Navigating the terrain between pub rock and punk rock, Parker and his red-hot band The Rumour, with Nick Lowe at the controls, cooked up an intoxicating stew of “rockabilly, rock & roll, soul music, Motown” and blended that with his blunt but intelligent lyrics. Forty years later, Parker is writing and releasing some of the best music of his career, though he still feels “like a totally lone wolf”
Talking to Graham Parker is more like being talked to by Graham Parker. He has a lot to say. His sentences seem to never stop. He veers from one idea to the next, goes off on tangents and springs from the present to the past and back. He is self-depreciating and humble one moment, and reminding you of his triumphs the next.
What is lovely about all this is that the listener can hear these wonderful and entertaining contradictions in his life’s work. He’s just a songwriter trying to makes sense of a world with which he often finds himself at odds.
The unique combination of influences he has absorbed make his sound immediate and familiar, while at the same time make him difficult to pigeon hole. While this dichotomy may have stumped record companies from time to time, it has also helped him maintain a fan base over a long career.
He arrived in London and connected with manager Dave Robinson (who would shortly go on to co-found Stiff Records) just as the pub rock scene was coming to an end, and out of the ashes of that scene Robinson put together The Rumour to be Parker’s backing band. They were a perfect match. Tight and powerful and sensitive to the songs’ needs. Just a few months later Graham Parker and The Rumour were recording their debut album, and earning a reputation as a fierce live act.
Through forty-plus years of music business shake ups and trends Graham Parker has never stopped. His new album Cloud Symbols finds him on familiar ground, sorting out life at age 68.
PKM: Let’s start with Surrey. What was it like growing up there?
Graham Parker: It was idyllic, really, apart from having to go to school, that always gets in the way of everything, but otherwise it was pretty fantastic. It was countryside all around and in those days I could just walk out of the house and I was in the woods. My parents were working class, but it’s kind of a wealthy county really, so it wasn’t like the working class in some kind of northern town or some kind of housing project. It was marvelous, and still is.
PKM: You were born in 1950 so you were twelve or so when The Beatles took over the world. Did that change your life?
Graham Parker: Yes. We didn’t have our own music at the time. We knew about Elvis and Buddy Holly, but none of that really grabbed my attention to any great degree. I had heard Little Richard because my mom did some waitressing part-time at what was known as an officers’ mess, and the army officers were always going from one country to another and they couldn’t take everything with them and would leave records for my mum because they knew I was into music. I just didn’t have the acts to follow until The Beatles came along. When I realized The Beatles were into stuff like Little Richard and Chuck Berry, the circle got complete. You saw where it was coming from. And The Stones were right there as well, so it was a marvelous time for me because we were twelve years old and we were picking up guitars because we had our own music and these people weren’t too much older than us. They talked in a very irreverent way and they weren’t distant like Elvis Presley. They seem to be from just up the road, which they were. So the first thing you want to do is write songs, and look like those guys and play instruments.
[Nick Lowe] had a knack for hearing the right take and a knack for knowing when we were getting it and yelling very loudly and happily, “That’s great! That’s fucking great! Come and listen to that one!” The excitement that he generated was very real, and you need that.
PKM: The influences I hear in your music are so wide… were you listening to that wide of a variety of music, or were you just born that way?
Graham Parker: It didn’t take me long after The Beatles and The Stones emerged to learn more about where it was coming from, and soon I was hooked on Otis Redding and Tamla Motown and ska and all the rest of it. But I did hang out with some slightly older friends, who were all going to go to art school, and they had Lightnin’ Hopkins records, they knew who Robert Johnson was. They had Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson records, so I heard all of those kinds of things and it really kicked in when The Beatles and The Stones came along.
PKM: So between about age 16 and when you got a recording contract at 24, you did a lot of traveling. How did that time shape who you became as a performer and as an artist?
Graham Parker: It’s just sort of who you hang out with and who you cross paths with and what music they’re into. I left home about 18, around 1967 or ‘68, and I lived in the Channel Islands between France and England. I went there because I knew someone who had an uncle who was a landscaper and I could get a job picking tomatoes. That was my first job there, but I did many other jobs including working in a bakery, and was in a different crowd of people who were not interested in listening to Soul music or any of that 4/4 beat music, and at the time when I went there I was absolutely immersed in the white British blues scene. Peter Green was my great hero. But when I got to Guernsey, I met these other people, freaks basically, and they were listening to stuff that I hadn’t gotten to yet and didn’t really understand at all. This would have been a number of different acts from Pink Floyd to Captain Beefheart. Nobody could afford very much in those days so it was community listening. Somebody would buy a record and somebody would buy another one and you’d hang out and listen. There were a lot of interesting records I started to suddenly understand. But at the same time there were singer/songwriters emerging, like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, and to me it all went together. Eventually I bought an acoustic guitar and I just sort of knuckled down to write. But it took a while. I think I had to get out of the end of the psychedelic prog-rock influence and get back into soul, which struck me as much more lasting music than the more floaty stuff, the more navel-gazing journey into your brain stuff.
