Tiggerlion on These Dreams Will Never Sleep: Best Of 1976-2015
Graham Parker has enjoyed a forty year career that can be broadly divided into five parts: establishing his reputation in the seventies, earning a shilling in America during the eighties, domesticity in the nineties, creative resurgence of the noughties and The Rumour reunion in the teenies.
I first encountered him supporting Thin Lizzy on their Jailbreak tour in 1976. He cut a scrawny figure in The Stadium’s lights, wearing T-shirt, suit, trainers and his trademark shades. Even then, he sang with passion, the effort straining his sinews and beading his large forehead with sweat. I thought I could see his brain pulsing. He sang with the same commitment as Otis Redding or early seventies Van Morrison. The band played tight soulful rock. The horn section rocked soul. I’d seen Dr. Feelgood the year before and felt Graham Parker and The Rumour were just as good.
During that year, he released two albums, Howlin’ Wind and Heat Treatment. His manager was Dave Robinson, who later founded Stiff Records. Robinson gathered together the finest pub rock musicians he knew, including Brinsley Schwarz, to form The Rumour. Nick Lowe produced the debut and ‘Mutt’ Lange the second. Both albums spill over with quality songwriting, snappy choruses, acid wit and pithy performances. Don’t Ask Me Questions and That’s What They All Say have a real snarl to them. Yet, the blue-collar, angry young man sobriquet isn’t entirely justified as most of the material focuses on personal relationships. Between You And Me and Turned Up Too Late, for example, possess a genuine delicacy of touch. The band prove themselves more than pub rock, being deft enough to convince in R&B and reggae. Both albums established his reputation, skimmed the charts and had the critics swooning. Signed to a big label (Vertigo in the UK, Mercury in the US) and selling out concerts wherever he went, Graham Parker was set fair for a glittering career.
He turned his gaze on America, adjusted his writing style and hired an eighty piece string orchestra for the third album, Stick To Me. Right at the end of recording, during mixing, they spotted that the master tapes had been contaminated and were unusable. With another tour coming up, the whole thing had to be re-recorded in a matter of days. At the time, Nick Lowe’s production was slammed, particularly by the American critics. Today, its roughness is part of the charm. Then, Elvis Costello came onto the scene, The Rumour’s rhythm section providing the reggae lilt to his break through, Watching The Detectives. This angry young man was even more acerbically verbose and had a bigger forehead. It wasn’t long before Parker tired of the comparisons.
Parker’s ambitions were thwarted. He felt his label was selling him short in America, feelings expressed in his bitter single, Mercury Rising. The Parkerilla is a classic contract obligation live album, his heart clearly not fully engaged, but, in a live setting, unable to stop himself, he and The Rumour delivered. The Parkerilla is actually a good summary of the first three albums, if you ignore the disco version of Hey Lord, Don’t Ask Me Questions filling the whole of side four. It also is the best Parker sleeve, on which a striking, shadeless Parker is transforming into a gorilla.
A change of label and the installation of Jack Nitzsche to the producer’s chair, resulted in Squeezing Out Sparks, a punchy, direct, lean album. Nitzsche decided the horns were not required, so they spent their spare time working on The Clash’s London Calling. In their absence, Parker upped his writing game. Every song is a glittering jewel but Passion Is No Ordinary Word is exceptional. You Can’t Be Too Strong is a favourite of right wing politicians. As is so often the case, they obviously haven’t actually listened to the song. Squeezing Out Sparks went top twenty in the UK and top forty in the US. It is a masterclass of R&B inflected rock.
However, Parker did not fit comfortably in the UK new wave scene and in 1980, he turned away from England and The Rumour. He embarked on a series of albums recorded in America with substantial resources, not least of which were expensive session musicians, such as Nicky Hopkins. Returns diminished from a peak with 1980’s The Up Escalator, featuring some E Streeters and, even, Bruce on backing vocals, through Another Grey Area and The Real Macaw to Steady Nerves, an album riddled with eighties production values. Parker changed record labels and producers as often as his socks. His contract with Atlantic, for example, yielded no releases whatsoever. Listeners and journalists in the UK quickly lost interest. The problem wasn’t the strength or sense of purpose in the songs, it was the pursuit of the latest Phil Collins drum sound. The fact is that Graham Parker does not suit a glossy production.
