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Graham ParkerWith his roots in pub rock (an English hybrid of Chuck Berry-styled rock and Stax-derived rhythm & blues), new wave icon Graham Parker was 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 Christmas" (and the rest of Christmas 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, despite a spiffy little groove).

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.

Albums Albums


  • Christmas Is For Mugs
  • New Year's Revolution
  • Soul Christmas (with Nona Hendryx)

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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