Saturday, March 22, 2014
Graham Parker "Howlin' Wind"
What we have here is the intersection of a band looking for a front man, a singer-songwriter looking for a band and a musical environment shaped by the intersection of Bob Dylan, The Band, old school rhythm and blues or soul music, Van Morrison, the singer-songwriter movement of the early seventies and the London pub rock scene.
Graham Parker and The Rumour weren’t the only figures on this particular musical landscape and their debut album isn’t the only musical milestone that emerged from it.
Shift the balance of influences slightly, downplay the Dylan/R&B and build up the singer songwriter bit (think Jesse Winchester) and you’ve got Chilli Willi & The Red Hot Peppers. Change London pub rock to New Jersey seaside bars and you’ve got Springsteen and Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes. Put those factors into an Australian setting and you’ve got Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons and The Sports.
Together those acts represented some of the few lights on the horizon in the dire days of the disco-dominated pre-punk mid-seventies.
While Howlin’ Wind came out in 1976 to widespread critical acclaim and ended up in fourth place in the Village Voice critics poll of the year's best albums (the follow-up, Heat Treatment, ran second) it didn’t connect with the wider public and all involved ended up as also-rans despite the fact that they provided much of the template successfully employed by, among others, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and the New Wave end of the seventies punk spectrum.
The key point here is, I think, that The Rumour (Brinsley Schwartz survivors Brinsley Schwarz on guitar and keyboardist Bob Andrews, rhythm section Andrew Bodnar and Steve Goulding from an outfit called Bontemps Roulez, and Ducks Deluxe guitarist Martin Belmont) could definitely play, Parker could definitely write, and delivered a fine spray of impassioned vocals but the combination was never going to hit the heights unless something significant intervened.
They weren’t alone in that regard. While just about everyone cited above is still around and most of them have managed to create a niche in the contemporary musical landscape the only one who has managed to wangle his way into prominence is Springsteen, who accomplished the feat on the back of a string of marathon concert appearances between Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town and the radio-friendly behemoth called Born in the USA.
But Parker & The Rumour could have been contenders, and Howlin’ Wind’s intelligent and artful blend of rock, R&B, reggae, and folk elements behind music, behind intelligent lyrics and impassioned vocals simultaneously suggests what could have been and indicates why it wasn’t.
White Honey opens the proceedings with three and a half minutes of Van Morrison-influenced bop and bounce, Bob Andrews’ Hammond crooning away to drive the groove and the horn section adding drive and punctuation. There’s a statement of intent in the soulful, brooding Nothing's Gonna Pull Us Apart and things are sweetened slightly by the swingingly infectious Silly Thing, uncharacteristically upbeat and affectionate..
But the intensity’s back for a passionate Gypsy Blood. Between You and Me actually dates back to a 1975 pre-Rumour demo session, when Parker was cutting material future founder of Stiff Records Dave Robinson could shop around the record companies. They tried to re-record it later, but couldn't match the demo, so that’s what you get folks.
Dave Edmunds sits in on guitar on Back to Schooldays, a three minute assessment of Parker's experience of the British education system and how he’d fix it if he was given the chance. There hadn’t been too much evidence of Parker’s supposedly angry young man persona to date, but it’s here in spades. It worked a treat for Edmunds too when he cut the track on the rather impressive Get It collection.
After that little statement, Soul Shoes comes across as an unremarkable but committed rocker, while Lady Doctor delivers a nice line in lighthearted carnal fun. Hardly a classic, but, boy, does it swing.
There’s a bit more intensity to You've Got to Be Kidding, a sort of half an hour later riposte to Nothin's Gonna Pull Us Apart, a cynical response to a question about longevity in a relationship delivered in a Dylanesque drawl. Howlin' Wind bristles with impassioned intent and Not If It Pleases Me is three more minutes of the same.
But the album’s highlight arrives with the reggae groove of Don't Ask Me Questions. There are reggae influences elsewhere on the album, but here they come to the fore as Parker makes it perfectly clear that he’s not the one with the answers. As a closing track to a rather good album (Parker’s quite definite about it being the best album released in Britain in 1976 in the liner notes), it’s almost perfect. He revisited it a bit later on The Parkerilla, and that version, with the benefit of a couple of years road exposure is probably better, but the prototype packs plenty of punch.
Tacking the obligatory bonus track on the end diminishes that final punch slightly. You can see why I'm Gonna Use It Now missed the cut the first time around, but there’s still commitment aplenty on display.
As an announcement of a significant talent, Howlin’ Wind delivers the goods and most of the cuts survived in the live setting, even after newer material turned up. Parker’s still not, at this point, fully formed, and not quite as angry or dismissive of fools as he became later, but it would be unreasonable to expect anything more than this from someone who was still, at this point, sorting out the nuts and bolts of his craft.
Nick Lowe’s production delivers a tough, spare bar band feeling and the result is an invigorating fusion of traditional rock from a writer with significant singer/songwriter chops, and something that would be identified around a year down the track as punk spirit.
One of the classic debuts of all time that manages to shine while suggesting significant room for improvement as a brash young man gets his direction sorted.