The erstwhile pub rocker (and onetime “angry young man” of British rock) returns with his masterful ‘70s band – and the accumulated musicianship peels back the layers of time in the process.
BY DAVE STEINFELD
Sometimes it’s amazing, the difference that three simple words can make. Graham Parker’s new album Three Chords Good arrived in late November. As GP fans know, he’s been releasing albums pretty steadily now for more than 35 years. But since the mid 1980s or so, he hasn’t sold many records (if indeed he ever did) and many of his recent albums, regardless of how good they were, have vanished without a trace. Unfortunately, a new disc by Graham Parker doesn’t get too many people excited these days.
That’s where those three words — in this case “and The Rumour” — come in. Not only does Three Chords Good have the distinction of being Parker’s 20th studio effort, it’s also the first one in more than 30 years that he recorded with The Rumour. Often considered one of the best backing bands in rock history, these five guys played with Parker on all his albums from Howlin’ Wind, his critically acclaimed 1976 debut, to 1980’s The Up Escalator. This includes his 1979 masterpiece, Squeezing Out Sparks. Suddenly, when the media found out that The Rumour were going to be backing Parker again, this was news! And with an appearance in Judd Apatow’s new film This is 40 on the horizon (it opens in U.S. theaters Dec. 21), the unlikely prospect of Parkermania suddenly seems like it could actually become a reality. As you’ll see, Parker himself was just as surprised as anyone by both the Rumour reunion and his work with Apatow. In fact, as recently as two years ago — the last time I interviewed him for Blurt — he told me, “We don’t have any plans for the dreaded reunion tour.” Just like three words, what a difference two years can make!
It’s great to see Parker playing with The Rumour again but this would mean a lot less if Three Chords Good was a lackluster album. But I’m happy to report that it’s actually his best disc in years. The album features a dozen new tracks that run the gamut both musically and in terms of subject matter. “Snake Oil Capitol of the World” gets things started with some typically deft GP wordplay and The Rumour backing him with a sturdy, midtempo reggae groove. Subject matter aside, it’s as if the last three decades never happened. The upbeat title track falls midway through the album while the lovely ballad “Stop Crying About the Rain” appears earlier on. But to this writer’s ears, Parker has actually saved the best tunes for last. The final three songs on Three Chords Good — “Arlington’s Busy,” “Coathangers” and “The Last Bookstore in Town” — deal, respectively, with the endless war in Iraq, the increasing presence of pro-lifers in American politics and the closing of bookstores and general dumbing down of society. These three songs, while musically disparate, all pack a verbal punch that ranks up there with anything Parker has written. 36 years after he arrived on the scene, this guy is still one of the best lyricists out there.
For the uninitiated, The Rumour includes guitarists Brinsley Schwarz and Martin Belmont, keyboardist Bob Andrews, bassist Andrew Bodnar and drummer Steve Goulding. I recently had a chance to catch the first GP and the Rumour show in New York City since the early ’80s (and it was a good one!) as well as to chat with Parker about his new album, This is 40, what the members of The Rumour have been doing up until now and the music business itself.
BLURT: The obvious question is, after more than 30 years, why did you reconvene The Rumour now? And how did you get all five of the original guys together?
Basically, it was an accident. I’d done my last few records with just me and a drummer. That’s the way I recorded them, and then I added everything [else later]. And I enjoy doing things that way. It still sounds to me like a band is playing [but] I said, ‘I can’t do that again this time.” The last [album], Imaginary Television, to me kind of capped that off. So I emailed Steve Goulding, the drummer, and Andrew [Bodnar], the bass player, out of the blue. I said, “Let’s do a three-piece and record an album in the studio.” Steve made some flippant joke, saying, “If you got Martin, Bob and Brinsley, that would be a proper band.” That’s when I emailed everyone else. I really did not think it through.
I might have thought, “It would be a great trick on Mr. Goulding if I now get The Rumour.” I thought of it more as a lark, really. And they all said yes! (laughs) It was then that it dawned on me that I was in a serious situation. You know, this is a six-piece band including me. This is gonna take some arrangement, and some money. And, unfortunately, when it comes to money, I’m the one paying for it. It all started to dawn on me: what have I done? I like a quiet life these days; I don’t need to be in the spotlight in any [way], shape or form. So suddenly I knew, we’re gonna get some attention and things are gonna get busy. But I’d done it, you know what I mean? If I’d thought it through, I wouldn’t have done it — which would been a bad thing.
[So] suddenly I had a Rumour reunion on my hands and I had a bunch of songs and I was committed. Once I’d done it, it was like, “Okay, do not drag your heels. Do it!”
