Graham Parker
Strongest album: Squeezing Out Sparks
Must to avoid: Steady Nerves

Arriving amidst the desultory musical landscape of the 1976, Graham Parker delivered a pair of fiery albums that combined the soulfulness of Van Morrison, the gritty melodrama of Bruce Springsteen, the hard rocking sensibility of the early Stones, and the corrosive wordsmithery of a pre-poetically obscure Dylan. He turned the mellow singer-songwriter genre of the '70s inside out, proving that you could be intelligent, sensitive, and craftsmanlike without sinking in James Taylor/Carly Simon dulldrums, thereby presaging fellow angry young men Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. While he wasn't punk, he shared with the new generation of British three-chorders an outsized sense of anger and betrayal, and channeled that anger into fiercely uncompromised and compellingly intense music. His early albums are like punk for grown-ups, fistshaking refusals to go quietly into that good night, to compromise yourself for the petty vagaries of the world. Rescued from a lifetime of pumping gas at 26, his tough, fiery mainstream rock was probably a bit too edgy and uncompromising for the actual mainstream (remember, this was the late '70s of Journey and "Disco Duck"), and the audience he so clearly deserved eluded Parker. His failure to match his critical success with an equal commercial success made him a very bitter man, and his trademark righteous anger turned into sour cynicism, which left him much less compelling. After his landmark Squeezing Out Sparks, Parker began making frustrating, inconsistent albums that tried the patience of all but his most committed fans, and blew his shot at the stardom he so craved. However, amidst the wreckage were some very fine songs, and every time one is ready to write Parker off as a cranky old has-been, he delivers a tune that shuts you up and forces you to confront him as one of the greatest songwriters of the era. My advice is to go straight for his late-'70s heyday, and approach his hit-or-miss post-Sparks albums with caution and diminished expectations - he's still capable of brilliance, but never for an entire album, or even an entire album side.

Curious should stop by Squeezing Out Sparks. Parker himself contributes with an appropriately cranky monthly column (you expected different?). It's gratifying to have my taste validated - seems that not only did the fans vote Steady Nerves as his worst album, but Parker himself concurs!

Howlin' Wind (1976) ****

A mightily impressive debut, it promises much from a young man who would quickly deliver on all those promises. Oddly enough, Parker sounds much more relaxed and less pissed than he'd ever be again, which isn't to say that he's not pissed off already. He sounds a lot like a catchier Van Morrison, with soulful horns providing a cushy bed for his soulful Cockney rasp - in fact, quite a bit of this music is pretty soft, at least compared to the harder, more intense attack he'd soon adopt for the rest of his career. The album begins with a snappily swinging ode to cocaine, "White Honey", and ends with an eerily plodding reggae number in which Graham stands up to God himself. Parker proves himself a brilliant writer of updated R&B, though ocassionally some of his readymades sound like genre exercises - Stax/Volt ("Lady Doctor"), rockabilly ("Back To Schooldays"). Though it lacks the punch of subsequent releases, I dig the somewhat mellower vibe throughout this release, especially when Parker's ruminations are as cutting as "Between You and Me", a semi-acoustic demo that is the album's highlight. And I just adore the fade-in to "You've Got To Be Kidding", with its la-la-las and one of the album's stronger melodies.

Heat Treatment (1976) *****

Basically a refinement of the debut, the songwriting's a little stronger this time out, and Parker's backing band the Rumour are tighter and punchier, which allows the music to hit a little harder. Sometimes I fancy this my favorite Graham Parker album, and it contains a few of his most haunting songs. It's here where Parker fully develops his balladic style introduced on "Between You and Me" and "Gypsy Blood". "Black Honey" has this windily desolate atmosphere that focuses squarely on Parker's soulful emoting, until it breaks for a tersely melodic solo from Rumour guitarist Brinsley Schwarz. "Turned Up Too Late", later covered by the Pointer Sisters, delivers a cutting romantic rejection. The centerpiece is the majestic "Fool's Gold", in which Parker closes the album by vowing to keep searching for that perfect woman even he knows doesn't exist. The intensity gets turned up a notch or two, but Parker still finds time for lighthearted fare like the irresistable "Backdoor Love", though the sexist "Hotel Chambermaid" is a throwaway misfire. The anthemic "Pouring It All Out" is another classic; throughout the album Parker and the Rumour seethe with fiery passion. If all traditionalist rock had this kind of dramatic intensity, then we would have never needed punk.

