Sunday, June 7, 2009

And that's midnight to you

Squeezing Out Sparks is a masterpiece.

Stung by mistreatment from his first record company and the lack of his early records to capture his band's sound, Graham Parker ditched Mercury Records (leaving behind the scathing "Mercury Poisoning") and lit out for greener pastures.

Determined to make a record as fiery as his legendary live shows with the Rumour (Bruce Springsteen once famously said that Graham Parker was the only performer he would pay money to see), Parker ditched the horn section, dialed down the R&B shadings, and delivered a near-perfect album that combined the familiarity of pub rock, the raw power of punk, and the angularity of new wave with literate imagery and wordplay rarely seen in rock.

Someone could write an entire book about Squeezing Out Sparks (and if I had more time I'd do it myself).

Although the album was a critic's favorite, it barely registered with American recordbuyers -- maybe they felt their "angry young man from England with great lyrics" quota had already been met by Elvis Costello.

Parker would spend much of the 80s and 90s bouncing from record label to record label (Atlantic signed him, ordered him to write with "more commercial" songwriters and told him what he really needed was the big 80s drum sound popularized by Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins and featured on nearly every rock album of the 80s; when Parker balked, Atlantic dropped him without releasing anything) trying to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle that was Squeezing Out Sparks while searching in vain for the superstardom that would have been his in a more righteous world. By the end of the 90s, Parker was recording for indie labels and still giving great live performances (even if the dream of superstardom had faded away). And if his latest records don't quite measure up to Squeezing Out Sparks, they're still great -- Parker recently has been alternating between a more mature and resigned attitude and rip-snorting angry anthems that could stand with his earliest work.

But I digress.

Squeezing Out Sparks explodes with energy from the start. "Discovering Japan" is a frantic rocker about the strangeness of foreign cultures. Or the uncertainty of relationships. Or how the spreading globalism destroys what's precious and unique. Or how the horrors of war leave their mark on countries and their people. Or the inherently doomed nature of romance. Or all of the above and more, set to a pounding rhythm and scorching guitar work.

The lyrics fit in perfectly with the music and seem jumbled without it ("As the flight touches down/My watch says 8:02/But that's midnight to you"). It's the type of song you could listen to again and again, hoping to glean some understanding of what must be a very important message (and wishing for footnotes that explain everything) before you realize that the real message is something that can't be put into words (and can barely be translated into music). (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

It's possibly the perfect way to open an album.

But, then, snuck in just before the end of Side 1 (from back when there were two sides to recorded music -- kids, ask your parents), there's this:

What the hell is that doing on an album of screaming rock songs?

"You Can't Be Too Strong" is filled with disturbing imagery and simple instrumentation that play up the words. Greil Marcus of Rolling Stone knocked the entire album on the basis of this song, which he misinterpreted as an anti-abortion anthem. It's not. And it's definitely not a pro-abortion song, either.

It's ultimately a sadness-drenched song about a man unable to face up to his responsibilities. The song examines the choice the man's girlfriend makes to terminate her pregnancy, recognizing with regret her decision will have a profound respect on a lot of people (and implicitly, that none of her choices are really very appealing). More than anything, it's an lament about the weakness of the original man (and, Parker has claimed, based on his own experiences). does a much better job of capturing the song's complexities.

Perhaps years later, that's still the relationship that haunts "Discovering Japan" and the disconnect and jumbled memory of that song echoes the disconnect and pain of "You Can't Be Too Strong":
But lovers turn to posers
Show up in film exposures
Just like in travel brochures
Discovering Japan!

Geeky Bonus: When Squeezing Out Sparks first came out in 1979, Arista shipped it to radio stations with a bonus disk called Live Sparks, which contained live versions of all the songs in order. When Arista remastered the album for a CD re-release in 1996, they included Live Sparks and live versions of "Mercury Poisoning" and a cover of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" all on one CD. Needless to say, if you don't have the original LP, that's the version to buy.


Anonymous said...

Just listened to this again last week. So f***ing great!

Mike said...

Nice one! Graham Parker and the Rumour was just about my first proper concert, saw him in the last year of high school. Needless to say, they rocked! Encored with I Want You Back. I didn't know that about the parallel live version but am now haunted by the need to own it. Cheers.

Aaron said...

"Mercury Poisoning" is great stuff, but "EMI" by the SEx Pistols might give it a run for its money in terms of bitter record-label kissoff songs!

Alex said...

Aaron, I didn't even know that was a category! (But you're right -- "EMI" rocks...)

Steven said...

Thanks for the great article about Graham. I just saw him in a solo show about a week ago here in Cali and discussed it on my blog in case anyone wants to leave a comment or six.

Graham is still putting out quality new music, check out his latest few albums too. Of course, the early stuff is classic. Any collection without Squeezing Out Sparks and at least five or ten of his other albums is just incomplete!


Alex said...

Steven, you're totally right, his latest albums are quite good (I love "Deepcut to Nowhere" and "Songs of No Consequence").

But if you dig into even his lesser works (and I'm thinking about the late 80s to mid-90s), there's always a gem or two to discover.

Steven said...

Alex - Both of those recent albums you mentioned are great! I just bought the most recent, Don't Tell Columbus, but haven't had a chance to listen to it yet. Argh!

On the plus side, Graham autographed it at the show, and another CD too (Loose Monkeys).