The late seventies were a very strange time for rock music.
For a variety of reasons, rock and roll had become extremely polarized at the time. On the one hand, you had the disco thing reaching the incendiary pitch of Saturday Night Fever, with the whole John Travolta/Bee Gees deal. A trend which mulleted, diehard rockers found troublesome enough to take to stadiums and burn records by anyone from Chic and Kool & The Gang, to bands like Earth Wind & Fire (who actually came more from the rock/funk/jazz fusion school of people like Hendrix and Sly Stone).
On the flip side, the record companies and radio stations of the day had long since come to see that the guitar based hard rock of bands like Led Zeppelin meant big bucks. This in turn led to the formulaic, radio friendly “arena rock” of bands like Journey and Boston. Of course, for those of us who took their rock and roll more seriously, there was the “progressive rock” option offered by groups like Yes, Genesis, and Emerson Lake & Palmer.
What this created was a handful of equally devoted, but seperate tribes of fans within the rock and roll fan community. You would rarely for example, see a Journey fan at an Earth Wind & Fire show — or vice versa. The disco kids just wanted to boogie, while the prog-rockers were more prone to long nights smoking a lot of pot, and dissecting the meaning of the lyrics to something like Close To The Edge.
As for the arena rock guys?
They’d just as soon as show up in their “Disco Sucks” T-shirts ready to beat anyone up who disagreed. What about “Crossover” you ask? Forget about it, as the eighties were still a couple of years away.
Sitting off to the side of all this musically divisive foolishness, were the illegitimate bastard twins of punk-rock and new wave. These were the two genres of that time who somehow managed to co-exist peacefully alongside each other, while thumbing their own collective noses at virtually everyone else.
Actually, there wasn’t a lot of difference between the two genres — at least not musically. Which probably accounts for the unity there. Both shared a desire for a back to basics approach, and a distaste for the pretentiousness of big arena rock in particular. The Ramones (in leather and jeans) and the Sex Pistols (in spiked hair and safety pins), were the punk-rockers who played it loud and fast.
And before the days of Duran Duran and Culture Club, the “new wavers” pretty much did the same — minus the cosmetic props (well okay, maybe there was a skinny tie or two).
“New Wave” at the time basically meant everyone who played stripped down rock and roll, or otherwise didn’t sound like Journey or Boston. It was a group who at the time counted among themselves everyone from Blondie and the Talking Heads, to Graham Parker, and even Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen (they both wore leather jackets on their album covers, after all).
Hard to fathom now, isn’t it?
As unlikely as people like Petty and Springsteen would seem as “punkers” or “new wavers” today, Nick Lowe was probably even a less likely candidate to be embraced by this crowd of malcontents. Yet, embraced — adored, even — he was.
Earlier this week, indie label Yep Roc reissued Nick Lowe’s power pop classic Jesus Of Cool in one of those spiffy, enhanced deluxe editions that have become so popular these past few years. Unlike the young, loud, and snotty (to quote Stiv Bators and the Dead Boys) punk rockers of the seventies, Lowe actually cut his musical teeth with Brinsley Schwartz in the British pub-rock scene, which eventually would also spawn people like Graham Parker and Elvis Costello.
What got Nick Lowe first noticed in America however, was his talents as a producer who had a unique ear for a pop hook — particularly with his production work on the first three Elvis Costello albums (which many Costello fans still regard as his best). At the same time, Lowe was also being recognized as an equally fine pop songwriter. As good as Costello’s own songs were, Nick Lowe’s “(Whats So Funny Bout’) Peace Love And Understanding” remains one of the most memorable songs from EC’s Armed Forces album.
Aside from his credentials as a producer, Nick Lowe’s association with Stiff Records — the seventies indie label best known for punk and new wave acts like Ian “Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll” Dury and Wreckless Eric — all but cemented his seventies punk rock cred. The only thing left for Nick Lowe was to do his own record.
But as was the do-it-yourself punk rock mantra of the day, the blueprint of first doing 7″ singles was also called for. This is where Lowe’s trademark sense of humor, combined with his keen ear for a great pop hook was first displayed for the world to see.
Lowe’s singles ranged from the dead-on Bay City Rollers tribute “Rollers Show” (“Calling out across the land/calling every single Rollers fan”), to the EP Bowi (a play on David Bowie’s Low album). Lowe would also pay tribute to Bowie with the song “(I Love The Sound Of) Breaking Glass” (after the similarly titled song from Low).
When Lowe’s Jesus Of Cool was first released in England, it was immediately hailed as a power-pop masterpiece, for such hook-laden songs as “Little Hitler” and “Marie Provost.” When Columbia Records released an altered version of the album in America as Pure Pop For Now People (the suits there weren’t comfortable with the whole “Jesus” thing), Lowe was not only fine with it — he even floated rumors of a third album title to the music press (Wireless World).
Even while all of this was going on, Nick Lowe co-fronted the great rock band Rockpile with ex-Love Sculpture guitarist Dave Edmunds, who was releasing his own albums on Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song label (if only the dinosaur rock hating punks knew!). Rockpile toured the States several times, alternately promoting solo albums by both Lowe and Edmunds. Eventually their only official album as a group, Seconds Of Pleasure was released in America on Columbia Records.
So that brings us to Yep Roc’s reissue of Lowe’s Jesus Of Cool this week.
And they’ve done a great job.
Until now, all of the tracks from both the British release of Jesus Of Cool, and it’s American counterpart in Pure Pop For Now People have never been brought together in a single American release. Here, at 21 tracks strong, we finally get the whole freaking enchilada. From “They Called It Rock” to “I Love My Label” to “Little Hitler” to “Nutted By Reality” to the original demo version of “Cruel To Be Kind” (the lyric of which was lifted from a Ray Davies’ song for the Kinks’ Schoolboys In Disgrace — “The Hard Way” — in true Nick Lowe fashion).
It’s all here.
Listening to this (largely forgotten today) masterpiece for the past several days, not only reminds me of just how great (and crafty!) a songwriter Nick Lowe actually was and is. It also takes me straight back to my college days listening to stuff like this right alongside punk bands like the Stranglers, the Saints, and Radio Birdman.
Along with say, Cheap Trick, Nick Lowe was a guy I listened to without feeling the least bit conflicted, in spite of the musically polarized times records like these were being made.
If there is any justice, Nick Lowe will one day take his rightful place in the rock and roll hall of fame.