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Graham Parker Still Makes Records Because He Still Writes Songs — Simple as That

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Graham Parker

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Once upon a time, Graham Parker was declared an "angry young man" and lumped together with Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. It wasn't an inaccurate description - one doesn't really need to go terribly far out on a limb to suggest that there are similarities to be found within Parker's music and the tunes created by those other two gentlemen. But it quickly became evident that Parker was going to follow his own distinct path as a singer-songwriter, and it's one that he continues to follow to this day.

Since Graham Parker and the Rumour released their debut album, Howlin' Wind, in 1976, leading man Graham has had considerable critical acclaim, even if the pop charts said otherwise. Indeed, he's only ever had one top-40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, and that was 1985's "Wake Up (Next to You)," which only managed to climb to #39. Things were only slightly better in his native UK; in 1977, the double A-side "Hold Back the Night" / "(Let Me Get) Sweet on You" hit #24, while "Hey Lord, Don't Ask Me Questions" hit #32 in 1978. Billboard's creation of a Modern Rock chart provided him with a little bit more success, with the songs "Don't Let It Get You Down" and "Big Man on Paper" hitting #27 and #18, respectively.

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But Parker found his fan base who were drawn to his albums. In the States, all 10 of his albums from 1976's Heat Treatment through 1991's Struck by Lightning managed to crack the Billboard 200. From there, however, he only released one more major-label record - 1992's Burning Questions, his only release for Capital Records - before beginning the Indie label period of his career. It's a period that continues to this day and has found him arguably more prolific than he was ever able to be on a major label.

Which brings us to Parker's latest album, Last Chance to Learn the Twist, his first new studio LP since 2018's Cloud Symbols. Once again, Parker is backed by The Goldtops, a band filled with several venerable musicians, including longtime Rumour guitarist Martin Belmont, and the LP also includes contributions from the Easy Access Orchestra horns and backing vocal duo The Lady Bugs.

In the midst of his flurry of press to promote Last Chance to Learn the Twist, Parker hopped onto a Zoom call with Q to discuss this latest addition to his discography as well as a number of other records from his back catalog, including one which led him to collaborate with fellow musical legend Bruce Springsteen.

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Graham Parker & The Goldtops

I feel slightly obliged to indicate how long I've been a fan, so I'll date myself by saying that when I bought my first Graham Parker album, it was the one you did with The Shot. Steady Nerves was my gateway drug.

Oh, really? Is that right? 1985. My God... Wow!

And to be honest, I don't even remember how I came to pick up a copy. I think I just saw it, liked the cover, grabbed it, and fell for it.

Well, you were right in at the deep end of the '80s, with giant drum sounds.

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It definitely is a very '80s album, to be sure.

Yeah, yeah, it was. We all fell into it, you know, so that's the way it went. We all fell into it, had a go at it, and then I think by 1988 I got a bit more down to earth with The Mona Lisa's Sister and tried my best to destroy the entire '80s ethos. [Laughs.] At least personally, for me.

You were definitely back to sounding more organic with The Mona Lisa's Sister.

Well, yeah, I was trying to sort of get back to the singer and the song and the acoustic guitar - or whatever the musician happens to be playing, but with me it's the acoustic - being the most important thing. Even to the point of not wanting to mike up the drums until... Well, it was, like, "Instead of spending days or whatever it was on the drum sound, why don't we start off with me singing and playing and get a good sound on that, and then go the other way 'round with the instruments and then start recording?" So I kind of set the precedent with that, and that is the first time I called myself a producer and got an engineer and moved on from there. And I've been doing that ever since, really.

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Well, it's still working for you: I was able to listen to the new album this morning before I hopped on the call with you, and it's great.

Oh, thank you, sir!

The Goldtops are still backing you this time around, as they have been since 2018's Cloud Symbols, but how did the band come together in the first place?

Well, it was basically... I was writing some songs, and I think I was touring England with Brinsley Schwarz - we were doing a duo tour - and Judd Apatow got hold of me and said, "Graham, have you got any new songs that might work with one of my new TV shows?" He was talking about a show called Crashing that was on HBO, and then there was another show called Love that was on Netflix. And I kind of said, "Nah, I haven't really." Then I got back to him and said, "Wait a minute, there's this one song, I think I might've finished it." So I put it on my iPhone, just me in the kitchen, and he said, "I love it! Now would you record it?" And I played it to my friend Martin Belmont from the Rumour - you know, the guitarist, who's in the Goldtops also - and I said, "Martin, have you got some musicians who would work well with this?" 'Cause I just told him, "It's gotta be kind of chill, You know, brushes, drums..." And he said, "Yeah, I know some people."

