Stereotyped early in his career as the quintessential angry young man, Graham Parker was one of the most successful singer/songwriters to emerge from England's pub rock scene of the early '70s.
Review by Mark Deming (www.allmusic.com)
In 1979, after watching three fine albums go unnoticed thanks to shoddy promotional efforts by his American record label, Graham Parker was finally getting the attention he deserved when his album Squeezing Out Sparks was released to universal critical praise and impressive sales. Parker seemed determined to make up for lost time in the States, and he and his band the Rumour hit the road, playing a run of shows that topped the album for sheer fire and vitriol. Parker and the Rumour played a two-night stand at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco, and local radio station KSAN-FM recorded the second night on April 9 for later broadcast; part of that show appeared on a promotional release called Live Sparks (which in turn was reissued in truncated form as Extended Versions), and now the full performance has been released on the imaginatively titled album Live in San Francisco 1979.
While Live Sparks (which combined the KSAN tapes with performances from another show in Chicago) sounded a bit sloppy, Live in San Francisco feels tighter and better focused with the music presented in its original context, and the audio has been improved a bit for this release, sounding clearer and sharper while beefing up Martin Belmont and Brinsley Schwarz's guitar work and Bob Andrews' keyboards.
The band sounds a bit flashier than it did in the studio performances for Squeezing Out Sparks, but to a man the musicians charge into these songs with an impressive enthusiasm, and Parker's vocals cut like a switchblade. This release of the full show also includes a number of songs from Parker's earlier albums, and while the material from Sparks still dominates, this release delivers a satisfying sampling of material from Parker's first four studio efforts with some extra sweat and muscle added for good measure. Live in San Francisco 1979 might seem a bit redundant for loyal fans who already own Live Sparks, but this album is inarguably more satisfying and an excellent document of an excellent band at the peak of its powers.
Drawing heavily from Van Morrison and the Rolling Stones, Parker developed a sinewy fusion of driving rock & roll and confessional folk-rock, highlighted by his indignant passion, biting sarcasm, and bristling anger.
At the outset of his career, his albums crackled with pub rock energy, snide witticisms, and gentle insights, earning him a devoted following of fans and critics, who lavished praise on his debut, Howlin' Wind.
Despite all of the positive word of mouth, Parker never managed to become a star, and he was soon overshadowed by the emergence of Elvis Costello, a singer/songwriter who shared similar roots. After delivering Squeezing Out Sparks in 1979, Parker attempted to make a few crossover albums before settling into a cult following in the late '80s, continuing to garner critical acclaim.
After spending much of his early adulthood working odd jobs, ranging from breeding mice and guinea pigs to working at a gas station, Parker began seriously pursuing a musical career in 1975. Until that time, he had played in a number of obscure pub rock groups, including a cover band that had spent time playing in Morocco and Gibraltar. But it wasn't until 1975 that he began shopping his demos. That year, Dave Robinson, one of the co-founders of the new independent label Stiff, heard one of Parker's demo tapes and encouraged the songwriter, helping him assemble a backing band called the Rumour. Robinson rounded up several stars of the pub rock scene — guitarist Brinsley Schwarz and keyboardist Bob Andrews, both formerly of the leading pub rockers Brinsley Schwarz, former Ducks Deluxe guitarist Martin Belmont, former Bontemps Roulez drummer Steve Goulding, and bassist Andrew Bodnar — to form the Rumour, and the band was soon supporting Parker on the pub rock scene. With the assistance of DJ Charlie Gillett, the group landed a record contract with Mercury by the end of 1975.
Graham Parker & the Rumour headed into the studio to cut their debut album with producer Nick Lowe, who gave the resulting record, Howlin' Wind, an appealingly ragged edge. Howlin' Wind was greeted with enthusiastic reviews upon its summer release, as did the similar Heat Treatment, which followed in the fall.
Despite the positive press, Parker was growing frustrated with Mercury, believing that the company was not properly promoting and distributing his records. His third album, Stick to Me, had to be re-recorded quickly after the original tapes were discovered to be defective prior to its scheduled release. As a result, Stick to Me received mixed reviews upon its fall 1977 release, which derailed Parker's momentum. Furthermore, Elvis Costello, a fellow pub rock survivor who not only possessed a more pop-oriented style of songwriting, but also a more dangerous persona, soon eclipsed Parker in popularity.
Frustrated by his career hitting a standstill, Parker released the live double album The Parkerilla in the summer of 1978 in order to fulfill his contract obligations with Mercury. Following a short but intense bidding war, he quickly signed to Arista Records, where he released "Mercury Poisoning" — a blistering attack on his former record label — as the B-side of a promotional single as his first record for the label.