Graham Parker - Biography
By Oliver Hall
Graham Parker is an English singer-songwriter who was compared to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen when his first two albums appeared in 1976. Parker’s early records with the Rumour share an expansive view of rock music with his 1970’s contemporaries. Like the music of The Band, Parker and the Rumour’s early music incorporated the rhythms and instrumentation of diverse styles of American traditional and pop music. The raspy timbre, hard delivery, and slippery melodic sensibility of Parker’s vocals recall Van Morrison’s style. Generally speaking, Parker’s albums have been popular with musicians, critics, and other parties interested in rock music, but have sold modestly by record business standards.
Biographies of Parker disagree on the date of his birth, which was either on the 15th or 18th of November, 1950. According to Rolling Stone, Parker “spent time in a cover band playing in Gibraltar and Morocco in the late ‘60s,” and held jobs pumping gas and breeding lab rats before earning his living through music. Dave Robinson, who later founded the English label Stiff Records, heard Parker’s demos in 1975 and helped him assemble his band, Graham Parker and the Rumour, an all-star who’s-who of the English pub-rock scene. The talented producer and songwriter Nick Lowe produced Graham Parker and the Rumour’s first three albums. Parker’s first two LPs, Howlin’ Wind (1976 Mercury) and Heat Treatment (1976 Mercury), deliver a hard mixture of R&B, rock, and reggae propelled by Parker’s intelligence and anger. The texture of the music, which features a brass section, vocal harmonies, and the organ of Bob Andrews, is much closer to The Band than the Sex Pistols. For all the anger in Parker’s songs, the music he made with the Rumour exists in a constellation of influences that communicate in terms of soul, love, and tenderness, or absence of same.
Parker had a U.K. hit with his 1977 cover of Philadelphia soul/disco group The Trammps’ “Hold Back the Night.” The original sessions for Parker and the Rumour’s third album, Stick to Me (1977 Mercury), were elaborate enough to include an 80-piece string ensemble, but the master tape of these sessions disintegrated during mixing. Parker’s tour commitments and obligation to the record company left him and the Rumour with no choice but to re-record the entire album in a single week with Nick Lowe.
Ever since the release of the mostly live double-album The Parkerilla (1978 Mercury), many reviewers have surmised that it was made for the sole purpose of fulfilling Parker’s contractual obligations to Mercury. This assertion seems to be borne out by Parker’s next release, the one-sided, 12-inch, mercury-colored vinyl single “Mercury Poisoning” (1979 Arista) – a rocking, acid rebuke of his former employers. “Mercury Poisoning” seems to have been Parker’s first release for his new label, Arista, though the company name does not appear anywhere on the polemical single (presumably because Arista’s chiefs wished to avoid internecine conflict).
The gifted composer, arranger, and producer Jack Nitzsche, who had collaborated with Neil Young and the Rolling Stones, produced Squeezing Out Sparks (1979 Arista), a high point in Parker’s career and critics’ favorite. Nitzsche reins in the Rumour, simplifying their playing, and Parker delivers a focused, affecting performance of one of his best sets of songs. The Up Escalator (1980 Arista), produced by Jimmy Iovine, expanded on the sound of Squeezing Out Sparks, but for reasons that are difficult to understand three decades later, The Up Escalator was not well received by rock writers. Andrews, the Rumour’s keyboardist, is absent from this album. In his place, famed English rock session player Nicky Hopkins plays piano, Danny Federici of the E Street Band plays organ, and Peter Wood plays synthesizer. Bruce Springsteen sings on “Endless Night.”
Parker parted company with the Rumour after The Up Escalator. His next album was Another Grey Area (1982 Arista), produced by Jack Douglas, who had engineered The Who’s Who’s Next (1971 Decca/MCA) and John Lennon’s Imagine (1971 Apple/EMI), and produced Aerosmith’s best records of the 1970s. Hopkins returns to play piano in Parker’s band of session musicians on Another Grey Area. Rumour guitarist Brinsley Schwarz returned for The Real Macaw (1983 Arista) and remained with Parker through the ‘80s. Steady Nerves (1985 Elektra), credited to Graham Parker and the Shot, was Parker’s only release on Elektra. Atlantic reportedly signed Parker after he left Elektra, but the contract was not fruitful. Parker’s band on The Mona Lisa’s Sister (1988 RCA) includes Schwarz and Rumour bassist Andrew Bodnar. Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas of Elvis Costello’s Attractions join Schwarz and Bodnar in Parker’s band on Human Soul (1990 RCA). After the largely acoustic Struck by Lightning (1991 RCA), Parker left RCA for Capitol Records. Parker and Capitol did not renew their acquaintance after Burning Questions (1992 Capitol). This period also produced two live albums of solo performances, Live! Alone in America (1989 RCA) and Live Alone! Discovering Japan (1993 Gadfly).
Passion Is No Ordinary Word: The Graham Parker Anthology 1976-1991 (1993 Rhino) was not the first Parker best of collection by any means, but it was the first to encompass his career to date on successive major labels. Parker turned to smaller labels after the Capitol deal ended, recording several albums for the Razor & Tie label: 12 Haunted Episodes (1995 Razor & Tie), Acid Bubblegum (1996 Razor & Tie), and Deepcut to Nowhere (2001 Razor & Tie). Parker’s tour with The Figgs as his backing band is captured on The Last Rock N’ Roll Tour (1997 Razor & Tie).
Parker is the author of the short story collection Carp Fishing on Valium (2000) and the novel The Other Life of Brian: Cultists, Extinct Marsupials, and Cryptozoologists; In Other Words, Your Average Rock Tour (2003). Parker has been recording for Chicago’s excellent Bloodshot label since Your Country (2004 Bloodshot), which includes Parker’s version of Jerry Garcia’s “Sugaree.” Songs of No Consequence (2005 Bloodshot) and Don’t Tell Columbus (2007 Bloodshot) followed.