So we recorded one track - "Love Comes" is the song, which I believe was used on Crashing. And then Judd used another new song for Love ("Dreamin'"). So that's how it started out. And I wanted to use Neil Brockbank, who was Nick Lowe's co-producer for quite a few records. So I started it with him and his assistant, Tuck Nelson, and we cut four new songs for the record, which became Cloud Symbols. So then I went to America for four months, doing some touring, and I said, "When I come back, I'll have enough songs, and we'll continue. We'll do a whole album. We'll finish it." And Neil died suddenly while I was over there! He fell ill for a bit, felt a bit funny, went into the hospital, and they said, "You're riddled with cancer. That's your lot." And he just died, like, really quickly in the hospital. That was the end.

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So Tuck, his engineer, we agreed that we should carry on finishing this album, because Tuck knows a lot of Neil's techniques, and he was there engineering it... It's a no-brainer that we had to finish it. So we did. And I continued with those same guys apart from the drummer, Roy Dodds, who couldn't make it this time. So again I asked Martin, who knows more musicians in London than I do because he works with different bands and outfits. So he said, "Jim Russell, let's get him." And amazingly he was available last minute, really. So that was it. We went on from there. And then I asked Tuck, "Do you know some girl singers? I want girl singers on this. I can hear them on certain tracks." So that was it. We recorded it, we did seven days in RAK Studios up the road and then did the rest in Tuck's little studio that he co-owns. So that was how it came about, technically: just putting things together on a pragmatic level.

Since then, you've also released a live album: Five Old Souls. Do you ever have any hesitation about revisiting older songs in your sets?

Oh, no, I do that all the time. I mean, obviously, I've got a catalog, and the old songs are important. So are the songs in the middle, and so are the new songs. They're all the same to me. So when I tour - and I've just been out solo in America for about 15-20 dates - it's always the same thing: you do some oldies, and they work well. I adjust them to solo performance, and you have to adjust them for whatever band you're in, to sort of feel what they can do in the rehearsal and see where they're going with it. So, yeah, it's just what I do. I've been doing it for years. Old songs, in-betweenies, new ones... It doesn't matter, y'know?

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You mentioned your Nick Lowe connection with Neil Brockbank, but there's another one from my perspective: the last time I saw Nick live, his opener was one of your Goldtops, Geraint Watkins.

Oh, Geraint, yeah! That's nice. Yeah, Geraint's been a London musician for ages, and I've wanted to work with him, and it'd just never come about. But the way the songs turned out on Cloud Symbols, I thought, "I know he can fit this, I'm pretty sure he can fit in this stuff." And we've developed a very good musical thing between us. A lot of people would not understand this, but...I get him to play in between what everyone else is playing.

If you listen to "It Mattered to Me," listen to what he's doing. He's in between what people are playing. It's a jazz and country technique, in a way. It's got a bit of that to it. And it just works beautifully with a lot of the songs. And he flies by the seat of his pants, Geraint. [Laughs.] It's coming up with some riff just as he's playing it, and something great comes out. He rarely plays the same thing twice. He's totally different from a lot of keyboard players. So it's immensely creative, and it works well with my current songs I've been writing, I think.

Since finding out that I was going to be talking to you, I revisited my copy of This is Live, the performance by you and the Rumour that the aforementioned Mr. Apatow directed.

Yeah, that's pretty good.

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I was surprised enough to see you turn up in This is 40, but to get a concert film out of the deal, too, was pretty fantastic.

Yeah, well, Judd did a great deal of good things for us, because he... Well, he just likes a lot of the work I did. He likes the work of a lot of musicians. He's one guy who puts his money where his mouth is. When he says he's a fan, if something fits one of his movies, he'll use it if he wants to. I mean, I've had so many people in the movie industry say, "I'm a huge, huge fan!" I'm, like, "Well, put one of my f***ing songs on your movie, for f***'s sake!" But no. Judd, though, he puts his money where his mouth is, and if he can do it, he does it. And he can do it, 'cause he's the boss. He's in charge of his stuff, which I admire. He should be.