Stick To Me (1977) ****

A stumble for Parker; at the time critics saw it as a major disappointment, but it's not - just a stumble. Though it's not as consistently good as his first two albums, a great deal of it remains brilliant. Parker alternately throws away material ("New York Shuffle") and turns around with overblown, underdeveloped mini-dramas ("The Heat In Harlem"), thereby ruining side two, despite two good songs ("Watch The Moon Come Down", a ballad that's a notch down in quality from his previous efforts, and "Thunder and Rain", which isn't). He delivers a few throwaways on side one, too, but they're outweighed by the classic performances - and I kind of like the raveup throwaway "Clear Head". Parker and the Rumour keep notching up the intensity level with each album, and the cinematic title track rocks harder than anything they've done before, as Parker asks you to stand by his side in this tough world. I doubt anyone has ever let loose a cover of "I'm Going To Tear Your Playhouse Down" with such relentless, deadly bile. The Rumour continue to grow tighter and tougher - witness "Soul On Ice"; the problem is inconsistent songwriting. Still, the great material outweighs the filler, and while it's the weakest of his '70s albums, it's still better than any of his '80s or '90s albums, and I wouldn't leave home without it.

The Parkerilla (1978)

This long out of print live double is pure contractual obligation; Parker admitted that he hastily threw together a shoddy rip-off just to deliver his contracted album to Mercury so he could legally jump ship to another record company. Parker delivered the rather pointed single, "Mercury Poisoning", for his debut on Arista, who ironically helped his career only marginally better than Mercury.

Squeezing Out Sparks (1979) *****

Arguably his best album, Parker writes his most lyrically sophisticated and biting songs, and delivers an entire album of almost uniformly brilliant ones. Discarding the soulful inflections of his previous albums (i.e., no horns), the Rumour rock their hardest and toughest for a spiky, stripped down attack. Even on the anti-abortion ballad, "You Can't Be Too Strong", Parker strikes like a switchblade. It's new wave with energy and hooks, but a grittier new wave, not the happy bounce of most new wave bands. It leads with the textbook guitar hooks of "Discovering Japan", the album's best song, which segues into the anthemic "Local Girls" (who you shouldn't bother with). Nearly every song is a classic, as Parker's songwriting hits a peak: "Passion Is No Ordinary Word", "Saturday Night Is Dead", "Love Gets You Twisted", "Nobody Hurts You". He suffers from impotence in "Don't Get Excited", which is part of reason I described Parker's music as punk for grown ups. The only really negative is that the music is a bit too uniform; I miss the variety found on earlier Parker albums. However, when the style Parker engages in is this compelling, I won't quibble. The critics practically drooled over this album, voting it album of the year in a number of places, and Parker seemed set for imminent stardom and a limitless future. The album didn't sell, however, and after this triumph, Parker spinned into a permanent downturn; his subsequent albums would never be half as good as any from his early period.

The Up Escalator (1980) ***1/2

This follows roughly in the same style as Sparks, but with much more inconsistent material. Also, the Rumour seem a tad tired at this point, delivering the music with pro forma energy and intensity that somehow seems a little hollow. Nevertheless, the best of these songs are only a shade lesser than the material on Sparks: "No Holding Back", "Love Without Greed", "Endless Night" (which guests Bruce Springsteen on backing vocals), and "Empty Lives" are all classic Parker anthems. However, his melodicism seems to have diminished, leaving the ballads such as "The Beating Of Another Heart" vastly inferior to previous ones. "Jolie Jolie" and a couple of other tracks are simply tuneless choruses. This album is nowhere near as bad as disappointed critics have accused it of being; about half of it is actually quite good, and nothing is unlistenable, but it's still a major letdown. This was Parker's last album with the Rumour, which was tragic for Parker - they were the British East Street Band, and without one of the greatest backing bands in rock'n'roll history, Parker couldn't deliver the intensity he needed quite the same way ever again.