PKM: Kind of a wake up call.
Graham Parker: I would hear “You Can’t Hurry Love” on the radio and it would just fill me with emotion and energy, and all the psychedelic stuff is anti-emotion. We called ourselves “heads” and it was about being in your head with this music, obviously fueled by psychedelics. So I had to go somewhere out of that and it seemed there was no forward, so I went backwards, because the prog music was devolving. This was about 1973 and I was leaving this behind and I started writing in earnest and very soon got my head on some kind of idea that included rockabilly, rock & roll, soul music, Motown… and suddenly I found myself in a territory I wasn’t actually hearing anyone else doing. Bob Marley and the Wailers Catch A Fire came out and all of a sudden it became clear to me that if I went in this direction there would be nobody else around quite like it. I developed as a person. You grow up and you start to find yourself and find what you’re good at, so all those early songs started coming through and I realized I was onto something.
PKM: Such an interesting time for musical transitions. Pub rock was dying, prog was dying, and it was right up against the beginning of punk. I assumed you felt it in the air. Was it an exciting time, like when the Beatles arrived?
Graham Parker: Well, I didn’t quite know what to make of punk. It wasn’t to my taste. But in 1976, I’d had two albums out, Howlin’ Wind and Heat Treatment, and punk was still in the back pages of the music press, but it was starting to creep toward the front pages. I saw that happening and thought “What is all this nonsense?” I didn’t really pick up on it at all.
PKM: Let’s go back 1975 or so. You had moved home, written a million songs and I believe you were working in gas station when you put an ad in Melody Maker, a seminal step for British band formation at the time. Is that how you got in touch with David Robinson?
Graham Parker: Yes, that’s basically it. I was going into London regularly meeting people and playing songs, and in London it seemed to me there were a lot of people who never really had taken to prog rock. They were still into what you might call roots music, and some of them had been in bands and that’s when I got to hear the term pub rock, because that had escaped me. It had so little clout, it was nothing really. All of these bands had failed and they were all broken up and there were a lot of good musicians who came out of that idea of pub rock, and they understood what I was doing because all that I was doing was playing routine music, what you might call Americana these days, but with a lot more soul influence, and these musicians I was meeting really understood where I was coming from and that hadn’t happened before. So when I met Dave Robinson, I could almost see the light bulbs going off in his head because I was someone with none of this pub rock baggage. So Dave Robinson knew all these people who were out of work and put The Rumour around me.
PKM: Up to that point, had you played in high school bands or a garage bands?
Graham Parker: I had various outfits even when I was 13. We were The Black Rockers or The Deep Cut Three, but we were what I would call a dress-up band now. We didn’t learn to play; that was the missing ingredient! It wasn’t until I went through my life of traveling, when I became inspired by all kinds of music, that that happened. You don’t learn properly in rock & roll. You sit with a guitar and you hammer away at it. Quite a lot of lonely times on your own trying to figure out how to play, which isn’t much fun. I knuckled down and somehow I got good enough to impress these London musicians. At 15, we were playing in different keys! I had to do it my own way. I have to do everything my own way. I did go to a guitar lesson once and I thought “Whatever this guy is playing its absolute bullshit! I’ve got to learn this myself.” And I did; it just took a while. That’s why I was about 24 when I got a record deal.
PKM: So The Rumour turned out to be a fantastic band, and I’ve always thought they were a band that was more than the sum of the parts. On paper, every guy is a good and solid musician, and a good collaborator, but something about the chemistry made that band really something very special. Was that apparent right from the beginning?Graham Parker: We were rehearsing the first day and I think Martin Belmont, the tall guitarist, came up to me and said, “I’m sorry, we just weren’t good today. I know we can be better than that,” and it was a bit messy and I thought they weren’t listening to the songs enough. They’d be so creative that sometimes it would take a long time to get the song. But I didn’t understand how good musicians worked. And the next time we rehearsed, it clicked. Seeing that I was green to it, I needed a bit of assistance with arrangements and things, I was learning on the job and those guys had made albums and had toured. I came along and was kind of unceremoniously dumped on them by Dave Robinson. It was difficult, it was work, but it always is.
PKM: One of the surprising things about The Rumour’s sound is that you added the brass section to the band. That’s a lot of mouths to feed on tour. How did you make that work?
