Saturday, May 31, 2008

Life Gets Better For Graham Parker

One of the key figures to emerge from the British pub-rock scene in the 70s was Graham Parker., who with contemporaries Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and Nick Lowe formed a whole new generation of respected singer/songwriters. He quickly gained a reputation for being an angry, outspoken young man, a Bob Dylan for the punk generation. His early work was much edgier, a folk-rock base overladen with snarling vocals and a bubbling rock energy.

Having beaten about the musical traps for the first part of the 70s, by 1975 Graham Parker had caught the attention of Stiff Records co-founder Dave Robinson. After piecing together a backing band, The Rumour, Parker released his debut album ‘Howlin’ Wind’ (1976) through the Mercury label, garnering almost universal critical acclaim. The album was produced by Nick Lowe, who not surprisingly produced Elvis Costello’s early work soon thereafter. Two more albums followed in quick succession but by early 1978 it was apparent that the newer kid on the block Elvis Costello was ascending far more quickly that Parker through the rock ranks, and soon eclipsed him for profile.

Parker felt constricted with his Mercury contract, and released the 1978 double live album ’The Parkerilla’ as a means to satisfy the terms of the contract and gain a release. Lifted from that album (in studio form) was the track ‘Hey Lord, Don’t Ask Me Questions’, which ironically became Graham Parker & The Rumour’s biggest Australian hit (#24) at arguably an overall low point in Parker’s career to date. Parker signed with Arista Records and would soon enter his most successful period. He kicked it off with a radio favourite at the time, a live version of the old Jacksons’ hit ‘I Want You Back’. His first album for Arista was 1979’s ‘Squeezing Out Sparks’ which featured the rough edges smoothed out and yielded the hit single ‘Local Girls’. It was very well received by both critics and fans alike and reignited the career of Graham Parker. The album sold over 200,000 copies and reached the U.K. top 20 and U.S. top 40. A follow up album in 1980, ‘The Up Escalator’, didn’t in fact take Parker to a higher career point, once again things seeming to stall in commercial and critical terms. Parker’s backing group The Rumour soon left the scene, and in 1982 Parker released the ‘radio friendly’ album ‘Another Grey Area’, using his fourth producer in as many outings, this time Jack Douglas (who had produced John Lennon’s ‘Double Fantasy’).

1983’s ‘album ‘The Real Macaw’ also failed to ignite widespread awareness, but did yield my favourite Graham Parker track ‘Life Gets Better’. It was a fantastic pop song that truly put a smile on your dial, and I swear that the song and vocal delivery would have been comfortably at home on an Elvis Costello album, though the lyric lacked the acerbic Costello edge. The song didn’t chart in the U.K. or U.S. but did enjoy a good stay on the Australian charts (20 weeks) peaking at #35. I first nabbed a copy of the song via a compilation album called ‘1983 Summer Breaks’, and eventually tracked down a CD copy a few years back via an Arista Records compilation of Parker’s ‘Best Of’ work with the label. ‘The Real Macaw’ was in fact Parker’s last album with Arista, and in 1985 he released ‘Steady Nerves’ on Elektra Records (which featured the U.S. top 40 single ‘Wake Up Next To You‘). The Elektra deal was a short lived arrangement and it took until 1988 for another Graham Parker album to see the light of day with ‘The Mona Lisa’s Sister’ on RCA. It was a minor comeback of sorts by Parker, spending 19 weeks inside the U.S. top 100. But sadly it was a short lived comeback as follow up sets ’Live! Alone In America’ (1989), ’Human Soul’ (1990) and ’Struck By Lightning’ (1991) failed to strike gold with anyone but his most ardent followers.

Parker then moved back to working with the independent label, having worked with all but one of the major labels to that point. The Razor & Tie label released ‘12 Haunting Episodes’ in 1995. Rejuvenated by his new found freedom from the pressure of big label politics, Parker released a further two albums shortly after including ‘Acid Bubblegum’, a nice little paradoxical reflection of Parker’s music to that point. His work has remained regular and, at least for his loyal fan base, satisfying over the last decade up to and including his last album release with 2007’s ‘Don’t Tell Columbus’.

Whilst Graham Parker may not have notched up the same number of gold records and hit singles as the man who he was so often compared unfavourable to in Elvis Costello, he has produced some fine albums along the way. Most notably ‘Howlin Wind’ and ‘Squeezing Out Sparks’ which was named by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the top rock albums of all time.

No comments: