Graham Parker: Welcome Back

Graham Parker comes with ringing endorsements. Over a 40-year career he’s drawn praise from top-drawer admirers such as Phil Lynott, Elvis Costello, Paul Weller and Bruce Springsteen. The latter was a particular enthusiast back in the 70s when Parker, backed by The Rumour, first unleashed his potent cocktail of roots rock and hard-nosed R&B, stirred by a voice that sounded unnervingly toxic. Springsteen, who likened him to Van Morrison, Eric Burdon and John Lennon, declared him “the only guy around that I’d pay money to see”.

Parker made five albums with The Rumour before they split in 1980, since when he’s released a tranche of fine recordings under his own name. In 2011 he and his old bandmates reunited after three decades apart and started work on a comeback album, Three Chords Good. Now Parker & The Rumour have returned with Mystery Glue, an even stronger follow-up that sees them pump up their grizzly rock’n’soul like the redoubtable old masters they clearly still are.

You seem to be singing better than ever on Mystery Glue.

My voice has weathered and I can just let the growl happen now. There’s a smoky-sweet quality to it. On rehearsals for the last album, Three Chords Good, I think the excitement of being back with The Rumour knocked out a few frequencies, whereas this time I kept my voice in tip-top condition. All the years spent solo gave me the chance to learn what a voice is.

There’s a tough yet playful element to Mystery Glue. Has age mellowed you?

The main point about these songs is that I’m using puns and playful aspects that have always been there. Early tunes like Soul Shoes and White Honey [from 1976’s Howlin’ Wind] had the same quality, but I delivered them in an intense, I’m-gonna-repossess-your-car way. Now my voice suits the playfulness because I’m not an angry young man any more.

I’ve Done Bad Things is a prime example from the new album, told from the viewpoint of someone growing old disgracefully.

[Laughing] Right. Though I’m not quite sure whether the character in that song means it, so it’s a little ambiguous in that respect. But then again it’s a litany of things that really aren’t that bad, like Barack Obama smoking dope. And we’ve all had our hands down big girls’ blouses. Probably.

How does it feel being back with The Rumour?

The Rumour is unique. I take it as two different careers, really. The Rumour stuff just makes me want to dance. It gets to be quite ecstatic in that sense. But at the same time it’s not as reckless and in-your-face as it used to be, when we were shaking the audience by their jackets and saying: “Listen to me! We’re very loud and fast and I yell!”

Was there much trepidation when you re-formed The Rumour in 2011?

Definitely. After I’d sent out the emails and everyone immediately said yes, I was stunned: “Oh, they’re actually going along with this madcap scheme! Now what have I done?” It was like opening Pandora’s Box. The first thought we all had was: “We’re making an album, let’s have a laugh.” No one in the band had any expectations. Then of course [film director] Judd Apatow came into the picture after I’d got The Rumour back together. When that happened I thought: “Holy shit! This has become something else now. It’s an event”. I told him I’d re-formed the band and he was as stunned as I was. A week later he called to say he wanted us all to be in the movie [This Is 40]. So we delayed the release of Three Chords Good to tie in with that. It suddenly became much more than I ever thought.

What’s happening with the planned documentary about you, Don’t Ask Me Questions?

The guy who made it is a brilliant filmmaker but not the best businessman. He wasn’t happy with whoever he was involved with in distribution, so unfortunately it never got off the ground as a selling thing. But I’m in talks with Universal at the moment about doing a career-spanning box set, so maybe some elements of the documentary will be in it. I’ve been doing interviews for the liner notes and helping to pick out tracks.** **It’s hard for me to listen back to some albums, because I just hear the production technique of various eras. But what I do recognise, and what I’m very grateful for, is that most of the albums are good in their own way. Howlin’ Wind, for instance, is my first album and it just doesn’t get better than that for me.

What drove you to create that music?

Around seventy-three or seventy-four, when I started to write the songs that ended up on Howlin’ Wind, I thought there was nobody new who was doing this. I felt the same as a lot of the punk and new wave bands who came later, in that the progressive,_ Old Grey Whistle Test_ kind of thing was flatulent and pompous. And I wanted to destroy it. That anger and resentment just built up in me and it naturally fed into the performances. My voice was aggressive from the start, partly because I didn’t know how to sing. So to me it was life or death every time I went on stage. I wanted to draw from roots music and turn it into a powerhouse. So musically it was very different from punk, but the attitude was similar.

Bruce Springsteen was a big champion of yours in the early days.

Absolutely. Right from the beginning. He came to a gig in New York, and I remember him hanging out backstage, asking me who did this backing vocal or whatever, the kind of thing musicians talk about. When I first heard Born To Run [1975], before my career began, it was the most unbelievable thing. I was like: “Who the fuck is this? It’s The Ronettes, but even further down the subway, played by a rock’n’roll band!” Springsteen actually illuminated me. He said that at the front of my music there’s always this caustic thing, that a lot of people perhaps can’t take, but behind it are all the things that make the songs beautiful. I found that profound, because I hadn’t even realised that.

Were you always conscious of giving voice to your anger?

The rage just came from the fact that I was young: “I’m gonna be somebody and you’re gonna listen to me!” It was incredibly powerful. I wanted to wipe out progressive music, which I’d been listening to, lying on my back and stoned, two years before. I’d travelled around Majorca, Gibraltar and Morocco and was back in the suburbs, where it looked like people were living in Crossroads Motel. And those who weren’t were still into prog rock, where the bands they liked wore denim suits, had long hair and their music sounded like heavy, plodding shit. So that gave me real fuel. I said: “I want to destroy this with a different kind of music.”

How did you figure out what kind of music that was?

I’d left home and got into the stoner thing, with me and a bunch of people listening to [Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma], Captain Beefheart’s Safe As Milk and Jimi Hendrix in a quadrophonic sense, on acid and constantly smoking dope. A tiny stereo in somebody’s place becomes a massive sound when you’re high. We listened to King Crimson and David Peel as well, then Donovan, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. It all seemed to fit in with the lonely-hippie troubadour thing. No one knew about the so-called pub rock acts at all, like Brinsley Schwarz or Ducks Deluxe. It wasn’t until Dr. Feelgood came along on the Naughty Rhythms tour [1975] that my attention was drawn to it. By then I was writing songs and saw this new thing coming: “Okay, here’s a band with short hair, they’re extremely intense and the singer looks pissed off. I like it. I’m definitely going in the right direction.”

Classic Rock 212: News & Regulars

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.