Graham Parker: You know everything was just cheaper then. We shared rooms and, of course, I got a record deal. You see, none of these people could get a record deal. I instantly got a record deal.
PKM: The story is just too good to be true. A DJ name Charlie Gillette heard your demo, played it on the radio and a record company guy called him and said, “I must have this guy.” Was it really that simple?
Graham Parker: It was. Nigel Grainge from Phonogram records. And the weird thing was I knew it would happen. That’s the weirdest thing. I just thought “This is so good, there’s got to be someone,” and Dave Robinson was definitely the one. He knew his stuff and he’d had all this experience and he knew it was good, but he still didn’t think it would be that easy, but for some reason it wasn’t a big shock to me. I was approaching 25 and I was anxious to get going because I already felt a bit old. You’re supposed to start at 17, like George Harrison, and so we just went instantly for this deal and then it wasn’t long before we were rehearsing to do an album.
PKM: Nick Lowe produced the first record. What was his contribution to the overall thing?
Graham Parker: After a few gigs we had really knocked the songs that were going to be on Howlin’ Wind into pretty good shape. So it was all just a case of a guy being the mediator and making sure that we were doing 100% our best. He had a knack for hearing the right take and a knack for knowing when we were getting it and yelling very loudly and happily, “That’s great! That’s fucking great! Come and listen to that one!” The excitement that he generated was very real, and you need that. And he turned out to be very skilled at mixing, but it was very much in the attitude with Nick that made it just good. It really did.
PKM: So the critical reaction to the first album was fantastic, but as you’ve pointed out, much of the world was still in a different space. So considering what was on the radio, what were your American label’s expectations of you? Did they think you would be a mainstream rock artists?
Graham Parker: Mercury was the American branch of the Philips organization and they sort of reluctantly picked up the deal and Dave Robinson immediately wished they hadn’t. It was very clear once you got there, when you heard what was on the radio, it felt like they were light years in the past. It was corporate rock. It had all the trappings. but it looked like more of an act then the early prog rock bands who were concentrating on playing music. Immediately it was obvious it would be very hard for us to fit in, in any way.
PKM: Did the people at Mercury look you in the eye and say, “We don’t know what to do with you,” or “We hope the people playing Frampton Comes Alive! are also going to play your records”? Did they have a plan?
Graham Parker: No, they had no plan. I think they were just leaving us to our own devices. We drove long distances and it was almost like Dave was getting out at diners and getting on the phone and calling his contacts. “We need to play in Washington D.C.” There were quite a few holes in our schedule. We did a lot of driving across the Deep South because the theory was we were taking the music back to the black people because they’d understand it, because the white people certainly won’t. And it turned out the black people didn’t either. Once we got to open for Freddie King and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and the only people in the audience were white college kids. They were like the blues bores, those kind of people, the purists, they’re just as bad as jazz or classical purists and they didn’t understand us either. But there would always be one guy who would come up to us after and say, “That kicked my ass!” So it just sort of spread like that at a glacial pace because radio was not going to get behind us, apart from college radio. I remember going to stations at midnight and the joints are going and you’re drinking and there’s some guy playing anything he wants and it was like: this is what I’m talking about!
PKM: But eventually, certainly by your fourth album, Squeezing Out Sparks, radio stations, at least in New York City, were playing you. Was that your biggest seller and did that make the record company a believer in you?
Graham Parker: Well, I’ve always been lucky with record companies, despite what people think. They’ve always given me too much money! From Clive Davis to Bob Krasnow to all kinds of people. It went on until the ‘90s. There were very few artists who by the ‘90s still had a major record deal. It had happened to me with RCA, only by now I was telling them “Give me half the money. You’re giving me too much money, and I’m not going to sell that much!” But I had a realistic position: let me make the music I want to make. And RCA went along with it and I delivered The Mona Lisa’s Sister and they loved it and I had this wonderful upswing on that record.
I should have been dead and buried in the ‘80s and it was the most lucrative time. The money just kept going up and they just kept banking on me and I just kept doing what I was doing. I was making records. Writing songs and making records and sort of laughing as I went to the bank. But a lot of it was spent because there was that period where if you got a $350,000 advance, you were supposed to spend it on the record because the thinking was: that makes it better. And we all fell for it. I could at least buy myself a loft in New York City and a nice flat in London which I’m sitting in now. So it was like being an imposter, really. I was on Regis and Kathie Lee! I’ve felt like “I’ve stolen so much.” It took a long while for me to realize: this music really does sound like me… it really is me.
