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Graham Parker: Throw Another Label on the Ire

June 12, 1988|CHRIS WILLMAN | Calendar pop-music writers pay brief visits to noteworthy performers.

Graham Parker, 37, is by no means still the Angry Young Man that some remember from the days of his 1979 classic "Squeezing Out Sparks" album. His temper remains inflammable, though. The surest fuel to Parker's fire: His former record companies, which are legion. Among his most stinging attacks: "Mercury Poisoning," a song about his first label, Mercury Records. Since then Parker (who plays Tuesday and Wednesday at the Roxy and Friday at the Palace) has signed with and subsequently left three more major labels (Arista, Elektra and Atlantic) before landing with his current company (RCA)--plenty of fuel for his subtle digs at corporate mentalities in new songs like "Success."

The irascible Englishman's current LP, "The Mona Lisa's Sister," is his most acclaimed since 1979's "Squeezing Out Sparks," and in some ways his sweetest and gentlest. It does have its share of gall and chafe, though.

Parker on being a less bitter writer:

I didn't need to put any knives in a song like "Wake Up Next to You." It's a real slick soul kind of melody. I didn't feel the need to screw it up with the sort of vicious lyrics that usually turn up in my songs. I was happy to do that, but some people don't want you to do that.

On the more vituperative moments on his new album:

A lot of songs were written in anger that Atlantic was treating me as a sort of medium talent who needs help. I was really incensed about that, and I wrote some of the better songs after that, so I think that maybe that's where you get the old G.P. coming back into it a little bit. The "Germans and Turks and English nerks" in one song are Atlantic Records company people. I think I need that (bad experience) now and again just to keep me on my toes.

On his approach to record companies the latest time around:

We just said, "Look, let's forget the large amounts of money." But I put my neck on the line a bit, and said I'm not gonna have a producer and nobody's gonna be involved with choosing the songs--it's entirely down to my whims and that's the way it is--"Do you want to sign me with no A&R input, no hearing the material, and Graham is producing it?"

On his depression after most record companies turned him down:

I was saying, "This is it, isn't it? They're not going for this. I can't believe it. I'm screwed here. I've had it." Ah, it was terrible, it was a really bad time. Quite an eye-opener. I thought, this is it--curtains, as we say in England, meaning the end of it, goodby cruel world.

On recording "The Mona Lisa's Sister":

This record cost $60,000. It was done in England. And that's even more than I wanted it to cost, really. Being the producer as well as the artist, it's extremely tiring. You just can't say, "OK, we can go till 2 in the morning and finish two more tracks." You've gotta be sensible and stop at 10 o'clock. Go in at noon and finish at 10 or something, otherwise you're gonna become a wreck, really. It's not like I'm 17 anymore or something. So I think (RCA) could see I wasn't trying to screw them for loads of money. I was being real honest about it. Just, "Let me do it. Please, stay out of my way, just give me enough to do it and a little bit over to buy some ice cream with or something."

On the gentle "Sister" being his most popular album since the feisty "Sparks":

It is (gentle), but it's got an edge to it, because it's raw. It isn't a grinding, loud guitar thing; it hasn't got that nasty, aggressive kind of attack that "Sparks" had. But it's about as aggressive as I could get on acoustic guitar. I'm doing the same thing, but with a gentler instrument--perhaps that's it.

On translating this mellower album live:

It's pretty intense, actually. It won't be sitting-on-a-stool kind of stuff.

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