British rocker Graham Parker — 1979’s Squeezing Out Sparks should really be in your collection — has come up with the year’s most creative concept album by far: Inspired by his adventures unsuccessfully attempting to write title songs for real television shows, Imaginary Television (on sale today) is comprised of title songs for 10 imaginary TV shows. In place of lyrics, Parker wrote up short summaries of their plots, and then threw in “blurbs” from equally fake but eerily realistic reviews. (The album also includes one Johnny Nash cover, “More Questions Than Answers,” of which Parker writes, “Presumably he has his own TV show treatment to go with it.”) We got the self-confessed “hedonist” on the phone from his upstate New York home for a conversation in which he explains his process, his taste in real television, and which high-powered Hollywood producer he’d love to sell on one of these ideas.Legendary
This is quite the concept album. Can you explain the story behind it?
A publishing company signed me about a year ago, and their whole job is to find placements for artists on shows, to “up the value of the catalog,” as they might say in their parlance. They actually got a couple of my songs on a TV show within pretty short notice. But then one of their reps sent me some kind of email blast from a television music supervisor who needed a main title for a sitcom. And they had a few parameters, which were completely ridiculous. You know, “It’s gotta be like this, it’s gotta be like that, but we don’t want it too much like that. It has to be so catchy that people will be singing it in their car driving in 10 year’s time. The lyrics should be like this, but go with your gut. Hint hint, nudge nudge.” Everything was contradictory. They wanted something totally perfect. But they kept saying, “Go with your gut!” I’m not going to say what the shows were, by the way.
That’s a smart idea, albeit a boring one.
It is pretty boring, yeah. I’m being extremely dull. It’s kind of the first time in my career where I’ve latched on to some sort of a self-preservation technique.
Better late than never?
35 years, finally I’ve figured out, Oh, people don’t like it when you tell the truth and call them idiots. So anyway. Back to the story. I’d never thought of writing for anyone’s specifications before. Not really my bag. But I saw it, and it was like I was in a trance. A lot of songwriting is like being in a trance for me. It’s not something I really want to do. I really want to lay around and watch TV. Or go skiing. I’m pretty lazy. I’m a hedonist. I want everything to be enjoyable. And songwriting isn’t. It’s really hard work. So this came along and it got me sitting with a guitar, and the next thing I knew I’d written a song. Okay, it was only 40 seconds long. But that’s perfect for a lazy bastard like me. So I went into a local studio and cut the song, and played all the instruments besides keyboards, and it turned out to be incredibly catchy. It turned out to be the song, “See Things My Way,” which is on the album — I expanded it. So anyway. I put it on an mp3, sent it to the rep, she said, “This is really good, we like it. We’re not going to use it in the show.” So, I thought, Okay, whatever. A few weeks later, another proposal came through for the same thing, another TV show. The same parameters, like, “We want it to be really good, but not too good.” And it could have lyrics, or not have lyrics, you know. It seemed like probably the same people to me. That’s why I’m keeping my mouth shut. There’s probably only one group of people, and once they find out I called them idiots, I’m f—ed, you know? Or there’s two groups, and I’ll keep them guessing. So. I wrote this other song, called “Always Greener” [which is also on the album]. And I thought it probably wasn’t going to fly, either. They ended up choosing some really lame instrumental, which to me sounded like their budget had been cut. Like, suddenly the network saw the writing on the wall, like, “This show isn’t going to fly, quick, cut the budget on something, okay, music.” And they got a hack to write an instrumental for $1000. I may be wrong, but that’s what it sounded like. Anyway, the end result was two great catchy songs, and what was I going to do with this? Just ignore them? Or actually get off my ass and do something? So the next thing I know, I’m thinking, Why don’t I write plots for TV shows that don’t exist? Boom, there’s the title — Imaginary Television. Within two months I had an album’s worth of songs.
What came first, the plots or the songs?
The plots. I didn’t write a whole show. I came up with snapshot ideas. [You can read the plot ideas behind the songs in the PDF linked here.] I wrote the songs. Boom. Instant, out they came. That happened every time. And the plots are on the album instead of lyrics. It may put a smile on my face, and that’s good enough for me.
Is two months an average amount of time for an album for you?