What was your reaction when he actually asked you to act in This is 40?

I was all over it, man! [Laughs.] I said, "Okay, meet me. Where are you?" He said, "I'll be in New York next week." I said, "Okay, I'll drive down there." He said, "Oh, that's a bear of a drive." I said, "Nah, it's two and a half hours, man. I'll meet you." So I came down and met him, and he told me about this idea, the record company run by this guy Pete, played by Paul Rudd, and it's failing because he keeps signing some of his favorite acts in an age where records don't sell anymore. And I become the guy who's supposed to save the label perhaps. He's not selling records, so he gets me. And it's, like, I'm basically gonna do my best to destroy his company...and I said to Judd, "I can do this." [Laughs.] "Give me the job!" So I just loved it. I relished it. And Judd stuck with it. He didn't get someone more famous, he didn't do any bull**** like that. He had me in the movie, that was it. Done.

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For the past several years, you've occasionally been doing some writing outside of music: your short story collection, Carp Fishing on Valium and your novel, The Thylacine's Lair [originally published as The Other of Brian]. Compared to your recording career, it's a relatively recent development, but was that something you'd always had an eye on pursuing?

Well, I was doing that while I was writing lots of songs, frankly. Before I had a career, I wrote a book called The Great Trouser Mystery. I was finished by 1971, and my career didn't begin until 1975, really, when I got a deal. So it just sat there. And when I got a name for myself and had made records, I met this guy who was an illustrator, he called himself Willie Smacks, and we got together and he illustrated it. And there it was, this coffee table book. And it was out in...1980, I think it was. So I had that going.

But it was in the '90s that I really started writing a lot of stuff that turned out to be fiction, and one thing turned out to be a novel, and the other thing turned out to be short stories. And I thought, "Well, this is worth a go." And I found a literary agent, and she got them both published for me. Carp Fishing was on St. Martin's Press. That's an imprint I've long admired. Lots of interesting stuff. And the other one was on a small press called Thunders Mouth. And now I've got the rights back, so they're on my website.

Carp Fishing came out back in 2000, and the other one was in 2003. Since then, I've really been back into songwriting full on. From that point on, I've been making records at a regular clip. That's my day job, as it were. [Laughs.] But you never know what's around the corner. I don't plan these things. It's about something happening and you scribble something down, and then you enlarge it, and then you go, "Whoops, I'm writing a book!" You never know. You don't know how it's going to go. There's no plan involved with any of this!

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You mentioned having just toured the States. I think the last time you found your way into my neck of the woods was when you were touring behind Burning Questions [in 1992].

Oh, my God, really? Oh, you need to catch up! [Laughs.] My solo shows... You know, every year in America I'm playing. Where are you based?

The Norfolk / Virginia Beach area.

Ah, I don't get down there much. I'm not all that popular down that way. But I have played there! It's just that there's certain areas that I can work in and get paid what I'm worth, and there are others where I'm not popular enough to get paid what I'm worth. And I've done all that for years and years, so now I try to restrict it because...I'm not exactly in my 20s, you know? People expect you to just go everywhere because you like playing music. Well, I'm a working man. I like getting paid as well!

So I'd love to play more down there, but usually the most south I go is the DC area now and again. It depends on the offer, it depends on the venue. I played the City Winery there, the new one. It's a funny location. I mean, it's a brilliant venue, the equipment and stuff, from a musician's point of view. But it's not doing all that well for me, and I don't think everybody else is pulling 'em in there. But I don't know. You know, venues are weird.

So I'm sorry you're a bit too south, because my solo show is the most entertaining show I do, no question about it. It's the most open, musically. It's the most creative for me, absolutely, because I'm free. You've just got so much range: you tell stories, you joke, you bring people in. It's like the old-fashioned campfire thing, where the guy's telling stories and playing songs. Maybe I'll do a cover version that I was just practicing backstage. Maybe I'll take a risk on that, because there's no band that has to learn it. It's great, and it's like a community thing, but blown up to maybe somewhere that holds 300 people. They're the best shows, definitely.

