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Graham Parker Aces 'Acid' Test With Attitude

With 'Turn It Into Hate,' the keynote for his latest album, the former angry young man shows maturity by blending bile, humor.

November 07, 1996|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Graham Parker's new album, "Acid Bubblegum," well may stand apart in the annals of pop music:

Call Guinness and ask whether any other record on record has incorporated a lyric with the phrase "chitinous bugs."

"Chitinous," the dictionary tells us, denotes a crawly critter with a hard casing. It's fitting that Parker has trotted it out for an album that finds him getting back to being a hard case himself.

He emerged on the British rock scene in 1976, staking his claim primarily with anger and aggression with a dollop of soul-singer's romanticism. Grounded in roots rock and R&B, the albums "Howlin' Wind" and "Heat Treatment" are tough, lean, pointed works that helped pave the way for the soon-to-come eruption of punk.

Parker's early catalog also includes "Squeezing Out Sparks," a third sizzling '70s album widely considered a classic. Lately, though, fans who favor that period of Parker may have wondered whatever happened to the angry young man. His '90s releases--"Struck by Lightning," "Burning Questions" and "12 Haunted Episodes"--instead brought out the family man in him.

But this softer, warmer, more meditative, beyond-40 Parker hardly was a drowsy burnout case. If his recent albums weren't "Howlin' Wind," they were evidence of a no-longer-young artist catching a very strong second wind as he turned out work that ranged from good ("Episodes") to excellent ("Lightning").

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Speaking from a hotel in Seattle last week, Parker said his decision to get back to rebellion started with the need to rebel against himself.

"I definitely said, 'I've got to rock here.' " The softer recent records, culminating in the exceedingly gentle and folk-ish "Episodes," were "all aspects of me, the more romantic, pastoral side," Parker said. "I did that. Now let's steer the songwriting somewhere else, so I don't become repetitive."

He started to build an album around "Turn It Into Hate," a brightly rocking song he'd written a few years ago before taking a detour for "Episodes." The song counsels anger rather than tolerance as the right response to assorted forms of villainy and stupidity. It became the keynote as Parker set down a series of songs in the key of A--for "aggrieved."

"Next thing I know, I have an album with some fairly aggressive, vituperative stuff, and I thought, 'This is the right antidote for what I've been doing.' "

It's a cranky thinking-person's album, along the lines of Lou Reed's ticked-off-guy-on-a-barstool record, "New York." Parker's screeds are less focused and more scattershot than Reed's as he whips out witty rhymes slicing at, among others, the music business, musicians who accommodate themselves to it and journalists and money-changers who feed off it.

Though he slows down for a couple of prime tracks (the romantic-regrets R&B song "She Never Let Me Down" and the poignant extinction-of-innocence parable "Girl at the End of the Pier"), Parker mainly runs on a blend of bile mixed with humor. In this company, even "Milk Train," a song inspired by the birth of his son 10 months ago, seems like a cutting commentary on society's undeserving freeloaders: It is, as Parker puts it, a song about "breast-feeding made angry."

The chitinous bugs take their bow on "Beancounter," which pretty much sums up Parker's soured view of humanity.

Civilization has come a long way

Out of the mud where the chitinous bugs

Eat each other all day.

Now we're in the clouds

Workin' overtime for our pay,

Countin' the numbers and being the bugs

That eat each other all day.

"We're just not going to get everything together and make everything great," Parker said, offering his assessment of humankind's prospects. "The greed element is just so profoundly ingrained. I think we could be heading for some bad stuff down the road, with all kinds of environmental doom. Cockroaches will be left. The chitinous bugs, they'll survive."

He shrugged at the suggestion that he might be perceived as trying to jump on a curdled milk train himself, by reverting to anger at a time when rage and pessimism have been known to help sales.

"I read a review in some little freebie rag in Milwaukee where the guy was talking about me singing about stale old things, that I'm just trying to be angry for the sake of it," he said. "Maybe he's right, but I don't agree. People are going to do that. You can't win."

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The real motivation, Parker said, is that skewering an offensive world with humor "makes me laugh." Never more than a cult figure commercially, he really doesn't have many prospects for the milk train at this late date. His notoriously sour relations with the world of major labels are severed at the moment; his two most recent albums are on the independent label Razor & Tie.

To help put across his rekindled ire on stage, he has hired the Figgs, a young punk-pop band from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to be his sidemen and opening act.

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