Monday, May 10, 2010


"You Can't Take Love for Granted" / Graham Parker

Okay, so maybe I won't have a Graham Parker marathon every year. But judging from how hard it's been to pick one song to write about today, this blog could do with a great deal more Graham Parker. So let's get started!

Only a couple of weeks ago, I was as guilty as anybody of thinking that Squeezing Out Sparks was Graham Parker's best album. Now I know better: it wasn't his best album, it was just his best-seller. And as a card-carrying Kinkster, I understand completely the frustration of hardcore fans who know that their favorite artist's best work is virtually unknown by the mass music-listening public. So I'm determined to save you good readers from this same mistake -- I'm focusing only on the post-Squeezing Out Sparks catalog, which is where Graham Parker really gets good.

So let's touch down in 1983, with The Real Macaw, Graham's second Rumour-less album, though his old guitarist Brinsley Schwarz was already back on board. If you can overlook a few 80s touches in the arrangement -- the echoey lead vocals, little spangly accents of synths -- this minor-key samba is simply stunning.

I'm beginning to discover that Graham Parker is so much better on relationships than most of his New Wave peers, with the possible exception of Joe Jackson. As he reels off example after example of bad date moves, it's an uncanny description of every subpar romance I've ever tried to nurse into life. Ladies, raise your hands if any of these scenarios are familiar:

Took her to a party and danced with the host
Took her to a restaurant and treated her like a ghost

Took her to a movie and looked at another screen

Paid for entertainment she'd already seen
I love how he repeats the melodic phrase over and over, each line picking its doomed way downward. The lyrics are so sharp, so articulate, they'd be worthy of Bob Dylan, except that here they're paired with a hauntingly beautiful melody and sung with soulful grace. (Did I mention how beautiful Parker's voice is on this record?) And the next verse leads us into even more painful territory:
Demonstrated passion in a grip hard to shake
Took up every fashion till everything went fake
Pulled a coat over her shoulder, cracked a joke over and over
Watch the rain turn the night colder, stared into the headlight beam
There's something flawed about this affair -- and the amazing thing is, he knows it too. This song dances on the edge between your old-fashioned advice song (like the Beatles' "She Loves You") and the sort of rock confessional that Chris Difford and Glenn Tillbrook had been honing in their band Squeeze (whose drummer Gilson Lavis plays on this LP). The two halves of each line work almost like a soul song's call-and-response -- as if Parker takes a good hard look at his own behavior, then gives himself advice.

In the refrain, he ruefully scolds himself, "But you can't take love for granted, underneath another skin / Can't take love for granted, up behind another grin." That old split personality -- how well we know it. Not coincidentally, this album came out around the time of Parker's marriage; it's no surprise that fine-tuning relationships would have been on his mind. What a novel concept for rock 'n' roll, this idea that you have to work at a relationship to try to make it last. Music for grown-ups!

It's a pity that the "angry young man" tag was stuck onto Graham Parker -- "passionate young man" would be more like it. Yes, there's feistiness and frustration there, and an occasional howl of rage, but the yearning romantic is never far from the surface. He's a lover AND a fighter - what a knockout combination.


Anonymous said...

Here in England, The Up Elevator is his best known, not Squeezing.

Alex said...

Love this song. Oddly enough, I came to know it first through the great cover by Marti Jones (from 1988's Used Guitars.

Alex said...

Oops... meant to put this link in the comment above:

Holly A Hughes said...

Nice cover, Alex!

That's interesting about The Up Escalator being bigger than SOS in the UK. That LP feels considerably slicker to me -- maybe that's why it went down better with the British market. Of course it could just be the vagaries of where the record company chose to promote him.