Born on November 18, 1950, in Deepcut, near London, England; married Jolie, c. 1984; children: Natalie. Addresses: Record company--Bloodshot Records, Ltd., 3039 W. Irving Park Rd., Chicago, IL 60618, website: http://www.bloodshotrecords.com. Website--Graham Parker Offical Website: http://www.grahamparker.net.
In the mid-1970s British rocker Graham Parker teamed up with a feisty bar band called The Rumour, joining an intense, immediate "pub rock" movement that blossomed into the punk rebellion. Parker recorded several albums with The Rumour, gaining considerable critical attention, then broke with the band and made solo records and toured through the next three decades. Though he has never achieved large-scale pop success, Parker has proved that persistence goes a long way; as many critics have remarked, he has managed to chart his maturity while remaining a vital pop artist---no mean feat.
Parker's music grew from an amalgam of diverse influences: soul, reggae, the rootsy early records of the Rolling Stones, and the folk-rock poetry of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, among others. Yet, as Musician's Geoffrey Himes wrote, "Parker doesn't so much sound like anybody as he sounds like everybody. All his influences are subordinated to the emotional directness of his songs. Thus they sound totally original and quite new. For all his traditionalism, he is often considered the founding father of England's new wave." Tom Lanham of CD Review described the young Parker's musical emergence: "With his backup band, The Rumour, this frail, diminutive guy with the big, brash barracuda of a voice combined mod Phil Spector-ish pop chops with the urban footstomp vernacular of classic American soul and the lyrical viewpoint of a poor but streetwise white kid whose garage could no longer hold him."
Parker was born to a working class family in Deepcut, some 30 miles outside London, in 1950. By age 17 he had encountered both the exhilaration of soul and reggae and the torpor and inequality of working life; both would fuel the songwriter's unique mixture of rage and hope. He worked in a laboratory breeding animals for scientific research, he told Himes, and although he had aspirations in the field of zoology, his lack of higher education restricted his movement in that field. "The only way I could be educated was by going out into the world and finding out what made it tick and educating myself. So that's what I did." During this period Parker also became a self-described "mod," listening to "soul music and bluebeat and ska, though it was underground. It just struck a chord in me."
Parker took up the guitar, began writing songs, and formed a couple of short-lived groups with names like the Black Rockers and the Deep Cut Three. He made little headway in the music world, though, and was forced to take a series of menial jobs. But in the mid-1970s a demo tape of his songs impressed a fairly well-connected studio owner named Dave Robinson, and soon Robinson hooked the young Parker up with a new group called The Rumour. The band was comprised of musicians from such well-regarded rock outfits as Brinsley Schwarz, Ducks Deluxe, and Bontemps Roulez. It seemed a perfect match: Parker's take-no-prisoners vocals and The Rumour's driving guitars and crackling rhythm section. In an essay on the British "New Wave" in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, Ken Tucker called the interaction between the singer and his band "inspired."
The group landed a deal with Mercury Records and released their debut LP, Howlin' Wind, in 1976. Produced by Nick Lowe, it included the song "Don't Ask Me Questions," in which Parker engages in a shouting match with God. Rolling Stone labeled the song a "masterpiece." Parker and The Rumour followed up immediately with Heat Treatment. Like its predecessor, the album made a huge impression on critics despite poor sales. The song "Pourin' It All Out" was characterized by Musician's Roy Trakin as "Parker at his peak, with pure energy fueling emotional catharsis." Village Voice contributor Kit Rachlis ventured, "Parker sees rock and roll as a way out; out of being a gas station attendant, for one thing; and rock tradition as a way of establishing order in a culture that's lost much of its meaning." And in 1979, rock critic and author Greil Marcus declared in Rolling Stone, "Graham Parker's first two albums remain among the very finest of the decade."
Unfortunately, Parker's luck with his record company was inversely proportional to his success with critics. He and The Rumour had completed a third album, Stick to Me, with producer Mutt Lange, but a flaw in the master tapes forced them to re-record the entire LP with Nick Lowe in just a fraction of the time. The rushed recording process yielded a somewhat inferior-sounding product, and reviewers were less than enthusiastic about the 1977 release. By this time the singer's long-simmering impatience with Mercury's seeming inability to promote his work had reached a boiling point. In 1978 he and The Rumour released a double-live album, The Parkerilla, to get out of his contract with the label. Critics complained about the sound quality and felt somewhat betrayed by Parker: They had crowned him the Next Big Thing, and he hadn't come through. Marcus dismissed The Parkerilla as "a waste of time."
Parker described his anger at Mercury on a single in 1978 called "Mercury Poisoning," for his new label, Arista. In it the singer hissed, "I'm the best-kept secret in the West." Parker then proceeded to record what many consider his most enduring album with The Rumour, 1979's Squeezing Out Sparks. Producer Jack Nitzsche persuaded the band to play more economically, thus emphasizing the guitar-driven intensity of Parker's compositions. The album included "Discovering Japan," a bittersweet love song, as well as the edgy, political rock-reggae tune "Protection." Jon Pareles, writing in the Village Voice, proclaimed Squeezing Out Sparks to be "Parker's toughest, most decisive album," and the Voice called it the year's best LP.
