Archive for the ‘r&b’ Category

Album Review: The “5″ Royales – Soul & Swagger

Monday, June 16th, 2014

There are a select few acts in musical history that didn’t sell a ton of records, yet exerted influence far beyond what their chart action might suggest. Among the most celebrated examples are The Velvet Underground and Big Star. Both groups have had said about them – apocryphally or otherwise – that they sold few records, but that everyone who bought one went out and formed a band.

That short list should also include The “5” Royales (the quote marks are part of the name). Though their notoriety is largely confirmed to blues and r&b enthusiasts, the group can count among their fans no less than Steve Cropper of Booker T & the MG’s fame, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and Jimmie Vaughan. The “5” Royales’ specialty was a bluesy, often gospel-infused vocal style not miles removed from The Platters, Drifters and Coasters. But in addition to some excellent, soulful close harmony work, the band had within its ranks a secret weapon: guitarist Lowman Pauling. His direct, compact and effective leads were an integral part of the group’s sound.

A new 5CD set (naturally, there are five!) collects all of The Winston-Salem NC-based group’s material, from their earliest 78s in their 1951 gospel phase (when they were known as The Royal Sons Quintet) through their later material. The group’s unique sound was a synthesis of blues, early rock’n'roll, doo-wop, rhythm and blues and what would later be known as soul.

The new set (on Rock Beat Records) titled Soul & Swagger: The Complete “5” Royales 1951-1967 is lavishly packaged in a sturdy hardcover book roughly the size of a stack of 45rpm singles; that’s fitting, as The “5” Royales existed in an era when the single was king, when album-length releases weren’t yet the standard. A detailed and deeply researched history and discography includes details including personnel on each track, release date and matrix number.

The set is strewn with gems; The “5” Royales were so versatile and accomplished that each listener will likely have his or her own favorite tracks. The blues-based “Thirty Second Lover” (from 1957) is as good as anything that came out that year; it sounds a bit like The Dixie Hummingbirds backed by Scotty Moore, DJ Fontana and Bill Black. Pauling tears up the fretboard on “Say It,” and their version of “Dedicated to the One I Love” is miles away from the Mamas & the Papas version.

Some of the material features saxophone (in those days, as often as not, sax – not guitar – was the lead instrument of choice for r&b sides), and swings in a manner a few steps advanced from – but not wholly unlike – Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five. A bit of gritty guitar distortion crops in from time to time, but it’s nicely balanced by the soul-stirring close harmony work of the group.

As noted above, The “5” Royales were a singles outfit. They did cut a few albums of material, but not until the CD era did any sort of thoughtful compilation of their best work appear. But now in 2014, no less than two compilations have been released. A 2CD set called The Definitive “5” Royales: Home of the Blues & Beyond is a good and thoughtful survey. But the Rock Beat set includes all of the material the group released 1951-1967, liberally sprinkled with rare, unreleased and alternate takes. And if you’re gonna dive into the work of The “5” Royales, you ought to do it right. Thanks to its comprehensive nature and the care with which is was assembled (a few early sides excepted, the sound quality is stellar), Soul & Swagger: The Complete “5” Royales is the one to buy.

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Capsule Reviews: Still More from Real Gone Music

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

Wrapping up the series (for now, at least), here’s the last of four entries presenting short looks at recently-released reissues and/or compilations from Real Gone Music.

Vanilla Fudge – The Complete ATCO Singles
Most rock fans with any sort of memory are familiar with Vanilla Fudge, and they know the band’s deceptively simple approach to interpreting the songs of others: up the melodrama quotient, and in equal measure, slow down the tempo. Sometimes it worked very well on both commercial and creative levels: the band’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is a stone classic (and there ain’t nuthin’ I can do about it). The approach generally lent itself best to longer workouts, like “Shotgun,” where ideas (such as they existed) had a chance to unfold. Within the context of the much briefer single, sometimes the power was lost (as far as subtlety, there was precious little of that to lose). As a result, the single edit of the Supremes cover is very good, but not great like the longer edit.

Other times, the approach feels overwrought, even within the confines of a (two-sided, two-part) single, such as the “Fudge-ized” (their term; I prefer “Fudge-ified”) reading of Donovan‘s “Season of the Witch.” Some gems do exist on this collection of all the band’s 45s: while it doesn’t best the original Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra duet/weirdathon, “Some Velvet Morning” is suitably over the top. A couple tracks from the band’s 80s reformation try to update the Fudge sound for the MTV era. Hint: it didn’t work. Verdict: good, but listeners are better served by picking up the first album.

