It might well be an exercise in futility to find a more potent transitional album than Graham Parker
's The Up Escalator
. At least that's what The 40th Anniversary Edition
suggests, and in no uncertain terms. Why else open the album with a track of deserved braggadocio titled "No Holding Back" or close it with that sentiment brought to life on the crackling live takes of the record's two most unforgiving numbers, "Empty Live" and "Stupefaction," included as bonus material?
There, as on the studio versions, Parker is borderline merciless to say the least, but never more so than of himself above all. He knows full well the claustrophobic nature of a dead-end life: why else does he sing (and his band The Rumour play) as if to rattle some cages? But he's not so deluded he doesn't realize his existence as a professional musician doesn't carry its own insidious stasis: "Mercury Poisoning"'s reappearance here as one of four extra tracks reaffirms Graham's now well-documented disenchantment with such corporate affiliations, an outpouring primed earlier in the track-list by the ruthless "Maneuvers."
Hiring Jimmy Iovine to produce this fourth Graham Parker studio album made more practical sense than sending GP and company on the road opening for Cheap Trick
during the first flush of their success. Iovine had formulated no small name for himself overseeing studio work with Tom Petty
and Patti Smith
, those collaborations a natural progression from engineering for, among others, one Bruce Springsteen
on Born to Run
(Columbia Records, 1975); notwithstanding the latter's self-professed admiration of Parker at the time, 'The Boss'' appearance for backing vocals on "Endless Night" seems sufficiently facile as to come off as a label exec's idea of a marketing tool.
All of which superficially extraneous circumstances can camouflage the fact Graham Parker was growing as a songwriter circa 1980. That despite the fact that his support system was beginning to crumble, in part under the weight of expectation. With four decades of hindsight, The Up Escalator
almost works as a mirror image of the prior album, Squeezing Out Sparks
(Arista Records, 1979) (albeit with no throwaway like "Waiting for the UFO's"). Now widely perceived as the best album of the man's career, the Arista Records debut left him right at the tipping point of mainstream recognition, a creative watershed that did not wholly translate into commercial breakthrough.
Yet instead of playing it safe and composing rewrites of the full-tilt "Discovering Japan," Parker chose to delve into exactly those personal subjects ("Love Without Greed") he had eschewed in the past for the sake of unrelenting introspection like "Protection." As a result, the penultimate cut on this ironically-titled collection of ten originals is "Jolie Jolie," an ode to the very lady who would become Parker's wife. It's a little more insistent than "The Beating of Another Heart," but no less vulnerable or empathetic, and The Rumour tapers its intensity accordingly. "Paralyzed" doesn't deny the authentic emotional impact of that performance, but only heightens its own stark nature through contrast: Graham makes it sound like personal intimacy is a saving grace tantamount to deliverance from the random absurdity of the world.
Whatever the criticisms of the production at the time of this LP's release, it is nonetheless a far cry from the expatriate Brit's next, his first true solo endeavor, the aptly (deliberately?) titled homogeneity Another Grey Area
(Arista, 1982). The predominant presence of studio musicians there lends to a prevailing air of anonymity, a marked difference to the largely rambunctious atmosphere The Rumour conjures up here even in the nascent stages of dissolution: keyboardist Bob Andrews had departed following the preceding album, leaving three different players, on three different instruments, to provide color and contrast to the piston-like mesh of guitars by Brinsley Schwarz and Martin Belmont, as well as the edgy propulsion of the rhythm section, bassist Andrew Bodnar and drummer Stephen Goulding.
Complementing the core four as smoothly as each other, noted British sessioneer Nicky Hopkins
(The Rolling Stones
, The Who
) brightens the mix on acoustic piano while Danny Federici of The E Street Band pumps organ lines in, out and around those ringing notes (Quiver's Peter Wood, on the other hand, is hardly more noticeable with synthesizer than Jimmy Maelen
on percussion). As a result, the sense of group chemistry, as well as a bond with the frontman, is only slightly less in evidence here than on earlier Parker/Rumour albums like Heat Treatment
(Mercury, 1976). And even though the audio is a bit glossy, there is more punch here than Jack Nitzsche's rough-hewn production allowed for the previous recording. Plus, there's still no concealing the sharp observations of within the surreal "Devil's Sidewalk."
The original sequence of cuts on The Up Escalator
comprises a clear picture of Graham's state of mind at the time, a portrait clarified further by more bonus material than on the 2003 version. A carryover is the single B-side, "Women In Charge," a scabrous conundrum about feminism (or the lack thereof) and GP's aforementioned diatribe against an old record label, here in a gleefully feverish rendition, originally released only as a promotional item after it was deemed too controversial (at first) to appear on a commercial recording. And then there's those two blistering concert performances from the now defunct ABC TV series 'Fridays'
Parker and company are not afraid in the least to get in the face of that audience.
All of which content together constitutes the best kind of such reissues because it highlights the essential nature of the man's work past and present. The Up Escalator 40th Anniversary Edition
CD uses the original US vinyl mix, inside artwork modified from its original design and, tellingly, it is less abstract and more to the point of the man's insouciant persona, thus making the package wholly of a piece with Graham Parker's oeuvre, inside and out.
No Holding Back; Devil's Sidewalk; Stupefaction; Empty Lives; Beating of Another Heart; Endless Night; Paralyzed;
Maneuvers; Jolie Jolie; Love Without Greed; Jolie Jolie. Bonus Tracks: Women In Charge; Mercury Poisoning;
Stupefaction; Empty Lives.
Graham Parker: acoustic guitar, rhythm guitar; Brinsley Schwarz: backing vocals; Stephen Goulding: backing vocals.