10 (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is
8) Squeezing Out Sparks, Graham Parker
You have to understand, my friends in college were huge Elvis Costello fans. They were all over his work like cheese on crackers. I’m a Costello fan too, and it’s clear that in some ways he has the edge on Parker; more complex and original arrangements, a better and more unconventional rhythm section. But I never could have loved him as much as my friends did.
Maybe it’s just because I can’t jump somebody else’s train (as the Cure once put it), but personally, I always found that Parker’s music spoke more to me. Maybe because his lyrics are simpler and more direct and, to me, more involving. Maybe there’s something about Costello’s sense of distance, his ironic removal, his cleverness that makes his music not as gripping to me.
Then again, any way I break the cracker, This Year’s Model is one of the greatest rock records ever. Get Happy! is just as good, and Imperial Bedroom and Armed Forces are just behind those. I’m not actually saying I don’t love Elvis Costello’s music.
I just felt connected to Parker's tough-because-I-have-to-be sensitivity, his lyricism. I love the sound of his band The Rumour, with their edgy, r & b and soul-based rock chops.
Caveat #2: I’m not even sure that Squeezing Out Sparks is the Parker record I most enjoy playing, now. These days I put on on Howlin' Wind and Heat Treatment just as often, both of which have more variation and a more subtle groove.
But Sparks was, no question, the Parker record that brought him fully into the modern world, and it was the one that when I was in college hit me hardest. Compared to earlier Parker records, the band suddenly had an updated, more metallic, hornless, heavier sound. There’s nothing roots about it. It’s not quite r & b, not hard rock, and not punk either, but it takes elements of all those histories and creates a biting rock sound that no other band has and that no other band has really followed.
His lyrics also took a big step into the future on this record. The contexts are contemporary; the conflicts and situations in the songs suddenly have a contemporary politics and absolutely up-to-date reflections on problems of love and gender.
One reason that the lyrics are so good is that Parker puts his narrative persona at the center of the conflict, with songs that talk about how the desires of the narrator create problems for other people. On earlier records the lyrics come from a more consistently righteous persona. The lyrics on Sparks have guilt, longing, frustration, cynicism, and (crucially) complicity: the narrator blames himself at least as much as others and usually more.
The first side is one of the great sides of rock and roll. Every song is focused and doesn’t let go and never lags. It’s one of those album sides on which time seems to vanish in the sense that I never find myself stepping out of the songs and noting where I am; I’m just there, in the music, until it’s over.
The lyrical greatness of “Discovering Japan” and “You Can’t Be Too Strong” have been discussed too often maybe; I’ll just add that one thing that’s amazing is the positioning of the narrator, who’s aware of what’s not right about his behavior even as he knows he never intended to behave any other way. Most lyrics to most songs try to find the justification or the blame and leave it at that; these songs see through the justification and blame, knowing they’re there and knowing also the ways in which they’re besides the point.
“Nobody Hurts You” is a song that spoke to me instinctively when I first heard it and still does to this day; the fact that the hurt we often feel is based on a hurt we’re doing to ourselves. And “Passion Is No Ordinary Word” really earns the way it includes everyone in the situation; it’s a statement not just about the narrator but about the emotional line that people cross from sincerity into insincerity at a moment that can’t always be recognized.
Most people who know this record think that the second side isn’t as good, and I agree. “Saturday Night Is Dead” has a fantastic sound, heavy and fast and sharp, but the lyrics aren’t great. On lesser Parker tunes, his anger and intensity sometimes overwhelm the subject matter, with the result that he sounds overly hot about something minor. This song is a perfect example, with its central statement seeming more untrue and petulant than clear-eyed. “Love Gets You Twisted,” which follows it also has a great, tight sound, but lyrically it’s not as good as “Nobody Hurts You” and “Passion.” The theme feels a bit tired, a bit general and overstated, after those better songs.
My friend Jim Slade likes to talk about songs that “most fill the objectives of rock and roll.” Speaking for myself, the third song on side two, “Protection,” might be more what rock and roll is all about than any other single song. At times in my life when I’ve been looking for a rock song to save me from something, half the time it’s this one.
The riff is brain-searing, the lyrics are at the perfect pitch of desperation both individual and social; only the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” is, for me, comparable. The vocal and instrumental bridge is an incredible tour de force, a lightning bolt combination of the Stones and the Clash, I think, in its combination of big metaphor with political specificity. It just keeps pushing and twisting, going further than can be expected and even further beyond that. While “Gimme Shelter” speaks in a prophetic tone that tries for a universal myth-making that’s very much of the 60s, “Protection” has a narrator who has been abandoned by all the big narratives; in fact those narratives are part of what’s closing in and closing him down.
I remember some evenings when I’ve played that song maybe six or eight times in a row, because there’s no other song in the history of music that will do.
After that, “Waiting for the UFOs" is lighter social criticism, a small song with a sense of humor, something Parker often lacks. Then there’s “Don’t Get Excited,” this album’s final masterpiece, not the grandest tune on the record but a perfect match of sound and sense that brings the album effectively to a close. It’s a song that counsels that the way to get through difficult things is to steady oneself and not fall apart.
Squeezing Out Sparks was Parker’s last great record, although I really like some of the songs on The Up Escalator and The Real Macaw. By Steady Nerves in 1985, his new music didn’t interest much anymore, and I actually have barely heard anything from him from after that.
Squeezing Out Sparks is one of the best records there is about not falling for anybody’s lies and not dishing out any lies of your own. It’s about trying as hard as possible to be honest, and to not let either yourself or others get away with anything phony.