Eddie Kendricks – Love Keys
It must be said that reissuing this album is a curious move. Though Eddie Kendricks achieved great fame as a lead vocalist in The Temptations, and enjoyed some hits during his string of nine solo LPs on Motown, once he left Berry Gordy‘s label, he stopped having hits. More troubling was the fact that his voice was largely shot, thanks to a lifelong chain smoking habit that would eventually result in the lung cancer that would end his life. Love Keys was the sole album Kendricks cut for Atlantic, and it neither charted nor yielded a hit single. Moreover, it’s a significant departure from the style of his earlier efforts.

But it does remain the final full-length from the man who gave us so many hits, so for that reason alone it deserves a hearing. This Muscle Shoals-flavored album heads in a southern soul direction, but the arrangement and production scream “1981,” and from where I’m sitting, that’s rarely a good thing. Still, any Kendricks is worthwhile, so if you can listen past the cheesy synth lines and discofied beats that crisscross perfectly good Muscle Shoals horn charts, Love Keys is…okay.

The Ohio Express – Beg, Borrow & Steal: The Complete Cameo Recordings
When most people hear this band’s name, they immediately think of the whole Kasenetz/Katz bubblegum scene. But this here is an actual album, not a collection of singles. And it’s from the period when The Ohio Express aimed for what we’d nowadays term a garage rock sound, not a bubblegum one. Once the railway sound effects subside, the title track – a tune that shamelessly rips off at least three other songs I can think of offhand – sets the tone for most of the rest of the disc. To call the album faceless is unfair, but the fact that two completely different bands (with only slight personnel overlap) contributed to it isn’t all that sonically obvious.

Nearly every song on Beg, Borrow and Steal sounds like another song: “Had to Be Me” is a ringer for The Choir‘s “It’s Cold Outside,” and “Let Go” is a thin rewrite of “Hi Ho Silver.” This all leads one to wonder snarkily if the record’s title doesn’t identify it as some sort of concept album. Still, originality wasn’t the goal; fun and commercial success was. Overall, though, the long-out-of-print Beg, Borrow & Steal documents the band’s early guise(s), and is a worthwhile purchase for fans of the genre.

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Capsule Reviews: And Yet Three More from Real Gone Music

Monday, June 9th, 2014

Here’s the third of four collections of brief reviews of recently-released reissues and/or compilations from Real Gone Music.

Dr. John, The Night Tripper – GRIS-gris
Dr. John (aka Mac Rebbenack) was a well-known fixture on the New Orleans music scene long before he cut this, his debut album in 1968. And while he’d later enjoy commercial success with his 1973 single, “Right Place Wrong Time,” this album makes no concessions to the marketplace. As Richie Unterberger‘s liner notes mention, Atlantic head Ahmet Ertegun is reputed to have asked, “How can we market this boogaloo crap?” It’s a weird, spooky gumbo of cajun, voodoo, jazz and funk styles, all filtered through a thick, (hard-) druggy haze. The audio quality on some tracks – notably “Danse Kalinda Ba Doom” makes it sound as if the mics were all in the next room over from the musicians (who sound as if they’re dancing over a cauldron while playing).

Definitely weird stuff and not for the faint of heart, GRIS-gris is nonetheless a historically important musical document. For a bit of fun, compare Dr. John’s reading of “I Walk on Guilded Splinters” (sic) with the one cut live by Humble Pie. If you’re open to the sonic equivalent of a bad trip sprinkled liberally with Louisiana hot sauce, this is the ticket.

Irma Thomas – Full Time Woman: The Lost Cotillion Album
Speaking of New Orleans, here’s a previously unreleased cache of recordings from the vocalist known as the “Soul Queen of New Orleans.” Irma Thomas had cut a pair of albums for Imperial in the mid 1960s, and even earlier (1960) enjoyed a brief chart presence with “(You Can Have My Husband But) Don’t Mess With My Man.” And in the early part of the 70s, she was signed to Atlantic associated label Cotillion, for whom she cut fifteen songs. Only two were released: “Full Time Woman” and its b-side, “She’s Taken My Part.” For reasons that seemed to have to do with changing popular tastes, none of the other material was ever released.

