Music News


Imagine the most frustrating of all possible lives in the music business. Imagine making one, two, three brilliant albums that are all but ignored by the general public. Imagine being signed and then forgotten by record company after record company. Imagine casting about for new methods, new ideas, only to have the critics who've been your main supporters over the years turn their backs on you in favor of younger, more accessible performers. Imagine losing your edge so thoroughly that even you can't see the value in your creations.

In other words, imagine you're Graham Parker--who, when asked about his career, says, "I'm not sure I even have a career anymore. I just plod along."

There's no denying that Parker was one of the major talents to emerge in the Seventies--a fiery, blistering master of the lyrical insult and a melodist capable of transforming standard rock and rhythm-and-blues forms into songs that were at once familiar and startlingly individual. The albums Howlin' Wind and Heat Treatment, both issued in 1976, and 1979's Squeezing Out Sparks were formidable statements that were likened to punk rock mainly because there was no other genre during the period that echoed with the energy and nihilism that were such prominent colors in Parker's palette. But the material itself was actually far more complex than this comparison implies--traditional, even iconic, yet as contradictory and idiosyncratic as Parker himself.

So what went awry in the sixteen years since Sparks? According to most observers, plenty. Parker's well certainly didn't run dry: Just once in that span did he go more than two years between full-length discs, and several of these offerings found favor with his small but sturdy coterie of loyalists. But the post-1980 Parker never earned the brand of acclaim that had once seemed his birthright--and the planet's record buyers never decided to overlook his suddenly lukewarm reviews and bestow upon him the fame to which he's aspired since his heyday. Even his somewhat mellowed temperament hasn't done the trick. By last year, interest in Parker had waned so severely that representatives of major labels who had kept him on their rosters primarily for reasons of prestige found little upside in continuing to contribute to his livelihood. His sole release in 1994 was Graham Parker's Christmas Cracker, a seasonal EP made for Dakota Arts, a company so tiny that even many industry regulars had never heard of it.

At this juncture, most people would have quietly disappeared into the fog of obscurity--but not Parker, a man whose tenacity and obsessiveness are obvious to anyone who's ever heard him perform. It came as no surprise, then, when Parker announced in January that he would be putting out a new platter, the just-issued 12 Haunted Episodes. More unexpected was the operation releasing it for him: Razor & Tie, an independent imprint best known for reissues of discs by artists such as Bobby Womack and compilations filled with smashes from days long gone. "If you watch television late at night, you'll see adverts for their collections," Parker points out. "They have names like `All the Hits of the Seventies!' That's Razor & Tie.

"I had some familiarity with them before, because they'd reissued a number of my earlier albums: The Up Escalator, The Real Macaw and Another Grey Area. And I thought I was just what they needed--that they were ready for the challenge of marketing a current release by a major artist instead of being forever mired in repackaging hell."

From that comment alone, it's clear that Parker hasn't lost confidence in himself. Initially renowned as the journalist's worst nightmare--moody, quick to anger, even quicker to storm out of a room or slam down a phone--he's now unfailingly polite and skilled at random self-deprecation. But it doesn't take much digging to find his trademark bitterness lurking just beneath skin level. "At this point, going with an independent is the best move I could make," he asserts, "but if a major had been after me, I probably would have signed with them. It's a travesty that someone capable of making a record like this is not being hounded by a major label."

The rage that still bubbles within Parker is rooted in his upbringing. He was raised in England, in a rough community called Hackney--the kind of place from which no one really expects to escape. He wound up pumping gas by day and singing with R&B acts by night. Between these activities, he wrote songs that were angry and distinctive enough to strike a chord with Dave Robinson, co-founder of Stiff Records, the British label that also launched Elvis Costello. Robinson matched Parker with the Rumour, a solid and eclectic outfit made up of players from various pub-rock bands. The result was Howlin' Wind, a more accomplished debut than anyone had a right to expect. Here was a singer-songwriter who arrived on the scene fully formed--a player, then 26, who'd actually lived through many of the grim life experiences about which he yammered. Armed with tunes like "Back to Schooldays," "Between You and Me," "Lady Doctor" and the existentialist anthem "Don't Ask Me Questions," Parker spewed and spat as if his life depended on it--because, in a very real sense, it did.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts