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:

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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13 comments
DDB9000
DDB9000

I'm sort of in agreement with both MR and EK. I do think the phrase "pre–New Wave sorta-punk" was a bit incorrect for the albums cited. The later "These records refuse to mind the gap between power pop and pub rock" was all that needed to be said.

As for "Labour Of Lust" and the new edition, I am a bit disappointed that the original version of "Cruel To Be Kind" as performed by Brinsley Schwarz (for a never released last album) was not included as a bonus track, and yes I do know it WAS released as a bonus track on the re-release of "Jesus Of Cool", but they should was included it anyway for comparison's sake (and for those for those who some unknown reason didn't have [or plan to get] the "JOC" disc).

I have always felt it's a better version, what with Bob Andrews' organ propelling it along, although I can certainly see how the solo version would be much more suited for radio. Either way it's a great song.

As for MR and EK, please get over your differences...

As Nick says...“We must have peace, more peace and love, if just for the children of a new generation..."

Walkingman
Walkingman

Cruel to be Kind is about as perfect a pop song gem as has ever been heard on the radio.

Ed Kollin
Ed Kollin

As a fan it is alright just to enjoy the music not to care who or what it's called, but a writer for a publication with such a proud history of music criticism kind of has to get it right. It's great she wrote an article on Nick Lowe and a lot of the article is spot on. But "Jesus of Cool" "This Year's Model" and "Squeezing Out Sparks" and other pub and power pop type music from approximately 1978-1981 are New Wave not proto unless you think New Wave started with the New Romantics/Synthpop/MTV acts which is I guess is understandable but wrong in so many ways.

But I apologize I did not know certain topics were not allowed to be discussed on comments section of a article about music. Like hell I am going to apologize for it. News for you, it's not just new wave fans, these type of arguments having going on forever and probably always will, so unless the Voice prohibits this topic from being discussed on the comments pages it's not me it's you who need to move on.

NP
NP

Sonically pre-new wave, not chronologically. Go find something more important to do.

DDB9000
DDB9000

Oh, and for Michael Robbins..."...my name, which is exclusively male, I believe."

Speaking of power pop...Michael Steele, female, of The Bangles...

Jblinko
Jblinko

Do you mean sonically a pop song? or chronologically a pop song?

MR
MR

I don't think anyone asked you to apologize. But it was apparently obvious to others that you misunderstood my point about new wave. Anyway, LOL at being lectured to about getting something wrong (when I didn't) when you cannot correctly identify my sex from my name, which is exclusively male, I believe.

jblocko
jblocko

And with the second sentence, the douchiness begins.

Ed Kollin
Ed Kollin

Well my apologies are in order 1. Assuming your sex. 2. Not realizing you were the author of the article. But when you tell someone there are more important things to do you are implying intentionally or not that the topic is or should be off limits from now on. But for the purpose of civility I will assume that is not what you meant and so lets discuss the topic. If those three albums are "pre new wave" what would you consider actual New Wave? The reason I ask is that having lived through the era and been a fan of the music at the time and since and having read endless articles on the subject and even edited the Wikipedia article on the subject I have encountered endless differing opinions of what New Wave Music is. I have heard those three albums referenced as power pop pub rock etc but I have never heard them referenced the way you did. There has been pretty much agreement that New Wave was a way make make punk rock sound nice in the roughly 1976-1977 period when the Sex Pistols had the worlds attention. After being synonymous pretty much every article agrees around the 1978-79 period that New Wave was considered the arty or pop side of punk or a separate genre that was helped by punk. There is different opinions about weather "post punk" that emerged around then (Joy Division, Gang of 4) are separate or sub genre. Then people really disagree when you get into to 82-83 and the Duran Duran, Human League "Second British Invasion" acts . But the three albums you mentioned nope. Your turn if you so choose

NP
NP

Don't know why this keeps signing me in as "NP." This is Michael Robbins, the author of the article.

MR
MR

Anyone at all can "edit the Wikipedia article" on any subject. I lived thru the period too (although I was very young) & have loved the music for decades. Don't know why this is so important to you—you consider the albums "new wave," fine. All such categories in popular music are, as you must know, having edited actual Wikipedia articles, disputed flags of convenience, nothing more. There's no scientific way to decide whether a given record is punk or new wave or post-punk or all three or whatever, nor should there be. Moving on ...

 
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