They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
In the 1950s and 1960s, the concept of the “angry young man” took hold in Britain; they had a lot to be angry about in the bleak, post-war period. The resentment of the lower and middle classes about issues of income inequality, upper class privilege, and the lack of consumer goods led to a remarkable outpouring of socially conscious theater, books, movies, and (most important for our purposes) music.
Graham Parker was generally referred to as such an angry young man when he first came to prominence in the mid-1970s. Born in London on November 18, 1950 to a working class family, Parker naturally fell under the thrall of the Beatles, and like many of his peers he developed a love of American soul music and Jamaican ska. Parker left school at 16 and took a series of odd jobs, both in the sense of “irregular” and “unusual,” including animal breeder, ditch digger, and pinball machine money collector. During this period, Parker began to learn to play the guitar and traveled through France and Morocco before settling in Gibraltar. While living on the rock, he started to play in public, ultimately steering his bandmates toward the soul music of his youth.
In 1972, Parker returned to England and moved in with his parents, working at a gas station while trying to start a real career in music. Through a series of friends of friends of friends, Parker was introduced to Dave Robinson, manager of the defunct pub-rock legends Brinsley Schwarz and future co-founder of Stiff Records, and started demoing and recording. Ultimately, Parker’s backing band, known as the Rumour, coalesced around pub rock veterans Brinsley Schwarz on guitar, keyboard player Bob Andrews, Martin Belmont on rhythm guitar, bass player Andrew Bodnar and drummer Stephen Goulding, augmented by a three-man horn section.
The band’s debut album Howling Wind (produced by former Brinsley Schwarz member Nick Lowe) and the follow-up Heat Treatment (mostly produced by “Mutt” Lange), both released in 1976, contained elements of rock, soul, and reggae, and they were critically acclaimed. Parker and the Rumour also became renowned for fiery live shows that recalled the heart of pub rock and presaged the energy of punk. By 1977 and the release of the troubled Stick to Me, Parker had begun to turn more toward the new wave, although without leaving soul behind. Parker was angry about the way his record label, Mercury, treated him and the album, so he released a tepid live album (by his standards — it is still pretty good) to satisfy his contract and signed with Arista. He also released a kiss-off single, “Mercury Poisoning,” making it clear how he felt.
Then came 1979’s Squeezing out Sparks. Cutting loose the horns, Parker wrote a bunch of tight, mostly uptempo songs that, while clearly influenced by punk and new wave, were still accessible. The album was incredibly well received; if anything, its reputation has improved over time, and most critics still consider it the high point of Parker’s career. The follow-up to the brilliant album was, as so often happens, inferior, but more commercially successful; The Up Escalator lacked the immediacy of its predecessor, but featured the commercial production of Jimmy Iovine and guest vocals from the musically and politically compatible Bruce Springsteen. After that album, Parker formally cut ties with the Rumour as a unit, although members of the band played with him at various times over the years.
Parker achieved a degree of commercial success during the 1980s with a series of albums backed by various musicians on various labels, most of which lacked the quality of his earlier work, although 1988’s The Mona Lisa’s Sister, featuring a more stripped-down sound and contributions from Schwarz, Bodnar, Rockpile’s Terry Williams, and Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas of The Attractions, was a strong return to form. Parker returned to obscurity during the 1990s, although some of his work during that period deserved more attention, particularly after he moved onto independent labels.
As the century turned, Parker published a collection of short stories and a novel and released a number of excellent albums, including a foray into country, that received generally good reviews and regrettable indifference from the general public. Throughout this period, Parker also released a number of live albums and collections of rarities though his website, which also included his irascible commentary (“The Thoughts of Chairman Parker”) and honest, often unsparing responses to fan questions.
In 2011, Parker reunited with the (hornless) Rumour and recorded Three Chords Good, released in 2012. The band toured behind the album, which received excellent reviews and rapturous reaction from fans (including yours truly) who had waited thirty years for the reunion – one that became a somewhat fictionalized plot point in Parker fan Judd Apatow’s movie This Is 40. The resulting press (including a Cover Me feature), along with the 2013 documentary Don’t Ask Me Questions: The Unsung Life of Graham Parker and the Rumour, set the scene for a Graham Parker revival that (surprise, surprise) never happened.
Most discussions of Parker bemoan the fact that he never became as famous or successful as other, similar angry young men who were his contemporaries. They ascribe this as a combination of bad luck, bad labels, and bad decisions. As a fan, I wish more people appreciated the talent and artistry of Graham Parker, and I suspect that Parker himself would prefer to be more commercially successful. However, it is indisputable that he has created a body of work that would make most musicians proud, and he has maintained a durable, loyal cadre of devoted fans who still look forward to his new music, while treasuring his catalog.
Let’s honor Parker’s 64th birthday by discussing a few covers of his songs.
