Graham Parker – circa 1979
“Every last drop / Will go into this, now / Don’t want to miss, now / I don’t know when to stop / I just pump and pump / ‘Till that’s all there is” – ‘Stick To Me’ (Graham Parker)
The next time you purchase fuel for your motor vehicle, take a look at the person operating the petrol pump. Does that person look like a rock star? Probably not. Yet U.K. rock star Graham Parker could, at an early stage, be found in just such a setting. “I had no career. I was a gas station attendant,” Parker testifies.
Graham Parker is born 18 November 1950 in Hackney, East London, England. He is ‘working class angry.’ “My Dad was a stoker in a hospital for many years,” Parker relates. After keeping the boiler house of the medical facility going, the father of the future rock star becomes a bus driver. Parker’s mother worked as a waitress.
“I had a pretend band when I was 13…but we didn’t learn to play,” Graham Parker admits. The Deepcut Three pose as though they want to be The Beatles, Britain’s big pop sensation of the 1960s, but posing is all they do. They rename themselves The Black Rockers, but still don’t go any farther.
Graham Parker counts off the expected influences of mid-1960s Britons, “The [Rolling] Stones, The Beatles,” but his tastes go a bit further afield. Specifically, he cites, “Motown and Stax and soul music.” These are more commonly associated with African-Americans. Motown and Stax are 1960s record labels whose roster is mostly, if not exclusively, African-American performers. They are home to, respectively, rhythm and blues and soul music, genres identified with black communities. Parker’s influences extend to the fast-paced sound coming out of Jamaica in the Caribbean: “When I was 14 or 15 I was into ska music.” Or, as he puts it on another occasion, “When I was a kid in the mid-‘60s, I was…a prototype skinhead.” Strange as it may sound, given their reputation in some quarters for racism, the early skinheads were also big fans of ska, the music of dark-skinned folks from a distant land. In 1965 Graham Parker forms The Way Out, a mod combo. The mods, like the skinheads, despite being mostly white kids, have a greater appreciation for black music than the average teenager in Britain. With The Way Out, Graham Parker plays youth clubs in the Camberley area of Surrey for a couple of years. He then leaves school, and, for a few years at least, quits music too.
The youthful Graham Parker builds up a colourful resume of short-term employment. Aged 16 he works at the Animal Virus Research Institute in Pirbright, Surrey. He breeds mice and guinea pigs for them. At 18, Parker moves to Guernsey in the Channel Islands. There he picks tomatoes, digs ditches, collects money from pinball machines, and works in a bakery. He also starts taking L.S.D. and playing acoustic guitar, imitating folk music acts like The Incredible String Band. Next is a return to mainland England and a stint in the manufacturing industry at the Chichester Rubber Glove Factory. 1971 finds Parker in Paris, France. Hitch-hiking, Parker travels from France through Spain and on to Morocco. “I went to Morocco, joined a band called Pegasus, ran out of money, went to Gibraltar and worked on the docks [unloading frozen food],” summarises Graham Parker, later in his life. Pegasus is described as a ‘folk / rhythm and blues unit specialising in “space rock”.’ By this time, “I was a hippie really,” Parker acknowledges, making his way along a trail back through Tangiers and Morocco that was blazed by other long-haired youngsters. In 1972 Graham Parker winds up back in England, living with his parents, and pumping petrol for a living.
The music scene in England is changing. “When I started, I was coming out of the end of progressive music,” Graham Parker explains. This arty, indulgent period is now being swept aside. Bands that dress in flowing robes and swan about concert halls under banks of coloured lights and clouds of dry ice are becoming passé. The excitement is now in pubs. Public houses, once the province of darts players in search of a quiet ale, are now the focus of a developing pub music scene. Sweaty back rooms now host bands of youths knocking out an earthier, more energetic, sound. “I got back into my earlier influences,” Parker says. Yet he also has an eye on parallel developments. “Bob Marley had emerged,” he notes. Marley plays reggae, a slower, more political, variation on the ska music Graham Parker was listening to a decade earlier. Still, it is pub rock that offers him a way forward.
One of the key venues in the blossoming pub rock landscape is ‘The Hope and Anchor’. A fellow named Dave Robinson has the bright idea of putting a recording studio right on the premises, the better to capture the passing parade of bands.
