By Chaz Kangas
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For better or worse, English song-o-matic dispenser Nick Lowe's debut solo album was deemed worthy of two versions. The British one, Jesus of Cool, came out on Radar, the label founded by Jake Riviera after he split from Stiff, wherein Lowe, a punk and postpunk godfather, had earned the handle "Basher" for his in-three-takes-or-less approach as house producer for Graham Parker, the Damned, and Elvis Costello. The American version, retitled Pure Pop for Now People, was released by Columbia. Both came out in March of '78, and both include basically the same songs. Still, Pure Pop is better than Jesus—the rub is in the track listing—but it's Jesus that's getting a 30th-anniversary reissue.
It all starts at the beginning: Album openers are paramount in setting the tone. Jesus went with "Music for Money," a robotic new wave number that has Lowe wryly indicting the record biz: "Gibsons for gain/Reddies for roadies/Fenders for fame." Meantime, Pure Pop revs up with "So It Goes," an exemplar of the album title, with triumphant drums, a snappy refrain, and a curious narrative about Russians, a "snaky" Persian, and a kid who cuts off his right arm "in a fit to save a bit of power." Its title quite obviously apes Kurt Vonnegut's shit-happens mantra from Slaughterhouse-Five; regardless, it's a more telling preamble to the grab bag of expertly crafted three-minute ditties that Lowe convenes here. Pure Pop also welcomes some of the album's better songs earlier on: Check out the murderers' row of "Marie Provost," "Heart of the City," "Rollers Show," "They Called It Rock," and "No Reason," its ska undertone a faster variation on Costello's "Watching the Detectives." Lowe's versatility is furthered on "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass," a dated disco ode to a trashed dressing room, and "Nutted by Reality," a two-part suite that mimics Paul McCartney and features the champion lyric "Well, I heard they castrated Castro."
Fortunately, all this hairsplitting is irrelevant, as you can resequence this 21-track reissue to your liking. Fancy the studio version of "Heart of the City" over the live version? Prefer the up-tempo "They Called It Rock" to its differently titled, less rowdy equivalent, "Shake and Pop"? "Rollers Show," an homage to the Bay City Rollers, is a must-have? They're all Pure Pop mainstays now tacked on to the Jesus reissue. What elevates this project to a proper primer on Lowe, however, are the seven bonus tracks comprising previously released singles. Three of them—"Born a Woman," "Endless Sleep," and the bass-driven instrumental "Shake That Rat"—were on the Bowi EP, Lowe's witty retort to David Bowie's album Low. There's also the original version of Lowe's biggest hit, "Cruel to Be Kind," recorded by his pub-rock band Brinsley Schwarz. (The hit version is the opener for his subsequent solo album, Labour of Lust.)
Still, just when you learn to appreciate Lowe's pure pop facility, the reissue's cover art comes into focus. Its montage of Lowe caricaturing purveyors of the music he capitalizes on—a hippie, a lounge cat, a Joe Blow, etc.—makes you wonder if you've been duped by faux earnestness, and if Jesus of Impersonations is a more spot-on title.