Graham Parker on the Origins of Graham Parker & the Rumour

Photo: Kevin Mazur

Hive Five: Our Daily Listicle of Musical Musings

In the second half of the ‘70s, Graham Parker & the Rumour provided the crucial connection between the disparate realms of blue-eyed soul, singer/songwriterdom, pub rock, and punk, while maintaining a sound that was always utterly sui generis. They inspired the likes of Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson along the way, but the ride ended when Parker and his comrades parted ways after 1980’s The Up Escalator. After 32 years, longtime solo troubadour Parker and his erstwhile bandmates have finally reconvened for an excellent new album, Three Chords Good, a reunion tour, and even an appearance in GP fan Judd Apatow’s upcoming film, This Is 40. What better time to get the band’s backstory straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth?

1. Birth of a Soul Boy

I used to be into American soul music when I was a teenager; it was sort of popular in England in an underground way. Around ‘65, ‘66, and ‘67, I used to go to clubs and dance to Motown and Stax. I think one of the records that had the most powerful effect on me was Otis Blue. The Four Tops album, the one with “Baby I Need Your Loving,” before they got their “Reach Out I’ll Be There” sound — it had this song “Ask The Lonely” on it, really lush, with strings. I just played those two albums continually, I was probably about 14 or 15 and they just killed me.

2. Becoming a Songwriter

Somewhere in the ‘70s, [Bob Dylan’s] Blood on the Tracks kind of kicked in for me, so I sort of had this very mixed-up kind of perspective going on, of thinking that I had some profound lyrics coming out of me all of a sudden. This was around ’73, ’74. So I’d gotten over this psychedelic period of writing songs in five different keys named ‘spring,’ ‘autumn,’ ‘winter’ [Laughs], I’d gone through that bit and I was listening to Gladys Knight & the Pips, “Midnight Train to Georgia.” She just killed me. And the Staple Singers, and also Dylan. And then I was listening to the Stones again; driving around in the suburbs of England, they’d always play “Brown Sugar,” and at the time it came out I liked it, but it did more to me later on, when I was between 22 and 24. Somewhere in there I started to write songs that had these influences and I thought, “Well, no one else is doing this, maybe this is the way I become a musician.”

3. Parker Meets The Rumour

There was a band called [pub-rock legends] Doctor Feelgood. I went to see them … that was in 1975. I thought, “Well, I’m on the right track, because these guys have short hair,” because I’d cut my hair short, I wasn’t a hippie anymore. And I thought, “What if I wear the suit jackets that I used to wear when I was 16? They still fit me.” So I was this urban sort of vaguely skinhead sort of character. If you look at the cover of [1976 album] Heat Treatment, my hair is brutally cropped, like I’m 15 again. [Manager, Stiff Records co-founder] Dave Robinson started recording me in his studio, and the next thing I know he’s got me played on Radio London on the Charlie Gillett show and suddenly a guy from Phonogram phoned up and I had this record deal. Dave brought this band to me and said, “You should play with these guys. You need a band.” They seemed to understand what I was doing. I rehearsed with them I think the summer of ’75. And the next thing I know there’s this guy Nick Lowe hanging around and Dave said, “He’ll be your producer.”

4. The ‘Grandfather of Punk’

There was nobody else I heard who sang like me. For some reason I picked up on the idea of being incredibly aggressive. From being a stoned-out hippie a few years before, I was now ready to hurt people. I wanted to assault people with my sound. I remember a night watching [British music show] The Old Grey Whistle Test, this was probably in ‘74, when the New York Dolls came on, and [host] Whispering Bob Harris, after they played, said, “I just don’t like that kind of music at all,” and I thought, “Fucking hell, this is gonna have an effect!” I was intense and angry, and once we became popular, 1977, we did have one or two audiences who pogoed and spat at us, because my name had been mentioned as ‘The grandfather of punk.’ I didn’t mind that at all, because I realized where the writing on the wall was.

5. Rocking With The Rumour

I thought, “This is a dream band. They can play the Stones, the can play Dylan, and they can play reggae. And they have my intensity, and they follow what I’m doing so it’s all kind of ramped up, and they’re incredibly musical, incredibly intelligent.” There was nothing like it, it was so dense, it was so intricate. The first time I heard it on the radio I thought, “This can’t possibly be a hit.” Then New Wave came along, and a lot of it was almost willfully stripped down and simplified, and I wasn’t doing that. The band was playing quite complicated stuff; the nuances in it were amazing. We were always in a field of one. I think we still kind of sit there in a way.

Three Chords Good is out now on Primary Wave Music. This is 40 opens on December 21.

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