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).
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:
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.