Exclusive Interview (Part One) With The Original "Angry Young Man," Singer-Songwriter Graham Parker

Graham Parker is the original “Angry Young Man,” having released multiple, diverse albums in the mid-1970s with his band, The Rumour, a couple years before such disciple-artists as Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and Nick Lowe had even landed record deals.
With his "no bullshit, blue-collar" style, Parker and his band set the stage and paved the way for what would become the “punk” and “new wave” movements that exploded onto the music scene in the late 1970's.
Standing Room Only recently caught up with Mr. Parker for an exclusive, two-part interview, as he talked about his life in music, setting the stage for what would become a generation of punk and new wave rockers, and then coming full-circle with his original band-mates.

Article by Joe Milliken * Photo Credits: 1. Laurence Watson 2. Keith Morris 3. Keith Morris 4. Frans Schellekens 5. Peter Morris

NEW YORK CITY - Graham Parker has done it all in his forty-plus years as a musician; singer, songwriter, guitarist, band leader, solo artist, producer and published author. Before such “angry” artists as the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and Ian Dury hit the London scene, there was Graham Parker and The Rumour. Parker's vision of combining (before it even happened) the attitude and energy of punk, with his own class-conscious lyrics and quirky blue-collar image, were most influential and helped set the tone for the likes of these artists to follow.

Born in London, Parker attended Chobham Secondary Modern School in Surrey, and when the Beatles and the "British Invasion" hit the scene, his love of music blossomed and at 13, he formed a band called Deep Cut Three, before they even knew how to play their instruments! By age 15, a young Graham was digging Otis Redding and the soul music scene, and would hit up the dance clubs in nearby Woking and Camberely.

“I was exposed to most forms of American black music - from blues to soul - by the Beatles and the (Rolling) Stones,” Graham Parker told SRO. “That first Stones' album alone was jammed with classic blues and R & B styles, and the Beatles had covered some, unknown to me, soulful pop from America, like 'Twist And Shout.' You had to look at the writer credits, and then follow through, not an easy thing in the early 1960's. Radio gradually opened up somewhat, and I could hear the awesome voice of Levi Stubbs... and then someone gave me an Otis Redding album when I was 14 and it was 'game over'... that stuff destroyed me!”

After Parker quit school at 16, he worked for two years at the Animal Virus Research Institute in Surrey, before moving to Guernsey in the Channel Islands, working odd jobs and buying his first acoustic guitar. “I think I left that job before I was even 18,” Parker said. “I was always a nature freak, and thought working at the institute might be a good way to become the new David Attenborough. It was not. The job was not far from home though, and one of the few places like it in England, but leaving there had nothing to do with music.

“I actually wrote my first song when I was 12 or 13 and of course, it was a complete Beatles' steal. Someone - probably a cousin – had given me an old acoustic guitar. Many kids my age picked up instruments after the Beatles and the Stones came along. Me and some local village pals formed The Deepcut Three, then added a member and became the Black Rockers, so-named because we wore black Chelsea boots, black polo necks, and black T-shirts. Our problem, however, was that we neglected to actually learn how to play... we were just a dress-up group. I should have been learning to play guitar, but I just wanted to fuck around and defy authority. I got up to some dubious things, a great deal of fun it was!”

Not long after, Parker's parents bought their son a cheap electric guitar and although he dabbled in learning how to play, he was not into formal lessons or even playing a lot. “I got together with other kids to form bands when I was in high school (one 'band' was called The Wayout), but the idea of learning something properly didn't appeal to me. We just monkeyed around, with no discipline, in our parents' garages.

“It was in Guernsey that I got inspired and bought a decent acoustic guitar. When I arrived there, I was fully immersed in the British blues bands and Fleetwood Mac's Peter Green was my hero. By the time I was 16 I was often hanging with 18-year-olds... art school students, and they knew a good deal about blues. But, all the young people I met in Guernsey were listening to Pink Floyd, Santana, King Crimson, Captain Beefheart, and other stuff that usually didn't rely on the typical soul or blues rhythms.

“This music was incomprehensible to me... until I took my first acid trip that is, and with a few more of those under my belt, I couldn't listen to anything else. All the music from my past sounded unbearably straight and this more floaty and experimental stuff really kicked-up my inspiration. Plus, the James Taylor, Neil Young, CSN, and Joni Mitchell troubadour-type thing, seemed to lock into it in some way. So, I really began to get into the acoustic guitar, often finger-picking, and started writing songs that were somewhere between those styles. I could write a space opera one day and then a sensitive singer/songwriter ode the next day!”

