in terms of England then. The American labels put different things out as they always did with English bands, even going back to the Beatles. But this was still ’76, so no one really knew how to market me. There wasn’t punk or new wave, so I fit into something that didn’t quite exist yet. I existed on the back pages of music papers. It was obvious we were getting an audience as a live band and as an album band. So I think the singles fell on the back burner a bit.
“Watch The Moon Come Down” (from 1977’s Stick To Me)
GP: That’s just a beautiful, atmospheric song to me. It’s all about atmosphere over substance, which quite a lot of my songs are. I think that I was staying with a girlfriend then, again around ’76, in Finsbury Park. I would often write songs by just sitting and looking out a window. And there I was in London, still getting used to that idea that I was somebody now, not in the suburbs working various dead-end jobs. My name was in the papers, and I’d be on the BBC on some TV special, and I’d already done two tours of America in the first year of my career, so I was very excited about everything that was happening to me. There I was, getting used to all this, and I would sit there and look out the window at London instead of the suburbs in England, and the song kind of has these images of working men walking by, splashing through the gutters and the sand, and children on the playground playing, and suddenly the punchline comes: “Watch the moon come down,” out of nowhere. That’s how these things sometimes happen. There isn’t a great deal of meaning behind it. It’s an atmospheric, dare I say, poetic kind of exercise. Still a favorite of mine, that song.
AVC: Some critics have described it as your first serious or adult song.
GP: Well, I guess you can throw a few clichés at it, like “adult.” Not so ranting and raving, let’s put it that way. Reflective. But look back at Howlin’ Wind, there’s a song called “Between You And Me” on it, and it’s the same deal. It’s atmospheric, it’s personal, it’s got sweetness to it. All these things have been in my songs from the beginning, really. They were just overshadowed by the fact that there wasn’t an “angry young man” around then, and I became it. So that’s what they leaned on, the reviews. They were full of “ferocious punch,” and they forgot the songs sometimes.
AVC: How did you feel once Elvis Costello and more musicians of his ilk came around? Competitive?
GP: No, I think I felt more competitive with The Rolling Stones. [Laughs.] It’s a competitive game, there’s no doubt. There’s a lot of macho posturing, and definitely I felt like I was the kid. I saw other people popping up and getting slightly compared with me for about five minutes, but then suddenly it was like, “No, they’re their own thing,” and people got it in perspective. I still felt very good about my position. Every record was selling a little more, every tour got bigger. We didn’t play a ton of pub gigs, because we didn’t have to. We played a few, and then almost immediately we went on tour opening for Ace, in theaters. Then we did our own tour in theaters. I felt established in a very short time.
You have to realize I was only 24 when I started in ’75, until November of that year when I turned 25. And a year is a long time in this business. I was doing incredible amounts of work in that period, writing incredible amounts of songs. The world just seemed open to me then. The worst thing was the press saying, “Oh, he’s selling more than you, he must be better.” There’s a lot of pressure from the press. But in my own head, I had established myself, and I was pretty happy that I was still writing songs. Because you write the songs that become your first album, and then you have nothing. All I had was a lot of the horrible hippie songs from 1970, and when I suddenly had to write my next album, I thought, “Well, they won’t do.”
I did use bits of them, actually. I stole a few bits from those songs. “Something You’re Going Through” was an awful hippie song I wrote that I changed to a half-assed reggae/calypso beat, changed a few lyrics, and called a song, for my second album. There was a little desperation there. But by the time I got to Stick To Me, I wrote those songs and thought, “This is good, this is all right; I’m on the right track.” So, I still felt very established in, a very Anglo-centric way. It was to me the biggest thing to be somebody in England.
AVC: Why was it more important to be somebody in England?
GP: Well, I didn’t know America. I’d been there twice on tour, and it was basically the land of Journey and Boston and Styx. Punk didn’t even happen here. Radio blocked the Sex Pistols. You might’ve heard it on a few college stations, but driving around the country all you heard were FM stations that did not want to drop their corporate rock bands. They did not want a revolution in America. Punk happened when Nirvana came along, sort of in an underground way. A lot of kids were inspired by it, but look at the charts at the time. You don’t see Stiff Little Fingers. You don’t see The Damned, really. They were little bubbling-under college things.
