Labour of Lust
Nick Lowe’s second album in 1979 came at a pivotal time for the British singer-songwriter, pub rock pioneer and punk rock producer. He was following up his successful solo debut Jesus of Cool (which was called Pure Pop for Now People here in the States). He had just produced the debut single by a little band called The Pretenders (after having already produced seminal records for Elvis Costello, The Damned, and others). And he would soon marry Carlene Carter, the step-daughter of Johnny Cash.
Labour of Lust once again featured the talents of Rockpile, the backing band that served both Lowe and Dave Edmunds on their late ’70s records and tours (the band also included drummer Terry Williams and guitarist Billy Bremner). The record, re-issued this year by the great Yep Roc label, is a tour-de-force collection of quirky pure pop singles, country rockers, and quiet ballads.
It all kicks off with “Cruel to Be Kind.” From the opening drum intro to the strummed guitars to the backing harmonies, how can you not love this song? In fact, it may be one of my favorite songs ever. Co-written with his old bandmate in the pub rock band Brinsley Schwartz, Ian Gomm (who a year earlier had recorded another of my favorite songs of the ’70s, “Hold On”), it would go on to become Lowe’s biggest Stateside hit, and deservedly so.
But it’s far from the only treasure here. “American Squirm” seems like a subversive inside joke that Lowe managed to turn into a perfect pop song with great harmonies, a sing-along chorus, and a melodic guitar line. “Skin Deep” and “Dose of You” are real lost pop gems ripe for rediscovery here, the latter with one of the coolest bridge parts you’re likely ever to hear.
“Born Fighter,” with terrific guitar work from Edmunds and Bremner, sounds like one of Paul McCartney’s country rock dalliances (think “Helen Wheels”). “Without Love,” later covered by Johnny Cash and others, is a country jangler par excellence. McCartney comes to mind too on Lowe’s version of fellow pub rock pioneer Mickey Jupp’s “Switchboard Susan.” As the story goes, Rockpile recorded the backing track for Jupp’s first solo album, Juppanese, but Jupp refused to sing on it so Lowe cut his own vocal (Jupp later recut the song for his second solo disc with producers Godley and Creme). At any rate, this version is a terrific rocker with a strutting guitar riff and a fantastic, but all too brief solo.
The Chuck Berry-esque “Love So Fine” has a confident strut to it as well, more great harmony vocals and plenty of Telecaster magic. “Cracking Up” is edgier and much more British in its sound with a cool guitar riff and a Chris Difford-like vocal.
A pair of ballads here — “You Make Me” and “Basing Street” — seem to pre-sage Lowe’s later albums of “adult” torch songs like 1997’s Dig My Mood. Another ballad, “Endless Grey Ribbon,” is set apart by a weird synth-y bass part.
But even one of the record’s only throwaways, the virtually tuneless “Big Kick, Plain Scrap,” is interesting nevertheless.
Just as it did in 1979, Labour of Lust continues to demonstrate why Nick Lowe will forever be the Jesus of Cool.
Nick Lowe: www.nicklowe.com