In the spring of 1971, the forefathers of the so-called “pub rock” movement were busting out in the London music scene with such bands as Eggs Over Easy, Dr. Feelgood, (and his filthy white suit) Ducks Deluxe, Kilburn and the High Roads, Brimsley Schwarz and Maxx Merritt and the Meteors. Also around this time, Parker had returned to England, worked in a factory and did other odd jobs, and saved enough money to take the ferry to France and hang out in Paris, armed with a guitar on his back. From there, Parker found his way through Spain to Morocco, then a year later, Gibraltar.

“I wanted to go to an exotic country where you could hang out in cafés with old Moroccan geezers and smoke dope in clay pipes as if it were normal behaviour - a very good thing. I found myself playing an impromptu concert one night on the beach in Casablanca. My audience consisted of stoned, old Moroccans and some children who danced in the firelight to my songs, after they'd fed me a stew cooked in a huge oil drum with fish they'd caught that day in the surf. Spicy as hell it was. They had makeshift dwellings on the beach... they seemed to live there! One of my best ever memories.”

When Parker's funds ran out he got a job on the docks in Gibraltar, which was a short ferry ride from Tangier, where he started playing his songs in a cellar bar. There weren't a lot of customers, but this freaky band, called Pegasus, would come down and play on a tiny stage in the corner and Graham somehow joined them after the guitarist lent him a spare electric guitar.

“I also got myself on Gibraltar TV,” Parker added. “You didn't have to be good, just a foreign guy with a guitar seemed to be enough. The band - which consisted of two brothers and whoever was handy to play drums - were called Narziss when I met them, then changed their name to Pegasus. We played 15-minute jams on songs like 'Hey Joe' and some long-winded Wishbone Ash song... I think three songs were enough to make an entire set!”

Parker wanted to be a successful musician, however, and after realizing the brothers in Pegasus were actually from a wealthy family and not in a hurry to succeed as musicians, he moved back to England, started working odd jobs and concentrating much more on his music. “It was probably around 1972, I got a job at a petrol station, and started concentrating on my writing and singing. I knew I had to work hard to get good, and less than four years later, I had a major label record deal.”

In 1975, and after placing an ad in Melody Maker magazine in search of a like-minded backing band, Parker started driving to London to meet with potential band mates. This is how he met guitarist Noel Brown, and bassist Paul “Bassman” Riley from the band Chilli Willi and The Red Hot Peppers. Riley then introduced Graham to Dave Robinson, a music manager who ran a small studio above the legendary Islington pub, Hope and Anchor. Robinson had previously managed Brinsley Schwarz, another band that had recently split, that featured the guitarist, Schwarz, a young bassist named Nick Lowe, and Bob Andrews on keyboards.

“Back in the suburbs where I grew up, the progressive sound I had discovered was now being accepted by the 'straights,' and mostly it had developed into plodding prog rock anyway, so I was not interested and now writing songs often influenced by soul music and other old styles, and had moved away from the floaty stuff. I drove around the countryside meeting some very odd people who couldn't play, but finally in South London, I met Noel Brown who got what I was doing and would play along with me in his flat, on lap steel and Telecaster.

"He introduced me to a down-at-heel Irishman named Dave Robinson, who had managed a band that no one I knew had even heard of – Brinsley Schwarz. I had no idea about these London bands that couldn't get further than playing the pubs, and no one outside London had a clue about this alleged “pub rock” thing. Dave took some of those guys, and a few from some other failed bands, and put them behind me and we rehearsed in the summer of 1975.”

As it turned out, some of these musicians had already been jamming together, but simply had no direction. Parker and Robinson started recording and shopping some demos and shortly thereafter, landed a deal and started bringing in various musicians to play behind Parker, including Schwarz, Andrews, guitarist Martin Belmont, and another rhythm section consisting of Andrew Bodnar on bass and Steve Goulding on drums. Parker had already secured a major record deal with Phonogram Records, when Robinson gave a demo to Charlie Gillet, who hosted an eclectic Radio London show called “Honky Tonk.” Young Parker's hard work was beginning to pay off.

