Graham Parker (born 18 November 1950) is an English singer-songwriter, who is best known as the lead singer of the popular British band Graham Parker & the Rumour.
Despite only moderate commercial success, Parker's energetic performances - along with the wittily class-conscious spirit of his debut album Howlin' Wind - preceded the arrival of punk rock and new wave music. In addition, his quirky-blue-collar image is often believed to be a major influence on the public persona of many British musicians, most notably Elvis Costello, Paul Weller and Joe Jackson.
Life and career:
Early career (1960s-1976):
Parker was born in London, England in 1950. After the arrival of the Beatles, Parker and some other 12/13 year olds, formed the Deepcut Three, soon renamed the Black Rockers. None of the members actually learned to play their instruments, however, and were merely dress-up bands, adopting Beatle haircuts, black jeans and polo neck sweaters. By the time Parker was 15 he was a fan of soul music, especially Otis Redding, and would go to dance clubs in the nearby towns of Woking and Camberley where there was a thriving appreciation of Soul music, Motown and Ska. Parker left Chobham Secondary Modern School at the age of 16 and went to work at the Animal Virus Research Institute in Pirbright, Surrey, where he bred animals for foot-and-mouth disease research. At 18 years old he left the job and moved to Guernsey in the Channel Islands where he took a variety of jobs, picking tomatoes, digging ditches, collecting money from pinball machines, and working in a bakery. In Guernsey he bought an acoustic guitar and began to learn fingerpicking style and began writing songs with lyrics heavily influenced by the psychedelic music of the time.
He returned to England for a year, living in Chichester in Sussex where he worked at the Chichester Rubber Glove Factory. By 1971, Parker had left England again and spent time in Paris right at the time of the Free Angela Davis march through the city. From France, Parker hitchhiked through Spain to Morocco, where he traveled around for a year before moving to Gibraltar. In Gibraltar he worked on the docks unloading frozen foods, which he then helped deliver to supermarkets. His guitar playing and writing skills were improving and after playing songs to a few locals in a bar, found himself on an afternoon show on Gibraltar television where he performed two or three of his own songs. At that time, a strongly psychedelic influenced band named Pegasus often played in the same bar and asked Parker to join them. With Parker in the band playing a borrowed electric guitar, Pegasus played one show in Gibraltar before taking the band to Tangier, Morocco where they performed for a short while in a nightclub. Parker, however, was growing out of the hippie trappings and decided the band needed to learn a few songs that involved major keys (all the songs they played were in A minor) and so taught the members some of the soul numbers he had loved as a youth, including Wilson Pickett's In The Midnight Hour. Parker also tired of the bands' hippie name and renamed them Terry Burbot's Magic Mud.
In late 1972 Parker returned to England and lived with his parents, working at a petrol station around the corner from his childhood home in Deepcut. By now he was determined to pursue a career in music and worked steadily on improving his guitar playing and song writing. In late 1974 he placed an ad in Britain's Melody Maker seeking like-minded backing musicians. One of the musicians who answered the ad was Noel Brown, a guitarist who lived in south London. Parker met with Brown who then introduced him to Paul "Bassman" Riley who had recently been a member of Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers. (Brown also found Parker a gig at Southern Comfort, a tiny hamburger café on Seven Sisters Road in Finsbury Park, London where he played solo, performing a mixture of original songs and covers.) Riley thought Parker should meet Dave Robinson, the manager of the by now defunct Brinsley Schwarz band. Robinson had a small studio above the Hope & Anchor pub in Islington and began to record Parker, sometimes solo and sometimes with a few musicians behind him.
One of the songs Parker recorded was "Between You And Me." This demo version was the one that ended up on Parker's first album, Howlin' Wind, after the Rumour tried to record it but failed to achieve the natural feel of the demo. Another song, "Nothin's Gonna Pull Us Apart" was played, in demo form, on the Charlie Gillett show "Honky Tonk" on BBC London 94.9. On hearing the song, Nigel Grainge from Phonogram Records called Gillett and asked who the new singer was. By now Robinson had become Parker's manager and a deal with Phonogram was struck almost immediately. Robinson then went about recruiting the musicians that would become the Rumour, and recording for "Howlin' Wind" began in the winter of 1975 with Nick Lowe producing. In 1975, he recorded a few demo tracks in London with Dave Robinson, who would shortly found Stiff Records and who connected Parker with his first backing band of note, The Rumour. Parker had one track, "Back to Schooldays", released on the compilation album, A Bunch of Stiff Records for Stiff Records.