Come 1988, Parker was reunited with a couple of Rumours, adding a couple Attractions and producing himself. If you are American, you may well think The Mona Lisa’s Sister is his best album and you will have a point. It certainly compares favourably with the UK favourite, Heat Treatment. Both sides of the Atlantic will agree on Squeezing Out Sparks. Human Soul was almost as good but Live! Alone In America, released in 1989, consisting of just Parker, his guitar and a microphone is revelatory, reminding us all of how spellbinding he is live and how great a singer-songwriter he really is. It pre-dated unplugged.
By the nineties, Parker was married with a daughter. He released fewer albums. Those he did were gentle and more acoustic, largely love songs focussing on domestic life. When he did get angry, he sounded more regretful than bitter. Struck By Lightening and 12 Haunted Episodes are intimate and warm. Acid Bubblegum in 1996, was an attempt to sharpen his axe with a garage rock band but he couldn’t quite capture the fire in his belly. Throughout the nineties, indeed his whole career, his main income has been from gigs. He toured solidly, performing his intelligently crafted songs with various bands, Bob Andrews on piano or just solo with his guitar.
A refreshed, mellowed, more adventurous Parker was ready for an increase in studio time during the noughties. Deepcut To Nowhere hints at dark days, presumably in his relationship. He spent 2003 having fun with Kate Pierson of The B-52s covering Lennon & McCartney songs. When you hear Your Country, you wonder why it took him so long to find a pedal steel. Lucinda Williams guests on one song. Songs Of No Consequence with The Figgs is Parker back to being snarky but with added humour, particularly on the subject of human frailty. Don’t Tell Columbus is tender and honest. Then, there are two concept albums: Carp Fishing On Valium, a collection of demos of songs based on short stories, while Imaginary Television is an LP of theme tunes for non-existent TV programmes, outlined in detail on the sleeve. It is an album of fun but with deep personal undercurrents, as though Parker is telling us the story of his life through the medium of television and song. It’s a career highlight.
In 2011, Graham Parker was no longer an angry young man. He was a grizzled old curmudgeon with a sentimental streak, much like the average Afterworder. He’d worked with each member of The Rumour regularly over the years. He had a collection of new songs. He called in the rhythm section. They suggested an invitation to Bob Andrews to play piano again and it was a short step to include Schwarz. This was a reunion based on new material, enough for two really good albums, Three Chords Good and Mystery Glue. It wasn’t long before they were itching to go back on the road, especially after Judd Atapow raised their profile by featuring them in his movie, This Is 40. These albums capture a Parker comfortable in his own skin at last and growing old well.
Looking back, Parker must be very content. 22 studio albums, 21 official live albums, hundreds of songs, a few published books, a film appearance and exclusive Bigwear Eyewear Special Edition shades is success in anybody’s book, even if major sales and a truly smash hit single eluded him. He would categorise himself as a singer-songwriter. He may have been happiest in front of an audience but he never lost his muse. Melodies and lyrics came to him easily. His songwriting quality never faltered. A good case could be made for Parker as one of the greatest living songwriters yet he was rarely covered. He used to joke that Rod Stewart’s take of Hotel Chambermaid (as recommended by Elvis Costello) and Dave Edmunds Crawlin’ From The Wreckage kept him in swimming pools. If he has any regrets, they are likely to be over poor choices of producers and labels.
These Dreams Will Never Sleep: The Best Of Graham Parker 1976-2015 is an attempt to summarise the whole of this in a luxuriant box with beautiful glossy paper, evocative photographs, a detailed booklet, complete with interview, 6 CDs and a DVD. There are early demos, a whole disc-and-a-bit of selections from the first five albums, eight tracks from the eighties, eleven from the next two decades and four from the reunion albums. Disc four is live BBC recordings from 1977 and 1979. Discs five and six are devoted to a complete Rumour gig in Southampton, 2015. The DVD is Top Of The Pops and Whistle Test performances plus more live Rumour in 2015. The trouble is you can still buy five classic albums (the first five but with Heat Treatment replaced by Struck By Lightening) in a basic box for a tenner. Perhaps, some of the live material could have been replaced with a broader studio selection from 1980 to 2010. There is far more to Graham Parker than his early work with The Rumour.
Many people, including me, hold Mr Parker in great affection and believe he is deserving of more success than he has enjoyed up to now. I wish him well and hope These Dreams Will Never Sleep helps fund his pension. It is available from Friday.