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Do you ever do house concerts?

I have done over the years. They were extremely popular once. I was doing quite a few of 'em. I did one just this year in New Jersey, one that I've done about f***ing 20 times, I think! [Laughs.] Oh, and I did one recently - I forgot about this! - on the last tour. Just in May, I think it was, down in Delaware. Somebody was paying me very, very well to play for about a dozen of his friends. Five songs. He only wanted five songs! And he put me up in his hotel that he owns! He said, "How many days do you want, Graham?" "Oh, gee, I'll just come on down there for Memorial Day Weekend and have a little holiday!" So I was down there for about four days and played five songs. No, actually, I said, "I've got to play you six. Can I play six songs, man?" [Laughs.] So I played him six songs, and there were maybe 15 people there. And some of the young people there, some young friends of his, they were super cool. They knew my stuff. They knew my work. It was very interesting. So there's a house show right there for you!

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Graham Parker during a live performance with the his band, the Goldtops.

To jump way back in time and satisfy my curiosity, how did you end up having Bruce Springsteen contribute backing vocals to a song on The Up Escalator?

Well, the producer of The Up Escalator was Jimmy Iovine, and he was actually the tape operator on Born to Run. So he knew Bruce. And Bruce is a very open admirer of my music. He hasn't been quiet about it over the years, which is very nice of him, and he appeared in the documentary about me, saying very lovely things. And Bruce was in town. I'd bump into him at the very early hours of the morning outside the Novotel Hotel, I think it was. But it was right on Central Park South, and I used to stay there quite often. And he was staying there, and we'd say "hi" outside the doors, standing there with this guy Jon Landau, who was soon to be his manager. He was trying to get out of some legal thing with his old manager or something, all that was going on, so he was hooked up with Jon Landau.

Anyway, Jimmy said, "It'd be great to get Bruce on some of these tracks." I said, "Yeah, I'm okay, let's have a go at that. One way or the other, it's no skin off my nose, but it'd be fun to get Bruce on some tracks!" So that was it, really. Pretty simple stuff. Bruce came down and sang on two different songs, actually.

I knew about "Endless Night." What's the other one?

Bruce also sang on "Paralyzed." It’s buried pretty low in the mix, as I remember.

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For several years, starting with 1997's The Last Rock'N'Roll Tour, you were working with the Figgs. How did you come to team up with them? Because I was a fan from the release of their 1994 album Low-Fi at Society High, so for you to be working with them, it was, like, "Bonus"!

Is that right? Yeah, I didn't know about them. But I remember it distinctly: I was playing a show in Atlanta...somewhere in the '90s, I guess. I can't even remember the years now. There's too many of them behind me! Whenever it was, I know Acid Bubblegum probably would've been the next record I made. But I was doing a soundcheck, and they were playing the same venue as me. I think it was a place called The Point. Great venue, I thought, and I packed it. I absolutely packed it. I was playing the 8 or 9 pm show solo, and they were playing the late show. They were doing the graveyard shift. A whole different fanbase, I'm sure.

And they popped along to the soundcheck, and Mike Gent, one of their members, was talking to me, and he asked me what the chords were for one of my songs, and I'm, like, "I'm f***ed if I know. I can't remember that one." It was something from Stick to Me. And he started playing it, and I was quite impressed that he could play this, so I sort of played a bit, and I said, "Yeah, that's right. That looks about right. Yeah, I remember it now." And he was just obviously a super fan, really. A big fan.

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So I kept their contact details, and I kept them in mind, and they gave me something of theirs to listen to. And they were also on a tribute to me, Piss and Vinegar, that came out on a New Jersey label. Buy or Die Records! [Laughs.] Those New Jersey cats, they're a funny lot! Anyway, I said, "Mike, you'd be perfect to play this album live." I didn't use the people who played on it, I just got the Figgs for the backing band, to back me on the road. And they agreed to it, and they came along for the ride. So it was pretty fantastic. They were, like, 20 years younger than me. I think I was 40, and some of them were just about turning 20.

Did it make you feel younger or older to work with them?