So America, to me, was still a bit of a mystery—just a place you went to. My manager and record companies were desperate to crack America, and we’d found ourselves in 1978, 1979, opening for bands like Skynyrd and Journey in the Midwest, and just getting booed and beer bottles thrown at us by people who didn’t understand it. They were programmed to think what they were used to hearing was the real rock ’n’ roll, whereas we were rock ’n’ roll. We were the real deal, and they weren’t going to get it in a million years. Maybe they do now; I don’t know. At the time, England was the big pawn for me. I was on Top Of The Pops, man! To me, nothing was greater than to be on Top Of The Pops. If you’d been on Top Of The Pops, you’ve made it. You were in everyone’s home on Thursday night at 7 p.m. That was the biggest thing in the world. So now I’m on some TV show in America? Whatever. [Laughs.].
“Discovering Japan” (from 1979’s Squeezing Out Sparks)
GP: I’d been on tour, and I remember being on an airplane flying back from Japan, which was, and probably still is, like an alien planet. It’s really different. I’d toured there, and we’d had quite a tremendous amount of success—there and Australia. Serious success. In Australia they treated me like I was Bruce Springsteen. It was amazing. I’d get off the plane and be ushered into a conference room with 20 journalists. It was like the Beatles; it was ridiculous. Way above my station, really. I hadn’t sold that many records anywhere. In Japan, by the time I got there, I guess new wave was starting, and punk, and we were suddenly a part of it. In England, we weren’t, because we’d been around for a year and a half before all of that happened. In England it was, “Are they an R&B band? Are they a soul band? Are they a pub-rock band? Are they a punk band? Are they a new-wave band?” In Japan, we were the mainstay of new wave, so we were sort of accepted as something on the cutting edge. It was quite an experience.
So I was on the plane coming back, and there were these little Japanese ladies in front of me making origami birds and passing them back to us and giggling. These ladies in kimonos flying back to England. [Laughs.] All these things were running together in my head, and I scribbled down these lyrics that became “Discovering Japan.” Sometimes songs come out easy; sometimes they don’t. That one was a very difficult song to write. The chord sequences are still, for want of a better word, advanced. This ain’t no R&B thing; this is something else altogether. But I was getting ideas when I was in Japan and especially on the plane flight back, which lasts however many days, these crazy-long flights. My head was buzzing from all of my success and feeling on top of the world. By the time I got back, I put all these things together and started building the songs. And that was the one that came out that was extremely exciting to me, because I was breaking some different ground in the rhythmic structures and the whole push/pull of the thing. The way the chords spun around on each other and the lyric was so totally mysterious that I didn’t even understand it myself. It was a very, very important song for me, no question.
AVC: That was the first song on Squeezing Out Sparks. You talked a little about picking singles. How do you decide what should be the opening track on an album?
GP: An album has to flow. I work on my own agenda when it comes to sequencing. Sometimes other people have ideas and say, “Why don’t you do this?” I consider it and then go back to what I was going to do anyway. It’s a personal kind of thing. It has to do with rhythmic structure, and lyrics that may knock on to the next song. There’s a feel to it that’s a little bit indefinable; it’s hard to pin down what does it, really. I guess with “Japan” it was, to me, that it had everything going for it. It sort of said, “This is different. This is a new album. This will not have horn sections, and not so many R&B references. It’s something else, some different kind of rock music.”
That’s the way these things go. Even with the new album, when I was doing the demos—I start to see a pattern. I’m already writing things down and jotting notes down about how songs will flow. Things don’t always turn out like I planned, because by the time you finish the songs and mix them and really get to hear them with the band, you start to realize they don’t fit where you thought they would anymore. You have to re-jigger. But that’s a long process, and it’s a process that starts when I start writing the songs. It’s pretty interesting. I mean, I could’ve written two or three songs when I’m in a writing jag and I already think, “That’s a good starter,” and sometimes it actually holds up. “Snake Oil,” for me, was always the first song on this new album. Even if I’ve just written three songs in the process of writing an album, I can write the third one and think, “That’s going to be track nine.” [Laughs.]
“You Can’t Take Love For Granted” (from 1983’s The Real Macaw)
GP: That’s a very pleasing one for me, musically. I take more pleasure in the technical aspects of a song when I come out with something original, and that one had a very original feel to me, I think. It’s kind of spooky and mystical-sounding, isn’t it? Those songs don’t grow on trees. They just appear, and it’s like, “What a marvelous thing to write.” I’m always amazed at it myself. But it has some depth in the lyric, too. It’s right there in the title, which says it all. How often does one find that in their lives? It’s like anything else: It’s there, and then it’s not. It evolves, and it disappears.
That song, again, is very atmospheric. Listen to that third verse about the swans circling ’round on the lake, and the stuff about taking someone to a movie and staring at another screen. What is that about? I don’t know what these things are about. On one hand, it’s just playing with words. But on the other hand, playing with words can have consequences. Some things come up from the subconscious. It’s a process I’ve never understood, and probably never will.
