Tag Archives: Nick Lowe

Classic Albums Revisited: JESUS OF COOL

Snarky, sarcastic, New Wave-Brit: Elvis Costello.  Right?  Well that description could also apply to a one Mr. Nick Lowe.   During the mid-1970’s Lowe produced the first five Costello records, including the astounding MY AIM IS TRUE.  Little did many in the listening public know of the power behind Costello’s throne.  In 1978, Nick Lowe unleashed his first album as a solo-artist: JESUS OF COOL.  While many were no doubt caught off guard, those in the know had Lowe on their radar even before he was helping Costello.  During the early 1970’s Lowe was in the band Brinsley Schwarz, a fun little pub-band that quickly made a name for themselves by opening for bands bigger than the bar room circuit. Lowe bailed on them and entered into an on-again off-again relationship with another band called Rockpile.  That band recorded four albums, though they only put out one officially (the others were released as a pair of Dave Edmunds solo records, while another eventually came out as Lowe’s second album LABOUR OF LUST).

It’s not blasphemy if it’s true, people.

So it’s not understatement that Lowe’s a man with a complicated musical pedigree.  JESUS OF COOL has a similarly complicated history.  The album was released in the UK and then issued in the USA as PURE POP FOR NOW PEOPLE.  This is presumably because us Yanks have trouble with cheeky-references to Christ.  It was a gutless move on the label’s part, but for Lowe it was just par for the course.  It was also super-ironic considering the content of the album. You see, JESUS OF COOL is a power-pop record in the finest sense of the term.  Bright, hooky, and fun as hell…but the record is almost entirely about how greedy and petty music industry is.  Lowe’s bite is just as sharp as his pop sensibility and JESUS OF COOL is the kind of record you can’t help but sing along-to.  You can’t help but tap your foot and smile, then you realize  what he’s singing about…and you’re kind of horrified.

The song the best encapsulates this, and JESUS OF COOL as a whole,  is “Shake and Pop.”   The song is a hilarious story-song that chronicles the rising fame (and subsequent fucking) of a band by the music industry.  The best, and most telling, line of the song is:  “Arista says they love you/but the kids can’t dance to it.”  One can almost close their eyes and see a bunch of old, fat, out-of-touch suits saying just that to Elvis Costello…and Nick Lowe.  Besides name-checking a bunch of massive record labels, “Shake and Pop” also pokes fun at the fickleness of music journalists.  And while “Shake and Pop” might come off as brash, it’s tame compared to the biting-the-hand-that-feeds awesomeness of “I Love My Label.”  In an age when musicians were simply not heard (at all) without major corporate sponsorship, Lowe’s first album included this sarcastic love song dedicated to his record company.  There was no Internet or social media for Lowe to embrace or hide behind.

 In a way, JESUS OF COOL is a bit preverse–after all why would someone make a record if the music industry is so awful?  From the sound of it, Nick Lowe is a huge masochist.  Speaking of twisted sensibilities, there’s nothing more twisted than “Marie Provost.”  The song is about a famous silent-film starlet who died alone, a shadow of her former glory–a victim of alcohol and talkies.   She’s also famous partly because her pet dachshund Maxie was discovered to have nibbled on her bloated corpse.  Such a sad tale…of course Nick Lowe had to write a hilarious pop song about it! With lines (cheerily sung) like “She was a winner/Who became a doggie’s dinner/She never meant that much to me.”   There’s dark, and then their’s Nick Lowe-dark.  The only other person who comes close to this type of shiny-happy-horror is my idol Warren Zevon.

Not everything is dark and twisted on JESUS OF COOL, there are a number of straight-up rockers: “Heart of the City” and “So It Goes.”  Both songs are about as normal as Lowe can get and should have been Top-40 hits, of course they weren’t.  One can’t help but wonder if they didn’t chart because Lowe did some much poking fun at the music industry big-shots.   The UK album includes a live version of “Heart of the City” while the US version has the studio version.   Both are good, though the live version’s frantic energy (and double length) wear a bit thin.   It pains me to agree with the label, but I think the studio version is what belongs on record*.

“So It Goes” isn’t Lowe’s most famous song**, but it’s his best in my opinion.  “So It Goes” is a perfect, sugar-rush of a song.  The chugging, thundering drum beat and the rapid-fire lyrics (seemingly about evil concert promoters and diplomats) are about as great as power-pop gets.  It’s the kind of song you think you can sing entirely after hearing it once, even though you’ve only deciphered about 1/3 of it.  I guess that describes JESUS OF COOL as a whole.  More than just being a manifesto against his corporate masters or a clever pop record, JESUS OF COOL is a phenomenally entertaining record from a true pop master.

Still not convinced that JESUS OF COOL is worth your time?  What if I were to tell you that Lowe out-Bay-City-Rollers The Bay City Rollers on “Rollers Show.”  I remember back in the 1990’s, when The Backstreet Boys hit it big, thinking to myself “These songs suck, I could do that!”  Well back in the 70’s Nick Lowe felt the same way about The Bay City Rollers (kids: go look them up).  Unlike me, Nick actually went out and recorded what is ostensibly the greatest Bay City Rollers song of all-time.  Part hilarious parody, part serious-deconstruction of a horrible fad–“Rollers Show” actually works as a respectably awesome song despite itself.  I defy you listen to “Rollers Show” and not:

A). Smile

and

B). Cheerily sing along.

