In the late 1970s, England blessed the world with an acerbic singer-songwriter who possessed an extraordinary command of American roots music and a raw voice that barely contained his fury toward an uncaring universe.
No … I’m not talking about Elvis Costello. The singer-songwriter in question is Graham Parker, a pugilistic soul man who laced Van Morrison-esque r&b with garage punk realism.
A year before Costello proclaimed his aim to be true, Parker – aided and abetted by his trusty pub-rock cohorts, The Rumour – railed against man and God in the classic “Don’t Ask Me Questions.” His classic debut, Howlin’ Wind, married the best aspects of rock and soul to the nascent class consciousness and up-against-the-wall anger that soon emerged full flower with the Sex Pistols, Clash, Damned, et al.
Although the follow-up LP, Heat Treatment, was equally strong, sales didn’t necessarily match the critical acclaim and Parker soon became mired in record industry problems that wasn’t helped by a transitional third album, Stick To Me, that disappointed fans and pundits alike.
(His stature in England also took a hit after punk swept the nation; Parker’s traditionalist music was viewed suspiciously by Johnny Rotten acolytes.)
Following a contractually obligated live album and a poison-pen letter to his record company, the scabrous “Mercury Poisoning,” Parker moved to Arista and teamed with legendary producer Jack Nitzsche for Squeezing Out Sparks, one of the finest records of the so-called New Wave era.
Abandoning r&b for stripped-down rock ‘n’ roll, Parker’s anger fueled such classics as “Passion Is No Ordinary Word” and “You Can’t Be Too Strong,” which addressed the hot-button topic of abortion.
The album proved popular enough in America to indicate a commercial breakthrough, but it was not to be. Continued squabbles with record companies along with the dissolution of The Rumour consigned Parker to obscurity while his fellow “Angry Young Men,” Costello and Joe Jackson, captured headlines and secured solid cult followings.
Still, unlike Costello and Jackson, Parker never fell prey to pretentiousness or show-biz convention. He continues to release quality music, mostly thorough independent labels, but receives little attention these days.
Perhaps that’s what the singer-songwriter prefers. Unlike Jackson and Costello, he never seemed suited for soundtrack albums or the talk-show circuit.
Hopefully, though, some enterprising listeners will one day rediscover his early classics, recorded back when it seemed possible for a quick-witted, sharp-tongued rock ‘n’ soul singer to conquer the world.