But once again, Real Gone Music comes to rescue, and the results are quality stuff, very much in line with what Aretha Franklin was doing in those days. David Nathan‘s liner notes tell the story in rich detail.

Patti Labelle and The Bluebelles – The Complete Atlantic Sides Plus
If you like your r&b female vocal a little gritter and soulful than The Supremes, then if you don’t already know about Patti Labelle & the Bluebelles, you owe it to yourself to check out this comprehensive set. Acts like The Bluebelles were always focused more on singles than album-length releases, so with this collection – forty tracks including all the single releases the group had on Atlantic, plus some other scattered gems including several previously-unreleased cuts – listeners get a good overview of what they were all about.

Despite their efforts, not a single one of these tunes (other than “All Or Nothing” b/w “Over the Rainbow”) dented the pop charts. Of course once they’d altered their approach and shortened their name to Labelle, they’d hit it big with 1974′s “Lady Marmalade.” But these earlier sides – dating 1965 to 1969 – are quite good and have sadly been long overlooked.

Still more on the way.

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Capsule Reviews: Three More from Real Gone Music

Friday, June 6th, 2014

Continuing from yesterday’s collection, here are more quick looks at recently-released reissues and/or compilations from Real Gone Music.

Toomorrow: Original Soundtrack Album
Seeing the names Harry Saltzman (of James Bond film fame) and Don Kirshner (of, well, Don Kirshner fame/infamy) emblazoned across the cover of this 1970 curio suggests we’re in for something that might just be a little on the bandwagon-jumping, pandering side. What Toomorrow is, is the soundtrack from an obscure musical move that purports to tell the tale of a fictional group of the same name. But Head this is not.

Musically, Toomorrow-the-group aims for a Cowsills-style sunshine pop sound – with one Olivia Newton-John at the front – and they more or less deliver. Gurgling analog synth leads and some tryin’-a-bit-too-hard ersatz rock (“Taking Our Own Sweet Time”) sounds like The Hardy Boys (yeah, there was such a musical group) or a freshly-pressed, less-zany Banana Splits. It’s interesting to hear ONJ backed by a nominally rock-oriented band, but lyrics like “running around like a chicken without a head” make it tough to take it all too seriously. Still, it’s not bad overall, and beats the hell out of the Grease soundtrack or Newton-John’s duets with ELO and The Tubes in Xanadu.

Troyka – Troyka
Cotillion Records was initially a soul/r&b imprint, part of the Atlantic Records stable, though as it developed, heavier, more rock-oriented acts (including Emerson, Lake & Palmer) were signed to the label. But perhaps nothing was farther-out on Cotillion than this record from 1970. Allow me to try describing Troyka: think first of Blue Cheer. Now dial back the distortion a notch or two, but keep the gravelly vocals. Now sit down, because we’re going to add some Eastern European ethnic flavor to the music. Greek? Russian? It’s hard to be sure where exactly this trio was trying to go musically – other than “out there” – but the album is all over the place.

The gentle instrumental “Early Morning” sounds like a less adventurous Spirit, while “Life’s O.K.” sounds – and quite possibly is – a four-minute jam/tune-up during which the tape just happened to be rolling (Hey, let’s use that!”). From the wonderfully bent era in which any two (or three, or six) genres could be slapped together in hopes of making something new, Troyka represented a blind alley, but nonetheless an interesting one. Worth a listen, but know that this until-now-impossibly-rare album is most certainly not the Great Lost Album of 1970.

Professor Longhair – The Last Mardi Gras
Occasionally, when an album is being recorded, those involved have a sense that it’s an event of historic proportions. Not in a hubristic, aren’t-we-great kind of way, but in more of a “this is really important” sort of realization. As Albert Grossman‘s original liner notes (reproduced graphically and in larger, easier-to-read text) attest, the recording of The Last Mardi Gras was just such an event. New Orleans’ premier and legendary pianist is captured on this set (originally a 2LP package, now reissued as a 2CD set) in his element: before an enthusiastic, hometown New Orleans crowd at Tiptina’s. Eighteen cuts survey the man’s repertoire, backed by six local musicians who “get” it.

