The making of Graham Parker & The Rumour’s Howlin’ Wind
By A.D. Amorosi
One thing Graham Parker appreciates when discussing his earliest work is to not call him or his lyrical output “angry.” It’s a word never uttered by this writer in regard to the now-66-year-old, East London-born Parker’s writing: a cliché forever bandied about by hollow critics who probably haven’t really listened to Parker beyond his often blistering vocal delivery.
“When I’m writing, I don’t write angry or think angry, so I appreciate that you noticed this, and thank you,” says Parker. “Sadly, all critics see or hear is anger. Not me, though. ‘With a little humor, always with a little humor,’” he says, quoting the Dr. Yen Lo character in cinematic Cold War drama The Manchurian Candidate with the evil intonation.
There are many such laughs to be had talking with Parker, guitarist/bandleader Brinsley Schwarz, organist/pianist Bob Andrews and drummer Steve Goulding: most of the team behind Howlin’ Wind, the smart, snarling, roughly soulful and reggae-tinged 1976 debut by Graham Parker & The Rumour. “When you have a good time, you get a good record,” says Andrews, talking about not only the laughs shared with longtime friends in Brinsley Schwarz (the band named after the man, which ended in 1975 only to become the Rumour later that year) but also recording with Nick Lowe, Howlin’ Wind’s producer and one-time Brinsley bassist/singer.
You can’t get to Parker’s grouchy, skanky, literally horny Howlin’ Wind, with its smugly sarcastic lyrics, scuffed-up vocals and scorched-earth soul-garage demeanor, without the Rumour. And the Rumour remains dormant without Parker, a great backing/collaborating band without a front. “I think back, and yeah, it was, and is, a pretty symbiotic relationship,” says Parker. The Cajun-Jamaican flavoring of the Bontemps Roulez rhythm section was the cherry on top.
Post-pub rock and pre-punk (a matter of months in between; mid-1975 to January 1976), Howlin’ Wind closed the door on one relaxed-fit movement and popped the top on the ragged, spiky rage of another, with topics such as lousy schoolmasters, God, social justice and bad romance on the tips of their lips. “Punk rock in England doesn’t really occur without pub rock,” says Schwarz. “If we hadn’t pushed these places to be available for gigs—because there wasn’t anywhere to play save colleges and arenas then—where would punks have built their nests?”
The aggressive rebellion of punk, its untutored musicianship and its anarchistic everything, was never really a draw for Parker and the Rumour, as Howlin’ Wind wasn’t recorded by a bunch of snot-nosed youngsters. “No, no, when punk really hit and those kids were spitting out of so-called appreciation, I wasn’t having that,” says Parker with a laugh. “I didn’t get that far to be spit upon.”
Considering Schwarz and Lowe were in bands since 1966 such as Sounds 4+1, which morphed into Kippington Lodge, the immediate predecessor to the epic Brinsley Schwarz; that Andrews played organ for U.K. soul/pop songstress P.P. Arnold around 1967-68 before joining Kippington Lodge, etc.; and that Goulding and Rumour bassist Andrew Bodnar met in 1970 before becoming Skyrockets, then the reggae/Cajun-inspired Bontemps Roulez before hooking up with Schwarz, Andrews and Rumour guitarist Martin Belmont, this crew of seasoned vets had been around the block.
Maybe they were seasoned but not well-trained. “We definitely always needed to get much better, until we actually did,” says Schwarz, recalling the debacle of a disastrous, over-hyped Manhattan gig at its start and hauling his namesake band into one house where they rehearsed all day out of necessity.
“We studied album sleeves closely, but we weren’t trained musicians at all,” says Goulding of playing with Bodnar in Islington and forming local bands. “We spent most of our time playing along to records and lusting after expensive instruments.”
Still, when it came to 1975, the just-broken-up Brinsleys—as musicians—were well-worn-in with their chops handsomely sharpened, and known for their abilities (and propensity for having a good time) in the pubs of London. Lowe even told GQ in 2011 that manager Dave Robinson “saddled (Parker) with this band that had just broken up and came with all their in-jokes and were fully formed in a way.” That’s Lowe’s dour outlook. (Lowe declined to be interviewed by MAGNET for this story.)
The fully formed vibe Lowe spoke of is what gave Parker’s prickly poignancy a sage authority, its weight, its “soul shoes” glide when set in the company of the then newly anointed Rumour. This team of players’ well-rounded, often sloppy, brutal but buoyant, genre-babbling musicianship gave Parker’s debut—from the stinging groove of “White Honey” to the confessional gospel of “Don’t Ask Me Questions”—might and bite. “Pub rock” as a tag was nothing more (and nothing less) than combine-churning boozy music boiled into one frothy, funky mess—the Band meets the Meters meets the Wailers meets the Famous Flames meets the Faces—made by hungry men no longer at the beginning of their careers. “I didn’t know anything about pub rock, but I did know that these guys had been around,” says Parker of his collaborators.