Dave Edmunds – Back to School Days (Graham Parker cover)
Dave Edmunds is one of the great roots-rockers, and his early career was, for the most part, based on writing and covering songs that sounded like they were recorded during the golden era of Sun Records. His back-to-basics ethos resulted in a production career for a number of pub rock bands, including Brinsley Schwarz, where he became friendly with Nick Lowe. Lowe joined Edmunds’ band, Rockpile, and produced the Get It album, released in 1977. Included on the album is a cover of Parker’s “Back to School Days,” which appeared less than a year earlier on the Lowe-produced Howling Wind. Both versions are similarly rootsy, and while Parker’s version has a bit more soul, Edmunds has more twang. A few years later, Edmunds recorded Parker’s “Crawling From the Wreckage,” which may be one of Edmunds’ most enduring songs, but because Parker didn’t release a studio version of the song until many years later, and in a radically revised version, I’m not sure it counts as a cover.
Rachel Sweet – Fool’s Gold (Graham Parker cover)
Why Rachel Sweet was signed to Stiff Records continues to befuddle — this American teen with the voice of a classic country diva was so different from the rest of the label’s roster. But signed to Stiff she was, and embarrassingly marketed as jailbait to boot; nevertheless, her first album was a minor classic. Her second, though was ignored, and eventually Sweet graduated from Columbia University and is a respected and successful television producer, who I have written about in more detail here. Parker’s original version of “Fool’s Gold,” from Heat Treatment, is a midtempo soulful rocker. Sweet speeds up the song and adds now dated synth-drums and a near-disco beat, making the song almost unrecognizable.
Rod Stewart – Hotel Chambermaid (Graham Parker cover)
Rod Stewart’s latest work performing standards has rendered him a MOR icon. Which is, one supposes, a better image than the aging disco singer of the “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” era. But there was a time that Rod Stewart was a respected blues rocker, and his best material (especially his first four solo albums) still holds up. In 1998, Stewart released a back to the roots collection, When We Were The New Boys, recording covers mostly of British rockers who followed in his wake, as well as a cover of The Faces’ “Ooh La La,” which he had refused to sing at the time it was first released. Included in the collection is a fine cover of Parker’s “Hotel Chambermaid,” also from Heat Treatment; not surprisingly, considering Stewart’s bio, he easily conveys the raunchiness of the original.
Bill Kelly & The House of Cards – Pourin’ It All Out (Graham Parker cover)
In my little Hudson River town, there seems to be a large number of bands per capita. Most of them are filled with fine musicians, most of them play as a hobby (even if they pick up a few bucks here and there), they mostly play covers, and few of them have had any sort of career in the music industry. Bill Kelly is one notable exception, and he is rightly held in high regard by his fellow local musicians. Kelly has had original songs in movies and TV shows and he tours and plays with some of the top Americana musicians, while still gigging locally with friends. Back in 1996, Kelly fronted The House of Cards, and they covered Parker’s “Pourin’ It All Out,” our third track from Heat Treatment, for a tribute album released by a small New Jersey label. Kelly’s version is a little more angsty than the bouncy original, but is a fine interpretation.
Elizabeth McQueen and the FireBrands – Local Girls (Graham Parker cover)
We jump forward in Parker’s catalog to a couple of covers from Squeezing out Sparks sung by women, the first from Elizabeth McQueen, born in Arkansas, who at the time she covered “Local Girls” was a 20-ish Austin musician with an odd love of pub rock. Her 2005 album Happy Doing What We’re Doing was a tribute to that peculiarly British genre, and after that, she decided to move into a more jazz oriented sound, then added electronic and world influence to her music before joining her husband, drummer David Sanger, in Western swing legends Asleep at The Wheel. Her cover of “Local Girls” is relatively faithful to the new wave energy of the original, save for McQueen’s twang replacing Parker’s sneer, and the surprising inclusion of a Frampton Comes Alive-ish talk box.
22 Brides – You Can’t Be Too Strong (Graham Parker cover)
We would be remiss if we didn’t discuss Parker’s most controversial song, “You Can’t Be Too Strong,” a powerful ballad from whence Squeezing Out Sparks got its title. The song is about abortion, and it appears not to be in favor of it, which surprised those who were aware of Parker’s generally liberal politics and which landed the song on lists of top conservative songs. Parker, however, refused to be pigeonholed, asserting that he was not taking a stand on the issue, just telling a story — “They decided it was an anti-abortion song. And of course it’s a much more questioning song than that. It’s a deeply emotional song that is not making any rules for anyone at all.” Most covers of this song tend toward solo guitar covers that mimic the original. 22 Brides, which features the vocals of Libby Johnson and the guitar of her sister Carrie, play it as a burning rocker with searing, distorted guitar which loses none of the song’s emotional impact.
Marti Jones – You Can’t Take Love For Granted (Graham Parker cover)
Parker’s 1983 release, The Real Macaw, reunited him with Schwarz, and tried to recapture some of the energy and passion of his best works; to some degree, he succeeded (not that many people noticed). The album’s second track, “You Can’t Take Love For Granted,” is a sad song of love lost, with an almost Latin sound. Marti Jones, an underappreciated artist, who has made a number of excellent recordings with her husband, musician and producer Don Dixon, glosses up the sound a bit, while retaining its melancholy.