This coming Tuesday, Bloodshot Records will release the latest Graham Parker album, Imaginary Television. My colleague Dw. Dunphy thinks it’s a pretty good effort. Read his review here. For many people however, Parker has yet to top his 1979 classic Squeezing Out Sparks.
Parker put the Rumour together in 1975 by enlisting veterans of three different British pub bands. The members were guitarists Brinsley Schwarz and Martin Belmont, keyboard player Rich Andrews, drummer Steve Goulding, and bassist Andrew Bodnar. Their debut album, Howlin’ Wind was released in 1976, followed quickly by their second release, Heat Treatment. The band quickly gained a strong reputation for their intense live performances. Unfortunately, record sales did not live up to expectations, and by the time of their third album, 1977’s Stick To Me, Parker had clearly adopted a somewhat more commercial songwriting style.
Parker made it clear that in his opinion the blame for paltry sales in the U.S. lay squarely at the doorstep of his label, Mercury Records, and delivered the ultimate goodbye in the form of the lethal b-side of a 1979 single, “Mercury Poisoning.” He was quickly signed to Arista records, and enlisted legendary producer Jack Nitzsche to work on his debut for the label, Squeezing Out Sparks. The album would become one of the most acclaimed efforts in the history of rock and roll.
For a start, Parker got rid of the horn section that had accompanied him on previous albums, stripping down his sound to the basics. It takes great songs to make a classic album, and Parker had a handful, including one of the first songs to ever take on the controversial topic of abortion. “You Can’t Be Too Strong” is a dagger to the heart delivered by a hand in a velvet glove. Elsewhere, the tempo was more upbeat, but the lyrics were equally scathing. “Passion Is No Ordinary Word,” “Protection,” and “Love Gets You Twisted” are almost savage in their lyrical intensity, and rock and roll fervor. I think it’s fair to say that you wouldn’t want to be the person that Parker wrote these songs about. Other songs such as “Discovering Japan,” and “Local Girls” bring Parker’s caustic wit and clever wordplay to the forefront.
For all of his proven abilities, Nitzsche was smart enough to mostly stay out of the way and let the Rumour do what they did best; play elemental rock and roll with barroom exuberance, and match Parker’s level of intensity note for note. Nitzsche and engineer Mark Howlett did manage to capture a timeless sound that even now does not sound dated in the least, more than 30 years later.
The album made it as far as #40 on the Billboard Pop Chart in 1979. The next year, Parker would release The Up Escalator. The album’s commercial success surely owed something to the presence of E Street Band members Danny Federici and Roy Bittan, and background vocals from Bruce Springsteen. By then, Bob Andrews had left the band, and was not replaced. The album cover credited only Parker, and not the Rumour, marking the end of one of the greatest bands that rock and roll has ever known.
Note: The last video below is not a song from the Squeezing Out Sparks, but “Hold Back the Night” has always been one of my favorite songs, and Parker & the Rumour do a very nice job with their cover.