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Graham Parker - Burning Questions

Where there's a smoking discussion there must be a burning question. And this one is -- how does BQ rate in the GP oeuvre?

On balance as John and Matt {GP mailing list] have observed it's more a sleeper than a knock down, no-holds-barred masterpiece like the first four classics.

The range of talent on the album is impressive. As in SBL Andrew Bodnar (Rumour), Pete Thomas (Attractions) make up the rhythm section. Mick Talbot (Style Council) plays keyboards with PP Arnold, an obscure but renowned (Small Faces, Roger Waters, Joan Armatrading) backing vocalist plus Eddie Manion (who played a Springsteen gig this year) on sax, and a string quartet for Long Stem Rose.

Compared with its nearest neighbour, SBL, there seems less completeness of sound in this one, and less of a sense of fun. Yet there are moments that evoke past glories and future explorations.

Graham's melodic direction on BQ results in fairly traditional song structures. The writing flares occasionally with the bitter and telling Short Memories, Here it Comes and Too Many Knots.

Release Me contains an assured chorus hook and the sax and vocal parts and echoey drums probably is the hardest working track on the album.

Too Many Knots To Untangle is one of GP's better tracks on any album where the bitter and cynical world view is framed in an insistent love song. The ooohs are reminiscent of Big Man On Paper and the great bass runs are musically among his best. There's no doubt GP finds the world stupid and evil -- he needs to share his loneliness with someone who understands him but he doesn't want his partner to be bitter -- he needs the comfort of uncomplicated love.

For Joe Meek read Graham Parker. A legend of a past scene relegated to the rock history books. A footnote in tomorrow's news. It's so common a GP theme you can almost hear the rustle of his worry beads.

In Love is a Burning Question "The only time the world makes sense to us is when we come ...I'll endlessly search for your heart with a carnal switchblade ... I've used you you're bleeding I know but don't be afraid..." I think he's saying that while love is a burning question sex is not the answer. It's just a place (oblivion?) in which hide. This song has a rather overblown sense of grandeur -- it's a tender little ditty about futility and doesn't seem capable of carrying the superstructure of the production it gets.

Despite the confusion in Platinum Blonde (as to what it's really about) this song is one of the better ones on the record. A diatribe about the Swedes or one in particular is a mite shallow as a topic but there are plenty of observations and clever comments thrown in. The country picking seems to hearken back to Howlin Wind and forward to 12HE.

Short Memories is a single if there ever was one. That one probaby still rubs the status quo up the wrong way. Its second verse adds the personal to the rollicking protest anthem. Futility again with the bridge: "Sure there'll be another war."

Here It Comes Again is fast rhythm guitar and scorching lyrics. A standout track. Spector-like wall of sound behind the rhythm guitar.

A short overview of the GP oeuvre

Howlin' Wind was the synthesis of all the great songs a major talent had stored up which only needed the Rumour to add rocking credibility so they could be unleashed on the unsuspecting world. Two albums before Elvis Costello! As he often points out. :-)

Stick To Me was the beginning of a new direction that took punk into account and said you could be relevant and still power pop. Heat Treatment was a little rough and patchy, but still a classic and Squeezing Out Sparks is the most complete recording of his early career.

The dissatisfaction with touring, squabbling, playing and never really making it beyond the 3000 seaters to stadiums meant that the Up Escalator (really very little different from SOS) ended up being rather empty. Another Grey Area seems lacklustre. Real Macaw started a new direction, 80s production pop, which culminated with the chart success of Steady Nerves.

Then came Howlin Wind #2 -- Mona Lisa's Sister. All the pent up songs of a writer who loved great music and was going back to basics. You can't rule out the impact here of Live Alone in America. Strangely derided (by GP himself) as being forced, it screamed "He's back!" Interesting to note that 3 Martini Lunch and You Can't Be Too Strong were the only GP songs written up as chord charts on the On Line Guitar Archive (OLGA) at that time.

Human Soul, a personal favourite, was an attempt to recreate the GP "band" sound, while Struck By Lightning is widely acknowledged to be a classic of singer songwriter integrity, where a writer was speaking to his generation. Hey, no more kid's stuff. The raw bitterness of cynical wit, but calculated and directed, without a wasted word.

Struck By Lightning was too good an album to chart. It was a whole, and demanded many listenings. It had no throwaway commercial sounding singles. The closest he got was the Kid With The Butterfly net, which, being about a 10 year old from the point of view of a parent was hardly likely to appeal to the teeny bopper record buyer.

So Burning Questions was, like the Up Escalator, another golden GP era in transition. It carried the seeds of the next phase... 12 Haunted Episodes, more personal, less commercial, is the most unified and internally consistent of GP's later career.

Lack of success for 12HE probably created some of the "classic" angry-young-(middle-aged)-man flavours of Acid Bubblegum, which despite its title has some quiet and thoughful moments. Other live solo and and accompanied tours (Japan, Episodes, Figgs) rounded out this phase.

July 1998 updated 5/5/02

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