[Laughs.] I felt pretty young when I was 40, trust me. I was at my prime till I was about 65. Then you realize, "Something's happening here..." And it's something you might not be too pleased about! It's a little different, yeah. But I've been in my prime most of my life. I've been lucky. But as I've said, I feel like a vampire, leeching off of their energy. I cast myself as a latter-day vampire. I don't exactly suck your blood, but I'm gonna suck your energy, and I'll pretend it's me being responsible for it! That'll fool the audience. They won't know.

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Have you heard about any further expanded editions of albums from your back catalog being in the works?

God, there's so many, I can't keep up with it. [Laughs.] No, I can't! It's just, like, "Whatever, I don't care anymore!" But it's nice that Acid Bubblegum is going to be re-released on vinyl. Iconoclassic Records did Another Grey Area, and that was pretty good. Remastering, I think, is a rather bogus idea all around, but whatever they did on that, it sounded rawer than the actual original, which is better, 'cause the original had that... Well, you know, the '80s were kicking in, and it was all very, y'know, quite sparkly, and not a lot of balls to it. And at the time, that's what I wanted after the Rumour, who had balls out the wazoo. I wanted a very different thing, and I got it with Another Grey Area. So to hear it remastered, I was driving around listening to it, and I thought, "Yeah, that's pretty good. It feels a bit rawer to me. I'm liking it!"

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And now he's going to be doing the Razor & Tie stuff, I believe, Acid Bubblegum being one of 'em. That's a good record, Acid Bubblegum. I actually listened to it when he said, "We're gonna do this. Do you wanna make some notes?" And I listened, and I thought, "Holy s***, this is good!" [Laughs.] "This is all right!"

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I'd wondered if going back and listening to albums gives you a realization of things you might've misjudged over the years.

Well, yeah, it's not that I misjudged. I think everything's good when I do it. I wouldn't want it to go out the door unless it was good enough, of a certain high quality. It's just that some you sit back on and you think, "Well, that was kind of 'of it's time,'" as it were. There were things from that period that sound of their time, which is okay. They were. The '80s, for instance. Steady Nerves was of its time. That was it. It worked fine, and that was great. But listening back, if I listen back to stuff, I'm always, like, "Hey, I'm much better than I thought!" [Laughs.]

At the moment, on my website, I've got The Middlesex Demos, they're called, and that's stuff from before my career, songs I was writing in the '70s, so...I was must've been 20 or so when I was working on songs that were like that. But I listen back, and there's this one song, "Stay Here Loving You," it's just me on guitar, and...I realize that I haven't actually learned that much, in a way. Because it's got all my tropes on it, the chord things, even the bits where it's, like, "I didn't expect that. I did not expect that chord coming in there." You know, I do that all the time. Musicians find my stuff quite interesting and challenging, because it's, like, "What?! He went into that half a bar earlier than most people would!" I was doing it then! I had this stuff down. I just needed to get it better to be ready for prime time, and that happened, obviously, with Howling Wind. And I knew I was ready then.

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But it's interesting to me, hearing that stuff back. There's a few clunkers on that thing where I'm a little bit like... [Groans.] There's a lot of the old acidhead hippie in there creeping through. But there's other songs where I'm getting into this tougher thing where my voice suddenly starts to resemble or get closer to what Howling Wind was, where I was singing in this relentlessly unforgiving tough, hard voice because I didn't know any better. Because I wasn't a good singer. Because I'd never had any experience, apart from doing those demos.

So it all sort of adds to itself, and sometimes you look back and you think, "Well, I'm pretty much doing now what I was doing then, I've just got all kinds of different experience, so I can add to it." And that's what I do. Every album is something that's a fresh take on things. A fresh take is what it's about. You know, you reinvent yourself when you make a new album. That's what it feels like. But when you listen to things in the big picture of stuff, you go, "Yeah, I was doing this all along, even before I had a career!" And some of the stuf on those Middlesex Demos just makes me realize that. But I don't know what's going on. I just do this. I just work.

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Well, I'll say that Last Chance to Learn the Twist has a very familiar feel, even though it's still breaking new ground for you here and there.