PKM: You mentioned that you were on the scene before the idea of punk became a mainstream thing, but at a certain point the press sort of lumped you and people like Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson in the Angry Young Man category. Did that become a burden for you?
Graham Parker: At first somebody said, “Graham Parker is the grandfather of Punk,” and I thought “What are they talking about? I think Lou Reed might be or that guy Iggy Pop.” But I’ll take it, because it’s fashionable, because suddenly The Sex Pistols record had come out and I’m looking pretty out of date. They appealed to a younger crowd than I could get to with my music. My music was way too intellectual and fussy and way too old sounding. So to be lumped into that was okay, but of course it wasn’t fully there. We didn’t fit in with the punks, we couldn’t fit in with the corporate rock… so we just remained in a field of one. I still feel like a totally lone wolf.
PKM: How many records have you made?
Graham Parker: My new record label, 100% Records, tried to count it and they came up with 25.
PKM: I think one thing that stops some artists from making that much music is that they don’t want to move on quite so quickly. They’re too attached to their material. I’m guessing you don’t have that problem.
Graham Parker: When a record comes out, I’m kind of over it by then. If you’re halfway through a tour, it’s fine playing it, as it gains a new life in front of an audience. But I definitely don’t want to listen to the album I just made. It’s not urgent to me to get my thoughts immediately to the public, but for much of my career it has been like that. Now I’ll take a very long time procrastinating over whether I should finish the bits of songs that I have left over from Cloud Symbols.
PKM: You mentioned laziness a couple of times but clearly you’re very prolific. What is the secret of that? Is it hard work or inspiration?
Graham Parker: It’s all hard work. It’s all about grind. That’s all it’s about to me. The inspiration thing, that’s not easy, that’s a grind as well. That means sitting there with a guitar and being very disappointed at what’s coming out of you for long periods of time. I’m telling you it is lonely miserable work… and then something comes in and suddenly it’s like… WHOA! The whole universe just opened up and the sun just came out! But you know what’s going to come next is going to be a lot of work, and I don’t do these things as quickly as I used to.
PKM: In 2011, The Rumour got back together, sounding as good as ever, and made two great albums with you. Around the same time, Judd Apatow asked you to appear in the movie This Is 40. Tell me about the experience of being a movie star.
Graham Parker: Well, as soon as I found myself in Hollywood watching Albert Brooks and John Lithgow, I was terrified once again. I thought “I’m an imposter. I’m bound to be left off of this film.” But at the same time, I was enjoying everything. It was first class every moment of everything. I was thinking “If I could do this for a living, I’d put my guitar in a closet and never get it out again because this is much much better!” But I wasn’t exactly the lead actor, so I had a lot of time and I spent much of it playing Where’s Waldo with Judd’s younger daughter Iris and a couple of other kids who had small parts in the movie. It was great fun. It was like getting away with murder really. But these people had an amazing work ethic. You’re up at practically dawn getting your makeup done and you get out of there at 10 p.m. sometimes. I thought we’d all go for a drink and eat somewhere but there was too much free food so you wouldn’t go and eat somewhere and pay for it. Nobody went off and got slaughtered on alcohol. I was hoping for a lot of partying with these people, but they all scurried off like cockroaches. They were back learning the script for the next day. It was work. Anyone who tells you that Hollywood stars sit around in luxury… no… It’s work. I thought that was really great to see.
PKM: Speaking of films, let’s talk about Don’t Ask Me Questions, Michael Gramaglia’s wonderful documentary about you. It seems you are comfortable talking about yourself, but was it weird going through that process of… being eulogized while you’re still alive?
Graham Parker: It’s about giving up and giving trust to the person doing it. It all came together at the right time, because I’d put Michael off for about ten years. I just didn’t think there was a story that I thought was worth telling. We finished the movie before The Rumour reformed and I didn’t think the movie was compelling and suddenly two things happened. I called Michael and told him I’d reform The Rumour, which I didn’t think I’d ever do, and I also said Judd Apatow had called me. So Judd asked Michael to film us recording, and some of that is on the Blu-ray of the This Is 40. So the timing was ridiculous in a way, and Michael’s film had a compelling ending.
So, for four years, The Rumour and I had a very nice reunion. It turned into something very special because of This Is 40 and the documentary and the fact we made an album and we all thought it was very good, and there we were touring of course.
PKM: Let’s talk about your new album Cloud Symbols. I listened to it not knowing what to expect, because you are always going in different directions, but this one is sort of an amalgamation of everything. It’s very Graham Parker in the lyrics and song construction and the way the band sounds. Are you happy with it?
Graham Parker: I’m very happy with it. I think it’s absolutely perfect. It’s just right for the time. It felt right to me after all the prevaricating and the procrastinating. I’m totally satisfied with it.
