Perfect Sound Forever

Graham Parker's Squeezing Out Sparks

by Dave Kaufman (November 1997)

I recently picked up the new (1996) CD reissue of Graham Parker's Squeezing Out Sparks. I originally bought it on LP when it came out in 1979 (I was 18 or 19) and it is one of my favorite albums of the first Punk Rock/New Wave era. It's a magnificent album that ranks with Clash's London Calling and maybe Elvis Costello's first album as the best recordings of an era filled with many great or nearly great records. The Rumour, his backup band on most of his first 6 or 7 albums were much tighter and better musicians than any of those other bands with the possible exception of Rockpile. They were veterans pub rockers, most of whom played in a band led by (Rumour guitarist) Brinsley Schwarz. Pub rock groups such as Brinsley Schwarz and Ducks Deluxe (featuring Nick Lowe) played stripped down working class roots rock at a time when glam rockers such as T-Rex and David Bowie (circa Ziggy Stardust) dominated the UK music scene.

I was a huge Graham Parker fan for a few years till the mid 1980s. Squeezing Out Sparks was my first real exposure to Parker and inspired me to check out his previous recordings. Prior to this release, I had only heard two songs on the radio, 'Fools Gold' (a magnificent song off his first album) and 'Don't Ask me Questions' (a less than magnificent song which became something of his signature tune prior to Sparks). His first three studio recordings Howling Wind, Heat Treatment, and Stick to Me are all great albums. The first two are filled with great Van Morrison inspired (from Them to Tupelo Honey) angst filled passionate R & B. These 2 recordings rival (and probably surpass) the best of Mink deVille (a similarly inclined great vocalist of that era). Stick to Me was a little over the top and received lukewarm critical appraisal, but I've always loved it. It features some of his greatest songs including 'The Heat in Harlem,' 'Soul on Ice,' and a ferocious cover of 'I'm Going to Tear Your Playhouse Down' (compare with Paul Young's much lamer, yet still appealing rendition a few years later). His later (post Sparks) albums were much less impressive and I stopped paying attention around 1985. I think the last Parker album that I bought was the Real Macaw, though I understand that several of his recent recordings are quite good.

Squeezing Out Sparks, easily his best album, was produced by legendary producer Jack Nitsche. Sparks, a rocker filled with ska and reggae-inspired choppy rhythms of the New Wave Era with only minimal traces of R&B, represented a substantial departure from his previous work. 'Local Girls,' which sounds very much like early Elvis C or Joe Jackson was something of a hit (I believe the only one of his career). The album contains several great rockers, the best of them including, 'Discovering Japan,' 'Passion is No Ordinary Word' and 'Nobody Hurts You' are absolutely sublime. There is not a weak track on this recording, though 'Waiting for the UFOs' comes close. The emotional heart of this album and perhaps Parker's best song ever, is a very moving ballad, 'You Can't be Too Strong.' The singer is relating a very personal tale of an ill-fated romantic encounter ultimately leading to an abortion. Unlike some, I don't see any political message here. It's a profoundly gripping song filled with disturbing imagery. The song opens with the following verse:

Did they tear it out with talons of steal
And give you a shot so that you didn't feel
And washed it away as if it wasn't real.

It's just a mistake I won't have to face
Don't give it a name, don't give it a face
It's lucky in a way.

The CD reissue is packaged with Live Sparks, originally available only as a promotional item, which gathers together concert performances from two dates on the 1979 tour. I remember it selling as (a colored vinyl) collectible for between 30 and 35 dollars at a time when most albums could be had for 6 or 7 dollars. The recording features energetic, but relatively faithful renditions of every track on Squeezing out Sparks. It also includes 2 additional tracks (which I'm not sure were originally released on the promo)- a great cover of the Jackson Five song 'I Want You Back' and 'Mercury Poisoning,' a venom-filled but humorous parting shot to his old record label set to a catchy and bouncy ska-like beat. The sound of Live Sparks is a little better than average bootleg quality, leaving a lot to be desired. Graham Parker will not appeal to every taste and the digital age has not been kind to his flat and slightly nasal voice. However, if you like this sort of music, Squeezing out Sparks/Live Sparks recording is a must. If you are a fan of this era, then this recording is pretty close to desert island caliber.