One of the angry young men of 1970s rock, the criminally underrated Graham Parker officially became an OAP last year. A wonderfully insightful songwriter and visceral live performer in his younger days, Parker should be, in that overused term, a national treasure. Sadly bad luck, bad timing and a reluctance by the great British public to embrace his immense talent conspired against him.
As Parker himself lamented in his 1979 single Mercury Poisoning - a scathing attack on his record company and their failure to advance his career - he was the best kept secret in the west. London born Parker first came to the fore in the mid 70s after fate decreed that he should meet up with the Rumour, a band whose members included alumni from pub rock stalwarts, Brinsley Schwarz and Ducks Deluxe.
As the E Street Band was to Bruce Springsteen, and Crazy Horse to Neil Young, so the Rumour was to Parker. Parker’s reference points were Springsteen, Dylan and Van Morrison, with healthy dollops of Motown and Stax thrown in for good measure. His biting lyrics were delivered in a raw, urgent, passionate manner that presaged punk. Parker, a wiry, runty little guy in tee shirt and trainers, topped off with his trademark omnipresent dark shades, offered the perfect antidote to the vapid corporate rock that bedevilled the music scene around the time.
But, after paving the way for punk, Parker found himself marginalised as similar artists like Elvis Costello usurped him in the critics’ hearts. Parker’s momentum stalled when the master tapes for his third album 1977’s Stick to Me were damaged and it had to be re-recorded hurriedly with disastrous production results. He was still writing great songs however, and 1979 saw his finest album Squeezing out Sparks, but not enough people cared.
Parker was then paired with one big producer after another and jumped ship from label to label in an attempt to break him big time. It didn’t happen - the one thing Parker truly lacked was a big hit single, although he came close with Hold Back the Night and the first of his many signature songs- the anthemic Hey Lord, Don’t Ask Me Questions.
In 1980, GP and the Rumour split. Parker licked his wounds, but never once flinched on his integrity. After thirty years working on a variety of projects, 2012 came news of a reunion with the Rumour for gigs and a new album Three Chords Good. The resulting album was better than even the most die-hard Parker fans could have hoped for and was followed in 2015 with Mystery Glue which was every bit as good.
Live, both GP and the Rumour showed that the old adage “form is temporary, class is forever” still holds true. Both albums contained numerous reminders of his old caustic self, but this was a mellower, more reflective Parker, no longer searching for fools’ gold. He has released 22 studio albums and myriad live ones, but
here's my list of the ten best from rock’s most unlikely pensioner...
10. The Parkerilla (1978). This live album received mixed reviews on its release and gained a reputation as a hastily put together contractual obligation kiss-off to Parker’s record label. But the great NME scribe Charles Shaar Murray lauded it, which is good enough for me, and it’s still the best place to hear the live show-stopper Hey Lord, Don’t Ask Me Questions. The album works as a summation of Parker’s first three albums, and is a perfect snapshot of GP and the Rumour’s incendiary live act of the time, horn section and all. It marks the end of Parker’s first great era, with the monumental Squeezing Out Sparks just around the corner.
9. Mystery Glue (2015). If this is to be the swan-song of the GP and the Rumour reunion, then it’s a nice valedictory present, and it was recorded in just six days. Parker ages gracefully, and pays tribute to Dylan on the opening Transit of Venus which is pure Desolation Row.
8. Live! Alone in America (1989). Stripped down Parker - just a man, a guitar, and a bunch of great songs, as Parker, once more ahead of the game, anticipates MTV Unplugged.
7. Three Chords Good (2013). A triumphant return for GP and the Rumour after a gap of 34 years. Parker’s social commentary is spot on with great songs like Snake Oil Capital of the World and The Last Bookstore in Town, and in Long Emotional Ride, Parker confronts his past with searing honesty.
6. Don’t Tell Columbus (2007) Late period Parker and a timely reminder of his song writing prowess and all round musicianship. Parker the story teller steps up to the plate on Suspension Bridge, The Other Side of the Reservoir, and the title track. President Bush gets the full acerbic Parker treatment on Stick To The Plan, and the sarcasm cuts deep on England’s Latest Clown. But the greatest pleasure is probably Parker the musician as he takes centre stage on many of the instruments.
5. The Mona Lisa’s Sister (1988) A comeback of sorts for Parker after his 70s highs and subsequent label problems. What we have here is an older, wiser, more reflective Parker growing into his music. On Don’t Let it Break You Down, Parker exorcises his career demons in three and a half minutes, but the album ends on an upbeat note with a great cover of Sam Cooke’s Cupid. Number 97 in Rolling Stone’s best albums of the 80s list.
4. Stick to Me (1977) Much maligned on its release, Stick to Me’s worth has been reassessed and contains a handful of Parker’s greatest songs with absolutely no filler. To experience Parker perform the title song live in ’77 was an event in itself. Other key tracks: Thunder and Rain, Watch the Moon Come Down, and a great cover of I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down. Even the overblown The Heat in Harlem has merit, and is a great showcase for the Rumour’s horn section.
3. Howlin’ Wind (1976). The classic debut. GP and the Rumour arrived fully formed with a bunch of addictive sing-along Parker songs such as Silly Thing, Soul Shoes, White Honey, Back to Schooldays, Between You and Me, and the title track that just swings.
2. Heat Treatment (1976) Parker trumped even Howlin’ Wind with one of the best albums of the 70s. His Dylan influences were never more apparent than on That’s What They All Say, and the whole album is essential. Key tracks include Heat Treatment, Turned Up Too Late, his most mature song at that point - the glorious Fools’ Gold- and the quintessential Parker angst ridden lament, Pourin’ It All Out.
1. Squeezing Out Sparks (1979). Parker’s greatest album by a distance and that’s saying something. Where to start? The first side (in old money) may well be the finest track sequencing on any Parker album. The classic opening track Discovering Japan features the Rumour at their best with some great guitar work and a driving beat, all complimented by Parker’s driven, edgy vocal. The infectious and irresistible Local Girls should have given Parker that elusive big hit single, and then Parker puts himself and the listener through the emotional wringer with a trio of his most heart-felt and greatest songs in Nobody Hurts You, the abortion-themed You Can’t Be Too Strong, and the self explanatory Passion Is No Ordinary Word. Parker tones the emotional intensity down slightly on the other five songs (side two in old money) on the album, and when he claims that ‘Saturday nite is dead’ on the track of the same name, who can argue? There’s still room for one more great song, Love Gets You Twisted; a typical Parker observation of love’s follies.
The album made it to 335 on Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums list, but there’s some among us think it should have been much higher….