Nick's Knack for Wild Pop
When the so-called “Jesus of Cool” put out this second solo album in 1979, he was all of 30 years old, a decade-plus veteran of the music biz who managed to score a top 20 hit too. It was a long-time-coming peak for him, but unfortunately, it wouldn’t last.
Starting out in country-rock/pub rock combo Brinsley Schwarz at the end of the ‘60s, Lowe would make an unusual transition to punk after the group broke up in the mid-‘70s. He made some important connections then. Newly formed Stiff Records signed him as their first act and he became a staff producer, working with the Damned, Elvis Costello and Wreckless Eric among others. Lowe himself wasn’t “punk”, a’though he was in the thick of the movement. Musically, he was closer to another retro rocker, Dave Edmunds (who produced the last Brinsley S record). Lowe was drafted into Edmunds’ Rockpile band, which in turn became Lowe’s back-up band also, also including guitarist/singer Billy Bremner and drummer Terry Williams. Lowe’s first solo album, 1978’s Jesus of Cool (retitled Pure Pop for Now People by his squeamish American label), was a smorgasbord of pop and rock stylings, twisted around Lowe’s odd sense of humor and some of his fellow pub-rock peers/survivors (including Graham Parker’s band, the Rumor, who he also produced).
By the time of Labour of Lust, Rockpile was his band as much as it was Dave Edmunds’, who also used the group for his own solo records at that time, (including the wonderful Repeat When Necessary, which was recorded side-by-side with Labour of Lust). Led off by the indelible “Cruel to Be Kind” (a late-era Schwarz song) and a funny video to along with it, Lowe not only had a hit on his hands but also one of the first music videos played on the soon-emerging MTV.
The rest of the album mostly followed the same model—not-so-pure power pop that was fun-loving, almost reminiscent of bright, jangly ‘60’s British invasion music at times but also tinged by cheeky humor (like a clever Benny Hill) and sneaking in clever little catch-phrases (like a horny John Prine). Going back to his roots with Schwarz again, some songs also had a country-rock twinge to them—most notably “Without Love” (which would later be recorded by his father-in-law Johnny Cash), “Cracking Up” (a top 40 UK hit, recommend to Charlie Sheen nowadays) and the sweet, longing “Endless Grey Ribbon” (another single, and one that Cash should have also considered). But otherwise, Lowe was as power pop obsessed as Big Star or the Raspberries, with “Cruel” being just the tip of the iceberg. Lowe also crafted layered harmonies and piled-on hooks deftly on the sexy, sweaty “American Squirm” (yet another single, featuring Elvis Costello on backing vocals) and the much more tender “Skin Deep”, also showing how he commanded both the sweet and carnal with equal relish. Then there were basher-rock numbers like “Born Fighter” (featuring a pre-fame Huey Lewis on harmonica), the drum-heavy “Big Kick, Plain Scrap” and the bar-band stomp of the closer “Love So Fine” (appropriately written by all of Rockpile). Maybe the only downer here was the quiet lonely, and thus out of place, “You Make Me”.
Labour of Lust was not only a watershed for Lowe but also an end to another chapter in his career. After Rockpile recorded Seconds of Pleasure the following year, the band was over and thus ended a very fruitful collaboration for Lowe. His production work would also tail off as he concentrated on his own career. Throughout the ‘80s, he’d put out acceptable albums with good tracks on them, but nothing to match his first two albums. By the ‘90s and the last decade, his pace slowed down considerably, appearing out of nowhere every few years with a new album.
Nowadays, most of his catalog is sadly still out of print, which makes this reissue a long overdue and fitting testament, and maybe a reminder that now wouldn’t be a bad time for a Rockpile reunion.