Graham Parker ceased being relevant decades ago, but he never stopped being great.
The greatness was acknowledged by the outside world very early in Parker’s career, when his releases Squeezing Out Sparks, Howlin’ Wind and Heat Treatment began showing up regularly on lists of the greatest rock albums of the era. But for some reason, Parker’s career never quite ignited the way it should have either in his native England or, especially, in America, and his output after Squeezing Out Sparks has sometimes been judged as disappointing by those who choose not to listen very carefully.
Part of the problem is the inordinate amount of emphasis rock critics back in the day used to place on anger, as if it were a more legitimate emotion, and more fitting for a rocker, than other human feelings on the less-raw end of the spectrum. And Parker certainly has been fiery, passionate and acerbic throughout his career. His early albums were about much more than that, as were, in particular, the later ones, where he began to mix in more mature emotions even as he continued to develop and deepen his Dylan- , reggae- and Motown-influenced musical chops. As he become more nuanced and reflective, the critics became less interested; he just didn’t fit into the convenient category they’d already carved out for him years before.
Early and late, the real core of Parker’s greatness has been his amazing melodic gift and his ability to make his songs really mean something. Listen to “Temporary Beauty”, or “You Can’t Be Too Strong” or “You Can’t Take Love For Granted” or “Don’t Let It Break You Down”—as with any of the great popular songwriters, rock or otherwise, the melodies reflect the song’s meaning, and the meaning is made memorable by the melodies. That’s become a far rarer combination than it should be in recent years, when too much indie music, as beautiful and well produced as it may be, doesn’t go anywhere meaningful, and isn’t particularly interesting in the process of getting there. Listen to a song by, say, Fleet Foxes, and then ask yourself immediately after the last gorgeous note has faded away what the song was actually about. That’s a question you’ll never ask after listening to Graham Parker.
His songs are about a lot of things, but one continuing theme throughout his career has been his contempt for insincerity. It is fitting, then, that his voice (a fine if modest rock instrument) is among the most sincere and affecting of all his contemporaries, regardless of whether the song in question is tender or vituperative.
On the new DVD and live CD collection, Graham Parker and the Figgs Live at the FTC, there’s a slightly startling moment when one of the Figgs, guitarist Mike Gent, says that Parker’s album The Real Macaw is his favorite record, and Parker clarifies, in a slightly astonished tone, that it’s Gent’s favorite “not just of mine, but of any record ever,” and then adds, jokingly, “it is possibly one of the greatest records ever made.” You’d have to know Parker’s sad sales history, and in particular the overwhelming apathy that greeted Macaw on its 1983 release to understand the wry deprecation behind that statement, but the thing is, Mike Gent is a man of courage, in addition to being quite correct. It is quite easy to say that, oh, Astral Weeks or Exile on Main Street or Rubber Soul is the greatest record of the rock era, because after all everyone else does, but The Real Frickin’ Macaw? The truth is, even with some dated-sounded keyboard work, it’s right up there with the best pop-oriented rock albums of all time, and Parker’s other mid-career peaks, like The Mona Lisa’s Sister, aren’t far behind.
And he’s still cranking out fabulous work, including the recent Songs of No Consequence and Don’t Tell Columbus. Parker may have made his “minor label debut”, as he joked in 1995, but today, at age 60, he’s still a major force in music.
Unfortunately, little of this force is reflected in the live performance on this DVD. It’s a pretty good show, but hardly, as the disc package would have it, “rip roaring”. The Figgs may be a fine collection of musicians, but they can’t hold a Bic lighter to The Rumour, the great group Parker led earlier in his career. And the audience, at a studio in Fairfield, Connecticut, seems curiously lacking in energy.
The DVD includes an enjoyable interview with Parker, who comes across as a regular bloke who’s come to term with his gifts, and with the varying, and less than overwhelming, success they’ve brought him. He’s had plenty of concerts in the past where he’s blown the roof off (I’ve been fortunate enough to see a couple of them), and no doubt he will do so again, but this DVD, despite its fine video and audio quality, just doesn’t capture him at his best.
If you’re new to Parker, try the indispensable compilation Passion Is No Ordinary Word, or if you lost track of him after Squeezing Out Sparks, pick up The Mona Lisa’s Sister or, of course, The Real Macaw—or whatever he releases next. Graham Parker & The Figgs Live at the FTC is a worthwhile performance and package, but hardly an essential one.