Unfortunately, my submission for the 33 1/3 series was turned down...but as promised, you get to enjoy the proposal. I'm sad, but quite frankly, I can always try again next time. Enjoy!
Although I remember seeing the poster when the album was first released - a simple royal blue background with the artist, hiding behind sunglasses, standing with his hair on end - it was not until a few years later when I bought the album in the cut-out bin.
It was in response to listening to Steady Nerves - more specifically, the Playboy review -
that claimed that "no matter how it squeezed, no sparks came" - that led me back to investigate the used and cut out bins of Kroozin Muzik, at Archer and California (no longer there, sadly), and to acquire my vinyl copy of a record that, for ten tracks, served as a soundtrack to my adolescence. Whereas other people were listening to the synth-laden and bombastic pop and metal of the day, I was listening to old soul, rhythm & blues, mod (like the Jam)...and Graham Parker. It's an album that has haunted me, accompanied me through various formats, and has ultimately been a consistent musical companion.
Its history was one of desperation and frustration for Graham Parker, who emerged from England's "pub rock" scene (a kind of back-to-basics approach musically that integrated - rather than rejected - stylistic conventions) and was quickly lumped as one of England's "angry young men", along with Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. (Which seemed to be applicable to any singer or songwriter who sang lyrics which consisted of more than simply "I love you"). With a group of bar band/pub rock veterans known as the Rumor behind him, Parker recorded three memorable and strong albums - Howlin' Wind, Heat Treatment, and Stick to Me. However, lackluster promotion by then-record company Mercury, as well as a desire to crack the American market, led Parker to bitter break, resulting in a premature greatest hits
compilation...and a scathing single entitled "Mercury Poisoning" upon signing to Mercury Records. When the sessions for the "new album" came, Parker expressed reservations to Jack Nietsczhe - frustrations with the band's inability to play coherently, and often messy, busy arrangements. What happened next was a streamlining of efforts, and an all-out last change swing for the rafters.
Squeezing Out Sparks is, perhaps, the last great punk album - a near concept album about the redemptive power of cynicism, a classic of railing against the status quo. Much like The Prisoner did for television, or V for Vendetta did for graphic novels, Sparks - both musically and lyrically - is a rallying cry for rejecting the complacency of then- (and perhaps now-) contemporary culture. Although the obvious signpost for this would be "Passion Is No Ordinary Word", the album recycles some motifs - the idea of "sparks", the referral to acting/not being one’s true self, being considered "a joke they sometimes crack" - the tracks seem to detail an increasing decline into cynicism, with a slightly ironic note that by becoming cynical, Parker is asserting a never-ending quest for excellence. (If you want to see this as an album-length version of “Fool’s Gold” from Heat Treatment, you wouldn’t be too far off the mark).
The tone and depth of the lyrics are also juxtaposed with a band playing at their tightest, at their most exciting - never again would the rumor sound this raw, so against-the-wall, so united in their defiance. (Keyboardist Bob Andrews would leave just before recording the all important follow up, The Up Escalator). In comparison to the horn-driven r & b/soul-influenced albums of the past, this album sounds unique - a few decibel levels below heavy metal, yet several IQ points above it. This album simultaneously rocks - and swings - hard. (The promo-only Live Sparks - added to the main album in the 2001 CD reissue - only serve to reinforce the point that the Rumour's cohesion was not based on studio trickery). It’s the kind of album where the arrangements are key – the acoustic-and-organ backing to “You Can’t Be Too Strong” undermines the rather callous tone of the lyrics (about an abortion) – Parker allows us to see that even his own narrators deserve a second look, and we see behind the mask. The push-pull rhythms of “Discovering Japan” speak to dislocation and disorientation; the acoustic riff behind “Waiting for the UFOs” gives it a slight otherworldliness.
But beneath the rather New Wave sonic exterior beats the heart of a lyricist who seems to be beginning to find his voice. At the same time that Parker was recording Sparks, his fellow "angry
young men" were beginning to enter a phase of stylistic diversity. Elvis Costello, after a drunken and angry run- in with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett (in which he made racially charged
comments about Ray Charles and James Brown), immersed himself into stylistic diversity, moving from the icy, layered pop of Armed Forces to the more frenetic Get Happy!!! Joe Jackson made a similar excursion, moving away from jagged pop-rock into reggae (The Harder They Come EP) and swing (Beat Crazy). Two of rock's "angry young men" decided that...well, anger didn't really pay off. Only Parker was able to find his voice, immersing himself in a title that he would easily deride, putting out lyrical bon mots and writing phrases that were clever, articulate, and dripping with contempt. From the opening couplet of "Her heart was nearly breaking/the earth was nearly quaking" to the closing song's "It's all excuses, baby, all a stall, we just don't get excited", Parker seemed more articulate in his anger. Every clever turn of phrase services what Parker's trying to say - had Sparks come out around, say, 1995, Parker would have been called "the Quentin Tarantino of songwriting".
And that is the approach that any examination of Squeezing Out Sparks - especially in book form - would need to take: examining it both within and outside of the context of its time. Breaking it down song by song, the album reveals new layers. (It helps that the album is so
melodic, so rhythmic, that it's almost impossible to stop listening to it repeatedly). Performing the traditional rock critic trick of analyzing lyrics - but casting them within the dying years of punk
(and the dawning years of the Reagan era) and putting them within a pop cultural context - the record becomes somewhat transcendent. Sure, the obvious compliments about it - "it rocks", "it's
got a good beat, and you can dance to it" - come into play, but most importantly, this is not a record for casual listening.
Ok, it is, but it's also worth diving into - Parker's post-Sparks albums were relatively spotty in some areas, and rather poorly produced in others. In fact, it wouldn’t be until The Mona Lisa’s Sister in 1988 when Parker would be considered “back on track”. But for Graham Parker – and for the connoisseur of popular music, Squeezing Out Sparks is a great album. Much like a classic novel, repeated listening brings deeper meaning, and ultimately, reveals it to be a great combination of strong songwriting, excellent band interplay, and a literate repudiation of common values, reinforcing the belief that passion truly is no ordinary word.