Graham Parker, Unsung but Remembered
Documentary on a Brilliant ‘70s Artist
Why did stardom elude Graham Parker, one of the most remarkable talents to emerge from Britain at the tail end of the ‘70s? Michael Gramaglia’s compelling documentary, Don’t Ask Me Questions: The Unsung Life of Graham Parker and the Rumour, explores the reasons behind the wobby arc of his career. It’s out now on DVD.
Nowadays Parker takes it all in good humor. He played himself in Judd Apatow’s comedy This is 40 as an aging rock musician with a cult following and little recognition elsewhere. As 40’s star Paul Rudd tells Gramaglia, younger people often confuse Graham Parker with that standard-bearer of Americana, Gram Parsons. Given his wiry, agitated image in the ‘70s, it’s surprising how well Parker wears his status as well-respected man who never quite made it.
Concert footage from the ‘70s reveals a singer determined to wring every ounce of emotion from his songs. He was Bruce Springsteen with anger in place of exuberance, or maybe Southside Johnny with a chip on his shoulder. And yet he wrote wonderfully lyrical, soulful songs whose intense performances suggested beauty struggling to be herd amidst the din of mediocrity. Parker’s band, The Rumour, had every reason to consider themselves the best backing band in rock.
Parker was a contender who somehow lost out. Debuting in 1976 alongside the explosion of punk rock in the UK, he was too traditional for the nascent punk scene yet too edgy for mainstream rock. He found fans in America, mostly among avid Anglophiles who followed the British music press. Most critics loved him. He sold respectably but cracked few charts, filled theaters but not stadiums. And then in 1980 he fired The Rumour, gambling that a change of musicians would change his fortunes. He slipped off the map. In 2005 footage from Don’t Ask Me Questions, Parker plays solo for a friendly crowd in corner bar.
In 2011 he regrouped with The Rumour in an amicable reunion after all the years and disappointments, and made music that was credible and proficient. And yet, their moment had passed. For rock fans under age 50, Parker will probably be remembered as that cool, amusing old dude from This is 40, a Larry David of rock.