[I know that] Steve Goulding plays with a lot of people. But were most of the guys from The Rumour still in the UK when you called them? Or were they spread all over the place?
Andrew Bodnar is in Yorkshire [England], where he works in a library. Martin — his first band, Ducks Deluxe, they’ve been back together and playing. Martin also teaches and does guitar lessons. Brinsley is a luthier — a guy who fixes guitars and amplifiers and what-have-you, in a guitar store. Bob’s been very active in New Orleans — you know, playing two or three gigs a day sometimes as sort of a go-to keyboard player! And he’s recording his own albums now; he’s just made a new one. So he’s very excited about what he’s doing. And as you know, Steve is constantly playing with somebody.
Oh yeah. I saw him not long ago playing with Garland Jeffreys.
Yes! I did a few double bills with Garland recently. I know Steve plays with him a bit and [he’s] been in The Mekons and Poi Dog Pondering. So he’s one of the most active members of [the band]. Him and Bob are the most active, I think.
Had you found that you missed playing with The Rumour over the years?
Well, when we really hit, we had some incendiary live shows. They’re probably still reverberating to this day because they were so intense. And we did have fun making albums [but not] as much fun as this one was. Not to denigrate the talents of the producers but it was much better without having a producer. That always causes some kind of tension — when a guy that the band [members] don’t know turns up at the studio. So we didn’t have that hanging over us [this time]. You just need somebody good to hold it together and record it properly and that was Dave Cook, our man in the studio. So it was way more fun.
One song that I wanted to ask you about [is “Coathangers’}. You must have written it before Paul Ryan came out with his insane remarks but I was wondering about that.
Oh, I can’t even remember who started the ball rolling on the insane remarks now. It certainly wasn’t Todd Akin. He was in a long line of incredible remarks about women’s bodies.
I would have written these songs around the winter of 2010 — 2011. Then I spent time holding them and refining them. That’s what I do. I might have a period of two or three months writing a whole album. Then the real work begins of knocking them into shape, you know, making sure I really have credible work. And April or May is when I contacted the Rumour guys. So I don’t know who was beginning to make rumbles about “let’s start focusing on women’s health and abortion.” One of the Republicans started that idea. But I know it was starting — this idea of “We’re the Tea Party, we care about fiscal stuff, we wanna reduce the deficit and…. naaah, not really! What we wanna do is stop women [from] having abortions and taking the pill. This is what we’re really all about.” Fucking evangelicals. It started to emerge that far back. It was basically the old white men starting to kick in with all the wrong ideas again, you know? And they couldn’t stop the ball rolling.
Quite honestly, I don’t wanna write songs like [“Coathangers’]. I wanna write songs [like] “Stop Crying About the Rain” and my favorite song on the album, “Old Soul.” Those are the kinda songs I wanna write. But I’m the kinda guy who can’t help myself. If I start to get angry about something, this stuff comes out. “Arlington’s Busy” came out because — I mean, the Iraq War hasn’t been examined much in song, you know? People are strangely quiet about this. Young people are singing about, “Oh woe is me. I don’t fit in and my girlfriend left me.” There’s a lot of that. But I always followed Pat Tillman’s career. I even sort of knew his name before he joined up to serve and [made] that sacrifice. I was interested in him. Then he was killed and I read the Jon Krakauer book [Where Men Win Glory}, which is basically about Tillman — a marvelous book. And so I wrote, “Arlington’s Busy.” I just felt no one’s saying anything about these things! [And] if they are, they can’t say it as good as me anyway ’cause I’m the best at this stuff. (laughter)
It’s interesting because to me, the last three songs on the album bite the hardest. One of them is about the war, one of them is about abortion and one of them is about bookstores and stuff closing — which I think are all important issues in America. You’ve lived in the States for quite awhile now. Do you consider America your home?
I don’t really know. I’ve still got a place in London. You know, I don’t like the word “settled” much; that sounds like a log falling into the water or something. So I don’t know. I had a one-way ticket that I bought for Belize in case Romney became president!
You’re right; the last three songs have that kick going for them. But let’s face it — the first one is not to shabby in that area either. “Snake Oil Capitol of the World” is kind of intense, you know? It’s about the general scamming nature of a lot of things — especially political pundits.
Right. And also in the middle of the album, you have “A Lie Goes Halfway Round the World,” which has bit of a kick.
Absolutely. As I say, I can’t help myself, you know?
Let me ask you about a bit about the Apatow film — how you guys got involved and what we can look forward to.