The Professor makes Hank Williams‘ “Jambalaya” his own, and his covers of blues (“Got My Mojo Workin”) and pop (“Rum and Coca Cola”) standards deftly bend songs into his style. Though Grossman’s liners suggest some dissatisfaction with certain elements of the sessions, most listeners will find little if anything to complain about. Pricey when you can even find it on original vinyl, RGM’s straight reissue adds nothing and takes nothing away, instead presenting the original album in excellent fidelity (no mention is made of a 2014 remaster, but then perhaps Cosimo Matassa‘s mixing and Goldman’s production didn’t need improving upon).

More yet to come.

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Capsule Reviews: Three from Real Gone Music

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

Because there’s so much of a backlog here at Musoscribe’s palatial new World HQ ( I moved recently), here’s the first of at least three collections of short reviews. These are all reissues or compilations on the Real Gone Music label, renowned (along with Rock Beat, Omnivore, Numero and a select few others) for their thoughtful archiving/crate-digging approach to music releases.

Samuel Jonathan Johnson – My Music
The second you see the cover art and typography, you know that this is a late-seventies major-label r&b release. And when the needle drops (or the disc spins) and you hear those smooth string machines and funk-poppin’ bass lines – not to mention the female chorus’ intro of “Music…music” – there’s no doubt you’re in smoove r&b land. But as the style goes, this lone release (the reissue’s liner notes, penned by Johnson’s daughter Yolanda Johnson explain why there was never a follow-up) is pretty fine.

Lots of interesting keyboard textures throughout, too. Nine of the ten tracks are originals, and the sole cover (a highly orchestrated reading of Bacharach/David‘s “What the World Needs Now is Love”) is super-slow in an Isaac Hayes mode. “Sweet Love” – more or less an extended coda to that cover – ups the funk factor.

Bettye Swann – The Complete Atlantic Recordings
Another in the line of where’d-they-go recording artists, Swann began the process of dropping off the pop culture radar screen after signing with Atlantic Records. She had previously scored some hits on Money and then Capitol – releasing three albums – but for whatever reason, once she went with the mighty Atlantic, the hits stopped coming. The quality of her music certainly flies in the face of her lack of chart success: the Atlantic tracks are strong, and typical of the tastefully arranged, Supremes-influenced soul of the era. Five singles reached the lower rungs of the r&b charts, but beyond those, most of the music as collected here went largely unheard on its initial release.

Swann subsequently left the music business and became a Jehovah’s Witness (when the latter occurs, the former often accompanies, as Witnesses are encouraged not to call attention to themselves…except when…y’know). Five tracks cut in Nashville in the mid 70s that never got released are included, and they’re as good as anything else on this fine collection of previously overlooked music. Especially recommended is Swann’s funked-up reading of Elvis‘ hit “Suspicious Minds.” Charles Waring‘s excellent liners tell Swann’s story in engaging detail.

Smith – A Group Called Smith / Minus-Plus
This band’s reading of the classic “Baby It’s You” was a monster hit in 1969, and big things were predicted for the future of the group fronted by powerful, expressive vocalist Gayle McCormick. The group’s first album included that single (arranged by Del Shannon) and featured nine other cuts that showcased the instrumental prowess of the band as well as McCormick’s Janis Joplin-styled pipes. She wasn’t the only lead vocalist in the group, though: when Rich Cliburn or Jerry Carter took the lead, Smith sounded in places a bit like The Band fronted by Three Dog Night, and in other places like Jefferson Airplane.

Inspired covers (“Tell Him No” [sic], “Who Do You Love?” I Just Wanna Make Love to You,” “The Last Time,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together”) completely reinvent familiar songs as the band makes them their own. For the group’s second album (both are included on RGM’s single-disc reissue) the band relied more upon original compositions, and both of the first album’s male singers had left. Greater reliance on horn charts makes Minus-Plus a little less special than the debut, and the record has more of a session-musician feel to it, but it’s still quite enjoyable. Richie Unterberger‘s brief liner notes provide some history and context.

More capsule reviews in the next installment.

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Book Review: Huey “Piano” Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

One need not dig very deep into the collected history of popular music to discover tales of artists who’ve been ripped off, gotten the short end of the stick, been robbed or gotten screwed. And for a long list of reasons – many of which have to do with our country’s history of racism – African-Americans share a disproportionate amount of the shelf space of those artists. Not to say that white artists didn’t get cheated regularly too, especially in the 1950s and 60s.