Another Grey Area (1982) **1/2

Another bland, lifeless album that simply goes through the motions without delivering any songs that hold up to Parker's high standard. After the opener, "Temporary Beauty", one of Parker's greatest ever songs and perhaps his most affecting (and painfully truthful) ballads, you can safely shut this off without missing anything essential. It's not that this album is bad, it's just that none of these songs ever get better than just O.K.; it's rote Parker-by-numbers, with rockers like "Big Fat Zero" delivering nothing more than empty gestures. The balladic material feels much more sincere and works up some credibly compelling interest, with Parker opening up his heart more than usual, but the musical backing renders them mostly listless. By this time Parker had ditched the Rumour entirely for an anonymous crew of studio musicians, and as you'd expect the musical backing doesn't keep up with the songs, thereby sabatoging any good material Parker might have had. With Parker, good musical backing is very important; without it reinforcing his thunder, he sounds hollow and desperate.

The Real Macaw (1983) ***1/2

A minor comeback for Parker; obviously realizing that he just can't replace the Rumour, he largely avoids the angry anthems that fell so flat on the previous album, and concentrates on a mellower approach. Suddenly Parker seems a lot happier than usual, which can be attributed to his finding true love: the album is centered around the loose concept of Parker's commemorating his first year of marriage ("Anniversary"). "You Can't Take Love For Granted" strikes right on target, and the uncharacteristically bouncy and ebullient "Life Gets Better" ("whenever I'm in her arms") are as good as anything Parker's ever done. His melodic sense has gotten right back on track, even if his hookcraft has diminished somewhat. Overall, however, the album's only half successful; some of these songs are fairly dull, and as usual the studio musicians Parker works with aren't up the level of his songwriting. Still, this is probably the best of Parker's post-Sparks albums.

Steady Nerves (1985) **

I just listened to this for the first time in several years, and immediately remembered why I never play this record. His only album on Elektra gained him his only Top 40 hit, "Wake Up Next To Me", a bland romantic ballad. The whole record suffers from mid-'80s smothering overproduction, making it all sound dull and lifeless - compare the tepid chorus of "Break Them Down" to any of his earlier anthems, if you dare. Not a single good song is salvaged out of this mess, making it Parker's least worthwhile effort. At least on his other weak albums he had at least one flash of brilliance, but there aren't any here. This sounds like nothing more than a desperate attempt to cash in with a smoother, more commercial sound. Sheer folly - his little hit just wasn't worth the injustice he does to his reputation. Compounding the error, his lyrics don't seem to be about much of anything - "The Weekend's Too Short" sums up his shallowness. Brinsley Schwarz returns to play guitar with Graham's new band, the Shot, to no avail.

The Mona Lisa's Sister (1988)

Supposedly this one's an upturn from his bland mid-'80s slump. The single was "Get Started, Start A Fire", which I don't care for.

Human Soul (1989) ***

I had a difficult time rating this album. I never play it, because Parker has done several much better albums. However, I realize objectively that this is a fairly good album, with intelligent lyrics, sturdy songcraft, and servicable musical backing. For someone who isn't familiar with Parker, this album will strike as impressive; for someone who's heard his '70s work, it will seem like bland professionalism. I lean to the harsher camp, but to be fair I've assigned it the middle grade on my scale. The lyrics on this album are pretty odd for Parker, and are the most striking thing I pay attention to on the rare occassions I play this. The first half is a straightforward string of songs concerning Parker's settled domesticity as a family man, but then things get weird with "Sugar Gives You Energy", about, well, how sugar gives you energy. Parker then starts in on some story about a middle class black family ("Daddy Is A Postman"), and follows it with a brief ditty about the source of AIDS ("Green Monkeys"). He ends with a geopolitical rant, "Slash and Burn", that's much more topical than Parker has ever been. I'm impressed by his craft, but I'm rarely entertained by it.