Well, the general subject is out there. In the movie Knocked Up, Pete and Debbie — which is Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann — are a married couple. And Pete is working for a record company. What Judd has done has taken that idea forward. Now Pete has decided to put an indie label together, and his idea is to sign all the acts he really loves ’cause he was frustrated when he was working for a major label. The music didn’t appeal to him that much; I think that was part of the idea behind it. So now he’s started an indie label and he wants to sign acts like me. Possibly XTC or Men At Work — you know, ’70s [and] ’80s music that he likes.
Judd was thinking of getting somebody from a band like that, that might well sign to an indie label, and getting them in the movie. And [there’s] the fact that Pete has put a lot of money into a record label in the era when records don’t sell much. That would be part of the tension in the movie — a little part of it. It’s basically about relationships, people hitting 40 and what it’s like to deal with it. So that’s where my name came up. [Judd] was thinking of different people and he might have thought of me and somebody else reinforced that idea to him — I forget who now. So he hired me to act a little bit in [the film] and when I met him, he gave me a vague outline of what I might be doing in it. I didn’t really know what he was getting at. Did he want to just use a couple of my songs in the movie? Which to me would have been absolutely fantastic alone. I don’t get a lot of this stuff happening to me. So now I’m talking to Judd Apatow and I thought this would be great. Then he starts talking to me about acting.
Anyway, before that, he’s telling me about this record company idea and that I would be the kind of act that the character Pete might sign. And I said, “Well, guess what, Judd? I just reformed The Rumour! We’re gonna make an album in July.” ‘Cause I met Judd in April or May, just after The Rumour had committed. The serendipity of it all was extraordinary. So I said, “Not only can you get me in your movie, how ’bout me and The Rumour?” And a week later, he called me back and said, “Let’s get you out to Hollywood next year when we’re shooting to do a few walk-in bits. Then let’s get The Rumour in [around the] end of August.” So I’ve got two little clips of performances in the film. Then Judd gave me a ton of ideas to write some songs for the film. This is nothing to do with Three Chords Good; it’s totally independent. I wrote a bunch of songs and one of them is embedded in the movie and it’s on the soundtrack. So it turned into a lot of different elements, really.
It’s funny that you mention Men At Work. I’ve spoken with Colin Hay a number of times. Very nice guy.
He’s also a good story teller. I’m sure he does well because of the old Men At Work hits. But it’s been very hard for him to get his new stuff played on the radio. It’s almost like people don’t realize that he’s had a career for the last 25 years.
Well, yes. I think their name pops up in the movie, that’s why I thought of them. In some conversation. But going back to Colin Hay — the fact is, artists like us could be making our best material and no one gives a shit. There’s guys like you who do. But you know, radio [and] the business is largely not interested in stimulating a new economy in music. You would think BMG or Universal, the people who own my old catalog, would be on the phone to me saying, “Graham, we really wanna put together a nice box set” or “Let’s give [your catalog] back to you, so that you can sell some of these records.” I mean, not a thing. It doesn’t mean anything to them; it’s all high finance or nothing!
Also, the problem is, with acts that have been around for 20 or 30 years, the fans themselves are still hooked on the old stuff. It’s understandable. If you discover, in my case, Squeezing Out Sparks when you’re in college — that’s gonna be a big part of your, to use the cliché, glory days. That’s when you discovered it. So nothing is gonna come up to that. You may like an artist’s new album but it doesn’t mean anywhere near as much and you can’t even open your mind enough to let it mean as much. It’s very, very difficult.
You’re one of my favorite songwriters. Who are some of the songwriters that you either like now or that influenced you when you were [younger]?
Well, it’s a really corny and basic story. I was 12 when The Beatles and The Stones started to make an appearance. They were the music for my age group, you know? Suddenly, we had our own music. My cousin was a couple of years older and [he and his friends] all had the quiffs, you know, the rockabilly look. They were all “Rock Around the Clock” and Elvis Presley. I never got Elvis; I never understood him. But when The Beatles and The Stones came along, it was like, this was it! There’s no question.
That opened the door for everything. Then we found out that somebody named “C. Berry” was writing some of the songs they were doing and discovered who [he] was — a guy named Chuck Berry. And who was Holland/Dozier/Holland and what’s “Twist and Shout?” They didn’t write “Twist and Shout,” The Beatles; where were they getting it from? This whole history opened up and then it was the American blues, which was strong underground music in England — more than America. So we [now] had all these great blues artists playing in the suburbs [who] couldn’t get arrested in America. I’d see Champion Jack Dupree in a pub in Guildford, you know? Incredible.
Tons of musical influences. James Taylor, Neil Young — very powerful influences on me. And then, of course, Dylan as well. I mean, you can’t go wrong, can you? To have grown up in that period.