One of the most critically acclaimed graduates of the mid-1970s British pub-rock scene, singer/songwriter Graham Parker was compared to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen for the best of his angry, eloquent songs. Yet the commercial success he always seemed to deserve remained, for the most part, just outside his grasp.
Until 1975, Parker lived off a succession of odd jobs, including gas-station attendant and breeder of mice and guinea pigs for a scientific institute. He had also spent time in a cover band playing in Gibraltar and Morocco in the late '60s.
In 1975 Dave Robinson (who would found Stiff Records in 1977) heard some Parker demos and became his manager, backing him with a band of pub-rock veterans: The Rumour [see entry] included guitarist Brinsley Schwarz and keyboardist Bob Andrews from the band Brinsley Schwarz [see entry] (which also included Nick Lowe, who produced Parker's first and third LPs), guitarist Martin Belmont from Ducks Deluxe, bassist Andrew Bodnar, and drummer Steve Goulding from Bontemps Roulez. Parker's first two LPs with the Rumour won mammoth critical acclaim but sold barely respectably in the U.S.
Parker had many run-ins with his label, Mercury, accusing it of poor distribution and promotion that resulted in the mediocre sales (Heat Treatment did best, selling some 60,000 copies and peaking at #169). Stick to Me (#125, 1977), which had to be quickly rerecorded after the original tapes were mangled, sold about as much, though Parker's club audiences had grown, thanks to the emergence of punk. In 1978 Parker rushed out the live Parkerilla (#149, 1978), reportedly in order to escape his Mercury contract. Parker wrote the scathing "Mercury Poisoning" about the label's alleged incompetence; it was released as the B side of a promotional 45 by his new label, Arista, and did not turn up on album until the 1993 Anthology.
Arista signed Parker after an intense music-industry bidding war. His first Arista LP, Squeezing Out Sparks (#40, 1979), stands as probably his finest artistic and commercial achievement; it made the Top 40, with "Local Girls" and "Passion Is No Ordinary Word" garnering heavy FM-radio play. Parker's star continued to rise with a live cover of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" (never included on an album until Anthology) that was widely played on college radio. But Parker was unable to consolidate that incipient success. The Up Escalator (#40, 1980; produced by Jimmy Iovine) and Another Grey Area (#51, 1982; produced by Jack Douglas) met with mixed response and unexceptional sales; and by then the Rumour had released a couple of LPs on its own. Various studio musicians and others, including Nicky Hopkins and Hugh McCracken, backed up Parker. Bruce Springsteen sang on Escalator's "Endless Night." Various Rumour members, meanwhile, worked with Nick Lowe and Garland Jeffreys.
Parker had a minor hit single with "Wake Up Next to You" (#39, 1985), but since then, only 1985's Steady Nerves (#57) and 1988's The Mona Lisa's Sister (#77) made the Top 100. His subsequent albums have all received favorable notices: 12 Haunted Episodes, the first of his recordings on U.S. independent Razor & Tie, is a lovely, primarily acoustic set; Acid Bubblegum found Parker in his more rocking, angry guise: Following its release, he played a slew of fiery live shows, backed by the spirited young punk-pop band the Figgs. Loose Monkeys was initially available only on the Internet. Since 1988, Parker has been living in the Woodstock, New York, area, where he began devoting some of his time to prose writing (contributing to ROLLING STONE's Alt-Rock-a-Rama  and THE ROLLING STONE Book of the Beats ) and doing spoken-word performances. Parker's first work of fiction, Carp Fishing on Valium, was published by St. Martin's Press in 2000.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here
MUSIC 9 Classic Devo Videos
OLYMPICS 18 Epic Opening Ceremonies