In 1974 Graham Parker places an advertisement looking for musicians who share his desire to start a pub rock band. Working on his songwriting, Parker secures a publishing deal with Stuart Johnson. The next step is to make a demo tape of his work. In 1975, Dave Robinson, the proprietor of the Hope and Anchor recording studio, hears Parker’s demo tape and is impressed. In fact, he becomes the manager of Graham Parker. Robinson helps Parker assemble a backing group. In summer 1975 Graham Parker And The Rumour is born. The line-up is: Graham Parker (vocals, occasional guitar), Brinsley Schwarz (guitar, backing vocals), Martin Belmont (guitar), Bob Andrews (keyboards, backing vocals), Andrew Bodnar (bass) and Stephen Goulding (drums, backing vocals). Additionally, the act is often augmented by The Irish Horns (a.k.a. The Rumour Horns): John ‘Irish’ Earle (saxophone), Chris Gower (saxophone), Dick Hanson (trumpet) and Ray Beavis (saxophone).
The Rumour is almost a supergroup with members drawn from other acts in the pub rock boom. Brinsley Schwarz and Bob Andrews both come from a band named after the guitarist, Brinsley Schwarz; Martin Belmont hails from Ducks Deluxe; and Andrew Bodnar and Stephen Goulding were the rhythm section of Bontemps Roulez (which, roughly translated from French, means ‘let the good times roll’). Dave Robinson didn’t have to look very far for at least the first two musicians since he had also been the manager of Brinsley Schwarz (the band). The rest of that outfit was Nick Lowe (vocals, bass) and Billy Rankin (drums), later joined by Ian Gomm (guitar). Brinsley Schwarz recorded seven albums between 1970 and 1974. Ducks Deluxe, guitarist Martin Belmont’s former crew, included Sean Tyla (vocals), Nick Garvey (guitar) and Andy McMasters (keyboards). Ducks Deluxe clocked up two albums, one each in 1974 and 1975. Nick Garvey and Andy McMasters go on to perform as The Motors, an act that has some success around 1978. Next to Brinsley Schwarz and Ducks Deluxe, Andrew Bodnar and Stephen Goulding’s Bontemps Roulez is more obscure.
With support from influential radio disc jockey Charlie Gillett, Dave Robinson obtains a recording contract for Graham Parker And The Rumour late in 1975 with Mercury Records (U.S.) and Vertigo (U.K.)
The music of Graham Parker spans three different genres: pub rock, punk rock, and new wave. What all three have in common is a no-frills, back-to-basics, approach. “I didn’t come out of a punk rock environment,” Parker attests. Indeed, the singer came up through mod, rhythm and blues, folk and ‘space rock’. However, it is pub rock that is the first to really give him a voice. Its more genial atmosphere does not wholly encompass Graham Parker’s artistry though. As pub rock withers in the face of the darker energy of punk rock, Parker’s innate prickliness allows him to transition to this classification as well. Equally, when punk exhausts itself and seems a dead end, the more quirky new wave embraces Parker’s defiantly individualistic stance. Other acts found themselves out of favour at the junctures between pub rock, punk rock, and new wave, but Graham Parker survives them all not by being malleable, but by being complex enough that different aspects of his work can suit the different dominant styles.
Graham Parker hardly looks the part of a rock star. He is described as a ‘runty, underfed character’ or ‘a diminutive, peevish-looking fellow whose shoulders hunch as protectively as a lobster’s carapace.’ Yet there is a fierce power burning through his spindly frame. This is usually identified as anger, and he is rightly bracketed with his peers Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson as an angry young man. Yet, possibly it is not anger, but passion, that is Parker’s motif. The fire that burns within him is not simply a grudge against the rest of the world, but distaste for artificiality and a veneration of emotional truth. He is not a shrinking violet either. “Often musicians are shy. I didn’t want to be one of those,” Parker asserts. “I wanted to grab people.”
As a singer, Graham Parker possesses ‘a raspy croon.’ “I never wanted to sing In an arch English accent,” Parker acknowledges and this is a trait that distinguishes him from many of his peers. He does not really sound American either; just sort of belonging to no specific nation.
Songwriting is more laborious for Graham Parker. This is not so much because he is not good at it; it is more due to an exacting sense of quality control. “I wanted them to be the best songs anybody was ever writing,” the author declares. Consistent with his image, Parker’s main theme is passion (or anger, if that interpretation is preferable), with a side order of smart-mouthed witticism.
