Ten Songs That Made Me Love...
published: 4 /
In our series, in which our writers write about ten songs that made them love a favourite band or artist, Kimberly Bright writes about her favourite songs by English singer-songwriter Graham Parker.
I discovered one of my all-time favourite artists, pub rock/blue-eyed soul/R&B/New Wave/rock ‘n’ roll singer-songwriter Graham Parker, on the student-run Purdue University radio station in 1985, thanks to whoever did the Sunday evening 8-10 p.m. spot and chose to give 'Wake Up (Next to You)' frequent plays. It was the only college radio station I could get, and the Sunday evening DJ had a preference for Canadian (Gary O’, Platinum Blonde) and British new wave, synth pop, goth, and indie music (Vitamin Z, Dave Edmunds, Bauhaus, Adam Ant). Unknown to me at the time, my future spouse also volunteered at this chaotic, freeform station on a different night and time, when he would put on 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida' so he could run out for a sandwich or to check on his laundry. 'Wake Up' gave Graham Parker his first Top 40 hit in the U.S. and I still find it baffling that there have not not many more to follow. I made it a point of immediately buying his back catalogue going back to 1976 and continually watching out for new releases while dodging the endless repackaging and recompiling of his work. There’s no such thing as a disappointing Graham Parker album.
1. 'Local Girls' ('Squeezing Out Sparks', 1979)
I could pick any of the songs from this classic album, recorded with Parker’s impeccable once and future backing band, the Rumour, but 'Local Girls' contains all the best things about Parker: catchy guitar hook, self-deprecating humour, razor wit, and, in this case, peeved if not angry vocals. It’s not a coincidence that one of his innumerable compilation albums is called 'Piss & Vinega'r. Squeezing Out Sparks' starts out strong with 'Discovering Japan' and ends with an equally hard punch, 'Don’t Get Excited'. The video, which I finally saw a few years ago, is low budget but fantastic.
2. 'Back Door Love' ('Heat Treatment', 1976)
The flipside of Parker’s snarly vocals is his soulful, smitten, yearning voice, which he uses on this love song about a clandestine relationship, using the time-honoured blues slang about a “back door man” (and not about anything else 'Urban Dictionary' says the term now connotes).
3. 'Hotel Chambermaid' ('Heat Treatment', 1976)
This happy romping rocker will be likely thrown into the musical sexism dustbin of outrage by many, along with the likes of 'Under My Thumb', but it is just so much fun, I can’t possibly keep it off the list. I much prefer Parker’s version with the Rumour’s marvellous backing vocals to Rod Stewart’s wink-wink high-camp cover version.
4. 'And It Shook Me' ('Struck by Lightning,' 1991)
Another straight-ahead love song with, like 'Back Door Love', a traditional ‘50s doo-wop chord progression. This album came out around the same time as Sting’s 'Soul Cages', both of which I reviewed at the time for a randomly published college alternative paper called 'The Butler Flipside'. I couldn’t think of enough praise to lavish on 'Struck by Lightning', just as there wasn’t enough hate and bile on the planet to justly fling at 'Soul Cages'. I love the sarcastic story-telling songs like 'She Wants So Many Things' and 'They Murdered the Clown', as well as the grown-up slice of reality depicted in 'The Kid with the Butterfly Net' and 'Children and Dogs'.
I have happy memories of listening to this song, in love, engaged, underslept, working at an internship at a public policy think tank with my Walkman headphones on at my desk, and trying to avoid being sexually harassed by a much older pot-smoking senior economic research fellow who had a huge framed autographed photo of himself shaking hands with Margaret Thatcher in his office.
5. 'Jolie Jolie' ('The Up Escalator', 1980)
Another rock ‘n’ roll love song to his wife, with just enough of a tinge of uncertain desperation and driving guitar that, for me, makes it one of the highlights of the entire album. It’s a difficult choice between 'Jolie Jolie' and companion piece 'Love Without Greed'.
6. 'Women in Charge' (bonus track on extended version of 'The Up Escalator', 2016)
This grudge song reminds me of Parker’s 'Mercury Poisoning', taking aim at one of his former labels. This song is another angry parting shot following what sounds like a long-distance relationship, heavy-duty disillusionment, and an overbearing, histrionic woman. The music is pure late ‘70s pub rock, something that wouldn’t be out of place in a Dave Edmunds or Nick Lowe set list from 1979.
7. 'Turn It Into Hate' ('Acid Bubblegum', 1998)
'Acid Bubblegum' is a pretty angry album for this period of Parker’s career, especially since his introspective and mature '12 Haunted Episodes' isn’t far away. He even got snarky about Aretha Franklin and singers who aspire to sound like her. Like #They Got it Wrong As Usual', this song is a laundry list of signs the world is indeed becoming stupider and more uncivilized all the time.
8. 'Blue Highways' ('The Mona Lisa’s Sister', 1988)
If this acoustic tribute to American pre-interstate highways and back roads doesn’t inspire listeners to go on an extensive road trip immediately, in all likelihood nothing else will either. 'The Mona Lisa’s Sister' featured the first of Parker’s forays into more stripped-down acoustic arrangements, which set off his voice perfectly. He clearly knows how strong and rich his voice is getting at this point and is happy to show it off. I had just received my driver’s licence when this album came out, and this cassette never left my car.
9. 'Temporary Beauty' ('Another Grey Area', 1982)
Parker is always good for astute cultural criticism, whether about politics, religion, abortion, racism, murder, capitalism, war, or in this case, the self-consciousness fueled by the fashion and beauty industries, by way of a tongue-in-cheek skewering of a woman’s vanity.
I have a vague memory of seeing a rerun of 'The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson' or 'Late Night with David Letterman' from this period with Parker singing 'You Hit the Spot', another fabulous track from 'Another Grey Area', but I can’t seem to track the clip down. When Jay Leno took over 'The Tonight Show' he introduced Parker by saying it was his first time on the show in 1992, so maybe I’m remembering him on 'Letterman'. Either way, it was the first time that I actually saw him perform, and he was delightfully confident, quirky, and dynamic in his ubiquitous sunglasses.
Parker has complained off and on about the production of some of his 80's albums, but I don’t really understand what he dislikes. This periods’ albums don’t sound at all dated to me. Fortunately he has not decided to constantly pester his original recordings in an effort to improve them, avoiding the Category 5 Overtinkering levels that have been reached by Jeff Wayne, Dave Mustaine, and Pete Townshend.
10. 'Old Soul' ('Three Chords Good', 2012)
Normally the term “old soul” gives me the creeps, since it is often used by paedophiles, ephebophiles, and generally aging pervs who only date people who are way too young for them. WIth that objection aside, this song is my favourite from the Graham Parker and the Rumour reunion album 'Three Chords Good', recorded shortly after Parker and the band were featured in Judd Apatow’s otherwise (in my opinion) execrable film, 'This is 40.' The lyrics and shuffling music are rueful and Parker’s mellower, melancholy, biting voice is better than ever.
Bonus best cover songs by Graham Parker: 'Substitute', 'Cupid', 'A Change is Gonna Come', 'I Want You Back'
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