[14 February 2008]
Nick Lowe’s 1978 solo debut album, Jesus of Cool, is one of the great lost pop records of the last 30 years. It spent most of the CD era as an out-of-print rarity, despite being briefly reissued by Demon Records in the mid-‘90s. Unlike albums released by Lowe’s pub rock/new wave peers (Elvis Costello, Graham Parker), Jesus of Cool isn’t a neatly contrived manifesto of musical identity. Instead, it’s an audacious experiment in chameleonic shapeshifting—which, like the tongue-in-cheek poses struck on the record’s sleeve cover, reflects the album’s overriding theme of the disposability of music industry and culture—that moves effortlessly between mutations of rock and pop. Lowe is everything and everybody on Jesus of Cool: the riff rocker and the disco popper; the ska sympathizer and glam apologist; the big rock producer and the scrabbling indie contender. In his most meta moments, Lowe targets the shallowness of pop culture and idolatry with cynical and snarky narratives, while remaining a staunch perpetrator of pop form. As a seminal debunker and defender of pop greatness, Jesus of Cool is a record that manages to play both sides.
Jake Riviera, then Lowe’s manager, no doubt had a hand in giving Jesus of Cool its outrageous, attention-getting title. It’s the sort of cheeky affront to good manners that both he and his record label, Stiff, were known for. (See also: naming his most famous client, Elvis Costello, after the king of rock ‘n’ roll, and Stiff’s notorious slogans, e.g. “If it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a fuck.”) Lowe’s American label, Columbia, didn’t share his sense of humor, and released an altered version of the album under the title Pure Pop for Now People—not surprising, really, seeing as the Beatles’ “bigger than Jesus” incident had only happened a little over ten years earlier. Lest its title seem too provocative, however, the album’s cover art, featuring Lowe in an assortment of rock-fashion get-ups, underscored the sardonic tone of it all—a lampoon of pop image that included Lowe in its wide-angled target.
Yep Roc’s expanded 30th anniversary edition is a definitive revival, and a must-have for fans and newbies alike. It adds an additional ten tracks to the original UK version. Some are more familiar than others, and all are essential to fleshing out the picture of Lowe staking his claim as an artist in the late ‘70s. Three tracks in particular—“They Called It Rock” (an alternate version of “Shake and Pop”), the studio version of “Heart of the City”, and the riotously deadpan teenie-bop celebration “Rollers Show”—were originally included on Pure Pop for Now People. The instrumental surf-noir “Shake that Rat”, the quietly intense “Endless Sleep”, and the cover of Martha Sharp’s “Born a Woman” were first released on Bowi, Lowe’s 1977 EP (its title a cheeky retort to Bowie’s Low, released earlier in the year). And assorted other tracks—“I Love My Label”, “Halfway to Paradise”, “I Don’t Want the Night to End”, and the original ska-influenced version of “Cruel to Be Kind”—were previously available only as singles and b-sides from around ‘77-‘78. Many of these tracks showed up on the Demon compilation The Wilderness Years, but that, too, is out-of-print, and regardless, it’s great to have all this additional content available in one tidy package.
It took nearly a decade working as a musician and producer before Lowe got around to releasing a record under his own name. Since the late ‘60s, he handled bass and vocals for Brinsley Schwarz, a bellwether of the pre-punk English pub rock circuit. They disbanded in the mid-‘70s, and Lowe soon found himself in high demand as a producer. He applied the lo-fi, back-to-basics ethos he had honed in Brinsley Schwarz to debut albums by the Damned (Damned Damned Damned), Graham Parker & the Rumour (Howlin’ Wind), and Wreckless Eric, one of the original artists signed to Stiff Records. In addition to being Stiff’s in-house producer, Lowe recorded the label’s inaugural single, “So It Goes” b/w “Heart of the City”, in 1976, two explosive songs that would provide two of the biggest hooks on Jesus of Cool.
In 1977, Lowe produced Costello’s debut, My Aim Is True, and began a fruitful collaboration that would yield five albums in four years—including one which turned Lowe’s mini-anthem, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”, from a Brinsley Schwarz obscurity into a hit. There’s a certain amount of conceptual overlap between Jesus of Cool and Costello’s late-‘70s albums, including lyrical allusions (Lowe’s “Little Hitler” foreshadows Costello’s “Two Little Hitlers”, and also uses a phrasing similar to one in Costello’s “Pump It Up”), as well as some production strategies (“Nutted by Reality” splices together two separate songs into a motley whole, à la McCartney, a method Lowe would use for Costello’s “Wednesday Week” later that year).
The sound of Jesus of Cool is a destylized version of the lo-fi trademark Lowe cultivated for Costello’s albums: drums are thick rhythm slabs, acoustic guitars are tremulous shimmers, the bass sticks out like a sore knuckle. Lowe adapts to the guise of each song, dropping words like lead ballasts in the boxey “Music for Money” and then affecting a much sweeter vocal for the sprightly “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass”. The album is at its most lush on “Tonight”, a rapturous slice of pop balladry, and its most pared-down with a barnburning live version of “Heart of the City”, performed with Rockpile.
It’s hard to resist a sarcastic reading of a lovely song like “Tonight”, which is disarming in its simplicity and sincerity, because so much of Jesus of Cool relies on Lowe’s boundless wit. “Tonight” arrives midway through the album, after record-industry satires “Music for Money” and “Shake and Pop” and the anarchic “Breaking Glass”. A few songs later, Lowe satisfies the more absurd urges of his dark-humored mind with the effervescent “Marie Provost”, a true story of a silent screen actress whose dead body was found partly eaten by her dachshund. “She was a winner / That became her doggie’s dinner” goes the punch-line refrain, and one wonders, listening to this weird little marvel of a pop record, why more records aren’t so bighearted with the bearings of their emotional compass.