The world of a rock ’n’ roll fan can be a strange and confusing place. Idols you assumed were immortal pass away, quit, or sell out. Songs you once held sacred and figured only a handful of other people even knew about end up being used on TV to hawk everything from cars to cruises, soap to Swiffers. And sometimes, if you happen to be a music journalist, it gets even stranger. You play the hell out of someone’s records in your bedroom—really loud, of course—to piss off your parents when you’re a teenager and, almost 30 years later, you’re sitting across a table from the person who made those records, sharing fragments of an oatmeal raisin cookie. Strange, but sweet.
Graham Parker was tossed in with the English punk and new wave eruption, but in truth his career predates it. His fiery first two albums, Howlin’ Wind and Heat Treatment (both released in 1976)—cited by Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus as being “among the very finest of the decade”—actually preceded and influenced the debuts of his fellow enfant terrible troubadours, Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. Today, however, at 56, the gregarious father of two would no longer seem to be the quintessential angry young man of yore. He cracks jokes, shares eye-rolling war stories about being stuck opening for Journey and Lynyrd Skynyrd in the Midwest back in the day, talks about planning his current touring schedule around the soccer season (both he and his 11-year-old son play in local leagues). But his recent music tells a very different story.
On Parker’s latest album, the magnificent Don’t Tell Columbus (Bloodshot Records), tracks like the celebrity gossip-baiting “England’s Latest Clown” and the biting, darkly comical Bush-slam “Stick to the Plan” boil with as much merciless bile as any of the vitriolic tunes on his classic early LPs. And, this being the Noughties, Parker has also begun to pour out his trademark bitter spleen online, offering download-only tracks via his website, such as the now doubly and sadly outdated Iraq War commentary “2,000 Funerals” (released just last year) and the forthcoming “The End of Faith,” which was inspired by the religion-questioning writings of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. Rest assured, Parker still sounds pissed.
“Oh, there’s always something to get mad about,” says the wiry, perpetually sunglassed singer, who maintains that to him getting angry is “like falling off a log. The other [nonangry] stuff is the hard stuff to write.”
Gray, rainy London in the early 1970s was an easy place in which to be angry. The deep-seeded British caste system left a young person with very few career options. Before he turned professional, Parker worked at a glove factory, a bakery, a gas station, and even as a mouse and guinea pig breeder at the Institute for Animal Health (“The very place they just traced the recent foot and mouth disease epidemic to!” Parker says). And, on top of that, the prevailing music pretty much sucked.
“I had been a mod, into soul music, and then I went through the whole psychedelic thing,” recalls Parker, who grew up in the suburban village of Deepcut. “But by ’73, ’74, it was all this terrible prog rock—Rick Wakeman and all of that crap. I was listening to The Band, the Stones, and Van Morrison instead, and I’d also rediscovered the Tamla/Motown stuff, which sounded a lot fresher than Yes. I was living with my parents, writing hundreds of songs.”
After sharpening his chops in a couple of cover bands, by 1975 Parker was shopping demos of his own tunes to labels. Future Stiff Records founder Dave Robinson got him a deal with Mercury and helped him put together The Rumour, a crack backing band comprised of musicians cherry-picked from various groups of the UK pub rock scene, the back-to-basics R&B-fueled movement that directly prefaced punk. “People write that I was part of the pub rock thing, but that’s not really true,” Parker says. “Pub rock was done by the time The Rumour started. It was more a case of ‘guilt by association,’ since [Rumour guitarists] Martin Belmont and Brinsley Schwarz and [keyboardist] Bob Andrews came out of that.”
With The Rumour, the rasp-voiced Parker worked up a brand of tough, lean rock ’n’ roll that combined his beloved soul/R&B, Van Morrison, and Rolling Stones influences with the accusatory edge of Bob Dylan (“Actually, early Dylan wasn’t that big of an influence—I didn’t really get into him until right around then, with [1974’s] Blood on the Tracks.”). After the Nick Lowe-produced Howlin’ Wind and Heat Treatment, Parker cut two more albums for Mercury before jumping to Arista. There, he made his flawless masterpiece, 1979’s Squeezing Out Sparks, which sold over 200,000 copies, is repeatedly acknowledged as one of rock’s finest albums, and contains his signature hit, “Local Girls.” The follow-up, 1980’s The Up Escalator, featured a guest appearance by fan Bruce Springsteen (who famously said Parker was the only artist he would pay to see), but it didn’t sell nearly as well. After two more shots with the Rumourless Another Grey Area (1982) and The Real Macaw (1983), Parker was dropped from Arista.