AVC: The sound of that song is almost like a demo, with its electronic percussion.
GP: It was the ’80s, don’t forget, so everything was colored by ’80s technology. We had a LinnDrum on that album. Somebody came in, programmed a LinnDrum, and the drummer played to LinnDrum grooves. And I totally accepted it, because I wanted to keep changing and moving forward—if indeed this was forward. It has a very sparse feel to it. That album has a very sparse feel to quite a few of the songs. There are a few dense ones, too. But, again, David Kershenbaum’s production was unique. Mike Gent, my buddy from The Figgs, says that’s one of his favorite albums of mine, because the sound is totally different. It’s not my favorite; I don’t really like the sound of it very much. I find all the instruments are separated too much for my taste. But that’s the way albums come out sometimes. You’ve got to have a different color and texture every time, if you can.
AVC: Do you have a favorite album from your discography?
GP: Two of the greatest are Howlin’ Wind and Squeezing Out Sparks. I’d tie in with them Deepcut To Nowhere and Struck By Lightning. I have a soft spot for 12 Haunted Episodes because it comes from a very different musical place. I was trying to write songs and getting nowhere, so I tuned my guitar to an open chord because I was reading something about Bert Jansch tuning to open-G, so I tuned to open-G and came up with these totally different rhythms. And I think Songs Of No Consequence was a good one with me and The Figgs, because its like, “Let’s rock this thing!” It’s a bit corny, I know, but that’s what we did. Also I’d say right up there with some of the best work was Don’t Tell Columbus. So those are the ones that I would kind of pick out as highlights for me.
But I’m proud of all my albums. There’s some I don’t like the sound of much. Steady Nerves just has 1985 written all over it, with the drum sound and things like that. Those kind of things just make it seem locked in time, and it hobbles the record a bit. The ’80s hobbled quite a few things. And they weren’t my best songs. Another Grey Area wasn’t some of my best songs, either. There are a few standouts there, but I wanted to make a very slick-sounding album because The Rumour albums weren’t very slick-sounding, and I wanted to do something different. In retrospect, it wasn’t really the right thing for my music. But I still think I did my very best at the time to write the best songs I could.
There are always songs where I’m bluffing a bit, thinking, “Oh yeah, that’ll do,” even on the better albums. I know they’re there, even if other people don’t. But the new album, who knows? Time will tell. I think it’s a really strong one. Musically diverse. I think “Old Soul” is probably the best recording I’ve ever done, and if I could write a whole album of songs like that, I would. I tend to be restless, though, and not be able to do that. I have to write a song called “Coathangers” and ruin everything. [Laughs.] It’s like, “Why did I do that?” But I think it’s a strong track, and the album is going to hold up really well.
“Wake Up (Next To You)” (from 1985’s Steady Nerves)
AVC: You just dismissed Steady Nerves, but it did produce your lone Top 40 hit in the U.S.
GP: Yeah, it was kind of a minor hit. Sort of crept up there. That’s a good track. Very atmospheric, got a bit of that “Can’t Take Love For Granted” feel. It’s obviously more produced because it was 1985. It was a different producer, and it’s a bit denser. But it’s a very atmospheric track and it’s also got all my soul-ballad riffs. I threw them all into that song. I was singing a lot sweeter and softer. I started to expand on my vocal abilities, which were very limited in the early days. Basically, I screamed at first because I didn’t know how to sing. I didn’t have any experience. And by that time, I was singing. It’s very good vocal performance, actually.
AVC: And it’s got that cool little Motown bit in the middle.
GP: Yeah, I threw in the Motown stuff. I had it all in there. In the lyric, I was doing a bit of Smokey Robinson and Michael Jackson, whereas my other stuff was channeling Otis Redding and Levi Stubbs.
AVC: That album is credited to you and The Shot and is the only album under that band name. Why “Graham Parker And The Shot” and not just “Graham Parker?”
GP: More than anything, I just wanted a band name. I wouldn’t have said, “This is my band now,” even for that album. We were just a band for a while and were just vaguely called The Shot, and later I did 12 Haunted Episodes and put a band together and called them The Episodes. Sometimes I just want an identity, to call a band something. I always hated in the ’70s when someone like Joe Cocker would perform as “Joe Cocker and his band.” That was an awful thing, I thought. Give ’em a name, even if it’s just for one tour. [Laughs.] So I do that now and again, just for that reason. Sometimes it’s cool to create an identity.