Yeah, well, all those producers in the '80s and stuff, Jimmy Iovine and whoever, they were always trying to find "the right way" to record me. You know, they thought, "Oh, I can do better than that!" Jimmy Iovine thought he could do better than Squeezing Out Sparks. Well, good luck with that! [Laughs.] But that's the attitude I want, y'know? Because that's how you get fresh takes. But all that came out in the end was Graham Parker. That's all that came out. It's just me, right? They couldn't really do anything with me. They thought they did, but they hadn't, really. So that's it. My identity is kind of recognizable, I think. Obviously millions of influences from the '50s, '60s, and early '70s. That's where my influences are from. Mostly the '60s, really, simply put.

I was born in London but grew up in the county of Surrey, rather conservative but beautiful. I grew up surrounded by country. I was lucky I'm more of a country person, really, than a city person, even though I love London as well. So I've got both worlds going for me. I love London, no question. But I grew up like that, and then the Beatles came along.

My cousin was a few years older than me, and they had Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, and...I really didn't get it. To this day, Elvis Presley... Some of those songs just sound so operatic, y'know? So he wasn't my favorite singer, and Buddy Holly, with all the hiccupping and stuff... [Laughs.] I like it more now! As time went along, I realized that these people were great in their own way. I mean, Elvis got way too commercial and Las Vegas for me, but when you hear him do that Sun Records stuff, he's a f***ing rock 'n' roller, man. He was the real deal. But by the time I was pay attention, it was that awful "Wooden Heart" song, where he sang in German. [Imitates the song for a few seconds.] Oh, f*** off, please.

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So it wasn't my music, really, but I always found something good to listen to on the transitor radio when I was just a kid. Americans like Doris Day, Bing Crosby, and Duke Ellington... It was great stuff, really, and I appreciated it, but it wasn't my music. The Beatles came along, the Stones came along, and that's basically it. Very simple. I'm 12 years old, I hear it a few times and I wasn't sure, but then you hear it again on Radio 1, and you go, "Oh, f***, now I get it!" And you're a kid, so it's your music. And it was, like, they were guys who were just from another town nearby. In fact, some of the Stones were from Twickenham. They were just up the road, really! They were older than me, of course. I was 12 or 13. George Harrison was something like 17, he was the youngest. But you recognized them. They were like your older cousin or something. They weren't that far away. And they were British! So we now had our own music. This was our stuff.

So they were the greats, and we found out where they got it from, which was even greater people: the black people from America! It's no accident that the Beatles were doing "Roll Over Beethoven" and the Stones were doing "Carol." And doing it brilliantly! And some of the versions, I think, are better than the records, because the British add this aggression to it. They had a different cutting edge to it. And then all the other bands... Well, you've heard 'em: the Who, the Kinks... Forget about it! So we had all that, and then suddenly there was soul music, and the next thing I knew, I didn't like any music by white people. They had to be black, either American or Jamaican, and preferably play saxophone. [Laughs.] And play soul music or heavy ska. These are all the greats for me.

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Graham Parker - Squeezing Out Sparks

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And then you had Van Morrison, who was a real soul singer. Whoa! I mean, that guy's a soul singer. His middle period stuff, or whatever you want to call it, Tupelo Honey and that string of records after Astral Weeks, are just amazing. And the Stones kept making great stuff, and the Beatles, of course, got tripped out, and I followed along with that eventually. "Okay, I understand what they're doing now: you drop acid, otherwise you don't understand it." [Laughs.] So we followed this. People followed it. I can't tell you that I was into [Karlheinz] Stockhausen or something pretentious. No, I was into pop music, basically. But a huge variety.

I mean, if ever there was a time to be into pop music, it was during that era.

Oh, yeah, I mean, it was pop with a great edge to it. You know, a rock 'n' roll edge. It had it all. Yeah, it's amazing. You don't get anything like that explosion in the '60s again. And groups from Liverpool, of all places! [Laughs.] What a thing! And from all these different parts of England. It was f***ing fantastic. A great time. A great time to be growing up. And that's when we picked up some guitars, or somebody got a few drums, and we messed around. I didn't take it seriously enough, but that's okay, I got there in the end.

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As far as others who were coming up at approximately the same time as you were, I picked up the four-disc Stiff Records box set several years ago, and it was fascinating to explore how many different types of music were being offered up by that label, including your own, eventually.

