[Today: The forgotten contender…]
In its August 27th, 1987 issue, Rolling Stone magazine counted down the 100 best albums of the previous 20 years. In a musical upset for the ages, Graham Parker had not one, but two albums on that list – #45 (Squeezing Out Sparks) and #54 (Howlin’ Wind) – both ranked ahead of usual suspects such as Electric Ladyland, Ramones, Rust Never Sleeps and Led Zeppelin II. That showing speaks volumes about the kind of musical contender Parker was once considered. His early albums channeled the fury of punk rock through a folk sensibility, and were as literate and biting as the best early Bob Dylan albums.
But he made some bad career decisions (firing his excellent backing band The Rumour and making an intentionally lousy album to get sacked by his first label, to name a couple), switched record labels the way Larry King switches wives (Mercury to RCA to Elektra to Atlantic back to RCA and so on…), and generally sabotaged any chance he had of reaching the kind of audience his music deserved. Tellingly, when Rolling Stone issued another Top 100 list a decade later, none of his albums were on it. Quite the snub for an aritst who was once considered a cinch to have a career on par with Elvis Costello.
But against all odds, Parker released the best album of his career in 1988, the year after the original RS list. The Mona Lisa’s Sister should have put him right back on the fast track – this is an excellent batch of songs that are slightly softer around the edges than his earlier, angrier work. He brought back some of the key pieces of The Rumour, including guitarist Brinsley Schwarz, who co-produced this with him. It’s impossible to pinpoint why some albums fail and others succeed, but Parker put his best foot forward here to no avail. Songs like the ‘Get Started, Start A Fire’ and ‘Under The Mask Of Happiness’ were probably too intellectual for the mass market, but they still burn brightly and intensely. Rolling Stone even agrees – when it released its list of the 100 best albums of the 80s, The Mona Lisa’s Sister checked in at #97…
Listen: Get Started, Start A Fire
Listen: Under The Mask Of Happiness
Listen: I Don’t Know