Huey “Piano” Smith is, in some ways, just another name on that long and shameful list. His authorship of some of pop music’s treasured titles – “Sea Cruise,” “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu,” “Don’t you Just Know It” and a handful of others – is shared (in a legal sense) with others, and the saga of the ownership of his songs makes for a sad and demoralizing tale.

That tale forms the basis of John Wirt‘s new book, Huey “Piano” Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues. Charting Smith’s life and career form his beginning in New Orleans, Wirt paints a picture of a man seeming all too ready to place in his trust in the latest of a long line of so-called advocates — lawyers, business people, managers, promoters – each of which (the author makes plain) takes his cut and then pretty much splits. Repeatedly, Smith sours on said advocate, and then the legal machinations being anew.

And each time, nearly without fail, things work out in favor of the other guy. Wirt’s book is not an upbeat one: the book reads like a relentless parade of bad decisions, misplaced faith, and unscrupulous characters. And for his part, Smith doesn’t seem to be the sharpest guy around: he gets suspicious of those who might (might, I say) have his best interests at heart, while remaining unflinchingly trusting of those who (the story suggests) stand ready to exploit him at every turn.

Often Smith seems to get in the way of his own success. He comes off in the book as someone who can’t quite decide if he wants success in music or not (though it’s clear at every turn that he wants and deserves respect, something else entirely). Burned far too many times, the man largely gave up on his music career in favor of a life centered around his marriage and devotion to his particular brand of religion (he’s a devout Jehovah’s Witness). Over and over in the story, Wirt chronicles what at first looks like a good opportunity for Smith to work his way back to a secure place in the music business. And every time, he’s foiled, either by his own erratic and idiosyncratic (that’s my take, based on a reading of Wirt’s book) approach, or by people out to stick it to him for their own material gain.

The book tends in places to get a bit bogged down with the details (depressing as they are) of Smith’s many dealings with the judicial system, but in fairness to the author, therein lies the meat of the story. The book isn’t as much about music as one might like, but then Smith’s life story is not as much about music as anyone might like.

The story as laid out in Wirt’s book more or less peters out around 2005, and a quick Google search yields little more information about Smith’s current activities beyond the assumption that Smith remains among the living. (Unsurprisingly, there’s no official Huey Smith web site; if there were, no doubt it would be another case of someone else making money off the musician’s name.)

Writ does take pains to sketch out Smith’s importance as a musician and composer, and to quote the many artists who claim him as an influence. Dr. John (Mac Rebbenack) is mentioned and quoted frequently, as he drifts in and out of the periphery of Smith’s story.

In sum, Huey “Piano” Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues is recommended – it’s deeply researched and well-written – but potential readers are warned that Smith’s story is a frustrating, largely unhappy one. At the end of the book, Wirt suggests that Huey “Piano” Smith has come somewhat to terms with his lot in life, having found peace in his religion. The typical reader is unlikely to come away from the book feeling nearly as settled.

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Album Review: David Ruffin – My Whole World Ended / Feelin’ Good

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

Sure, everybody knows The Temptations, and their many hits, including “My Girl,” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” both featuring lead vocals of David Ruffin. But fewer – especially those who followed the pop charts rather than the R&B one – are familiar with Ruffin’s solo work. This set pairs Ruffin’s first two albums (both 1969) in his (first) post-Temptations period. The vocals are peerless. The arrangement and playing on these sides is first-rate: all of the elements that made Temptations singles tunes for the ages are present one these records as well.

While My Whole World Ended is a near-concept album in its depictions of hurt and loss, Ruffin’s expressive vocal work brightens the often downbeat lyrics. His reading of “Everlasting Love” is arguably the best-ever version. Feelin’ Good is, as its title suggests, a bit more hopeful, and is very nearly as good. If you love the Temptations, you’ll love these (inexplicably) long unavailable albums. Kudos to Real Gone Music for rescuing these classics. (Another new RGM twofer pairs 1973′s David Ruffin and Me ‘N Rock ‘N Roll Are Here to Stay from 1974. It’s also good, but if you must chose one, pick this.)