Oh, that was good as well. That was the late '70s, wasn't it? Yeah, there's some very interesting stuff then, as a lot of it was a blowback against prog rock, which had got very stale. What I did was with Howling Wind was a blowback against it as well, which was before Stiff Records existed, of course. But it was a blow again what I'd really loved two years before! It was, like, "Okay, this has got to change. It's very self-satisfied and smug." The press had reached that stage where they were, like, "Well, we know this music, Genesis or whatever, is way beyond pop music, it's so much better..." Well, no, it wasn't, really. It was different, and it was f***ing fantastic, the Yes albums and stuff. But then it got flatulent, really. Like so many genres, the next round of people who start doing it weren't as good. It's, like, after the singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Jackson Browne, there was another lot, more people came along, and they weren't as good, really. So you have to sort of kick back against that to make a mark, and a lot of that Stiff Records stuff did exactly that.

Just to momentarily highlight an underrated track from your catalog, I recently happened upon a stockpile of old mix tape track listings, and I must've put your song "Ten Girls Ago" on a few dozen tapes in the '90s.

Now that is a good choice. That is a very good song.

And one of the poppiest, catchiest things you've ever written.

It is, yeah! And impossible to play live. [Laughs.] To me, it's one of those things where... I mean, that is a perfect recording. The song is so creative, it's so interesting.

It sparkles.

Yeah, it's got a whole thing going for it. Thank you for liking that one. Very good!

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You've got a deep catalog, but do you have particular favorites among your albums that'd you consider to be underrated?

Well, you know, I don't consider it underrated. I don't really care about that. What does it mean? I'm not sure what it means.

Maybe "underheard" would be the better choice of phrase.

Yeah, underheard, well, that's always gonna be pretty much the case! There's so many. Honestly, there's just so many tunes. They've all got their own good thing going for them, and some of them have got a thing that really stands out. I think "Disney's America" is one of the top tunes of mine. That's gotta be one of the top tunes. It's got it all going for it. Also, I'd say "Blue Horizon" is right up there with the top guns of my songs, no question. I'd say "It Matters to Me" from this new album is up there as well with the top stuff I've written, absolutely.

But it all goes year by year. I can look back at some songs... Well, like, "Ten Girls Ago," that can be there as an example of what pop music can sound like. Something with a pop edge to it, certainly. Not what you would call an R&B blues-based tune. It's very pop. It's what pop can be like when it's good. So there's a lot of stuff. But once you've made it, it's out there for other people, y'know? It's not mine anymore, in some ways. It's up to them what they make of it. I just say, "Listen to it three times." You cannot tell with music of this quality with one listen. It's not good enough. You've got to listen to it three times. And few people are going to do that these days, right? That's not gonna happen. [Laughs.]

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As far as the industry goes these days, have you found that there's any up side to being an indie artist versus being on a major label?

Oh, major labels are more beneficial. They've got the money! Are you kidding me? [Laughs.] When I look back, I consider myself sort of wealthy as the success in the '70s kicked in. I mean, I became a middle-class person as opposed to being working class, in financial terms, as soon as I signed a record deal. Nobody I knew got money like that! No one! Not where I come from. We were working class! That wasn't supposed to be the way it was going. And in the '80s, I thrived! I was making money, I was popular in America... It was great! Touring behind The Grey Area, Steady Nerves, The Mona Lisa's Sister... These were all good things for me, and I was having a blast! But that was then. This is now.

You know, everyone's flatlining. There's people who've sold more records than me, they're not exactly flying up the charts, and if they are flying up the charts, the money's laughable compared to what it was for a medium stringer like me, selling in the low hundreds of thousands. You made a living out of that! Record companies gave you s***loads of money, which you wasted on records. [Laughs.] But it was fantastic! It's not like that now for most acts.

The young acts, I feel terrible for 'em. Streaming? Terrible. It's awful! And it's legal to do this. I mean, what are you doing to say? I'm not against it, because technology... I went from transistor radio to vinyl to cassettes, and then CDs came along. But streaming... We were caught out there, and the industry hasn't done enough about getting us more decent pay. It is what it is, so we're in it, and that's that, and I don't think it'll change much as far as the pay scale is concerned for the writers, the people who create this. I don't think that's gonna change. I don't see ASCAP or BMI or any of those people managing to do anything about it. Maybe they're working it in increments, but they're not really getting there.

But it is what it is. I just make records 'cause I write songs. That's it.


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