It’s one thing to attack faceless suits and thick-necked show promoters, but attacking helpless children  is taking it a bit too far…right?  Maybe you think Lowe should pick on people his own-size/talent?  Well how about this: on the same record he skewers The Bay City Rollers he also out-McCartney’s Paul McCartney. That’s right, SIR Paul McCartney*** 

The first time I heard “Nutted By Reality” I nearly choked on my Coca-Cola.  A truly strange song, on an album of strange songs, “Nutted By Reality” parodies Wings-era Macca.   Specifically the BAND ON THE RUN song “Mrs. Vanderbilt.”  Even after a causal comparison between “Mrs. Vanderbilt” and  “Nutted By Reality” it’s hard to deny that Lowe was taking the piss out of one of the planets all-time greatest songwriters.  Just like Paul’s “Band on the Run,” “Nutted By Reality” starts off like one song before hard-shifting into something else entirely.  Beginning as a bouncy song about Castro (?) the song then turns into a jangly-song about visiting his sister.  It’s so bizarre it’s downright divine.  The parody of McCartney is so spot-on it stops being a send-up and damn near becomes a love-letter to the former Beatles-solo work.

If you’re at all pop person you owe it to yourself to check out JESUS OF COOL.

*God did that hurt.

**That honor belongs to “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” or “Cruel To Be Kind,” though most people don’t realize he wrote those songs as they’ve been covered ad nauseum.

***Though back in the 1970s he was “just” Paul.

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That Time The Ramones (And Clint Howard!) Blew-Up A High School

What do you get when you take B-Movie King Roger Corman, Clint Howard (Ron’s awesomely-fugly brother), and punk legends The Ramones? You get ROCK ‘N ROLL HIGH SCHOOL. I recently saw this movie for the first time thanks to Netflix, who have added it to their instant-streaming service (at least for now). The movie came out in the summer of 1979 but is set in 1980. Going in I didn’t know much about the movie except that The Ramones were in it and at the end (SPOILER) they blow-up a high school. The film had been on my “to-see” list for a while, but because it was a low-budget B-movie and a bit obscure, getting my hands on it proved difficult.

You could do a lot worse…I’m looking at you ROCK OF AGES.

Apparently the film was quite popular in the early days of MTV and was often used to supplement the fledgling channels lack of content. Anyway, the movie is about some teens at Vince Lombardi High (school motto: Winning is better than losing) who get this new hardass principal. Like all 80’s movies, this principal is a total nutcase hell-bent on keeping the students away from *gasp* ROCK ‘N ROLL and it’s evil influences. Though it was set in 1980, the film seems at times to be ripped from the late 1950’s or early 1960’s as far as it’s depiction of teen culture (“Rave on?” Seriously?). This is most likely because the film was produced by Roger Corman, who at the time was trying to recapture the glory of his rebellious-teen flicks from the previous decades. I’ve read that the project was originally to be-titled DISCO HIGH, that should tell you just how out-of-touch (some of) the creators of this movie were. Thankfully, the film got a re-write and The Ramones were added. Speaking of writing, the story is credited to Allan Arkush and Joe Dante. Yes, that Joe Dante (of GREMLINS fame).

The Ramones, while in the film (a lot) are not the protagonists of the film, which kinda surprised me. Instead, the movie is about this girl who wants to write songs for The Ramones, and of course is in love with Joey (‘natch). Her attempt to score tickets for the big Ramones concert lands her afoul of the school’s new principal, which sets off a series of high-jinks. Overall the movie was “cute” but not “funny.” There were a few scenes that really made me laugh, but overall the film’s jokes ended up coming off a bit corny. Clint Howard (!) steals the show as a “fixer” who runs an illicit business in the men’s room. There’s a great scene where he’s teaching two “square” students how to “neck.” It’s pretty much as awesome as it sounds. I also found it weird seeing Howard with a full head of hair, so if you’ve wondered what Clint Howard looked like as a younger man you need to check this movie out. The Ramones themselves, while obviously not actors, come off pretty cool in the movie though I couldn’t help but notice that The Ramones basically act like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (only in a punk band). One of the best scenes of the movie has then cramming pizza into their mouths after a gig. Well, all of them except for Joey, who’s forced to eat alfalfa and wheatgerm by their bizarre manager.

Joey Ramone was not known as the world’s best substitute.

The movie’s chief flaw is it’s rather schizophrenic tone. At one point it seems like a coming of age story, then it’s a raunchy Porky’s-esque sex farce, at a few points it’s a wacky-slapstick comedy, and then it flirts with being a musical. Actually, now that I think about it, ROCK ‘N ROLL HIGH SCHOOL reminded me a bit of John Hughes excellent film WEIRD SCIENCE. Both feature lovable losers getting some “special” help, instead of Kelly LeBrock the teens get The Ramones. Both also have bizarre over-the-top moments, though ROCK ‘N ROLL HIGH SCHOOL’s are fewer than WEIRD SCIENCE. But there’s a running gag throughout the film about exploding mice that could have probably fit nicely into Hughes’ film.

As a rock ‘n roll relic/curiosity ROCK ‘N ROLL HIGH SCHOOL doesn’t disappoint. There are better 80’s teen comedies to be sure, but none that feature The Ramones. The soundtrack is pretty varied, too. I was shocked when I started watching the film because the first song played is NOT The Ramones but rather Paul McCartney!!! In addition to the former Beatle, Alice Cooper, Brownsville Station, Chuck Berry, and (awesomely enough) Nick Lowe are also included in the soundtrack. Oh, yeah and at the end The Ramones help blow-up the high school.

ROCK N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL is as cheesy as the pizza The Ramones eat after their concert–and that’s a good thing.

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