Until I heard Graham Parker & The Rumour Squeezing Out Sparks I had him pegged as a very good product of that period of English pub rock that morphed into new wave, that interesting interregnum period right before punk came and swept away the angry, marginally, older dudes with volume and tempo. Which is all true enough of Mr Parker and chums, but there’s a whole world of craft and finesse lurking in these here spiral scratches.
First off the LP title and cover just win me, it’s just great design and the title shows a certain amount of righteous arrogance, oh and I really want that T-shirt too. My first thought when I listened to the LP was ‘Elvis Costello’, which is just the sort of thing that I suspect would right royally piss off Mr Parker, who broke the ground first – they share a certain whiney tone and both sound like they’re singing through a perma-sneer. There are real points of difference though, quite apart from the fact that Parker was there first, The Rumour seem far more rooted in rock classicism than The Attractions were – Brinsley Schwarz in particular was a really good, efficient guitar player, not a wasted note to be heard. Costello also tends to distance himself in his songs, protectively maybe and whilst Parker also plays that way at times he also goes for an occasional devastatingly personal moment or two. But more of that anon.
‘Discovering Japan’ the opener here, is a great way of discovering Graham too. It’s frenetic, edgy and clever, the lyrics pleasantly confusing forming an impressionistic mosaic – touching on exploitation, neo-colonialism and at the end a romantic sense of travel and difference. Phew!
The GIs only use her, they only ram right through her
Giving an eastern promise, that they could never keep
Seeing a million miles, between their joke and smiles
She heard their hard denials [don’t pause]
You could listen to this track a hundred times and it wouldn’t matter if you could only make out one word in four, it wouldn’t diminish your enjoyment. Ditto the quite wonderfully spiteful ‘Local Girls’ which hides its’ claws beneath a great melody Nick Lowe would have been proud of (‘She’s probably halfwit, she must be straight / Bound to have a mother who knows nothing but hate’). In comparison the third track ‘Nobody hurts You’ is pretty ordinary.
The fourth track on Squeezing Out Sparks is the jaw dropper, ‘You Can’t Be Too Strong’ is where the world grinds to an abrupt halt. It’s an unusual beast, a man’s bitter reaction to an abortion, sung in a stark, affecting fashion. It has been lauded as an anti-abortion track, derided for its masculine lack of understanding and had Parker (mis)labelled as an arch conservative. You know what? all that is in there, but there are lots more too – I see it as a more complex, subtler beastie than that. Written from, Parker admits, experience it is an intensely honest and emotional song, a stark, real wounded response to the situation, uncomfortably there are no narrators and characters here, no distance. Parker’s admonishments take in the lady concerned, the doctor who carried it out and, most crucially, himself; ‘you can’t be too strong’ being an admonishment that cuts every which way. I love, I mean REALLY love, the fact that there is no hard and fast stance taken here, no black and white, Parker glories in the raw, wretched ambiguity of it all. It is a very grown up song and you don’t get too many of those.
Inevitably the intensity levels fall after that which is fine because we can have a bit of a knees-up with ‘Saturday Nite is Dead’ (a grumpy git’s paean to going out), ‘Love gets You Twisted’ (a grumpy git’s lament on the futility and excitement of love) and the cynical ‘Protection’ (Grumpy git: ‘It ain’t the knife in the heart that tears you apart / it’s the thought of someone sticking it in’). I haven’t got a bad word to say about Squeezing Out Sparks, you can I think, hear its influence in the likes of Huey Lewis & The News and a certain Mr B Springsteen of New Jersey was a big fan, he’d later contribute backing vocals on the next Graham Parker & The Rumour LP.
This album didn’t go on to catapult the band to stratospheric success as predicted, despite being a US critics’ darling, possibly it was a bit too fierce, a bit too wilfully obscure, too obstreperous, not quite accessible enough. Whatever, it remains a tough sparky cookie of an LP. That’ll do me just fine.
But lovers turn to posers, show up in film exposures
Just like in travel brochures
Discovering Japan, Discovering Japan.