Bruce Springsteen once called Graham Parker the only singer he'd pay money to see. Now Springsteen has gone even further and made a rare cameo appearance as a back-up singer on "Endless Night" from Parker's new album, "The Up Escalator" (Arista AL 9517). The gesture is appropriate: Springsteen's own professed goals for rock 'n' roll are perfected in Parker's music.
Parker, Springsteen and Bob Seger all wrestle with the same issue: How to preserve the passion of their rock-'n'-roll youth in the face of eroding age and corroding society. Their verses finger the problems, and their choruses proclaim strong feeling as the solution. All three artists can be inspiring, but Parker's analysis is the most penetrating and his music the most full-blooded.
Probably no verse sums up the dilemma of aging rock-'n'-roll radicals better than this one by Parker from "Endless Night": I had the energy but outgrew it The identity but saw through it I had the walk but got trampled Had the taste -- it was sampled.
The lyrics burst out of Parker's throat like the punches of a street fighter. Hs band, the Rumour, propels the song with a kick worthy of the Rolling Stones. Springsteen joins Parker for the heartfelt wish of the chorus: If I could only find the switch That turns on the endless night.
For most rock-'n'-roll fans, the biggest political issue is how to push the excitement of Saturday night past Monday morning? "The Up Escalator" is one long howl for an endless night that will cut through the alienation of the "Same thing, same way, every day, stupefaction." As an alternative to "Stupefaction" and "Empty Lives," Parker offers "No Holding Back" and "The Beating of Another Heart." The latter are addressed to Parker's lover with a desperation determined to pierce her defenses. Parker argues that modern lovers inflict the same sense of isolation on each other that society inflicts on them. "Don't defend when my heart starts to attack," he shouts as if his very intensity could be the antidote to her guarded emotions.
Parker's music is just as powerful an argument as his lyrics. Every song is carried by a big dance beat, as if Parker were Bob Dylan recording for Motown in 1965. Stephen Goulding's snare drum and high hat punctuate every other beat with the rhythmic urgency of '60s soul music.
Brinsley Schwarz plays a jangling lead guitar like the Rolling Stones' Mick Taylor, while Martin Belmont crunches out rhythm chords like Keith Richards. The sound is further reinforced by the presence of the Stones' session pianist, Nicky Hopkins (who replaces the absent Bob Andreds of the Rumour).
The Rumour is composed of former members of Brinsley Schwarz, Ducks Deluxe and Chilli Willi, the three top bands of England's pub-rock movement in the early '70s. Other pub-rock alumni include Nick Lowe, Ian Gomm and Bram Tchaikovsky. Obvious musical heirs include Parker, Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson.
Out of affection for pub-rock, young songwriters Nick Watkinson and John Alder formed the jags. Their debut album, "Evening Standards" (Island ILPS 9603), is strongly reminiscent of Joe Jackson's blend of reggae backbeat and Beatlesque melodies. Guitarists Watkinson and Alder join on vocal harmonies that recall the young McCartney and Lennon leaning over the same microphone. Unfortunately, the Jags lack the rhythm-'n'-blues sexuality of the Beatles and the new-wave anger of Parker and Jackson. Their sons are seductive, but don't follow through.
When Parker first recorded in 1976, he sounded like Springsteen imitating Van Morrison imitating Sam Cooke. Now Parker sounds totally original, though traces of all those influences and more can still be heard. He sings with the thick, grainy textures of a memphis soul singer -- sometimes carrying his sing-along melodies, sometimes wailing wildly above the background singers. Though his voice isn't the most soothing or melodic, he sings as though each record might be his last.