“Last Channce To Learn The Twist” (Big Stir Records)

By Eleni P. Austin

“Why didn’t I do good things, why didn’t I detox, why did I wear those sandals with a pair of socks, why didn’t I hold you tighter, why didn’t I love you so, I just didn’t see it coming, on the last stretch of road, you don’t always see it coming, on the last, last stretch of road.”

That’s Graham Parker, pondering mortality on “The Last Stretch of The Road,” a song from his brand-new record, Last Chance To Learn The Twist.

Back in 1976, just as America was celebrating their Bicentennial, the Punk Rock scene was exploding in Great Britain. Influenced by outlier American bands like The Ramones and The New York Dolls, English kids were inspired to form The Sex Pistols, The Damned and later The Clash creating a scabrous and snarling sound powered by spit and safety pins. Three solo artists snuck in under the cover of Punk rebellion, Graham Parker, Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. Each musician took inspiration from the scene’s D.I.Y. ethos, but couldn’t camouflage an innate sense of songcraft that set them apart from their Punk brethren. The British press immediately dubbed them “England’s Angry Young Men”


Sneering songs like “Local Girls,” “Watching The Detectives” and “Is She Really Going Out With Him,” cemented their places in the Punk Rock firmament, but all three followed their muses into more sophisticated musical territory. Decades later they each continue to make relevant and intriguing music. Although Elvis is the most prolific and receives the most media attention and Joe’s far-reaching influence continues to resonate with artists like The Raconteurs, whose 2007 hit, “Steady As She Goes” bore uncanny resemblance to Joe’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” But Graham Parker was actually the first Angry Young Man in this (un)holy triumvirate. Along with his backing band, The Goldtops, he’s released his 24th studio album.

While he is only four years older than Elvis and Joe, Graham had gained a lifetime of musical experience by the time Punk became England’s musical lingua franca. Born in Hackney, East London, his musical aspirations hit just in time for puberty and the British Invasion. By age 18, he picked up the guitar and began writing his own music, heavily influenced by the Psychedelic sounds of the mid ‘60s. He joined a band named Pegasus, but became bored with their rigid adherence to Psych and quit. He decided to return to the drawing board, paring down his style, considerably. By 1975 he connected with guitarist Brinsley Schwarz, keyboardist Bob Andrews, rhythm guitarist Martin Belmont, bassist Andrew Bodnar and drummer Steve Goulding. They began playing around town as Graham Parker & The Rumour.

Securing a record deal with Mercury Records, their debut, Howlin’ Wind, arrived in 1975, followed in quick succession by Heat Treatment and Stick To Me. By 1979, they’d moved to the Arista label, Graham and The Rumour released a bona fide hit album, Squeezing Out Sparks.” It featured a couple of instant classics, “Local Girls” and “Passion Is No Ordinary Word.” The ‘80s proved to be his most successful decade. Records like The Up Escalator, Another Gray Area, The Real McCaw, Steady Nerves, The Mona Lisa’s Sister and Human Soul arrived at a furious clip.

In the ensuing decades, the music continued to flow. After several albums solo or with backing bands like The Figgs, he reunited with The Rumour for Three Chords Good. That album coincided with an appearance in Judd Apatow’s 2012 film, This Is 40. Art imitated life when Graham and The Rumour reunite and perform in the movie. Five years ago he connected with The Goldtops for Cloud Symbols. Now, the four-piece are back for his new album, Last Chance To Learn The Twist.

The album’s opening three tracks deftly hopscotch a plethora of styles. First up is the Noirish slink of “The Music Of The Devil.” Swirly keys, crashing guitars and a thudding beat are supplanted by prickly riff-age, flinty bass lines and a ticklish rhythm. Graham’s scratchy vocals are equal parts conspiratorial and confidential as he offers a sideways homage to the enduring appeal of Rock & Roll. Initially irresistible and forbidden; “Well, they tried to eliminate it, good luck with that, pushed it underground but it just grew back, it just grew stronger with every iteration, the music of the devil was the new sensation.” Guitars strut and sway on break atop ooky-spooky keys and a knockabout beat. Graham has the final word; “When it’s time for my funeral and the playing field is level, send me off with the music of the devil.”

Shifting gears, “Grand Scheme Of Things” finds Graham executing a stylistic 180 and sticking the landing. Splitting the difference between classic Country weeper and a Quiet Storm Soul, the song blends willowy guitars, celestial Hammond B3, fluid bass and a tilt-a-whirl beat. Philosophical lyrics like “Where do we stand in the grand scheme of things, love or murder, or flying on angel’s wings, where do we lean in the grand scheme of things, backwards to the past, or headfirst into the wind” tackle the tough questions. Fluttery Hammond notes take us to church on the break. But the mystery remains.

Then there’s “Sun Valley,” a mid-tempo groover anchored by a stutter-step rhythm, sinewy bass, wheezy keys and honeyed guitars. Introspective lyrics question our need to sometimes self-sabotage or program ourselves for failure; “My time in Sun Valley was as good as it gets, then I brought the rain, it was self-generated, take something simple and complicate it, take something you love and then act like you hate it.” A spiky guitar solo on the break matches the tough-minded arrangement.

