By John M. Borack
Considered by many to be the godfather of New Wave, Nick Lowe's reputation as a slightly off-kilter, melodically stimulating singer-songwriter was made with 1978's "Pure Pop For Now People" and its 1979 follow-up, "Labour of Lust." The two LPs were quite different — "Pure Pop" being somewhat cobbled together with a variety of musicians contributing, while "Labour" featured a more cohesive sound, courtesy of the kick-ass rock and roll aggregation known as Rockpile — but each was wholly enjoyable, and they both stand up 30-plus years after their original releases.
After the demise of pub rock pioneers Brinsley Schwarz in the mid-'70s (Lowe would pen the Elvis Costello classic-to-be [What's So Funny 'Bout] Peace, Love and Understanding" while with the band), Lowe launched his solo career in 1976 with the U.K. single "So It Goes" b/w "Heart of the City," the first single release on the iconic Stiff Records label. Both of these tunes would eventually wind up as two of the higher points on "Pure Pop For Now People." "So It Goes" fairly burst out of the speakers with its staccato drums and jangly guitar intro and caught listeners' attention immediately with the leadoff lyric: "I remember one night the kid cut off his right arm." "Heart of the City" was an insistently driving rocker that Lowe recorded with Steve Goulding from The Rumour (Graham Parker's stellar combo) on drums. A furious live version recorded with Lowe's band-to-be Rockpile later appeared appear on the U.K. version of "Pure Pop For Now People," modestly titled "Jesus of Cool."
In addition to Goulding, the list of musicians who accompanied Lowe on "Pure Pop" reads like a Who's Who of late '70s British new wave: Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve (Elvis Costello and the Attractions); Norman Watt-Roy and Charley Charles (Ian Dury and the Blockheads); Andrew Bodnar, Bob Andrews and Martin Belmont (also of the Rumour); and Dave Edmunds.
Outshining all the talented musicians, though, were Lowe's songs, at once humorous, naughty, melodically invigorating and quite unlike anything that had ever come down the Britpop pike previously.
"Well, I heard they castrated Castro/I heard they cut off everything he had," Lowe intoned at the outset of the gleefully wacko "Nutted By Reality," which kicked off as sort of a funked-up dance number and somehow seamlessly segued into a playful, power-pop ditty that found Lowe singing about turning over his sister and listening to an echo ("even though I couldn't see it, it was the most").
Another slightly skewed winner in a similarly funky, odd vein was the No. 7 U.K. hit, "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass," which featured Bodnar's pulsating bass and Bob Andrews' left-field piano weaving in and out of the melody line. (It was also the first single to be released on the Radar Records label in the UK.)
Other "Pure Pop" classics can be found in the sweetly sung Lowe-Edmunds co-write "Little Hitler," which sounded very similar to some of the Phil Spector-ish sonic experiments Edmunds was enamored of during the early part of the '70s; the gentle, acoustic guitar-based "Tonight," which featured a cool Spanish guitar solo by Clover's John McFee; and the scorching "They Called it Rock," which served as a precursor to "Labour of Lust," as it showcased Rockpile — Lowe on bass, Dave Edmunds and Billy Bremner on guitars and Terry Williams on drums. (A rhythmically altered version of this tune, titled "Shake and Pop," was released on "Jesus of Cool." "The Pure Pop For Now People" take beats it by a mile.)
Two more tunes of note on the album included the seemingly non-ironic Bay City Rollers tribute "Rollers Show," which had been released as a Japanese single in 1976, and the gloriously bizarre power pop classic "Marie Provost," an ode to a long-forgotten 1920s era film actress (actually named Marie Prevost) who "was a winner who became the doggie's dinner." It remains one of Lowe's signature tunes.
Despite gaining critical acclaim for its embarrassment of pop riches, "Pure Pop For Now People" only managed to make it to No. 127 on the Billboard album charts, although its U.K. counterpart, "Jesus of Cool," would rise to No. 22 on the charts in Lowe's homeland. The disc would be re-released in a deluxe CD version by Yep Roc Records in 2008, with a slew of bonus tracks appended, including rare U.K. singles, B-sides and EP tracks. The original version of "Labour of Lust"'s "Cruel to Be Kind" can be found here, presented in a speedier, nearly discofied version.) Other treats on the must-own CD are garagey-sounding covers of "Born a Woman" and Goffin and King's "Halfway to Paradise," along with the hilarious "I Love My Label," which was originally released on 1977's "A Bunch of Stiffs" compilation.