In the summer of 1975, Parker joined forces with ex-members of three British pub-rock bands to form Graham Parker and the Rumour. The new group consisted of Parker (lead vocals, guitar) with Brinsley Schwarz (lead guitar) and Bob Andrews (keyboards) (both ex Brinsley Schwarz), Martin Belmont (rhythm guitar, ex Ducks Deluxe) and Andrew Bodnar (bass) and Steve Goulding (drums). They began in the British pub rock scene, often augmented at times by a four-man horn section known as The Rumour Horns: John "Irish" Earle (saxophone), Chris Gower (trombone), Dick Hanson (trumpet), and Ray Beavis (saxophone).
The band's first album, Howlin' Wind, was released to acclaim in April 1976 and was rapidly followed by the stylistically similar Heat Treatment. A mixture of rock, ballads, and reggae-influenced numbers, these albums reflected Parker's early influences (Motown, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison) and contained the songs which formed the core of Parker's live shows - "Black Honey", "Soul Shoes", "Lady Doctor", "Fool's Gold", and his early signature tune "Don't Ask Me Questions", which hit the Top 40 in the UK.
Parker and the Rumour built a reputation as incendiary live performers: the promotional album Live at Marble Arch was recorded at this time and shows off their raw onstage style. Like the pub rock scene he was loosely tied to, the singer's class-conscious lyrics and passionate vocals signalled a renewal of rock music as punk rock began to flower in Britain.
In terms of establishing a recording career in early 1976, Parker preceded two other new wave English singer-songwriters to whom he is often compared: Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. (Costello's first single was released in 1977, and Jackson's first solo single was issued in late 1978).
New direction (1977):
Critical acclaim for the first two albums was generally not matched with LP sales. Graham Parker and the Rumour appeared on BBC television's Top of the Pops in 1977, performing their version of The Trammps' "Hold Back the Night" from The Pink Parker EP, a Top 30 UK hit in March 1977.
At this point, Parker began to change his songwriting style, reflecting his desire to break into the American market. The first fruits of this new direction appeared on Stick To Me (1977). The album broke the Top 20 on the UK Albums Chart.
Parker and the Rumour gained a following in Australia thanks to the support of Sydney independent rock station Double Jay (2JJ) and the ABC's weekly pop TV show Countdown, which gave the group nationwide exposure in Australia. They made their first tour there in 1978, where they spotted rising Australian band The Sports, who subsequently supported Parker and the Rumour on their early 1979 UK tour. The group made a second Australian tour in late 1979, when Parker appeared on Countdown as a guest presenter.
Squeezing Out Sparks (1978-1979):
An official Graham Parker and The Rumour live album, The Parkerilla, issued in 1978, saw Parker in a creative holding pattern. Three sides were live, with no new songs and with versions of previously released songs. Side four was devoted to a "disco" remake of "Hey Lord, Don't Ask Me Questions". "The Parkerilla" satisfied his contractual obligation to Mercury Records freeing him to sign with Arista.
Parker had long been dissatisfied with the performance of his US record company, Mercury Records, finally issuing in 1979 as a single B-side "Mercury Poisoning" a song that directly attacked his U.S. label. The flip side of the single was a cover of the Jackson Five song "I Want You Back (Alive)."
Graham Parker and The Rumour were one of the 4 support acts for Bob Dylan at The Picnic at Blackbushe on 15 July 1978, playing in front of a huge crowd.
Energized by his new label, Arista Records, and with record producer Jack Nitzsche, Parker wrote the songs that would form the basis for Squeezing Out Sparks, widely held to be the best album of his career. For this album, The Rumour's brass section, prominent on all previous albums, was jettisoned.
Squeezing Out Sparks (1980) was named by Rolling Stone at No. 335 on its List of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In an early 1987 Rolling Stone list of their top 100 albums from 1967 to 1987, Squeezing Out Sparks was ranked at No. 45, while Howlin' Wind came in at No. 54. The companion live album Live Sparks, was sent to US radio stations as part of a concerted promotional campaign.
The jettisoned brass section continued to play on other people's records credited as The Irish Horns (on the album London Calling by The Clash) or The Rumour Brass, most notably on Katrina and the Waves' 1985 hit "Walking On Sunshine".
The End of The Rumour (1980):
Bob Andrews left The Rumour in early 1980, and was not officially replaced. However, in studio sessions for the next album, Nicky Hopkins and Danny Federici (of The E Street Band) sat in on keyboards.
1980's The Up Escalator was Parker's highest-charting album in the UK and featured production by Jimmy Iovine and guest vocals from Bruce Springsteen. Significantly, the front cover of the album credited only Graham Parker, not "Graham Parker and The Rumour".
