There was a time when Nick "Basher" Lowe should've taken over the world of pop music. An active producer (among his credits: Elvis Costello and Graham Parker’s early albums) and songwriter, the former Brinsley Schwartz bassist was a core figure in the London-based maverick music label, Stiff Records.
His 1976 "Heart of the City/So It Goes" single was the first to bear the Stiff imprimatur – and a great start for the label it was, too. The one-chord-wonderfulness of "Heart" and powered-up Steely Dan updating of "So It Goes" were definitely something to hear: hookier than punk (note Lowe's production presence on the first Damned singles) but also punchy as hell. In America, it went nowhere, though three years later "Goes" would show up in Alan Arkush's drive-in punk rock tribute, Rock 'N' Roll High School.
To pop-nerds keeping an ear on the late seventies D.I.Y. scene, Lowe was a ubiquitous presence: his singles and EP (Bowi, named after the Thin White Duke released his Low album) received a lot of coverage in more forward looking pop-rock mags like Bomp! and Trouser Press. When Lowe's first solo album, Jesus of Cool (retitled Pure Pop for Now People in the states by a skittish Columbia Records), was released in March 1978, those of us who'd been scouring the import bins for smaller samples of the man's work eagerly grabbed the long-player and waited for the rest of the country to catch up.
Unfortunately, '78 was the year of the Bee Gees' disco dominance, and the highest Pure Pop would make it on the Billboard charts was #127. The only time Lowe would dent the Top Forty in this country was with "Cruel to Be Kind" (#12) from his follow-up release, Labour of Lust.
In retrospect, it's not difficult to see why Cool/Pop stiffed in the states. As amusingly repped by its cover (Lowe holding a series of guitars in a variety of musical costumes: bearded folky, grinning hippie, glam rocker, rockabilly singer, etc.), the album is all over the place. A smorgasbord of pop-rock styles, united by Lowe's voice and witty lyrical sense, the disc celebrated pop diversity in a way that neither the disco enslaved nor the punk enthralled could accept. Submitted into evidence: Pure Pop's agreeably kitschy tribute to the then-fading Bay City Rollers, "Rollers Show," with its chorus echoes of "Chapel of Love." Girl groups and the Bay City Rollers? Not even early Blondie would have dreamed of taking it that far.
Many of the more "serious" rock critics of the day managed to miss the mark, too, focusing instead on the more willfully difficult Elvis Costello, whose Lowe-produced debut came out in '77. I remember one PC-minded critic of the day, in fact, reviewing a Stiff Records sampler that contained both "Heart of the City" and a Costello track, unfavorably comparing the former to the latter and condemning Lowe for perceived lyrical sexism. Sexism in rock – who'd have thunk it? (For the record, "Heart" illuminates its young boys' sexism rather than endorsing it.) Clearly, the man was too musically facile to be taken seriously.
What's more, Lowe himself was aware of this situation and seemingly didn't care. Two tracks on the album directly comment on the then-current state of the music industry. In "Shake And Pop" (re-recorded and retitled "They Called It Rock" for the U.S. release), he describes a variety of label reactions to a one-hit-wonder's second release. "Arista say they love it, but the kids can't dance to it," one line in the chorus goes, amusingly nailing the plight of a score of fledgling power-poppers. (By way of historical context, garageiste poppers Blondie wouldn't make the U.S. charts until they cut the discoid "Heart of Glass" for their third album back in '78.) What mainly mattered was cranking out a string of addictively hooky pop-rock tracks, if only for Lowe's own amusement.
Thirty years on, and the man's celebration of shake 'n' pop is getting the deluxe CD treatment it deserves. Presented under its UK title, the disc follows the British version's original sequencing and track selection (as with the Clash's first release, the American version contained slightly different tracks) with the original Pure Pop cuts (the studio version of "Heart of the City," "Rollers Show" and "They Called It Rock") included in the disc's bonus ten tracks. Cleverly packaged – the case folds out into a crucifix! – the set once more brings this unjustly neglected collection of pop power and cheesy glory into the light. Even cooler for those of who've long been making do with the '89 import Demon Records release of Cool, Yep Roc's disc contains a swell set of liner notes by former pub-rocker Will (Kursaal Flyers, Records) Birch, which attempts to sift through the period's drunken haze to tell who actually performed on each track.
Because the original two versions were pointedly mum on musicians' credits, many fans concluded that most of the musical chores were handled by Lowe’s chums in Rockpile (as they would later be in Labour of Lust), but, aside from the U.K. version's live performance of "Heart of the City" and the U.S. release's re-titled "They Called It Rock," the albums' tracks were created with a more piecemeal lineup. Several members of Graham Parker's then-backing band, the Rumour, show up on more than a few tracks, as do members of Elvis Costello's Attractions; Dave Edmunds appears in a few cuts, most memorably providing rhythm guitar and backing vocals to "Little Hitler." Doing production work for all these guys, Lowe had his pick of a cadre of gifted rockers.
The results are engagingly messy and endlessly replayable. Though Lowe would go on to release more sonically and thematically consistent discs (the currently out-of-print Rockpile-driven Lust provides a good example), Cool's eclecticism provides much of the fun. Lowe and his studio chums were capable of tackling hard rock (both plodding and sped-up), rootsy rock-'n'-roll (the American "They Called It Rock"), sweetly harmonic pop croons ("Tonight," "No Reason"), surreal folk-pop (Jim Ford's decidedly strange "36 Inches High") and McCartney-esque cut-and-paste ("Nutted by Reality"). In an era characterized by excessive musical homogeneity, Lowe had produced the seventies equivalent to The Who Sell Out.
Even the Who's John Entwhistle, the darkest lyricist in that particular band, might've balked at "Marie Provost," though. Inspired by a chapter in Kenneth Anger's notorious catalog of movieland scandals, Hollywood Babylon, the jaunty track retells the story of a faded silent movie actress whose overdosed corpse became food for her "hungry little dachshund." With its chiming guitar and energetic Steve Goulding drumwork, the song features Lowe at both his most lyrically sardonic and chirpily tuneful – a masterful piece of impure pop.
Which pretty much characterizes all of Cool. The sound is honest and respectful, filled with sly musical quotes, but the lyrics are something else again. Whether sweetly singing about the sound of breaking glass or the castration of Fidel Castro, Lowe refused to spoil things by cracking up at his own jokes. If the results were occasionally too twisted for mainstream '70s radio, subsequent generations of alt-poppers were clearly paying attention.
Most of the bonus tracks – with the possible exception of a Brinsley Schwartz-recorded soul-inflected demo of "Cruel to Be Kind" – will likely be familiar to Brit pop aficionados. (They all appear on the Demon Records import CD, The Wilderness Years.) But with the possible exception of the acoustic "Endless Sleep," a precursor to the slower, more contemplative Lowe sound of recent years, they all maintain the same cheeky crispiness. I'm particularly fond of the Duane Eddy-styled instrumental "Shake That Rat," the proto-feminist cover "Born A Woman" (take that, PC rock critic!) and Bobby Fuller tribute "I Don't Want the Night to End." But, really, it's all great.
"They always ask for lots of songs/Of no more than two-fifty long/So I write some," Lowe sings in his amusing paean to Stiff Records, "I Love My Label." Back then, no one wrote 'em better.