"In those days, I wasn't interested in creating serious art," Lowe told journalist Will Birch in the CD's new liner notes. "I was much more interested in the mischief. I wanted to make music that was accessible, but just as soon as you've hooked people in, you would screw it up and throw it across the room. I do regret it somewhat, but time was of the essence, and it had to be disposable."
Disposable or not, "Pure Pop For Now People" still stands as one of the high-water marks of late '70s pop music and definitely a high point of Lowe's career.
Fifteen months after the release of "Pure Pop For Now People," the more straightforward "Labour of Lust" hit stores in June 1979. More commercial and less esoterically wacky than its predecessor (but still critically lauded), "Labour of Lust" was recorded with Rockpile as Lowe's full-time, top-crack backing outfit. The LP was a melodically-charged feast of pure pop sounds, mingling with "amphetamine-fuelled Chuck Berry music," as Lowe says in the liner notes to Yep Roc's 2011 reissue.
There are differences in the U.S. and U.K. versions of "Labour of Lust." The U.K. release included "Endless Grey Ribbon," while the U.S. version deleted the tune and replaced it with the U.K. single "American Squirm," which included Elvis Costello on prominent backing vocals, and fellow Attractions Bruce Thomas on bass and Pete Thomas on drums. "Endless Grey Ribbon" eventually saw release in the U.S. as a B-side, as would the non-LP track "Basing Street;" both were included on the 2011 reissue.
"Labour of Love" doled out ample doses of sex (the randy "Love So Fine, "Dose of You" and "Skin Deep"), drugs (the oddly angular "Big Kick, Plain Scrap") and rock and roll ("Cracking Up," "Switchboard Susan"). Lowe's highest chart entry, the No. 12 U.S. and U.K. hit "Cruel to Be Kind," also was included. "Cruel" remains a charming, pristine classic, and it's interesting to read in the CD reissue's notes how Lowe was pushed to re-record the track for "Labour of Lust" by Columbia Records A&R guy Gregg Geller.
"I thought it was way old-fashioned," remembered Lowe, "... but once we got those harmonies going, it turned out great."
Alongside the rock and pop tunes were a few hushed, quiet songs that foreshadowed Lowe's later-period solo work — the 2011 CD bonus track "Basing Street," as well as the brief declaration of romantic confusion, "You Make Me." A quick foray into straight-ahead country on "Without Love" (which eventually was recorded by Lowe's one-time father-in-law, Johnny Cash) was another welcome diversion.
Lowe's solid songwriting and typically clever wordplay tied everything together — along with the tight, spirited instrumental and vocal backing provided by Rockpile. Each member offered up some memorable sonic nuggets: Edmunds' harmony vocals on the chorus of "Born Fighter," for example, and Williams' peerless percussive efforts on tracks such as "Love So Fine" and "Dose of You," to name but two. It all added up to another one of the finest records of the "new wave" era, and one that neatly straddled the line between old-school rock and roll urgency and modern pop edginess. Interesting trivia note: The one and only Huey Lewis takes a guest turn on the album, playing a mean harmonica on "Born Fighter."
Buoyed by the hit single status of "Cruel to Be Kind," "Labour of Lust" became the highest-charting album of Nick Lowe's career to date, reaching No. 31 on the Billboard album charts in the U.S., while peaking just outside of the top 40 in England, where "Cracking Up" was also a top 40 single.
Nick Lowe has continued to record and release high-quality pop-rock records — including such stellar tunes as "Half a Boy and Half a Man," "Raging Eyes" and "All Men Are Liars" — and has now settled quite comfortably into an elegant, low-key, elder statesman role with his last few releases, including "At My Age" and "The Convincer." While all of Lowe's albums certainly have their moments, it's his first two solo efforts that remain the pinnacle of pop perfection.