Much like his “angry” compadres, Elvis and Joe, Graham has always displayed a mordant sense of humor. That is never more evident than on “Shorthand” and “Wicked Wit.” The former weds slack key-flavored guitars, tender piano notes and loping bass lines to indolent shuffle rhythm. The lyrics, equal parts pithy and verbose yearn for brevity; “I’m learning silence, because I talk too much…I’m learning shorthand because I write too much, I talk a blue streak, but I don’t say too much, I’ve got to shut up, because I’m out of touch with myself.” Ascendant piano notes weave in and out of the shimmery aural tapestry The latter is a blend of jaunty horns, meandering piano, angular guitars, thrumming bass and a tumble-down beat. Lyrically, he unleashes a series of stinging bon mots, when taking a sharp-tongued ex to task; “Once you turned that wicked wit on me, well, I knew it wasn’t funny, once you pulled that hit job, I broke free, it was arsenic, not honey.” The breezy arrangement, melody and his cheerful delivery allow him to slip in a few vitriolic asides and pay a sideways homage to those comedic anarchists, Monty Python; “No one expects it, The Spanish Inquisition, is that your position now?”

The best numbers here find Graham leaning into his sunset years with a grace and gravitas that accompanies the snappy musical dexterity that is his trademark. Take “Lost Track Of Time” which is fueled by snarled and slashing acoustic guitars, tensile bass and a kick-drum beat. The nuanced narrative finds this indefatigable road warrior plying his trade on tour and pining for the comforts of home; “I sat there thinking of you, on a bed made out of stone in a cheap motel, with an office block view and an air conditioner grown/So I walked down to the drinks machine, it’s been empty for years, the ancient smell of cigarettes, no disinfectant can clear.” (See, Shelia E. was right, it is a glamourous life!) Jagged electric licks mirror his irritation with the eternal long-distance disconnect. But even as it all turns to shite, he notes “The only place I can feel anything now is right here in my heart, because the clocks just stopped, and my brain seized up, I miss you like a missing part.”

Then there’s the Honky-Tonk lament “It Mattered To Me,” which offers a rueful post-mortem on a what Neil Diamond used to refer to as love on the rocks. Tentative piano notes connect with twangy guitars, roiling bass and a hop-a-long beat. Broody lyrics attempt to parse the communication breakdown; “The windows were open, our minds were locked up, I said something tasteless and filled up my cup, I shared it with you, as if that were enough, to make something matter, like love mattered to me.” A soulful tenor sax solo uncoils on the break, across filigreed piano and gossamer guitars, just ahead of an epiphany of sorts; “It wasn’t like we had some kind of falling out, maybe we just stopped knowing how to be kind.”

Meanwhile, the aforementioned “Last Stretch Of Road” confronts mortality, tongue planted firmly in cheek. Smoky harmonica notes ride roughshod atop burnished keys, barbed bass lines, a tick-tock beat and guitars that shimmer and sway. Tart lyrics quickly downsize expectations; “Both feet forward, there’s no turning back, no pearly gates before us, that was written by some hack, no angels singing, no heavenly abode, and the choir got the day off, on the last stretch of the road.”

Finally, “We Did Nothing” is suffused in regret. Acoustic and electric guitars lattice pastoral keys, roiling bass and a bongo-riffic beat cocoon another tale of marital ennui. Lyrics like “I knew you were slipping away, by the day, what did I do? I did nothing, the tone of your sky was gunmetal grey, and what did I do? I did nothing, that iceberg of indifference must have meant something, but I wore a coat of steel so it meant nothing” are shot through recrimination and regret. He chalks it all up to “a pandemic of stupidity.”

Other interesting tracks include the Tropically-inclined “Pablo’s Hippos,” then there’s “Cannabis,” a drawling ode to weed, and the Reggae-fied insect repellant of “Them Bugs.” The record closes with “Since You Left Me Baby.” Acoustic guitars and barrelhouse piano are flanked by a lurching horn section, woozy keys, concentric bass lines and a sly, shuffle rhythm. Alone and forsaken, Graham only has his keen sense of humor to keep him company; “I tried to wax poetic, but I couldn’t make it rhyme, the words turn into jelly, they don’t even sound like mine, it’s not that you mistreated me, it’s the other way around, but if I blame you anyway, I’m on solid ground.” The melody, instrumentation and arrangement toggle between gilded Doo-Wop, swoony R&B and a soupcon of New Orleans heft. Duck-walking guitars mix it up with syncopated horns on the break. It’s a pithy, piquant finish to a great record.

While Graham handled lead vocals, acoustic and electric guitars and harmonica, the heavy lifting was left to The Goldtops: Simon Edwards on electric and upright bass plus Moog, Jim Russell on drums and percussion, Geraint Watkins on keys and Graham’s ex-Rumour compadre, Martin Belmont on electric guitar. The band was augmented by The Easy Access Orchestra: James Morton on tenor sax, Andrew Ross on baritone sax and Ralph Lamb on trumpet and trumpet coronet. Backing vocals were provided by Marieta Smith and Paige Stubley.

Much like his commercial breakthrough, Squeezing Out Sparks, or 1988’s The Mona Lisa’s Sister, Graham, with invaluable assistance from The Goldtops, has created another touchstone record with Last Chance To Learn The Twist. There’s something kind of wonderful about that.