Parker, however, was also no spring chicken (25!) when he got to the soon-to-be-rechristened Rumour and Dave Robinson, Brinsley Schwarz’s manager. “Morocco, Gibraltar, Channel Islands, the whole of Europe; I’d been all over by the time I was 18, as that’s what you did at 18, because you didn’t need money to live,” says Parker of his restless youth. When he did need cash, he worked while home at his parents’ house in Sussex at the Chichester rubber-glove factory, or breeding mice and guinea pigs. “Between traveling and odd jobs, I had a fantastic time meeting people and harvesting ideas,” he says. “Then I’d fuck off and go to Morocco because that’s where Burroughs and Kerouac went; hippies, too, the whole Marrakesh Express.”
Though Parker had instruments as a kid, he’d never thought much of music. Suddenly, though, buying an old acoustic guitar in Guernsey, totaling up the sum of his experiences in squats and sands, allowing the youthful influences of Eddie Cochran, the Supremes, Van Morrison (“a true poet who happened to be a phenomenal white soul singer”) and the latter-day inspiration of Bob Dylan (“honestly didn’t get into him until Blood On The Tracks”) to take root turned his head around.
“Something came out the other side, and nobody of my generation was doing that particularly, or at least I didn’t hear it: the soul, the rock, the poetry,” says Parker. He confesses a love, too, for “the early singer/songwriter types” such as Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Neil Young. “That’s the only thing that I took from the hippies,” he says with a laugh. “I didn’t like their noodling music, but some of their writers were devastating.”
Parker got the writing fever and, by 1974, songs came pouring out. To him, the melodies were based on old tunes that he loved, that mix of which he speaks. Along with his then-fresh feel for Dylan (“I was upset with myself for not getting him sooner”), Parker was inspired by elements of social justice and class in his U.K. homeland and began developing a lyrical style and subject matter. “I had no interest in politics, per se, but I knew what justice—and injustice—looked like when I saw it, being part of the working class and with England being a classist country,” he says. “It’s still based on class there—if the ruling class could break the working class, they would.”
Parker sought to integrate the poetry of disgust, discrimination and inequity into his first tunes such as “Back To Schooldays,” which wound up on Howlin’ Wind. “Even the love songs, I wanted them to have that taste, but I didn’t know how I was going to do it, really,” he says. “What I came up with was ‘Don’t Ask Me Questions,’ which I think makes love into a social issue.” As for the burgeoning Dylan influence, Parker insists that you can hear him grappling with that on “You’ve Got To Be Kidding,” with its compact chords and emotional output.
Parker wanted to point fingers, but he did not want to preach. “I can’t stand that,” he says. “Preaching is the last thing I wanted to do.” Caustic humor, often subtle, became his guide, a lyrical flip he’s used ever since. “I still don’t think that people get the jokes, but there you go,” he says.
Either way, Parker believed that he was truly on to something in 1974, as at that time (the era of prog rock and post-glam), “there were certainly no new acts doing something original with this,” he says. In this case, something tough, soulful and social.
“That felt good,” he says. “I just had to make the right connections, meet musicians who weren’t hippies. Go to London.”
This is where Brinsley Schwarz, Bontemps Roulez and Dave Robinson come in.
By 1974, Schwarz, Lowe and Andrews had just begun conquering the pubs of London with a mélange less like the country rock of Brinsley Schwarz’s eponymous 1970 debut and its immediate follow-up, Despite It All, and more like the Kippington Lodge of their youth. “Motown, ska, reggae, Beat Invasion bands—it was all one thing with no delineation,” says Schwarz of K-Lodge. By the time Brinsley Schwarz set itself into motion, the Band had become Schwarz and Co.’s deepest influence.
“I had already been in love with groove-jazz organists like Jimmy Smith and Charles Earland, but Garth Hudson and his rich, aggressive attack really turned my head around,” says Andrews of the Band’s often frightening but still funky keyboard tones. Schwarz recalls a Melody Maker story with Robbie Robertson where he revealed the Band’s favorite artists: Lee Dorsey, Clifton Chenier, Professor Longhair. “All New Orleans,” says Schwarz, enthusiastically. “We were overjoyed, Andrews in particular, who eventually moved to New Orleans and became ‘Piano Bob’ there. That’s quite an accomplishment for a boy from Leeds.”
Andrews, who joined Schwarz and Lowe at K-Lodge (“because I could play and sing Blood, Sweat & Tears’ ‘I Can’t Quit Ya’—a big deal for a 19-year-old,” he says), was only enhanced by the New Orleans sway. “There’s a feel, a spirit to that music—even when funereal—that’s gleeful,” he says.