PKM: I want to hear about the audiobook of Jack Kerouac’s Visions Of Cody, which is some people’s favorite audiobook of all time. How did you get involved?
Graham Parker: Dave Cook, an engineer who I worked with, also worked with a guy named Jim Sampas who was somehow related to one of Jack Kerouac’s wives [Stella Sampas], and Jim said to me, “You’re into the Beats, aren’t you?” At that point, I had read one Kerouac book and that’s about it. I read William Burroughs quite a lot and I didn’t understand anything about it, but it was crazy interesting stuff. So he somehow got me involved in doing these readings. I’d be at The Town Hall in New York and Odetta would be there and Allen Ginsberg and that guy they always turn up… the Sonic Youth guy. So I’d turn up in different places reading a Kerouac piece and I was good at it. I was a natural at it. One night I’m on the same bill as David Amram, who was one of the only people who played music behind Jack Kerouac on stage while he was reading his poetry. So he’s one of the original guys and he’s still going strong. An astonishing musician. So when this audiobook came up, Jim Sampas suggested us to Viking Penguin. Graham Parker and David Amram. So we went to a studio, and I’m reading these bits and I’ve been practicing… this bit is Benzedrine speed Jazz, so David would play the saxophone and I’d be speed rapping this stuff, trying desperately not to screw up a word. If it was reflective passage, he’d play some sort of tiny little Indian wooden flute… so it was like that.
PKM: Let’s talk about touring. It seems like you’ve never stopped touring. I imagine you knew early on that you could walk into a room and play your songs for people and even if they didn’t know you, you could connect. I know touring has changed a lot since the mid-’70s, but do you still enjoy it and is that connection still there?
Graham Parker: The gig part is the only part I really enjoy anymore. I’m really over it. It’s brutality really. It’s not a good healthy thing to do, but it never gets tired to have an audience feeding off of your music. I’m not putting that down in the slightest. That is still great. My solo act, in particular, is my most flexible act and in some ways my most musical act. Unfortunately, because of things like finances, these days it’s a bust for me to do it with a band. I’m constantly spending money that I don’t have to do tours
PKM: It’s interesting that you mentioned finances, because it seems to me you made a decision early on not to make a lot of decisions based purely on financial considerations and I’m guessing you don’t regret that.
Graham Parker: No, I don’t have any regrets about any of that stuff. People talk about acts as a sell-out or whatever. Some people talk about my intensity, my passion and I think “Unless you’re Kraftwerk, you’re intense!” And that’s a deliberate choice by Kraftwerk. I’m sure Britney Spears is intense and passionate when she sings. These things are two a penny. Rock & roll is passionate and intense. This is not a great attribute, this is a normal attribute.
PKM: At the end of the day are you disappointed with the world for not being hungrier for catchy, slightly twisted poppy rock songs with unique lyrics?
Graham Parker: There’s always disappointment involved, which is part of life. What’s disappointing at the moment is that it doesn’t matter how good a record you make, there is no mainstream back up for you. The radio stations have made up their mind and they’re not going to let anything in, even if it’s good, and even it would fit. I think they want acts like us to live in the past. You know, I’ll hear… Joe Jackson, for instance. They’ll play “Steppin Out” and say, “Joe has a new record out now and it’s called…” and it’s like: why the fuck why didn’t play a track from that?! Because they think the audience is so stupid that they haven’t got the big brains to accept it. A lot of us are in the same boat. We can’t get a new record off the ground in any significant way, so that is disappointing.
PKM: You’ve always had an affinity for nature. Tell me how that fits into your world?
Graham Parker: It’s still important to me. The only two Google Alerts I have… one for “rare species discovered” the other for “previously thought extinct.” Recently a salamander was discovered in America, it’s legless with gills and it lives under the water and can go to two-foot long and it’s only just been discovered because it lives in the mud most of the time! That stuff just fascinates the hell out of me. That really is fantastic.
PKM: Do you think you’ll do this to the day you die?
Graham Parker: I hope not. God, I hope not. It sometimes seems like a thoroughly uncreative thing… make another record, do another tour. How genius of me! But it’s the new material that really makes it all revolve. If I write songs, I’ve got to do something with them!
PKM: When you’re 80, do you see yourself getting the car and going to play music?
Graham Parker: Absolutely not! No thank you, sir. I know it’s uncomfortable enough at 68. The only good bit, when you’re free, is when you step on stage. That’s the good bit, the rest of it has worn thin. But, having said that, I’m still doing it. And these damn songs keep rearing their ugly head telling me to write them. It’s like a machine, I can’t turn it off too easily.