Note: Due to an unusually full schedule this week and next – you wouldn’t believe me if I told you – my posts will be a bit shorter than typical. Once the dust settles, my normal wordy posting will recommence.

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Ask Me Some Questions: The Graham Parker Interview, Part 4

Monday, April 21st, 2014

Continued from Part Three

Bill Kopp: As much as I love your songwriting, two of my favorite tunes of yours have always been “Hold Back the Night” and “I Want You Back,” both soul/r&b covers. How did you discover that sort of music when you were young, and – since it has clearly influenced your style – what do you think it was and is about that kind of music that connected with you on an emotional level?

Graham Parker: None of that was a stretch in England in the 70s. After The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, there was a sort of subculture of soul, ska and Motown. And a sort of mod look, but more like skinheads. We looked like skinheads, but without the violence. Well [chuckles], sometimes, but not always.

And the culture was going to the clubs and listening to that music. Even going to see The Skatalites in the suburbs of England! I saw them, for goodness’ sake, in a provincial town, a nowheresville. These people would tour ’round here. [In the 60s] Otis Redding would play at a big scene about five miles from me. I was probably about fourteen [circa 1964-5]. Maybe sixteen. And in those days, we knew about things by seeing posters. And if you didn’t go out in a car that week, you wouldn’t see a poster. And you’d miss Otis Redding, playing down the road!

It wasn’t a stretch for us to be into that kind of music. It was a semi-underground thing; the charts were still much more pop music. But it was really something that got into my blood at that age. And then you get out of that and into the psychedelic era, then the blues era – Peter Green and Chicken Shack – I went through all that and forgot about soul music.

By the time I got to my early 20s, I might hear “I Want you Back” on the radio. And I realized, “That’s never gonna die.” Whereas a lot of this progressive rock, it’s dead in the water, y’know? So my entire attitude changed once again. I rediscovered that music, and I suddenly had a plan, as it were, or a direction to reinstate soul music into the culture. But to do it in an English way, of course. Like the Rolling Stones had done blues in an English way. And the Beatles did “Please Mr. Postman” and stuff like that.

BK: It’s part of the proud tradition of British artists serving up American music to Americans, filtering it though a British sensibility.

GP: Right. There was really nothing original about what I was doing. I was just doing it in my way, and it sounded like me. And it was extremely aggressive. We were also doing “You Can’t Hurry Love.” It’s on the [1976] Live at Marble Arch record, I think. Which at the time, 1976-76, was radical. The audience would see us doing that, and they would think we were doing bad pop music. They didn’t understand, because it wasn’t progressive, and there weren’t big lead guitar solos. But we took soul music and beefed it up into hard rock’n'roll style. But as I say, it wasn’t any more original than what The Beatles or Stones or Chris Farlowe were doing.

I was writing songs that were very soul influenced, but with more intellectual lyrics. But it wasn’t slavish, like the Alabama Shakes, which is basically a very good slavish copy. I wasn’t doing that, ever.

BK: A good bit of the film focuses on the events leading up to and including the making of Three Chords Good. What abut the experience of making that record was the same as the old days, and what was different?

GP: It was much different because we didn’t have a producer. It was me and my engineer/co-producer Dave Cook, saying, “We’re doing it. No way are we looking for some outside producer; it’s not going to happen.” And the band went along with it. Everybody in the studio was very glad of that. We know what we’re doing now; all that mystique about a great producer, that’s gone. It’s rubbish. What you need is an engineer who knows what he’s doing. And I had the experience to know what my songs are about. You don’t need someone walking in who’s heard them twice and thinks they know what they are! They never did; it was really getting in the way.

It was better. Everyone could relax and come up with their own ideas. And nobody had to listen to another guy who they’d barely met. Because [producers] always want to put their ten cents in. They’re being paid to do that.

BK: All the upcoming dates listed on your site are in the UK or western Europe. Do you have any plans to tour the states, or is that even feasible?

GP: Because we did it twice – and we did all of my markets in the States, and let’s face it: I have a limited amount of markets – there are only so many markets that make it feasible for a six-piece band and crew to come through without going broke.