Graham Parker’s first album is ‘Howlin’ Wind’ (1976), released in July. The album is produced by Nick Lowe, the former guiding light of the band Brinsley Schwarz. ‘Howlin’ Wind’ is Parker’s most rhythm and blues based album. The Rumour and the Irish Horns impart a breezy swing to proceedings. ‘White Honey’ is a clever, clever drug song about a substance other than the product of a beehive, though you “Get if from a candy man.” Still using a cloak of ambiguity, Parker barks, “You wake up early in the morning / Playing on the clarinet” – and he’s talking about tooting rather than orchestration. ‘Silly Thing’ is accompanied by swaying horns while ‘Soul Shoes’ favours revving guitars. On the title track, ‘Howlin’ Wind’, Bob Andrews conjures up a gale on his organ that blows past Parker and “Takes my breath away.” However, the best track on the album is perhaps the least typical, the hard white reggae of ‘Hey Lord, Don’t Ask Me Questions’, in which Parker ‘trades peeves, both petty and profound, with God Himself.’ “Who waves his mighty hand / And breaks the precious rules?” the vocalist asks. “Well, the same one must understand / Who wasted all these fools.” It’s gritty stuff. ‘Howlin’ Wind’ is warmly received by the music press even if it doesn’t exactly conquer the sales charts.
The second album by Graham Parker And The Rumour follows only a few months later, but the musical landscape changes within that time. Dave Robinson co-founds the independent Stiff Records with Jake Riviera, Elvis Costello’s manager. However Robinson’s client, Graham Parker, is already contracted to Mercury / Vertigo. Additionally, the looming advent of The Sex Pistols heralds the rise of punk rock and pub rock is falling out of favour.
‘Heat Treatment’ (1976) (UK no. 52, US no. 169) in autumn maintains much the same style as Graham Parker’s first album. Nick Lowe is only present for the shrugging beats of ‘Back Door Love’ with the rest of the album being produced by Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange. If anything, Lange puts a sharper edge to Parker’s work. ‘That’s What They All Say’, the aching resignation of ‘Fool’s Gold’ and fidgety semi-Caribbean ‘Something You’re Going Through’ maintain the status quo, but the best tracks push forward a bit. The title song, ‘Heat Treatment’, has a familiar bopping rhythm and blues style, but Parker’s lyrics show an increasingly harsh world view: “Out in the jungle there’s a war goin’ down / End up eatin’ all the friends you found.” In ‘Pourin’ It All Out’ Parker begins to crystallise his fervent personal style: “I don’t mind tellin’ you / What I’m goin’ through / I don’t mind tellin’ you / ‘Cos every word is true.”
The Rumour prove they are more than just a backing band by cutting an album of their own, ‘Max’ (1977).
‘The Pink Parker’ EP (UK no. 24) in 1977 is notable chiefly for a cover version of ‘Hold Back The Night’ (UK no. 24, US no. 58), a song originally recorded by U.S. rhythm and blues act The Trammps in 1976. The song is Graham Parker’s first single to make the charts.
While Dave Robinson’s been busy with Stiff Records, Graham Parker’s been battling Mercury. He feels ‘that the company is not properly promoting or distributing his records.’ This impression is not aided when the tapes for the artist’s third album are found to be defective and the whole thing must quickly be re-recorded. Nick Lowe is brought back to put together ‘Stick To Me’ (1977) (UK no. 19, US no. 125) in October. Perhaps it is the sense of urgency and frustration forced upon this work by the circumstances of its creation that makes this Graham Parker’s best album. The title track, ‘Stick To Me’, is pure liquid desperation with Brinsley Schwartz’s guitar spiralling up into the ozone. As previously demonstrated on ‘Hey Lord, Don’t Ask Me Questions’ and (to some extent) ‘Something You’re Going Through’, Parker has a keen grasp of the mechanics of reggae. For the now ascendant punk rock, reggae is the black music of choice. Parker adapts easily with songs like ‘Problem Child’ and ‘The Heat In Harlem’, the latter being a lengthy (6.57) multi-part examination of racial tension. The dramatic ‘Thunder And Rain’ is also present on this set. However, the pick of the bunch is the frantic rage of ‘New York Shuffle’ (AUS no. 49). This is a tensed up pinball of energy with a guitar solo from Brinsley Schwarz that veers straight towards untameable chaos. Parker babbles, practically foaming at the mouth, “I had a primal scream / I had an electric dream / I had to bang my head against the ground / I’ve got to get out quick / Before I get as sick / As the people livin’ in this town.” If this isn’t punk rock, it’s the next best thing.