Parker's 1980 release The Up Escalator featured more tough rockers, including "Endless Night," which boasted backing vocals by Parker fan and rock superstar Bruce Springsteen. Escalator marked the end of Parker's collaboration with The Rumour. The band had already cut a few albums without him, and he felt that he would be better off on his own.
Parker's first album as a solo artist was 1982's Another Grey Area, produced by Jack Douglas. Pareles reviewed the album, this time in Rolling Stone, and felt that "[Parker] clearly feels at home." The year 1983 saw the release of The Real Macaw, produced by David Kershenbaum. Rolling Stone admired the "propulsive, brilliantly sung LP," detecting "some of the British singer's best work since Squeezing Out Sparks." Still, Parker could not score a hit. Frustrated, he again changed labels, landing at Elektra. With a band called The Shot that included Rumour guitarist Brinsley Schwarz and keyboardist George Small, he recorded the album Steady Nerves. Released in 1985, the disc garnered strong reviews. Musician dubbed it "a brawny, satisfyingly diverse collection that puts the singer back on an even keel." The album featured the song "(Wake Up) Next to You," the closest Parker had come to a hit single. But the label's promotional expenses, which included nearly $100,000 for a video, were excessively lavish, and when the single received only modest rotation, Parker ended up in debt. He broke with Elektra and signed with Atlantic Records.
In the three years that passed before his next LP, Parker married his longtime sweetheart, whom he'd serenaded in The Up Escalator's "Jolie Jolie." The two had a baby daughter, Natalie, prompting some critics to worry that domestic life would blunt the edge of Parker's music. The first indication that these fears were unfounded came when Parker ditched Atlantic before even producing an album; he managed to get a small advance from RCA and recorded a spare, intimate work with Schwartz and the rhythm section with whom he'd recently toured.
This time out Parker produced the next project himself, telling Musician, "My idea was to make the record sound more like my demos." A meager recording budget of $60,000 helped him obtain the desired sound, resulting in 1988's The Mona Lisa's Sister. Anthony De Curtis of Rolling Stone declared it to be Parker's "most compelling record in nearly a decade." The album included the bitter "Success," as well as a worthy remake of the Sam Cooke classic "Cupid." Parker's 1989 Live! Alone in America, which documented his solo tour, however, left critics cold despite the inclusion of several new songs. Human Soul, released the same year, got better reviews but saw poor sales.
Parker again impressed critics with 1991's Struck by Lightning. Reflecting on domestic life in songs like "Children and Dogs" and "The Kid With the Butterfly Net," Parker addressed adulthood in hitherto unimaginable pop forms. The record launched "the long-delayed second act in Parker's public life," said Musician's Bill Flanagan. The album's opening track, "She Wants So Many Things," is a bitter diatribe against the United States' materialism and exploitation of third-world countries. The anger of this song is balanced by the intimate gentleness of the love song "Wrapping Paper." Featuring sparse instrumental backup from former Loving Spoonful front man John Sebastian, former Style Council member Mick Talbot, and former Attractions member Pete Thomas, Struck by Lightning marked a new maturity and direction in Parker's body of work.
In yet another round of label roulette, RCA dropped Parker not long after the album's release. Undaunted, he signed with Capitol Records and in 1992 released the stripped-down Burning Questions, playing the lead guitar parts himself. Once again the singer collected glowing reviews like so many trophies. In a strange review, a Musician reviewer declared that the release suffered from an abundance of strong material: "[The album] needs the change of pace a few throwaway tunes would provide." Parker found himself unwanted by MTV, which more or less told Capitol not to bother sending a Parker video along for consideration. The songwriter told the Detroit Free Press that he considered the cable channel's absolute judgment of commercial appeal to be "a kind of musical fascism."
Fans were dismayed when Capitol, too, decided to part ways with Parker. He next resurfaced on the independent Razor & Tie label in 1995. The label had previously reissued The Up Escalator in 1991, as well as Another Grey Area and The Real Macaw. "I didn't even talk to any majors, because I wrote a bunch of songs and wanted them out by spring," Parker told Billboard magazine writer Jim Bressman. His debut album of original material for the label, 12 Haunted Episodes, has remained among Parker's stated favorites, according to his website. Picking up where he left off with his RCA and Capitol releases, Parker composed songs with musical accompaniments that are more subdued in a folk-jazz way. "The main thing was I tuned my guitar to open G," he told Bressman. "I'd been reading a guitarist magazine about Bert Jansch and John Renbourn---one of those folky guys---and it mentioned open G tuning, and without thinking, I put capos all over the neck and whenever I hit a chord I wrote a song." The album was recorded in 11 days at Nevessa Production near Parker's adopted hometown in Woodstock, New York. Rolling Stone lauded the effort: "Autumnal in mood, gracious and honest, this is music of a clean, unsentimental maturity."
Lest anyone think that he had mellowed to the point of no return, however, Parker unleashed Acid Bubblegum in 1996. Here Parker makes acerbic observations on the state of pop music, censorship, and culture in general, prompting People magazine critic Craig Tomashoff to note: "Parker's last few albums have found him in a mellower mood, but Acid Bubblegum is as powerful and timely as any of the 45-year-old rocker's early releases." Parker's subsequent tour to support the album was captured on the live album The Last Rock 'n' Roll Tour, which featured support from the Figgs. In addition to songs from various stages of his career, the album included Parker's cover versions of Chuck Berry's "Around and Around" and Prince's "Cream."
For the remainder of the decade Parker issued live recordings and focused on family life and writing short fiction that was collected in Carp Fishing on Valium, which was published in 2000. In 2001 he released Deepcut to Nowhere, an album featuring songs about imperialism, arrogant world leaders, and youth culture. He then published a novel, The Other Life of Brian: Cultists, Extinct Marsupials, and Cryptozoologists; In Other Words, Your Average Rock Tour, in 2003. Both fictional works feature Brian Porker, a rock star who has been relegated to cult status, which has him performing in Sweden, Tasmania, and Greenland. In 2004 Parker switched labels once again to produce the country-tinged Your Country. Released on Chicago's Bloodshot Records, the album features a duet with alternative country icon Lucinda Williams, as well as a reworking of Jerry Garcia's Grateful Dead staple "Sugaree." "The country influence has always been there," Parker wrote in the album's liner notes. "Over the years, the Stones have showed me that country music is just the blues anyway."
Perseverance in the face of obstacles has been a hallmark of Parker's remarkable career. He has moved from label to label, seeing virtually no large-scale success, but has retained his singular vision. Parker has continued to evolve as an artist, releasing albums of quality that are being heralded as a return to the form of his earlier releases of the 1970s.
by Simon Glickman and Bruce Walker
Graham Parker's Career
Worked variously as tomato picker, laboratory assistant, and gas station attendant, 1968-75; teamed with band The Rumour; signed with Mercury Records, 1975; released debut LP Howlin Wind, 1976; signed with Arista Records and released Squeezing Out Sparks, 1978; launched solo career, 1980; signed with Elektra, 1984; Atlantic, 1986; RCA, 1987; and Capitol, 1991; published a short-story collection in 2000 and a novel in 2003; released Your Country, Bloodshot Records, 2004.
- Selected discography
- Howlin' Wind Mercury, 1976; reissued with bonus tracks, Polydor, 2001.
- Heat Treatment Mercury, 1976.
- The Pink Parker (EP), Mercury, 1977.
- Stick to Me Mercury, 1977.
- The Parkerilla Mercury, 1978.
- "Mercury Poisoning," Arista, 1978.
- Squeezing Out Sparks Arista, 1979; reissued with bonus tracks, Polydor, 2001.
- The Up Escalator Arista, 1980; reissued, Razor & Tie, 1992.
- Another Grey Area Arista, 1982; reissued, Razor & Tie.
- The Real Macaw Arista, 1983; reissued, Razor & Tie.
- Steady Nerves Elektra, 1985.
- The Mona Lisa's Sister RCA, 1988.
- Live! Alone in America RCA, 1989.
- Human Soul RCA, 1989.
- Struck by Lightning RCA, 1991.
- Burning Questions Capitol, 1992.
- Best of Graham Parker: 1988-1991 RCA, 1992.
- Passion Is No Ordinary Word: The Graham Parker Anthology Rhino, 1993.
- Live Alone! Discovering Japan Gadfly, 1993.
- Old Grey Whistle Test Alex, 1995.
- 12 Haunted Episodes Razor & Tie, 1992.
- Live on the Test Griffin Music, 1995.
- Live from New York, NY Razor & Tie, 1996.
- Acid Bubblegum Razor & Tie, 1996.
- The Last Rock 'n' Roll Tour Razor & Tie, 1997.
- BBC Live in Concert Strange Fruit, 1997.
- Deepcut to Nowhere Razor & Tie, 2001.
- King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents Graham Parker Silverline, 2002.
- Blue Highway Pilot, 2003.
- Your Country Bloodshot, 2004.
- Miller, Jim, editor, Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1980.
- Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, St. Martin's, 1989.
- Billboard, January 28, 1995.
- CD Review, September 1992.
- Detroit Free Press, October 9, 1992.
- Entertainment Weekly, August 14, 1992.
- Musician, July/August 1979; June 1982; October 1983; May 1985; July 1985; July 1988; May 1989; December 1989; August 1990; March 1991; September 1992; December 1992.
- New York Daily News, August 29, 2001.
- People, September 21, 1992; October 7, 1996.
- Rolling Stone, June 15, 1978; May 17, 1979; July 24, 1980; April 1, 1982; September 15, 1983; June 6, 1985; August 27, 1987; May 19, 1988; June 30, 1988; March 23, 1989; July 13, 1989; February 8, 1990; March 7, 1991; September 17, 1992.
- Village Voice, October 31, 1977; April 2, 1979; May 17, 1982; May 28, 1985; June 14, 1988; December 5, 1989.
- "Graham Parker," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (March 20, 2004).
- RollingStone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com/reviews/cd/printer_friendly.asp?aid=47336 (March 21, 2004).
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Capitol Records publicity materials, 1992.