Graham Parker, 2012
“You can’t show [Graham Parker] in his prime in ‘77 and then jump straight to him as he is now. It’s terrifying. You have to reverse it. You have got to show him as he is now, very briefly, and then show him in 1977. You have got to ‘Benjamin Button’ it.”
-Ronnie (Chris O’Dowd), This Is 40
Graham Parker, 1977
One of the hints that there may well be a Higher Power in the universe is that Graham Parker and The Rumour (Bob Andrews on keyboards, Martin Belmont on guitar, Steve Goulding on drums, Andrew Bodnar on bass, and Brinsley Schwarz – yes, that Brinsley Schwarz – on guitar) reunited in 2011 after 30 years apart. Another hint is that Graham and The Rumour were also asked to appear in Judd Apatow’s This Is 40 the following year.
Graham Parker is one of the most unfairly overlooked singer-songwriters of the past thirty or so years. He has released a solid catalog of consistently wonderful albums since his debut with Howlin’ Wind in 1975 up to his most recent release with the reformed Rumour, Three Chords Good. His sound has been described as blue-eyed soul, pub rock (does anyone still say “pub rock”?), and now it’s classic rock.
Unlike many of his peers who, let’s face it, sound like a bottle of Old Granddad and a carton of Marlboro Reds away from esophageal cancer, Graham Parker’s voice just gets better every year. At the very least, he deserves a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (which he would turn down), unlimited wealth, 72 virgins, a paradisaical garden, flowing wine… everything. Right now.
Parker has been compared to songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Bragg, as well as performers like Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. These comparisons are somewhat misleading, not to mention irritating as hell. His debut album was released the year before Elvis Costello’s My Aim is True, so how can he be accused of ripping that off? This was a topic once hotly debated in a crowded ladies’ room at a bar in the Oregon District in Dayton, Ohio, due to the fact that one of the women had a tattoo of the first measure of Elvis Costello’s album Imperial Bedroom. At one point someone was heard to yell, “If anyone’s songs deserve a tattoo, it’s Graham fucking Parker!” (I wasn’t even drunk.)
The Graham Parker album most people are probably familiar with is Squeezing Out Sparks, his 1979 release with The Rumour still as his backing band and his best-selling album (so far). Sparks, released in a milieu of punk, synth-pop, and New Wave, ranks #335 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (Parker’s only Top 40 US single (so far) was “Wake Up (Next to You)” in 1985).
Parker’s dark humor and wit are extremely sharp, which strikes some listeners as bitter or snide. One of his compilation albums is appropriately called Piss and Vinegar. Graham Parker’s wordplay is delightful, and admittedly his subject matter is quirky, but closer to Robyn Hitchcock’s quirkiness than, say, Voltaire’s. He has written songs about breastfeeding (“Milk Train”), murdered clowns (“They Murdered the Clown”), atheism (“The End of Faith”), corruption of religion (“Syphilis and Religion,” “Break Them Down”), shitty record labels (“Mercury Poisoning”), alcoholism (“Three Martini Lunch”), abortion (“You Can’t Be Too Strong,” “Coathangers”), the origin of AIDS (“Green Monkeys”), the irrelevance of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (“Museum Piece”, “Obsessed with Aretha”), aging (“Did Everybody Just Get Old?”), blue-collar America (“Cheap Chipped Black Nails,” “Impenetrable”), UFO’s (“Waiting for the UFO’s”), Internet porn (“Search Engine”), and one of the very first protest songs soon after the the war began in Iraq (“2000 Funerals”).
He’s also got a fine cache of heartbreakingly honest, self-deprecating love songs (“I’m Just Your Man,” “Village Idiot,” “Partner for Life,” “Mr. Tender”).
Unfortunately the high quality of his Graham Parker’s work hasn’t resulted in corresponding high sales. “There are all these kind of incredible artists who keep making records but they’re not Rhianna at the point,” director Judd Apatow said in late 2012. “But they just do amazing work and they go their own way. A guy like Graham, he doesn’t care about everyone’s opinion or taste, he’s speaking from his heart and making his music.”
The reunion of The Rumour was a surprising gift. After all, people have been nagging Parker about the possibility of working with all of them again, since Brinsley Schwarz and Andrew Bodnar have both played on some of his albums. The reunion was not as earth-shattering an event as it should have been, but Parker’s cameo appearance in This Is 40 as a silly caricature of an aging gout-stricken rocker in ludicrous old man clothes was hilarious.
Of course, Graham was born in 1950. He doesn’t really remember D-Day.
Above, Graham Parker and The Rumour on the BBC’s Sights & Sounds In Concert program in 1978.