The Rumour makes a second album without Mr Parker, ‘Frogs, Sprouts, Clogs And Krauts’ (1978). As may be discerned from the title’s references to, respectively, France, Brussels, Holland and Germany, this is a loosely conceptual work chronicling the group’s impressions of Europe from touring around the continent.
‘The Parkerilla’ (1978) (UK no. 14, US no. 149) is a live double album that serves two purposes. Firstly, it capitalises on the reputation of Graham Parker And The Rumour as a live act. Secondly, it completes their contract with Mercury, much to the artist’s relief. ‘Mutt’ Lange officiates as the producer for this set. A live version of ‘Hey Lord, Don’t Ask Me Questions’ (UK no. 32, AUS no. 24) is issued from this album.
Graham Parker’s first spiteful act on signing with Arista Records is to issue a single called ‘Mercury Poisoning’ where he vents his frustration with his former label. It is a rare item that quickly becomes prized by collectors.
Settling down to business, Jack Nitzsche is employed as producer for ‘Squeezing Out Sparks’ (1979) (UK no. 18, US no. 40). The album takes its title from a reference in ‘You Can’t Be Too Strong’ (“Everybody else is squeezing out a spark”). This acoustic ballad also contains a shout-out to Luna Park, the funfair in St Kilda, Victoria, a legacy of an Australian tour by Graham Parker And The Rumour. The lyrics to this song see it championed by conservatives in the U.S.A. because, “They decided it was an anti-abortion song and of course it’s a much more questioning song than that,” according to Parker. The passage concerned goes, “Did they cut it out with talons of steel / And give you a shot so that you wouldn’t feel / And washed it away / As if it wasn’t real.” This album also holds Graham Parker’s best song, ‘Protection’ (AUS no. 46). Over implacable guitar chords, Parker lets his neuroses hang out: “Every bomb is detonated / Every switch is thrown and everybody tells me don’t be scared / Act as if you never cared.” It’s a jittery symbiosis of steely musicianship and carefully etched observations of modern life. Yet another definitive performance can be found on ‘Passion Is No Ordinary Word’: “An object of desire / You don’t desire to be / I bet that shop window dummies give in just as easily.” In addition there is ‘Waiting For The U.F.O.s’, ‘Discovering Japan’, the rearing guitars of ‘Nobody Hurts You’ (“harder than yourself,” adds the singer), and the battering wake of ‘Saturday Nite Is Dead’. As times change yet again, this stands as Graham Parker’s most new wave album.
A notable one-off single from 1979 is Graham Parker And The Rumour’s cover version of ‘I Want You Back’ (US no. 103, AUS no. 46), originally recorded in 1970 by The Jackson 5 (led by a youthful future ‘King of Pop’, Michael Jackson).
Bob Andrews leaves The Rumour in 1980. The same year, The Rumour cuts another album of their own, ‘Purity Of Essence’ (1980). However Graham Parker’s ‘The Up Escalator’ (1980) (UK no. 11, US no. 40) is The Rumour’s final bow as they split up. Produced by Jimmy Iovine, ‘The Up Escalator’ is ‘considerably slicker than its predecessor.’ ‘Stupefaction’ is in a similar mould to ‘Protection’. ‘Jolie Jolie’ is a tribute to the new love in Graham Parker’s life.
Increasingly, Graham Parker looks to the U.S.A. for a breakthrough. Perhaps it is no coincidence that, as he begins to get a toehold in that land, his stocks in the U.K. plummet.
Jack Douglas co-produces ‘Another Grey Area’ (1982) (UK no. 40, US no. 51) with Graham Parker while David Kershenbaum oversees ‘The Real Macaw’ (1983) (US no. 59). The latter album yields ‘Life Gets Better’ (US no. 94, AUS no. 35), a track that finds Parker in disconcertingly positive and hopeful spirits. Brinsley Schwarz also plays on ‘The Real Macaw’. This is Parker’s last album for Arista.
In 1984 Graham Parker marries his wife, Jolie. They have a daughter, Natalie (born 1985).