As their regimen intensified and practice became perfection, the Brinsleys began adding the dirty-yet-precise funk of James Brown to their repertoire. “We’d rehearse until we nailed it, until that swing, that backbeat, was right and tight,” says Schwarz. Mix all that in with the Brinsleys’ shambling country thing, and you got pub rock.
“I didn’t listen to pub rock,” says Goulding, who, with bassist Bodnar, began a “rhythm section for hire” gig, putting ads in Melody Maker for whomever came along. “At that point we had more ambition than experience,” says Goulding, recalling jams at Iroko Country Club in Hampstead run by African drummer Ginger Johnson, and a Bodnar/Goulding band—the bluesy Skyrockets—with a slide guitarist and a harmonica player for pub gigs. “Then, pubs still charged in old money, pre-decimal money, which could get confusing after your third pint.”
When Skyrockets splintered, Goulding, Bodnar and keyboardist Tony Downes used their R&B and reggae background—their love of Leon Russell and Burning Spear—and became Bontemps Roulez.
“Me and Andrew had always played reggae—I suppose living in South London, which had a big West Indian population, had something to do with it,” says Goulding. “I always loved the rhythm of it, ska, blue beat, rocksteady, whatever was around.” Goulding credits Charlie Gillett’s show on Radio London for playing a huge variety of American music (“like Lee Dorsey”) that sounded so different from the U.K. stuff that was around in the early 1970s.
Bontemps Roulez needed gigs, so they went to different pubs near the King’s Head, as that was the area where they tried hardest to get booked. “The Hope & Anchor up the street from there was quite a well-known music pub, and Dave Robinson, Fred Rowe and John Eichler seemed to all run it together,” says Goulding. “They’d built a recording studio upstairs and had bands playing in the basement. Dave put the word out among friends on the pub-rock scene that we were OK, so we got gigs in other pubs, too.” Along with gigs, Bodnar and Goulding became the go-to rhythm section of that studio, the Sly & Robbie of the Hope & Anchor. “Because we were cheap and willing,” says Goulding with a laugh. “And we weren’t old and jaded. My dad would drive me up there with my drums is how not old.”
Two of the artists whom Goulding and Bodnar recorded with were shouter Frankie Miller and Declan McManus, a guitarist/singer who had just left his pub band, Flip City. “I remember Dave being very impressed with the quality and quantity of his material,” says Goulding of the soon-to-be-renamed Elvis Costello. The rhythm boxers eventually recorded—with Lowe as producer—Costello’s My Aim Is True together in 1977, but not before they got involved with one old find of Robinson’s and the manager’s newest acquisition.
Dr. Feelgood, Ducks Deluxe (where Rumour guitarist Martin Belmont hailed from) and Brinsley Schwarz—none of those guys was I familiar with,” says Parker. “That is, until Dave (Robinson) brought them to my attention, and by then Brinsley was breaking up. I didn’t know from pub rock or knew anyone who had seen them. All I knew was that these were the good songs that would live forever. When you know it, you know it.” And Parker had his own songs, and he wanted them done right.
Parker, who had just become a managerial client of Robinson’s based on a collection of acoustic demos, was responsive to the Brinsley boys on a more tonsorial level. “I was very encouraged by them because they all had short hair,” says Parker, laughing. “That was exactly my attitude about fashion, as I actually had even shorter hair, sometimes too severe.”
For Parker, the Brinsley hair thing played into Schwarz and Co.’s fashion-ability as far as he was concerned (“Really?” says Schwarz when told of Parker’s praise), as a London band. “That’s good and that’s bad,” says Parker. “They had a London following, which means no one in the provinces knew them. Then again, things took awhile to get to us. I mean, we were just getting Uriah Heep in 1974. My uncle suddenly had long hair. It was terrifying. Ah, to be young.”
Robinson was impressed with Parker’s cleverly worded ire and heard something forceful and melodic in his demos. All they needed was a taut, knowing band to play to Parker’s blend of the aggressive and the chilled (yes, he, too, was a big reggae fan). “They were great but didn’t have focus,” says Parker. “With me, Robinson saw a direction, something that couldn’t be stopped. Which was true. I was revved-up. Now, the Rumour at first, I don’t know that they wanted to play with me; I’m sure they had misgivings. But they were smart enough to know that up until that point, they hadn’t really gotten anywhere.”
“The Brinsleys broke up in 1975, and I went to play with Ducks Deluxe, where I met Martin (Belmont), until they broke up, so I just stopped for a minute and started learning to play saxophone,” says Schwarz, whose studies were interrupted by a call from Robinson to say, “I got this guy.” “Dave so has the gift of gab that he convinces me I’m the only one that can bring out the best in Parker. I call Martin and Bob—remember, Nick had left when the Brinsleys split—and I needed a rhythm section.”
