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his roots in pub rock (an English hybrid of Chuck Berry-styled rock and Stax-derived
rhythm & blues), new wave icon Graham
always something of an odd-man-out compared to rivals like Bob Geldof, Elvis
Costello, or Joe Jackson. With able support from the Rumour, Parker's best
early records (Howlin'
Wind and Heat
Treatment) sounded like angry soul music
more than bona fide punk rock. Even Parker's acknowledged masterpiece, Squeezing
Out Sparks (1979), prominently features the Rumour's pumping rhythms and
punchy horns, and one of its highlights, the confessional "You Can't Be
Too Strong," would
sound right at home on a middle period Bob Dylan album.
I say all that to make the case that "Soul Christmas," the centerpiece
of Parker's little holiday EP, Christmas
Cracker (1994), makes a lot more sense than the casual listener might think.
Accompanied by guest vocalist Nona Hendryx (LaBelle), Parker constructs a fantasy
wherein Otis Redding, James Brown, Al Green, and host of heavenly soul shouters
show up on December 25th instead of Santa Claus. "The one big question," Parker
reports, is "Where is the Queen of Soul?"
Aretha Franklin never shows up (Parker once wrote a song called "Obsessed
With Aretha"), but everyone seems to have a mighty fine time despite her absence.
The instrumental track behind "Soul
the rest of
Cracker) features an odd, semi-all-star cast including Jimmy Destri (Blondie),
Anton Fig (David Letterman), and Jon and Sally Tiven. They're not
Booker T. & The MG's - they're
not even the Rumour - but they percolate respectably.
Overall, Graham is nearly jovial here, and only a little bit cranky, with
few traces of his usual misanthropy leaking through. That said, the other
two songs on Christmas
Cracker mine a vein more typical of Parker's psyche. "Christmas Is for Mugs"
bemoans the holiday's commercial spectre (albeit in a humorous way), while
"New Year's Revolution" asks that we carry on the Christmas spirit
past the holiday season (with nary a trace of humor).
Bluntly stated, the problem
here is that Graham Parker is well past his prime. Since the 1970's, he's cut some great songs (like "Museum Of Stupidity"
or "Sharpening Axes") and some wonderful records (like Songs
of No Consequence, backed by the Figgs), but nothing
that holds a candle to Squeezing
Out Sparks. Never a commercial powerhouse, Parker has receded farther and
farther into the background, working for independent labels (like Dakota Arts,
which released Christmas
Cracker) and touring the clubs. Which suits him fine. In his own words, "I
don't appeal to the masses, and they don't appeal to me."
Consumer Notes. Christmas
Cracker was in
print for just one or two seasons, but it's not too hard to find - try Amazon or eBay.
The CD edition adds demo versions of all three songs. For his American fans
("who are legion," Graham dryly insists), Parker points out in the liner notes that "mugs" is English
slang for "suckers." I would add that a "Christmas cracker" is a mildly explosive
little party favor common on the other side of the pond.
- Christmas Is For Mugs
- Soul Christmas (with Nona Hendryx)
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