With roots in English pub rock, Graham Parker gained fame at the vanguard of the English New Wave of post-punk pop which Elvis Costello also rode to prominence in the late 1970s. If you were an early adopter of Costello, chances are you also had one or more of Parker’s seminal LP’s from that period in your milk crate. All released between ’76 and ’79, the albums Heat Treatment, Howling Wind, and Squeezing Out Sparks were critically lauded as highly as Costello’s contemporaneous masterworks My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, and Armed Forces.
Costello charted higher both in the U.S. and the U.K. but Parker was no slouch, typically with double-digit ranks on both album and singles sales. Throughout this period, Parker joined Costello (and Joe Jackson) in a loose confederation of “angry young men” whose most memorable songs – Parker’s “Hey Lord, Don’t Ask Me Questions”; Costello’s bluntly ironic “I’m Not Angry” are two among very many examples – were pissed off and defiant, channeling the anarchistic energy of punk into cutting, subversive, and lyrically sophisticated social critiques and searing personal confessions.
Underscoring the similarities between these two rockers, there appeared, amid all the snarling contempt, two plaintive ballads sung softly over minor chords with a mix of compassion and brutal honesty. “Did they tear it out with talons of steel?” asks Parker to his unnamed friend in “You Can’t Be Too Strong,” the most heart-rending song about abortion you will ever hear. Costello’s message is more enigmatic. We know he is talking to Alison when he tells her “It’s so funny to be seeing you after so long, girl,” but by the time he suggests that “somebody better put out the big light,” it’s not entirely clear that the girl is enjoying life any more than Parker’s suffering friend. Lyrics from both songs were used for their respective album titles.
Where Are They Now?
Focusing on those two songs for the moment, since the contrast between them are emblematic: “Alison” appears on numerous best-of lists, has been covered multiple times, and can probably be sung from memory by someone you know, if he can get through it without tearing up. “You Can’t Be Too Strong” was not released as a single and is referred to exactly never when Parker’s greatest hits are discussed, which is not exactly never, but almost.
While Parker and Costello have produced music and toured regularly in the decades since their heyday, very few would put any of their subsequent work in the exalted company of their early albums. Not terribly surprising. Despite that, Costello has long since attained a status of music industry royalty and will presumably be knighted any year now. If Parker is waiting by the phone for the Queen to ring, he has had a few too many ales.
Why, exactly, do these artists legacies differ so widely? It says here that Costello’s greater facility forming and manipulating his self-image is the key. With those pub-rock roots, Parker seems always to be grounded in something firm, enduring and, for lack of a better term, authentic. And all to the good.
Costello has always been a beautiful creation. From the early days, the adopted name (he was born Declan MacManus), the Buddy Holly glasses and the pigeon-toed stance were a pose. And the wide-ranging post-angry-young-man days have been nothing if not a hungry search for interesting musical idioms to explore and partners to refract off of.
Costello is at heart a truly chameleonic and protean artist, much more so than Parker. And that sense of perpetual change signals “evolution” to us music consumers. So even though both album sales and your ears with tell you that what Costello has evolved into is far less exciting than what he evolved from, the mere fact that he is constantly evolving reminds us of the creative churn beneath those shifting surfaces. We like creative churn in our artists.
The products of Parker’s evolution may be every bit as unremarkable as Costello’s but because the range of change, the musical territory over which he has ventured, is more circumscribed, we see less churn in him, so we see less artistry, and this in turn influences how we hear him. He is subtly diminished, as are his works.
See Also: Joe Jackson