If John Parkes is a new name to you, then there is a chance to get to know him pretty thoroughly by visiting his website. As well as various musings, rants and barbs aimed at some deserving targets, there is a tab headed “Long Biog,” which is an unsurprisingly honest and accurate summary of what you’ll get by clicking on it. It’s not an aunts and uncles, cats and dogs life story, but rather a musical journey that offers an amusing and resonant account of growing up listening to music, wanting to make your own and achieving that goal.
Even if you can’t tick off every chapter in your ‘Observer’s Book Of Musical Milestones,’ there’s still every chance that much of it will be a familiar tale and just the fact that you are reading this suggests so. You are after all a music fan and will have grown up with your parent’s odds and sods record collection. You may well have had an older sibling whose choices you either adopted or fought against – in my case it was a friend’s older sister and her friends who proved influential. Then there was the radio, TOTP or perhaps even the curiously named late night whisperings of The Old Grey Whistle Test. There may even have been an instrument, a guitar or piano and lessons towards some end, or long abandoned. But whatever the details, there will certainly have been a series of minor and major epiphanies.
If you are old enough you’ll remember your first encounters with rock ‘n’ roll, the blues boom and Merseybeat; the hit machine of Motor City; maybe the folk revival or the summer of love; the moment Jimmy Page first turned it up to 11; Bolan and Bowie or the bards of Laurel Canyon; perhaps even the pomp and beard stroking ponderings of prog.
For John, however, there are two things that really shifted the tectonic plates beneath his feet, namely hearing The Beatles and the punk rock, or more accurately new wave revolution of the late 70s. It’s hard to overstate the seismographic blips that Liverpool’s most famous foursome has left in so many peoples timelines. But then the shock waves that spiralled out of the sweltering summer of 76 also caused the needles to rip through the upper limits of the Richter Scale, prompting a complete rethink of many people’s hairstyle, trouser flappage and general dress sense (if that’s the right word), with the emergence of the seven inch single as a badge of honour.
As far as making music goes, however, John’s own efforts didn’t turn from frustrating to fruitful until he eventually came of age and flew the coop. Leaving the backwaters of Lincolnshire behind, he settled for the lure and comparative cosmo and metropolitan delights of Leeds, having first rejected Manchester. It was there, while moving in the same circles as various Wedding Present alumni that his musical career began to take shape.
He may never have quite made it to mega stardom, but the biog does contain one proud boast. Every band that John was in featured on John Peel. Obviously this run was eventually finished by the untimely death of the beloved king of the night-time airwaves, but still I don’t know how many more can claim a similar hit rate. True enough, Peel was both rapacious and patient enough to trawl the weekly mailbag of demos, cassettes and vinyl offerings to uncover the new and interesting, if sometimes wayward output of myriad, musical youths. He also stuck to his guns, following the twisting careers of some to the absolute exclusion of others.
If you want to follow all of John’s twists and turns, then you’ll need to read the biog in full, but the upshot that concerns us here is Bleeding Edge/Distant Past, which if I’m not much mistaken is the third CD long player released under his own name. When I slipped it from its case with no prior knowledge and little expectation it proved something of a revelation. John will perhaps forgive me for being slow to catch on, because having done so, I had no hesitation in pushing this to the front of the queue for an Album Of The Month recommendation.
There are two further points in John’s long biog that warrant a highlight. The first is a discussion with the Wedding Present’s Keith Gregory about the way that John’s various bands hadn’t always taken John’s songwriting to the pinnacle it deserved. The subsequent discovery of a box of demos rejected down the years, not always for the best of reasons, but all played on acoustic guitar, spurred John into a new creative flow. Then there is the reference to his 13th birthday and getting Rubber Soul and Revolver on the same day. You can sense how both classic Beatles albums have become engrained in his thinking, but it’s perhaps the lighter textures of the former that echo most through Bleeding Edge / Distant Past.
It’s produced by Neil Ferguson of Chumbawamba fame, an outfit who whilst courting controversy and wearing political hearts on sleeves, knew more than a thing or three about crafting a cracking tune. Perhaps that’s the key to making this a fairly straightforward task, as John also proves to be a man with a gift for melody needing little embellishment, save the odd keyboard fill and occasional drum track. Sometimes simple is best and Bleeding Edge / Distant past is simply charming at first, yet with more plays totally addictive.
One production technique that is allowed is the building of harmonies through layering John’s voice and Brand New Day opens in exactly that way. The charm comes from the simple sentiments of the love expressed at the end of a day, with the promise of tomorrow, whilst the tune lodges, nagging for a repeat airing at the earliest opportunity.
Determining which might be older or newer songs is difficult and probably pointless, but some have the edge of autobiography like Don’t Be Seventeen, or more obviously Lincolnshire and the slyly humorous My Hit Song. But whether they are directly personal or more poetic flights like Roses / Bees and A Strange Affair, John’s wordplay is never less than imaginative and captivating. Cold mixes a clever take on the frustrations of the gigging musician’s late nights solo vigil, with something almost redolent of the elegiac mystery of Eleanor Rigby, something not quite tangible or measurable, just a wisp that melts into memory’s haze, or as John sings it, “To walk in the park until the mist soaks up the dawn.”
It’s that latter plus What To Do (One True Love) and One Who Got Away, that currently jump out as favourites, but in truth that picture is changing with each play, while the CD remains firmly lodged in the draw of the player.
I can imagine the thirteen year old John Parks sleeping with his copies of Rubber Soul and Revolver under his pillow to absorb their wonders into his own dreams. You know what? For once, it worked and on the cusp of the Bleeding Edge / Distant Past it transpires is a very good place to be.
Review by: Simon Holland
Bleeding Edge / Distant Past is released on 4 Nov 2013 via AAZ Records