I remember reading an article in the late Seventies in which the author stated at the time that the five greatest songwriters at the time were Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Tom Petty, Bob Seger and Graham Parker. And, at the same time, he was celebrating that the fourth of his five finally had his first Top Ten Album in the U.S. At the end of 1979, Tom Petty finally joined Springsteen, Seger and Costello when Damn the Torpedoes jumped into the Top Ten, finally peaking at #2. And I was familiar with all five names and their music, including the odd man out, Graham Parker.
In 1979, Parker’s debut album was the complete opposite of that album’s title, Howlin’ Wind. Instead, here in the States, his debut was more like a whimpering breeze., here today, gone tomorrow. But, you could hear something similar to Elvis Costello in his music. His music was steeped in the same R&B sound as Springsteen’s and Costello’s music at the same time. And, at the time, Costello had his “angry young man” personae going, Parker’s lyrics were much more acerbic. Sure, Costello was “biting the hand that feeds” him with “Radio Radio”, but Parker was tackling much larger symbols of rock corruption when he released his anti-current label diatribe “Mercury Poisoning”, where Parker accused Mercury for not just his marketing failures in the States, but everything else that was going wrong in Parker’s life. No one had attacked his label before in song on an album, but Parker did. And, that stance alone won me over.
Then, I purchased his now classic album from 1979, Squeezing Out Sparks. Nothing labeled as “new wave” was as influenced by punk as that album. There was anger all over the album, including in his now iconic song “Local Girls”, to which this geeky teenage version used to dedicate to all of the girls in his hometown on his high school radio show. But, Parker never hit the Top Ten on our album chart. Not even when he ditched his great backing band, the Rumour, and used musicians from Springsteen’s and Petty’s bands on his next two albums. Both were serviceable and professional, but not Squeezing.
Then I ignored his next album, The Real Macaw. But, in 1985, Parker released a great 60’s-influenced R&B song that both my wife and I loved called “Wake Up Next to You”. I loved the song so much that I began lobbying my then-pregnant wife if we could name our baby, if it were a boy, Graham. Needless to say, our elder son is named Graham, but it’s NOT for Nash! It’s for Parker.
Now, skip ahead to 2012, to the movie This Is 40, in which Paul Rudd’s character runs an independent record label trying to sign Graham Parker and the Rumour. The only thing is that Rudd’s company cannot afford to fly the Rumour over from England to play a gig in the USA. Needless to say, Parker was fantastic in the movie, and, better yet, he and the Rumour really had reunited to created the fine album called Three Chords Good. All of a sudden Parker had a small amount of buzz around him, even though it was definitely 35 years too late for him to reach superstar status. Still, his music was once again permeating through my household, making my wife ask the eternal question, “what ever happened to him in the first place?”
Still, I was never prepared for the musical tour de force that he and the Rumour released last year, Mystery Glue. This was the album that he should have made back in 1980. He has some R&B-influenced songs for dancing, while also including some Ray Charles-influenced ballads that roll along much like those by the aforementioned Brother Ray. The best part is that his anger is temper a bit by age, acknowledging how we can all get knocked down by life. But, it’s how we bounce back up to face our adversities that will define us. An angry man in his twenties my not catch that theme, but an angry man in his sixties will, if he is perspective enough. Fortunately, my hero Graham Parker is.
When I wrote my list of the Top 40 Albums of 2015, Mystery Glue was in my Top 5. And, I feel it belongs ranked that high. It is an album that was written for all of us who are being squeeze in life by our children beginning to leave home and our parents’ health beginning to wane. Sorry Graham Parker that you had to wait so long to write your masterpieces. Few have been rooting as hard for you during your career as I have. Godspeed Graham Parker!