Howlin’ Wind by Graham Parker and The Rumor is an album of abundant substance. The story behind the band and the production of the record have a lot of sub-plots behind them so I will try to focus more on the record and its songs rather than try to form a family tree behind it. This will be hard because Howlin’ Wind was produced by Nick Lowe, features Dave Edmunds as a guest guitarist and was recorded at Eden Studios in London, a studio that had quite an impressive guest list from 1972 to 2007. You very well might have quite a few records that were recorded there: Elvis Costello, John Cale, Joe Jackson, The Happy Mondays, The Smiths, The Undertones, The Sex Pistols, Primal Scream and Oasis are just a few bands that have recorded at Eden Studios. That said, I will try to pin down the Album “Howlin’ Wind” and a give brief history of Graham Parker and the Rumor.
The roots of The Rumor begin with a guitarist named Brinsley Schwarz who played around London in the late 1960s with a group called Kippington Lodge. After the initial stint there was a lull, and when Schwarz later reformed the band he did so with Nick Lowe on vocals and bass guitar and changed the name of the band to Brinsley Schwarz. Brinsley Schwarz released six records between 1970 and 1974 and is best known for recording the Nick Lowe composition “What Is So Funny About Peace, Love And Understanding”, a song Elvis Costello later recorded only to have it became one of his signature songs. Nick Lowe cut his teeth in Brinsley Schwarz as a performer and as a record producer/studio engineer. The year 1974 marked the end or the road for Brinsley Schwarz and Lowe, already looking to expand his sound and produce his own work, took to working with other artists in his immediate circle of peers, a group that included Dave Edmunds, Elvis Costello and Ian Dury, just to name a few.
Graham Parker, born 1950 in London England, was from a working class family. He attended Chobham Secondary Modern School in Surrey and by the time Parker was thirteen or so he was already dabbling in music. He was very inspired by American Soul and R&B music, specifically Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Motown artists like the Temptations and Stevie Wonder. He was also very much into the British psychedelic music that was being explored by exciting groups in the late 60’s like the Small Faces, the Beatles, the Who, the Creation, the Kinks and the Animals. Parker formed some mock-up groups with friends, one incarnation called the Deepcut Three later, later renamed the Black Rockers. The Rockers did not play instruments, instead they dressed up and acted the performance out, as if for school parties and talent shows.
By the time Parker turned sixteen he had become disenchanted with school and set his sights on leaving it all, getting a job and finding his own path. He knew music was his calling because he wrote in his head and demonstrated a gift in mimicking his soul idols, but usually with his own voice. Parker quit school and took a job at the Animal Virus Research Institute in Pirbright, Surrey to breed animals for foot and mouth disease research. Later at eighteen, he rambled on to Guernsey in the Channel Islands where he dug ditches and picked tomatoes for a weekly wage. While picking tomatoes he purchased an acoustic guitar and started teaching himself how to play. Not long after he was writing and singing his own compositions.
Parker then left Guernsey and took a job as a dock worker in Gilbraltar. While he settled into Gilbraltar’s night life he started performing his own material in local bars and clubs and was also featured on a Gilbralter daytime television program playing two of his original songs. He also briefly joined a group in Tangier, Morocco called Pegasus but that did not last; as Parker matured musically the crunchy, hippie vibe became more of a trap for him than anything else. He returned to England in 1972, this time with the idea in his head that he was going to really get something going. He wanted to start a band and he already had a pocket full of songs and a new voice that was full of confidence, piss and vinegar. Parker had gained his moxie while he was out soul searching.
While back at home in England Parker moved into his parents house and took a job at a petrol station just around the corner. He began searching the want ads for band members and saw an ad in the Melody Maker that led him to guitarist Noel brown. Noel had friends that had other friends and at some point Graham Parker met Dave Robinson who was the manager of Brinsley Schwarz, who, to tie this back into the beginning, had recently broken up. Dave Robinson had a small studio space over a pub called Hope & Anchor in Islington. Parker recorded a demo for the songs “Between You And Me” and “Nothing Is Going To Pull Us Apart”. The latter song was played on a BBC radio program called “Honky Tonk” and was very well received. Nigel Grainge of Phonogram Records was very impressed from hearing Parker’s broadcast and set out to find him. Once together Grainge began recruiting musicians for back up. He was able to pull in Brinsley Schwarz on guitar, Bob Andrews on keyboards (also an ex-Brinsley Schwarz member), Martin Belmont on rhythm guitar, Andrew Bodnar on bass guitar and (the very underrated) Steve Goulding on drums. They also adopted a four man horn section dubbed the Rumor Horns; this line up included John Earle on saxophone, Chris Gower on trombone, Dick Hanson on trumpet and Ray Beavis on saxophone. With Parker up front on acoustic guitar and lead vocals this band became Graham Parker and the Rumor.
Around 1973-1975 England’s pub rock scene was vibrant; it was a few years before punk took hold but it was a very influential scene none the less. It seems to me it was kind of a blend of 60’s R&B with a more raw rock and roll approach to it. The music had that old school charm but with the tinge of a booze fueled, beer brawl dance party element to it. I have read that Paul Weller, Joe Strummer and Joe Jackson were very influenced by that scene. It was the precursor to punk. Pub rock was fast soul music with provocative subject matters and a sort of sarcastic attitude to it. Punk was sped up, break-neck rock and roll with vulgar subject matter and had a more fuck off attitude to it. One other thing the pub rock scene and the punk scene had in common was their love and curiosity of Jamaican Reggae music the more guttural and rugged sound than it’s jazzier counterpart ska music.
The album “Howlin’ Wind” kicks off with the song “White Honey”, an ode to a working class town who for the most part becomes addicted to heroin. “Whole town down when the man comes around and nobody pays their rent, it’s all spent on white honey, get it from a candy man”. For as serious as the story in the song is the actual music is an uplifting shuffle beat with an R&B swing, a catchy chorus and a rolling keyboard line with classic stax horn hits layered right on top. “White Honey” is a great opening: an upbeat, swinging track that makes a classy sound out of a rough subject matter.
Next is “Nothing Is Going To Pull Us Apart” which was recorded as a demo at the Hope and Anchor home studio sessions but was re-recorded for the album at Eden Studios. It’s a simple, early Graham Parker song that has the message of true love. People talk and they doubt you but if you can be true and honest to your only love nothing is as bad as you think it is, no matter what the world throws at you.
The third track is a song called “Silly Thing”. It is a short R&B song with a catchy horn progression about a dude that is sleeping with a woman who seems to want more than a mere booty call. She wants him to “be somebody better” but he just wants to monkey around so he tries to be a better guy out of guilt but ends up having to be honest with himself in the line “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing, you silly thing, hey, hey”. He is basically saying he can’t force it to make her satisfied, there is no spark, his heart is not in it. So don’t be silly just enjoy the romp and don’t lay any expectations on me, it’s just sex.
Number four on the track list is “Gypsy Blood”, one of two songs on “Howlin’” Wind” that were, in my opinion, very influenced by Van Morrison. “Gypsy Blood” is a story about a regular guy who sort of crushes on a tinker-type, gypsy girl that comes through town selling dishes and pots and pans to earn money for her clan. The stigma of Gypsies, travelers or tinkers is that they are rip-off artists that do whatever they need to do to earn for themselves and their clan; often this is a shady situation. The character in the song (could have been him) falls for a Gypsy girl and buys everything she has to sell but all he wants is her. They rendezvous in secret to hide their feelings from the hard nose, skeptic adults and all the boy wants is more, from her dark curls to her “red hot gypsy blood keeping me warm tonight”.
The fifth song is called “Between You And Me” and it was the original demo version that was recorded at the Hope and Anchor sessions that was included on the record. It was not recorded at Eden Studios. The band tried to re-record it at Eden but nothing seemed to match the authenticity of the demo recording. I will say it sounds like it was an add-on against the general flow of the record. I like the song but it does not have the punch the rest of the songs on the record have. However, it is not the type of song that needs a punch anyway because it is a somber tune about the reflection of a love that has drifted apart. Memories are the only thing left in this lament “and that is all that is left between you and me”. It is one of Parker’s earliest compositions and you can tell it doesn’t quite fit where he was writing the rest of the album, maturity wise, because it has no inkling of retribution for his broken heart. I could be wrong, and I am wrong often so maybe it’s just as simple as say la vie, what is going to be is gonna be? I have some pictures and some memories, so I will let it lie.
“Back To School Days” – track six – is a gem and it closes out side A of the record. “Back To School Days” is the big fuck you song to anybody who ever messed with Parker. It encompasses all of his adolescent frustration with the perspective that although he is older, he’s still pissed off at the way he was treated and lied to. The song is Parker emboldened by a bit of liquid courage, telling everyone who fits the bell what he’s gonna do. He is older and knows better, but nothing feels better than revenge and he cannot help himself for flying off the handle. It was a pressure cooker that was going to blow up at some point anyway so here it is now assholes coming down the pike straight at you. Dave Edmunds plays guitar on this track because it is a rock-a-billy song with attitude and it falls right into Edmunds wheelhouse. Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds covered this song on the Rockpile record “Seconds Of Pleasure”, released in 1980 with great respect and admiration for the song. Rockpile could have recorded whatever they wanted and they chose “Back To Schooldays” because the song is an instant classic if you are looking to record a rock and roll song that has all the appropriate ingredients: anger, sexual frustration, rejection, spite, humor, honesty and attitude. Just the title of the song, “Going Back To School Days”, implies immature feelings with immature solutions.