I’m usually writing bits of songs and getting nowhere, and finally I have a song in front of me, and it’s like a breakthrough moment, and then I will write another song, maybe, if I’m lucky. And then I’ll drag the whole process out for like six months because I’m scared to pick up the guitar and see if I can actually finish the job off. I’ve been doing this for years. And somehow people call me prolific.
What’s interesting to me about the music here is that, despite the fact that a lot of these TV shows seem like rather bleak, post-apocalyptic concepts, these songs are rather cheerful.
Isn’t that funny? Well, I’ve always thought as TV show tunes as being brilliantly catchy. I do not denigrate the art at all. I think some adverts, jingles, are fantastic. I really could do without listening to “Somebody’s Watching Me” on the Geico ad. That is really awful. I don’t need to hear that. Or John Mellencamp’s “This Is My Country.” There are things that I would really rather not hear over and over again. But by the same token, you wake up in the morning singing these things, whether you like them or not. So I don’t denigrate the art. But it’s very strange. My dark side came out in the plots. And my more frivolous, fun side came out in the songs. Although if you listen a little more closely to some of them, there’s a little bit more going on. Like, “Snowgun.” The show is about this guy who is a snowboard freak and that’s all he does and he alienates himself from people. The song is quite dark. It’s really about loneliness. So there’s a few little jags in there. “Head On Straight” is a fun song — it’s about coming out of darkness. They are very bright pop songs. I think it’s good to have some dark lyrics in a bright bright pop song. “Always Greener.” I think there’s a few knives thrown in for good measure.
It’s also interesting that you are not American, but almost all of these shows take place in America. Is television a quintessentially American art form?
There’s one that’s like the BBC shows, “It’s My Party.”
Starring Michael Gambon!
That’s the only one where I picked an actor, cause I thought he’d be perfect. But yeah, the rest are American, because I spend my time here. I grew up in England in the ’50s and ’60s, and I don’t think we had a TV set until I was probably 10 or 11. It was just before the Beatles and the Stones came. We had a television set with one channel, and it showed American stuff. The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gunsmoke. 77 Sunset Strip was one of my great favorites. So that’s what I grew up watching. And then these English shows came out, which were like the Michael Gambon thing here. Really grim, existential one-act plays. Even if they worked, they were not filmed with glamour. Whatever the film stock they were using for American TV, it had this sheen, this glamorous, otherworldly thing. And the English stuff always looked like it was live. All the sitcoms had this really depressing live feel, like you were watching a play. A lot of them were very clever. But America is where the glamour came from for us. Also, the first music I would have heard was on the wireless set, a lot of Danny Kaye, and Doris Day. And American films were in the cinemas. So that was locked into my system. America is TV, and TV is America.
Wow. We are horrible cultural imperialists.
Yeah. I Love Lucy is in my psyche.
What do you watch now?
Most of the time I’m pretty boring. Rachel Maddow. I think she’s brilliant. Liberals bashing conservatives. Sometimes I watch Fox News if I want a real belly laugh. But basically I’m watching Keith Olbermann. And that’s getting to be a bit like a belly laugh, too. It’s like, Oh, Keith, where are we going here? The other news is The Daily Show and Colbert Report. The best news source! For real news, BBC America is fantastic, if a little depressing. Other than that, I watch lots of nature shows, cooking shows. But I did go through a period a couple years ago where I was hooked on My Name Is Earl, Boston Legal, and Desperate Housewives.
Now your aesthetic makes sense.
I think that’s where these plots came from. Especially “Always Greener,” about Muffie Arseure, who lives in Connecticut with a rich investment banker husband, but it’s still not enough for her.
I like that the Somalian pirates won’t even take her.
“Desperate Horseflesh” is what I used to call it.
Are you hoping someone in Hollywood hears these songs, reads these plots, and wants to make the shows? Do you want to be involved?
You know what? I don’t care. Just give me the money. If they say, “Graham, we’ll pay you better if you shut up and keep out of the way,” I’ll say, Whatever. Great. Do what you like. It’ll be like that show Extras, where Ricky Gervais finally gets his show and it’s got nothing to do with what it started out as. But actually, it would be a great deal of fun. And I’m just writing a blurb now which will go on my website, explaining the album in great detail. And in parenthesis at one point I’ve got, “Judd Apatow, call me.” So I’m waiting for the call, baby.
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