Thursday, November 18, 2010

"Get Started.  Start a Fire." /  
Graham Parker


Sixty years old?  Graham Parker can't be sixty years old.  The guy's still too full of piss and vinegar, still rocking WAY too hard to be a senior citizen.

Why, just a couple weeks ago, on one night I could see the difference between Nick Lowe -- white-haired, courtly, a tiny paunch on his rail-thin frame -- strumming and singing for the sedate crowd at the City Winery, while across town Graham Parker was tearing up the lino at a grubby little East Village bar, where the buzz-worthy scene spilled out onto the sidewalks.  You guys know I love the Nickster, but really, ask me which event was more fun.

As you know, I went through quite a Graham Parker phase a few months ago, but that was only the beginning.  I recently splurged on all the other Parker CDs I didn't buy the first go-round, and diving into these new (to me) albums has provided me with hours of insane delight.  So here is yet another amazing song that I didn't get around to in my first Graham Parker marathon...

On Graham's 1988 album Mona Lisa's Sister, this is  more or less the title track, verse one being about said sister (who, in the cover art, bears an uncanny resemblance to the Parkerilla, black shades and all). Unlike her famous sibling, Mona Lisa's sister tried to pose for Leonardo but was rejected, unwilling to muster even the half-smile her sister produced. Verses two and three feature their own defiant heroines -- Marilyn Monroe in verse two, Joan of Arc in verse three -- none of whom meet a happy end.  Historical accuracy isn't the point (at one point Joan is caught smoking illegally in an airport), but in Graham's eyes they're all rebels, tragically caught in the flames of their own iconoclastic fates.

It's a good story hook all right -- though what this song is really about is that propulsive rhythm line, with the repeated chant "Get started! / Start a fire!" underlaid by a prowling bass line and darting bursts of guitar.  For this record Parker had rounded up some of his old backing band the Rumour -- Brinsley Schwarz on lead guitar, Andrew Bodnar on bass -- and it's a wonderful reminder of how explosively tight this ensemble could be at its best.

Very few songs manage to hold my interest for five minutes, yet somehow these guys pull it off -- not with drawn-out solos and ever-louder repetitions of the same damn chorus, but with irresistible syncopation. The tempo's seductive, not frenetic, and just listen to how that melodic line cascades, like waves lapping the shore. I swear, this song hypnotizes me, every time.

When people ask me to describe Graham Parker's music, I'm always at a loss. It's too swinging to be punk, too soulful to be New Wave, and way too spiky for feel-good pub rock.  Graham Parker has often been lumped in with all these musical genres, and unfairly so.  We music fans seem to need a label to hang on to, but GP is a marketer's nightmare -- he doesn't really fit any label, and the problem is compounded by his own chameleon-like tendency to change styles from album to album. Even if we did have a label to sum him up, it probably wouldn't convey the sheer intelligence of Parker's music, his bone-deep sense of rhythm, and his incredible ear for hooks.

I put this record on and I know I'll be walking to its beat for days, softly singing to myself, "Get started!  Start a fire!"  I'm telling you, if I get arrested for arson, Graham Parker better be willing to post bail.


dante said...

Holly: I'd been a confirmed Parkerista for a decade when I bought Mona Lisa's Sister in 1988--my FIRST straight-to CD Graham Parker purchase. Between the "OMG this is so much better than Steady Nerves" reaction and the glowing Time Magazine review, (look it up--who was that cool at Time in 1988?) I thought that, at last, the cat was out of the bag, and GP was gonna be bigger than god. What's more, this song was ALL OVER the radio. I thought the GP renaissance had come. I enlisted friends and family to the cause--some of whom have stayed true--and got ready to defend my longstanding fandom against attacks of come-lately-ism. The record got great reviews, and the hooks in "Start a Fire" made me suspect Brinsley would finally get his due. What this album--and this song--really did was show GP as the fully realized genius that he is. I love your comparison of the Nick Lowe and GP energy levels--truly evidence that attitude IS everything. Get Started--start a fire.

Alex said...

When this album came out, GP gave an interview to some magazine where he admitted that he always claims that his favorite albums are Squeezing Out Sparks and whatever the new one is... but this time he really, really meant it.

There's also a great, moody B&W video of the song (crummy 3rd generation copy on YouTube is here).

Uncle E said...

Sorry to go off-topic here, but there's something quite delicious about Ray Davies performing Lola for the Royals...

"Kinks legend Ray Davies is to appear at the Royal Variety Show this year.

He’ll perform the classic song Lola, with Paloma Faith, at the London Palladium on December 9, in front of Prince Charles and the Duchess Of Cornwall. A long way removed from William Grimshaw Secondary Modern School, where Davies first played live!.

This will be broadcast by the BBC on December 16."

Accountant named Bill said...

Another masterful review Holly. I am pleased to read that you are delving deeper into the GP back catalogue, I look forward to reading more of your insights.
In addition to the promo video on YouTube there is also a good clip of this song from Letterman
I wonder if GP will be invited back on to Letterman when the documentary is released?

Dave K. said...

It just kills me that Graham Parker is 60 years old and that all those years have passed. How did that happen? I've been a fan since Stick to Me circa 1977 and he was quite possibly my favorite artist of that era. Did 1980 really happen 30 years ago? That said, I have huge gaps in my GP catalog. Time to catch up! Great review as always, Holly.

Holly A Hughes said...

Gaps in your GP catalog?!! Say it isn't so, Dave! I cannot believe that you have lived this long without owning Songs of No Consequence, Struck By Lightning, or Steady Nerves -- just to throw 3 album titles out there. He is one artist whose work has truly been getting better year by year, whether or not the mass audience is aware of it. Still waiting for that GP renaissance, Dante. Maybe THAT's the fire we need to get started.

Dave K. said...

I bought Steady Nerves when it came out, but I need to snag the other 2. Songs of No Consequence is only a few years old. I love Don't Tell Columbus. I'm not completely out of the loop, but I need to continue my education. GP has a reputation as a crotchety sort who is not that easy to work with. He has not chosen a career path commensurate with big time success.