Goulding states that, yes, Bontemps Roulez had splintered at that time but that Bodnar and he had played on Ducks Deluxe singer Sean Tyla’s demos, as well as at gigs with the last incarnation of Ducks Deluxe, “which Brinsley was also a part of, so I suppose we met then,” says the drummer. “The pub-rock bands were all splitting up, the scene was changing, and Dave had the idea of putting me and Andrew together with Bob, Martin and Brinsley to see what happened.”
What happened is that they made the demo above the Hope & Anchor that everyone loved, said, “Why don’t we do this again?” and commenced to play at a pub, Newlands Tavern, owned by Belmont’s friend in Peckham. “Bob and I were suspicious after all that had happened with Robinson in the past, but this sounded amazing,” says Schwarz. “Next thing you know, Dave wanted us to be Parker’s band and record the first album properly with Mercury as the label.”
Goulding continues that Schwarz came up with the Rumour name (“after the Band song, but with an English spelling”) and that after the Newlands Tavern gigs got this bassist and drummer in on the action. “We learned a few of his songs and did covers with him, and he would come on halfway through our set, do five or six songs with us and go away again,” says Goulding. “At first, a lot of the audience went to the bar or bathroom during his bit. But we liked him, his voice and songs went with the style of playing we were slowly developing, and he was a better singer than any of us, so it seemed like a good fit. Pretty soon people stuck around for his bit, so we knew we were on to something.”
Recording at Eden Studios, London, in early 1976, Parker and the band smoked a bunch of pot and drank a lot of beer while recording his debut album. “See, with GP and us, that could be every album,” says Goulding. “It was the first time I’d recorded in a nice studio with a kettle and fridge and biscuits. They even had a TV. Everything sounded a lot more like I’d always imagined it should—like a record.”
For Andrews, the sessions provided his first opportunity to arrange not only a band now armed with an arsenal of guitars (“Having Graham, Martin and Brinsley made for a complicated sound, one that I wanted to keep separate, defined and equal”) but also a six-piece brass-and-reeds section and additional musicians such as Dave Edmunds and slide guitarist Noel Brown. “Nick wasn’t doing it, so I did,” says Andrews of Lowe’s production. “He was great but quick—just there to tidy up a bit.”
“That’s why they call Nick ‘the Basher’—one or two takes, bash ’em up, in and out,” says Parker.
Schwarz even manages a brief impersonation of Lowe at the mixing board during the height of the Howlin’ Wind sessions. “Nick’s production method was to ask the engineer to get the sound, make sure everybody was happy with it, make sure they were comfortable—and play,” he says. “So, in the studio with Nick, he’d yell, ‘Fantastic, amazing, marvelous, maybe one more.’ And that was it. He made you feel good. That was his method.”
Remember, though, here was Lowe—chosen by Robinson—just months away from leaving Brinsley Schwarz (the man and the band) after playing with them since their collective teens now producing them for his behind-the-boards debut. “It was an odd situation because [Parker’s] group was made up of so many people from the group I had just left,” Lowe told GQ in 2011. “It was sort of strange: One minute I was tripping down the road, you know, I’m free! And the next moment, I’m in the studio with these guys again. But Graham was, and is, fantastic.”
“Fantastic” seems to be the buzzword regarding Parker songs such as “Back To Schooldays,” “White Honey” and the title track, a mini-epic in both Parker’s mind and that of his Rumour. “‘Back To Schooldays’ was punchy, very tight and rocking, and I have a soft spot for ‘Gypsy Blood,’ as I always like the slow ones,” says Goulding. “Good singers who write powerful songs are obviously easier to play with, and Graham is one of those. He also had an onstage energy that matched ours very well.”
Parker recalls that “Howlin’ Wind,” dense and unforgiving, truly set the tone for the rest of the album. “Look, I couldn’t imagine any of this in the top-10”—it wasn’t—“but I wanted to be an albums artist, not a pop singer.”
Schwarz, Goulding and Andrews all agree: Going into and coming out of Howlin’ Wind, Heat Treatment (released later in 1976) and the rest of the annual album-then-tour pace they kept until 1981, when Parker dismissed them—and even now, going into recent collaborative albums such as 2015’s Mystery Glue—they all saw Parker as an extraordinary talent. “He had a raw energy that was very attractive and brought out the best in us,” says Schwarz. “Steve and Andrew had not seen what we went through as Brinsley Schwarz. We were on the laidback side. Graham’s words and aggression lit a fire under our ass and still does.”
As for Parker, lighting fires is one thing, but then and especially now, he’s hoping to do something more.
“I’ve always tried to be playful, starting with Howlin’ Wind,” says Parker. “Not dumb, not goofy, but playful. I’m a fan of humor. People have always thought I was pissed off, but really, I was just joking around. They don’t get it or they’re not hearing me. I have always loved to tickle people.”