Graham Parker and The Rumour's first album, Howlin' Wind, was released in the spring of 1976 and produced by Brinsley Schwarz bassist, Nick Lowe. The album received immediate critical acclaim and the band went on tour, opening shows for the band Ace, who were riding their hit song "How Long." In October of the same year, Parker and The Rumour released Heat Treatment, featuring a unique and diverse mix of the rock, reggae and acoustic influences of Graham's formative years. This was followed by, in March of 1977, a four-song EP titled The Pink Parker (released on pink vinyl) and featuring a cover of The Trammps' "Hold Back The Night." It quickly became a Top 30 hit on the UK charts.

The momentum continued and a year later, Parker and his band were headlining their own shows throughout the UK, and then toured America as well, playing any show they could book. However, this was all taking place long after that so-called “pub rock” scene, and some two years before the punk and new wave scenes would really take hold. Therefore and unfortunately, Parker's label, Mercury Records, (the American branch of Phonogram) did not have the foresight to properly promote the band.

“There was no pub rock scene when I met Dave (Robinson) and if it was even alive in the first place, was long dead. Artists like Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Ian Dury, at that time, could not get a record deal. Dave had long wanted to start an indie label to sign and release these artists, and launched Stiff Records, a label my success funded.

“New wave, punk - these things did not hit the high-street, big time until mid-1977 and really exploded in October 1977, when finally, the Pistols released their album. That's when the flood gates opened and people actually outside of New York and London went mad for it, and I had already released two albums and had a hit EP by then, and was a well-established act playing the universities and theatres. Outside of London, prog rock still largely ruled until that Pistols album."

After the release of their third album in October 1977 titled Stick To Me, also produced by Nick Lowe, Parker's fan base continued to progress and as 1978 rolled around, the band was quickly developing a reputation abroad, as an exciting live band. However, after the continued non-support from Mercury, Parker finally signed a new deal with Arista Records and released arguably the band's finest effort, Squeezing Out Sparks, in March of 1979. Featuring such classics as “Passion Is No Ordinary Word,” “Local Girls,” “Saturday Nite Is Dead,” and "Protection," Squeezing Out Sparks climbed to #44 on the Billboard album chart in America, sold a half-million copies and the band toured consistently from February through November of that year.

“Mercury had no way to market my music in America in 1976, because terms like 'new wave' and 'punk' didn't exist in 1976, or if it did, it was just murmurings in the back pages of the music rags. Mercury couldn't market me in America in any exciting new genre, so it went nowhere. I finally got off Mercury and signed with Arista and made Squeezing Out Sparks. We toured all over the place in 1979 and had quite a strong live audience by then.”

Despite the increased momentum, however, Parker and The Rumour would ultimately make their last album together (until many years later) with 1980's The Up Escalator, with Nicky Hopkins and Danny Federici replacing Bob Andrews on keyboards. The album was produced by Jimmy Iovine, who has worked with such artists as John Lennon, Tom Petty, Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen and Pretenders. Springsteen would also make a guest appearance on Parker's new album.

“I'd met Iovine in the office of Stiff Records, probably in 1977. After the success he had producing Tom Petty's album (Damn The Torpedoes), my manager pushed him on me and I agreed to do an album with him. At that point I was staying in Central Park West in what was, at the time, the Navarro Hotel. When I would come back from recording sessions, I would see Bruce Springsteen talking with his manager in front of the hotel at all hours of the night. Iovine knew Bruce from working on his Born To Run Album, knew he liked my music, and invited him in to record some backing vocals.”

The Up Escalator, which actually credited Graham Parker on the front cover, but not “The Rumour,” would reach #11 on the UK charts, #20 in Canada and #40 in America... leaving the hard-core fans, I'm sure, wanting more after the bland split up. I know this writer has always wondered what might have been, if Graham Parker and The Rumour had continued as a unit and building upon their momentum.

“At that point, I simply wanted to hear my songs in a different musical setting,” Parker concluded. “And that was the right thing to do for my growth and skills as an artist, after our last album in 1980. I never once thought we'd get back together again until we did, (reuniting in 2012) and when we finally did it felt natural and right. Any time before that would have felt wrong. It's not something you can analyse too much, because there's no concrete answers!”

Coming soon to Standing Room Only, part two of our interview with Graham Parker, as he emerges into the 1980's with his solo career, before years later, coming full-circle with The Rumour. To learn more and check out the music, visit Graham Parker's official website at www.grahamparker.net and his label, Chicago-based Bloodshot Records, at www.bloodshotrecords.com.