June 22, 2008

Back Tracking Volume 3: Graham Parker and The Rumour - "Local Girls"

Genre-movements, fads, and boomlets in popular music represent moments when artists begin to profoundly influence their peers. Example: before Duke Ellington and the Benny Goodman Orchestra there were certainly big bands that swung, but after them there were "swing bands" in the specific mode of their respective acts. Crossover artists excepted, the true leaps that music takes in the hands of a few talented movement leaders seem to occur when those notable innovators fuse strands together from several places at once. This usually happens when mainstream trends begin to stagnate. In Great Britain in the mid 70's, stagnation came home to roost.

Blame it on The Eagles, blame it on Cream, but mainstream British pop and rock had divided roughly into two camps: one was countrified and folksy and encompassed artists as diverse as Fleetwood Mac, Al Stewart, and Fairport Convention; the other was dominated by loud, aggressively misogynistic blooze-n'-boogie bands like Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and The Faces. Neither side was averse to jamming. Some artists, like T Rex and David Bowie, managed to avoid being shoehorned into either camp, but on a local level, rock music wasn't exactly percolating with new ideas. Punk's sound and fury was a good couple years away in 1976 when Graham Parker and The Rumour cut their first record, Howlin' Wind, but it was a bellwether of changing times that announced the concise pub rock of groups like Brinsley Schwartz had grown some teeth. Laced with the kind of muscular rhythms and big choruses his American spirit brother Bruce Springsteen was perfecting across the pond in Asbury Park, the album's unpretentious mix of cynical lyricism and raw guitar made little dent on the British charts, but a big impression.

Two albums and a jettisoned label later, Parker and his band convened with legendary producer Jack Nitzsche (of Rolling Stones fame) to put together probably the best statement of the embryonic New Wave movement's connection - and debt - to the pub rockers. Squeezing Out Sparks was a leaner, less adorned album than its predecessors and suited its time. Just before making it, Rumour bassist Andrew Bodnar and drummer Steve Goulding had temporarily backed the insurgent Elvis Costello on "Watching the Detectives" and Parker was frequently being mentioned as a leading "Angry Young Man" of British rock alongside Costello and Joe Jackson, both of whom had cut sides that still retained some of the country flourishes of pub rock but were also heading toward a more angular, punk-influenced sound.

The resulting first single from the album, "Local Girls," neatly encapsulates the moment in British rock Graham Parker personifies: its guitar riff snarls with pub rock earthiness, the lyrics bite with punk disdain and proto-New Wave wordplay, the keyboards hint at the looming synth-pop boomlet, and Parker holds court with a playfully nasty vocal that grabs its moment by the throat and doesn't let go. Something about the bouncing bassline and deep pocket groove nods to R&B leanings, which both Jackson and Costello would explore on their own terms in the early 80's, and if timing really WAS everything in music this song and album might've been necessarily huge when it landed in 1979. As it is, Graham Parker languished while "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" and "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" climbed the British charts. As far as a signature song goes, this likely ties "Pourin' It All Out" from 1978's Heat Treatment in the Parker catalogue, and for what it's worth, I believe this holds up quite well against the best work of the other two "Angry Young Men" from the same period.

Regrettably, Graham Parker never really branched out into more sonically daring territory -- as New Wave explored Caribbean and Brazilian rhythms and harmonics, the mechanical dance music of Kraftwerk, disco's lavish arrangements, and post-rock, Parker remained rooted in safer territory. His 80's work, particularly The Mona Lisa's Sister, contain fine moments, but aside from Billy Bragg few artists followed in the snarling confessional style of folk-rock he embraced. All the same, "Local Girls" might be the finest moment of one of New Wave's most significant tributaries.

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