‘Steady Nerves’ (1985) (US no. 57) on Elektra Records heralds a new backing group, The Shot. This brings together old confederate Brinsley Schwarz (guitar) with George Small (keyboards) and Mike Braun (drums). They apparently don’t have a regular bassist, but it hardly matters since The Shot appear only on this album. Brinsley Schwarz remains involved with Graham Parker for the rest of the decade. He co-produces with Parker on ‘The Mona Lisa’s Sister’ (1988) (US no. 77), the first of Graham Parker’s albums released by RCA. Andrew Bodnar from The Rumour returns as bassist with this set. He fulfils this role up to the mid-1990s. ‘Get Started (Start A Fire)’ (US no. 85) comes from ‘The Mona Lisa’s Sister’. ‘Live! Alone In America’ (1989) is a solo concert recording that closes out Graham Parker’s 1980s output. ‘Human Soul’ (1990) (US no. 165) is an experiment in worldbeat, music from non-western cultures. ‘Struck By Lightning’ (1991) (US no. 131) is Graham Parker’s last outing for RCA and the last of his recordings to make the sales charts. ‘Burning Questions’ (1992) is issued by Capitol.
From here, Graham Parker drifts towards a cult audience, his music issued by independent labels. Frist there is the EP ‘Graham Parker’s Christmas Cracker’ in 1994. ’12 Haunted Episodes’ (1995) and ‘Acid Bubblegum’ (1996) are followed by an album of outtakes, ‘Loose Monkeys’ (1999).
In the twenty-first century, Graham Parker releases ‘Deepcut To Nowhere’ (2001) with Stephen Goulding on drums; ‘Your Country’ (2004), which includes a duet with country music singer Lucinda Williams; ‘Songs Of No Consequence’ (2005) on which Parker is backed by ‘power-pop quartet’ The Figgs; ‘Don’t Tell Columbus’ (2007); and ‘Imaginary Television’ (2010), inspired by an unsuccessful attempt to write theme music for television programs. The Rumour reconvenes to join Graham Parker on ‘Three Chords Good’ (2012). The Rumour continues to work with Parker on ‘Mystery Glue’ (2015).
Pumping petrol may seem like an unlikely career for a future rock star. Yet, in a way, it was emblematic of Graham Parker’s style. A flammable fuel coursed through the music he made. It was like a combustible and passionate cocktail. His best work was in the 1970s when he tackled pub rock (‘Howlin’ Wind’, ‘Heat Treatment’), punk (‘Stick To Me’) and new wave (‘Squeezing Out Sparks’) without blinking. Defining what went wrong is more difficult. The loss of The Rumour around 1980 is an obvious culprit. Parker’s desire to reach a U.S. audience also seemed to do him no favours. Yet, the U.K. audience can be fickle and his time may have been up in any case, so the U.S. fans, however modest in number, may have sustained him longer than would have been his fate had he not changed focus. It seems cruel to suggest, but Parker’s new role as husband and father from the mid-1980s may have affected his fortunes. So much of his persona and career were built on a snarling resistance to adversity that when he experienced good fortune in his personal life, the resultant contentment and bonhomie wrong-footed his creativity. Whatever the case, Graham Parker’s reputation rests on his recordings from 1976 to 1979. To borrow one of his song titles, that was when he ensured that passion was no ordinary word. Graham Parker was ‘tempestuously articulate’ with songs full of ‘indignant passion, biting sarcasm and bristling anger.’
- songfacts.com – Graham Parker interview conducted by Dan MacIntosh (29 February 2012)
- Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 26 August 2013
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Alternative Scenes: Britain’ by Ken Tucker (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 579, 580, 585
- allmusic.com, ‘Graham Parker’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 7 November 2001
- ‘The Wall Street Journal’ – Graham Parker interview conducted by Richard Turner (15 November 2012) (reproduced on online.wsj.com)
- wikipedia.org as at 26 August 2013, 1 January 2016
- Graham Parker video interview conducted by Martin Vandyke at the Ypsilanti Public Library, Michigan, U.S.A. (2 October 2010)
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 60, 110
- ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 244
- ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 177
- totalmusicgeek.com as at 24 January 2010
- encyclopedia.com – ‘Graham Parker’ by Simon Glickman (as at 7 October 2013)
- discogs.com as at 7 October 2013
Song lyrics copyright Mushroom Music (1976-1978) and Warner Chappell (1979)
Last revised 1 January 2016