It just seemed to happen. We did four dates in England; Shepherd’s Bush was sold out months in advance. To a certain extent, the response was even better than in America. In America, we’d just fill out a 1000-seat venue in New York for the last few dates. In England, we’d fill out a 2000-seater months in advance. So basically, I go where I’m in demand. And as soon as my agent saw that – him and the promoter – they went out thick as thieves and said, “Let’s do some more!” And I kind of got bowled along with it. Now we’ve got all this stuff lined up, including Europe, and I don’t really know how much I want to do this all year’ round. And – to talk in hard terms – I don’t think I can strain my market. And to tour America again that soon with The Rumour, I think that this year is out as far as the U.S. Is concerned. I’ve got other markets, like Scandinavia and Spain, that I have not toured in a long time. They want me to go other there solo, or any way possible. But how much life there is in this dog, I don’t know. I really take it bit by bit.

BK: Two Chords Good was released more than a year and a half ago. And while the bootleg box set is a recent release, what are your plans as far as recording releases for the future?

GP: Well, the lot of us are meeting in London, and we’re doing a record in about a week’s time. How about that? [chuckles]

BK: Fantastic!

GP: You may be the first to know that.

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Ask Me Some Questions: The Graham Parker Interview, Part 3

Friday, April 18th, 2014

Continued from Part Two

Bill Kopp: As the new Ask Me No Questions documentary points out, you parted ways with The Rumour after The Up Escalator (1980), but with the exception of Another Grey Area (1982), you pretty much continued to work with guitarist Brinsley Schwarz on many of your recordings. What was it about him that led you to keep using him but not the other guys in The Rumour?

Graham Parker: I’ve never really been able to answer that questions, really. Actually it was him and Andrew [Bodnar] on the bass as well. They continued on quite a lot of stuff. If you think of The Mona Lisa’s Sister [1988] – which was quite a radical record for me, production-wise – I had gotten fed up with all these 80s-sounding producers, and wanted something with as few instruments as possible. I had never really done that, and I pulled off something quite different, I think. Brinsley and Andrew were part of that, and they were on the road with me. So we did quite a lot together.

But I don’t really know the answer; it just seemed to fall into place without me thinking about it. Brinsley is a foil for me; he can take off the rough edges a bit. Martin [Belmont], as a guitarist, is sort of rough-edged. He’s a brilliant guitarist, and he actually played some incredible guitar on Howling Wind. That’s a lot of him playing the lead on songs like “Don’t Ask Me Questions.” Much more than people think. But he’s got that incredible intensity: Martin cannot lay back. Brinsley adds a dimension that real counts against what I do. So it seemed normal and natural to me; I don’t know how it happened, but I just started talking to Brinsley, and I said,”I want you to help me with The Mona Lisa’s Sister.” He was also on Steady Nerves [1985].

Also, some of the guitarists I was finding myself working with via producers like Jack Douglas on Another Grey Area, I didn’t think they were quite right for me. I didn’t think they had enough individuality in their playing; Brinsley has great individuality. So he has both of those things: a style that can smooth of some of my edges, making a very nice balance, and also individuality as a player. But it’s only now looking back and analyzing it that I can see why I did it.

BK: You mentioned about the 80s sound on some of the records. For me, the only one that really has what I’d consider “dated” production is the one that has “Break Them Down” on it…

GP: Steady Nerves, yeah. That was around the time I was saying, “Oh, I should be my own producer.” But I didn’t really have the guts to do it completely. So I got this guy Bill Whitman, who had engineered the She’s So Unusual album by Cyndi Lauper. And if you think of the sound of that, it personifies the 80s. Not that it wasn’t good; it was very good. He had done that record, and he was in that mode. There was no shaking him out of that. And I went along with it, because it was what you did then. You made an absolutely enormous drum sound, and all the instrument had a load of reverb on them. Everything was drenched in that sound. And that one’s definitely a culprit.

And that’s why I went radically against it with The Mona Lisa’s Sister. I really wanted to do the opposite. Although, if you listen to “Start a Fire” now, you could very well say, “That sounds very 80s.” The difference is, there’s one acoustic guitar doing the rhythm on a sort of disco beat song. Which is sort of unusual; that song is on a lot of alternative [compilation] records. But on that record, I stopped at four instruments: “We’re not gonna double the guitars.” That’s what you did on 80s records; if I played a rhythm guitar on Steady Nerves, the producer would say, “Double it.” So then you’d play what you did again, and they’d copy it. Because it made everything “bigger.” But in hindsight, it made everything smaller, in a strange kind of way. It squashed it with lots of treatment, lots of reverb. And that kind of production really canceled out the rock’n'roll element. It did so very effectively. And we were all guilty of that. We were searching for a bigger sound, but what we were getting was a louder sound. So it was very good to make The Mona Lisa’s Sister, and even better to make Struck by Lightning [1991]. By then, everything was much more grassroots again. There are a couple of tracks on that one that are overdone with production, but mostly, it’s back to the roots.