The Up Escalator would prove to be Parker's last album with the Rumour, although guitarist Brinsley Schwarz would reunite with Parker in 1983 and play on most of the singer's albums through the decade's end. Bassist Andrew Bodnar would rejoin Parker from 1988 through the mid-1990s, and drummer Steve Goulding would play on Parker's 2001 album Deepcut To Nowhere. The album was certified Gold in Canada (for over 50,000 copies sold).
Commercial success (1981-1990):
The 1980s were Parker's most commercially successful years, with well-financed recordings and radio and video play. His followup to The Up Escalator, 1982's Another Grey Area, featured session musicians Nicky Hopkins and Hugh McCracken. This album charted at UK No. 40 and US No. 51, and spun off a Top 50 UK single in "Temporary Beauty".
1983's The Real Macaw, featuring drumming by Gilson Lavis of Squeeze and the return of Brinsley Schwarz to the guitarist's spot did not fare as well, hitting US No. 59 on the album charts but missing the UK charts altogether. However, Parker's 1985 release Steady Nerves (credited to Graham Parker and The Shot) was a moderate success and included his only US Top 40 hit, "Wake Up (Next to You)". The Shot was a four-piece backing band, all of whom had played on either The Real Macaw or Another Grey Area: Brinsley Schwarz (guitar), George Small (keyboards), Kevin Jenkins (bass), and Michael Braun (drums).
Steady Nerves was recorded in New York City, and Parker began living mostly in the United States during this time.
Record label changes came quickly after the mid-1980s, partly accounting for the number of compilation albums in Graham Parker's discography. Particularly unproductive was Parker's tenure at Atlantic Records, where Parker ended the deal without releasing anything, and signed to RCA Records. He began producing his own recordings and issued The Mona Lisa's Sister. The backing band for this album included former Rumour-mates Schwarz and Bodnar ; keyboardists James Halliwell and Steve Nieve; and drummer Terry Williams (replaced on one cut by Andy Duncan, and two others by Pete Thomas who, like Nieve, was a member of Elvis Costello and the Attractions).Rolling Stone magazine ranked The Mona Lisa's Sister at No. 97 on its list of The 100 Greatest Albums of the 1980s.
Parker continued to record for RCA through the early 1990s. Long-time guitarist Schwarz once again parted company with Parker after the 1990 album Human Soul. Parker's 1991 offering, Struck By Lightning, featured Bodnar and Pete Thomas in the backing band, as well as guest appearances from The Band's Garth Hudson on keyboards and John Sebastian on autoharp. However, the album's chart peak of US No. 131 saw Parker dropped by the label. 1992's Burning Questions was released by Capitol Records, who promptly dropped him after the album failed to sell.
A 1994 Christmas-themed EP release (Graham Parker's Christmas Cracker) was issued on Dakota Arts Records, before Parker found a more permanent home on American independent label Razor & Tie. After the movingly personal 12 Haunted Episodes, and 1996's Acid Bubblegum (featuring Jimmy Destri of Blondie on keyboards), Parker grew quiet in the late 1990s. However, he continued to play live fairly regularly, often working with backing band The Figgs (who, like The Rumour, when not backing Parker also issued records as a discrete unit).
To the present:
Parker began a more active period in 2001, with the UK re-release of his early Rumour work, and with his third studio album for Razor & Tie, Deepcut to Nowhere. In 2003, Parker collaborated with Kate Pierson of the B-52's and Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom to record an album of lesser-known John Lennon/Paul McCartney compositions that had never been recorded by The Beatles. The album, called From A Window: Lost Songs of Lennon & McCartney, was credited to "Pierson, Parker, Janovitz". Also in 2003, Parker contributed a solo acoustic version of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" to the compilation album, A Fair Forgery of Pink Floyd.
New solo work continued with 2004's Your Country, which saw Parker switch labels to Chicago-based indie Bloodshot Records and was co-produced by John Would at Stanley Recording in Venice, California. The album was recorded and mixed in two weeks.
Following in 2005 was Songs Of No Consequence, recorded with The Figgs. A show from the ensuing tour with the Figgs broadcast on FM radio and was released as an album in 2006. In March 2007, a new full-length, Don't Tell Columbus was released.
In addition to his records, Parker published an illustrated science fiction novella, The Great Trouser Mystery in 1980. He published a set of short stories, Carp Fishing on Valium, in June 2000. His third book, a novel, The Other Life of Brian, appeared in September 2003. In July 2011, he played a private party for a Pittsburgh physician who has described himself as Parker's No. 1 fan.
In early 2011, Parker reunited with all five original members of The Rumour to record a new album. The record, titled Three Chords Good, was released in November 2012. Music journalist, Stephen Thomas Erlewine noted that the release was "the rare reunion that simultaneously looks back while living in the present." Meanwhile the Judd Apatow film This Is 40, in which Parker and Rumour play themselves, was released a month later, in December 2012.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license