The Undimmed Bar-Band Carnality of Nick Lowe

Revisiting the clever, propulsive joys of Labour of Lust

"Belly to belly but never eye to eye" is how English pub-rockist Nick Lowe defines "love and affection" on his second solo record, 1979's Labour of Lust. Recorded with Rockpile, the band Lowe led with guitarist and walking rock encyclopedia Dave Edmunds, Lust is more straightforward and less caustic and rangy than its predecessor, the proto-post-punk Jesus of Cool (retitled Pure Pop for Now People for wearisomely obvious reasons in the U.S.). What's new is what's old: a ruthless insistence on the primacy of carnality, which, in rock 'n' roll, means the primacy of wit. Lowe had just produced Elvis Costello's Armed Forces, on which Costello definitively lent his bile to Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," but Lowe was always less fussy than his protégé. Right down to Huey Lewis's harmonica solo on "Born Fighter," Lust is a great bar-band record, as delivered by the funniest, most together bar-band in the world.

Which is not to say it's not as twisted in its way as Jesus of Cool, or other late-'70s British pre–New Wave sorta-punk benchmarks like This Year's Model and Squeezing Out Sparks. These records refuse to mind the gap between power pop and pub rock: They're balls-out one minute and beery the next, but even the slow ones have one sleepless eye on propulsion. "Amphetamine-fueled Chuck Berry music," Lowe called Rockpile's sound, which is both accurate and redundant. If great songs made big stars, Lowe would be rich from more than Curtis Stigers royalties. Lust's opening track, "Cruel to Be Kind"—Lowe's biggest hit ("to date," Yep Roc's press materials note delusively), reaching #12 in both the States and the U.K.—is an homage to Philly soul, but it clatters and strums like a Byrd on a Wire. "Cracking Up" condenses wanna-be anarchy: "I'd make a knife out of a notion . . . I don't think it's funny no more." Mickey Jupp's "Switchboard Susan" is a long-distance operator's come-on: "When I'm with you, girl, I get an extension/And I don't mean Alexander Graham Bell's invention." "Dose of You" asks, "Why in the world are you so contagey?," the ancient love-as-STD trope that never got anyone laid.

Columbia Records, in its typical wisdom, allowed both Jesus of Cool and Labour of Lust to fall out of print, the latter for nearly 20 years. Yep Roc reissued the debut in 2008 and offers Lust this week, doing so well by both of them that I'm inclined to forgive the inclusion of a Columbia a&r flack's liner-note reminiscences. Lust lacks Cool's string of strong bonus tracks, but it includes the B-side "Basing Street," as well as both "Endless Grey Ribbon," which appeared only on the original U.K. version, and "American Squirm" ("I made an American squirm/And it felt so right"), which replaced it in the U.S. They're my two favorite songs here—"Ribbon" is deliberately overwritten, a late-night trucker's weepy paean to the Country-and-Western road:

Nick Lowe, watching Huey Lewis play harmonica
Roberta Bayley
Nick Lowe, watching Huey Lewis play harmonica

The cold dark night is split
By the stab of twin headlights
Like fingers of guides that know of it
But have never been there
And eyes red-rimmed are filled for the n'th time
And strain for the road signs
That flash past the windshield in the hard-driving rain

Lowe never made another record as good as his first two—who has? "Forever and ever is just a fun idea," as "Skin Deep" has it. But on Labour of Lust, Lowe's fun ideas about skin are plenty deep enough.

 
 

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