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Ask Me Some Questions: The Graham Parker Interview, Part 2

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: In the new documentary film Don’t Ask Me Questions, you come off very authentically as a sensitive, soft-spoken individual. But back in the 80s, like many people, I think, I was convinced of your reputation as an angry, sort of perhaps even confrontational artist. How and why do you think that reputation developed?

Graham Parker: Well [laughs], there’s some brilliant stuff from Bruce Springsteen on that, about my material. He said that there was always this “caustic sound.” And that’s true. Because when I started, I’d had pretty much zero experience. I’d written these songs, and was totally green to the whole process. And I found myself instantly with a record deal. I had found the right people, like David Robinson, who managed me and then got all those great musicians behind me. And once that had happened, there was a record deal. Out of the blue, really.

So my style was already very aggressive. That just seemed to be the way I was writing and singing at that point in my life, in my early twenties leading up to 1975 when we started. I developed that style of singing, and I didn’t really know anything else.

It’s still there in my vocals, but it’s softened a lot. Because I enjoy actually singing now. I think it’s much more suitable for the kind of songs I write, and probably would have been more suitable in the first place. But there again, hindsight et cetera.

You can’t help but hear it: “This guy is really pissed off!” And [laughs] I did it on love songs as well. It was a style; I just wanted to be harder and louder and nastier. Remember, in that part of the 70s, there wasn’t any punk rock or any of that, and I wanted to sort of change what was going on. And somehow I found this extremely aggressive vocal style, and stuck to it.

So it’s understandable that people have that impression. And that’s okay.

BK: You’re know for your heartfelt lyrics; A Graham Parker song is never a simple moon-june love ditty. But many of those deeply heartfelt songs – especially from the period during which you worked with The Rumour – were written by a man in his 20s. When you sing those now, do the lyrics still resonate with you, or do you feel that since you’re singing the words of a man less than half your age that they sentiments are somehow alien or even naïve?

GP: Ah, that’s an interesting point. It doesn’t strike me that they’re out-of-date. It doesn’t strike me that way at all. Because obviously – with or without The Rumour – I do play those songs from my early-early career. There’s a few periods where I might be doing shows where I’m really concentrating on a newer period, but there’s always old ones. Especially from Howling Wind; they seem fairly universal to me.

There are some songs where I think, “Nah, I don’t really want to do that.” They’re not quite right; they don’t quite sit right for me, now. But for the most part, I don’t listen to them and think, “I don’t understand this.” I know what I was thinking. They all make sense. Some of them I wouldn’t write now, but there’s nothing alien to me there.

BK: There’s a belief among some that conflict, turmoil and distress are somehow essential ingredients for artists to create enduring works. And while I’d say that that “Mercury Poisoning” is one of my favorite of your tracks, I’m not sure I buy the argument that – if you’ll pardon the horrible metaphor – you have to have sand in the oyster to get the pearl. What do you think?

GP: “Mercury Poisoning,” for instance, is a joke. When an artist starts complaining about his record company in his songs, you should start worrying. It’s not a good sign; it’s a sign of running out of ideas.

My manager was much angrier than me, and he told me to write an entire album of hate-songs. That’s literally how it came about! I wrote one, and said, “I’ve said it all in this song, Dave. That’s enough. Okay?” So I stopped there, thankfully, and wrote [the songs for] Squeezing Out Sparks. A much better idea, really; let’s face it.

People never, ever seem to get it. But the first album had songs like “Between You and Me” on it. And “Gypsy Blood,” though that’s a song I don’t like now; it’s a sort of maudlin, romantic song. But they don’t remember that, and so they think that “Mercury Poisoning” sums it all up. “New York Shuffle” is another one. And that’s really a very, very small part of what I do. But again, I would even do a love song back in the 70s as if I were trying to hurt somebody. And it took a long time for me to temper that with some actual singing.

To be continued…

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