Side B of “Howlin’ Wind”, or song number seven if you are keeping track, is a country laden rock and roll song called “Soul Shoes” that might as well have been an outtake from the Rolling Stones masterpiece “Exile On Main Street”. The song starts with a guitar riff that is very Keith Richards, followed by a Ronnie Wood slide guitar accent and the drums crash in and then… “Well I ain’t got no worry, I ain’t in no hurry………………….. You better tell your mother that you’re a real soul brother, hey hey. I have to say it’s all right about five past midnight. And we don’t stop rollin’ until the floor board cave in. Yeah I feel like I’ve been living to die. But when that rhythm play I don’t know how to cry. I got my soul shoes”.
“Lady Doctor” is track eight or the second song of side two if you are on vinyl. This song could very easily be fodder for an old bar joke but it involves sexist attitudes that at the present time are not to be taken lightly. Keep in mind this album was recorded in 1975-76, so time may heal some misconceptions about it. The melody in the song is kind of sleazy blues and lyrically it has creepy confessions about a horny guy who sees a doctor that happens to be a female who “cures the pain for free and there ain’t nothing wrong with me”. Parker implies the lady doctor is indeed not a doctor; without saying it out right I read it as he is seeing a professional girl who dresses like a doctor, a doctor specializing not serious health issues but issues more associated with relieving minor, throbbing release. Or the other thought is she is a legit doctor who will prescribe any drug you want, no matter what it is that may or may or may not be wrong with you. Either way it is a win win for a simple guy.
Song number nine is “You’ve Got To Be Kidding” which I feel is the other very Van Morrison-esque song on the record. It starts on a fade up which leads me to believe it was kind of an impromptu song that had something worth while to have the engineer keep the tape rolling and sort of direct the music on the fly. “Kidding” had definitely been played before, but at the time of recording it still did not have a proper beginning or ending. The song just rolls in, makes a point with a killer vocal scheme and then rolls out with a fade, just as it came in. Make no mistake, this song is a serious heart string puller. It is full of reflection and anger. It bluntly asks questions, only to answer them immediately with the paranoia of preconceived notions. Add on a little passive aggressive attitude and it almost seems like dialogue I have used myself, against myself. It is an interlude to the next song for sure.
“Howlin’ Wind” is track number ten and is also the title song of the album’s name. It is a reggae-infused song with powerful lyrics. It almost makes me feel like Travis Bickle when I hear it.Bickle, if you don’t know, is Robert Deniro’s character in the movie “Taxi Driver”, directed by Martin Scorse. It is a film about a frustrated male coming back from the Vietnam war.The song “Howlin Wind” implies an awakening of sorts, but not by the hands of a bi-polar psycho like Travis, more at the hands of yourself and the world you create around you. “The waterfalls trinkling like bells to my ear. The earth rolls out before me through smiles and tears. A country lost, a soul discovered. The ruin that I once was will soon recover. And I know a howlin’ wind runs through here Blowin’ every day. Yeah a howlin’ wind runs through here Takes my breath away”
Track 11 or songnumber five on side B is called “Not If It Pleases Me”. This song sums up anything your girlfriend, or wife has ever suggested you quitting. Gambling, drinking, pot smoking, cigarette smoking, or just general fuckery; there will be a standoff at some point. Parker states “You Can’t Stop Me Not If It Pleases me”.It is the only bargaining chip you may have to some degree, so it is worth a listen for sure. Lift your legs you weepy cunt. Do you feel balls and a cock? Hold on to them and tell your woman what pleases you. If she doesn’t dig it there is always somebody who else who will or, “If you can’t rock me, someone will”.
“Don’t Ask Me Questions” is the final song on “Howlin’ Wind” This song asks a general question against organized religion. “Hey Lord Don’t Ask Me Questions?”. Why would our lord ask us questions? Maybe he is lazy? Maybe he is full of shit? Maybe he does not answer questions? Maybe we are not to ask questions? My thought is I don’t ask questions but I simply think them. If God is all powerful and knows everything why the fuck does he want me to answer questions? The point of the Lord is to not ask you questions, he just wants to know when your wife’s tits are in full bloom. He knows all that shit anyway. So who cares what the lord wants anyway? He can get it all anyway?