For a few months shy of four years between 1976 and 1980 there were few better live rock and roll bands than Graham Parker & The Rumour. And for almost two hours as they stand together again on the stage of The Ancienne Belgique for the first time in thirty-five years tonight I’m almost tempted to say that the same is true again.
In the words of one of the better songs from their 2012 reunion record ‘Three Chords Good’: ‘It’s been a long long emotional ride’. A story of one of rock music’s rare true individualists as well as some of its most dogged survivors. The circumstances of the reunion are fittingly bizarre and involve a Hollywood Romcom and the return to duty of Rumours working in a public library and building guitars for Brian May. But they have been well documented elsewhere. Not least in the splendid ‘Don’t Ask Me Questions’ rockumentary.
For their return to European shores the AB is configured tonight as an all seated concert hall and the bars remain closed for the duration of the performance. The first decision is most probably to better disguise the disappointingly small number of the audience. The second perhaps in deference to the unreliability of our ageing bladders. Both decisions are a disappointment.
Yes, The Rumour play rock and roll music. But, being from that brief moment when both were one and the same thing, they play dance music too. And you can’t listen to dance music sitting down. Any more than you can’t not smoke in a jazz club. Or not fart in a toilet.
Formed from the ashes of the London pub rock scene, the midwife of punk, their rhythm section came from Chilli Willi And The Red Hot Peppers. And if you’ve never heard ‘Bongos Over Balham’ you really should. While Brindsley Schwartz contributed their eponymous guitar hero and keyboard player and arranger Bob Andrews. A man later to succeed in producing the Las largely it is said by his refusal to allow them access to any drugs whilst recording. The icing on the rock cake and the line up’s striking visual counterpoint to the diminutive Parker being the beanpole form of Martin Belmont of Dux Deluxe who would later go on to work with both Elvis Costello and, less predictably perhaps, The Strawbs.
In the summer of 1976 punk was brewing but not yet quite ready to bottle. And recruiting a band of accomplished musicians was not as counter intuitive as it would very soon become. Parker’s brand of class conscious vitriol too was a fatal few months ahead of its time. Informed less by the nihilism of the dole queue and more by his dead end blue collar jobs as a docker, a fruit picker and a gas station attendant and by his travels on the hippie trail in Spain and Morocco.
The Rumour were his East St. Band and he was their Bruce Springsteen. Indeed The Boss himself later described the Graham Parker & The Rumour debut album: ‘Howling Wind’ as the record that first made him realise that he needed to raise his own game as a writer and as a singer. ‘Heat Treatment’ followed ‘Howling Wind’ within months to rave reviews and sold out shows on both sides of The Atlantic. But neither spawned a hit and both sold only modestly.
These first two records form maybe a third of the show. We start with a run of ‘Heat Treatment’ itself , ‘Hotel Chambermaid’ and ‘White Honey’. Their titles alone reminders that there was never much in the way of political correctness to be found in Parker’s writing; he must surely to be the only artist, or at least the only male artist, to record an anti-abortion song: the uncomfortably beautiful ‘You Can’t Be Too Strong’ which we get tonight as an encore performed with Bob Andrews haunting electric piano accompaniment.
Shorn of the brass that swung the originals they remind you too of how breathtakingly original and yet wonderfully familiar their poppy Motown and Stax meets Reggae meets Rock were and remain.
And of how well their template served Parker’s neighbour and contemporary, Paul Weller, who filled this same room to capacity last night. Or The Police who would fill stadia by making hit after hit out of a diluted, if more radio friendly version, of the same.
Surprisingly though it’s the material from the second two records that really shines tonight: ‘Stick To Me’, ‘Watch The Moon Go Down’, ‘Discovering Japan’ and ‘Nobody Hurts You’ still smack you about the ears with the same intensely belligerent passion that they first did all those years ago.
Of the songs from ‘Three Chords Good’: Snake Oil Capital Of The World’ ( “You want your money back, good luck with that, Jack”) and ‘Coat Hangers’ come pretty close. While ‘The Moon Was Low’, the closest to a love song that we get this evening, teeters perilously close to what his one time producer Nick Lowe once memorably described as ‘Shepherds Bush Country And Western’. There are a couple of new and unreleased songs thrown in too. ‘Flying Into London’ in which the old exile returns to the city after thirty years only to find the experience like ‘landing on the moon’ is a treat.
And listening to its barbed laceration of everyday life in England’s capital in the twenty-first century you do have to concede that the man certainly has a point.
But then again he always did.