Live! Alone In America (1989) **

Parker unplugged - as the title indicates, it's live album, with Parker delivering a selection of his oldies sans backup band. This release only confirms what I've said previously about how a great songwriter needs good musical backing to bring his songs off. Stripped to the bone, Parker reveals himself as a narrow singer with a limited melodic range, and the fact that as a guitarist he's merely competent doesn't help. The handful of new tunes hold up as well as oldies like "Protection", which proves that he hasn't lost his touch: it's not his songwriting muse at fault for his decline, it's the fact that he hasn't presented them properly. Not much stage patter (too bad, because I always look forward to stage patter more than anything else on live albums), but the little that's there tickles on target: "I love America. How would it feel to live in Russia, with all the misinformation? Why, over there, they're so misinformed they think Billy Joel is a rock'n'roll singer."

Struck By Lightning (1991) ***1/2

Hey now, this isn't too bad. One big problem with Parker's '80s albums was the musical backing; he never found a suitable replacement for the Rumour. So, instead of delivering another slickly produced bore, Parker decided to make a stripped-down, semi-acoustic album that puts the focus squarely on his songwriting, which is still quite good. The album gets off on the wrong foot with the tortorous six-minutes of "She Wants So Many Things", but quickly rights itself with the dark "They Murdered The Clown". Parker delivers some of the best songs he's written in quite some time, and his lyrics are exemplary. Side Two's a bit stronger than side one, opening with the album's most fleshed out performance, "Brand New Book", in which Parker makes a spirited case for maturity - he's not going to sing twist and shout anymore, he's grown man for heaven's sake. It ends with the most optimistic song of his career, "The Sun Is Going To Shine Again", an attempt at Sam Cooke style balladry. However, this album contains two major problems. First, the unvarying style becomes monotonous, and nothing in the acoustic demo-like presentation holds much of musical interest. Second, with 15 songs, this album goes on far too long - if he'd edited this down a little bit, he could have triumphed, but as is too many of these songs need to go. Combine those two failings and you've got an album that can be pretty tough to get through in one sitting. In small doses, though, it's acoustic singer-songwriting at its best.

Burning Questions (1992)

Another studio album that I haven't aquired.

12 Haunted Episodes (1995) **1/2

An album much in the style of Struck By Lightning, with all of its weaknesses and few of its strengths. Parker's songwriting muse didn't appear to show up this time, which matched with the lackluster backing music makes for one dull album. The song structures are pretty simplistic, with choruses that grow annoyingly repetitive, beginning with the opening cut, "Partner For Life". Most of these songs do indeed cover domestic satisfaction in mid-life, which might be more relevant to me if I weren't such a youngster. What it doesn't make for is exciting music. And "Pollinate" makes for a weird and decidedly unsexy metaphor about lovemaking. Exception: the Dylanesque "Disney's America", an incisive protest against corporate generization.

Acid Bubblegum (1996)

Parker's most recent album is his first indie release; after years of working on major labels without shifting product, he finally got his gold watch (I don't own a copy, either). At this juncture it's highly doubtful Parker will ever get that break he wants, and will remain the rest of his career the moderately successful cult artist he always has been. For those so inclined, there's a good 2-CD box set, Passion Is No Ordinary Word, that covers the best of Parker and gives a good overview. Due to his ever-changing record label woes, there isn't any single disc compilation that does his entire career justice; however, Look Back In Anger, which covers his Arista years, holds together as a much better album than anything he did on that label save Sparks, as it cherry-picks the brilliant songs from his inconsistent early '80s albums.

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Keep on searching for that fool's gold....