Nick Lowe – Jesus of Cool
It’s about time! One of the greatest albums of the ’70’s is finally being reissued after years of being sadly out of print. Long spoken about in hushed tones, Jesus of Cool was the de facto beginning (after some unsuccessful singles) of pure pop tunesmith/producer/raconteur Nick Lowe’s solo career. Lowe, he of catchy melody and witty turn of phrase, busted out of the gate with this masterpiece in 1977 when punk was just gaining a foothold in England and other more musically inclined musicians were just beginning to start the New Wave movement. Where punk had the energy of garage rock times a hundred and little to no melody, New Wave had amped-up energy as well but proffered catchy, quirky melodies.
Lowe began his career as a member of British pop band Kippington Lodge with his friend, guitarist Brinsley Schwartz, in the late ’60’s. Soon tiring of playing disposable pop music (even though it was great disposable pop music) Lowe and Schwartz broke away from the Lodge, found some like-minded musical friends and formed another band and, in typical self-deprecating fashion, named the band after his low-key guitarist buddy, thus the band Brinsley Schwartz was born. Taking its’ cue from bands such as Crosby, Stills and Nash and The Band, Brinsley Schwartz’ music was a response to the thuddeningly dull pop and heavy metal music being made at the time by most British bands thanks to the plodding influence of bands like Yes, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. While one can agree both those bands were great at what they did, at the time many were yearning for a more melodic, less wanky alternative. Typically contrary to anything remotely considered commercial, Lowe decided the best path to follow was one filled with introspective country rock. For the next six years he led the always musically- evolving Brinsleys from their country rock beginnings to their end as one of the best pub rock bands ever. Of course, pub rock led to punk which led to New Wave and Lowe’s career after Brinsley Schwartz was as an originator off all of these genres.
As a staff producer at Stiff Records, Lowe jumped into the studio with any motley character he could find. His nickname “Basher” came from this period, where Lowe would take some scuzzy-looking punk rocker with lots of vision but usually negligible talent and haul them off to the studio to “bash” out some songs as quick as possible. Though skilled in the studio thanks to years of work with Kippington Lodge and the Brinsleys, Lowe’s production strength was allowing the artists’ own innate musical qualities to come through while still being able to offer a gentle nudge in the right direction. In other words, a Lowe production was known for Lowe staying in the background, though it is worth considering how much Lowe really offered his charges. Just about every Lowe production is pretty stellar (especially his work with Elvis Costello) which might allude to his being more involved than previously thought. He wasn’t George Martin by any means yet his work still stands up where other producers’ work during this time period often sounds dated and lacking.
During this time of heavy production work for such influential artists as The Pretenders, Dave Edmunds, Elvis Costello and The Damned, Lowe was also working on several albums as session player and songwriter including Edmunds’ albums Get It and Repeat When Necessary (among others). Edmunds had met and befriended Lowe when the Brinsleys requested Edmunds help produce what would become the band’s final album release. Though saddened by the Brinsleys break-up, Lowe and Edmunds got along quite well and formed an ad-hoc partnership of sorts that would last five years and produce many fine albums, culminating in their co-lead band Rockpile’s lone album (the marvelous Seconds Of Pleasure) in 1980. But at this point, amongst all this work (including serving as A&R/staff producer and talent scout for Stiff Records) Lowe was also stockpiling demos for his own solo project. Lowe released several solo singles for Stiff to mark time and to help find his solo sea legs but soon issued his solo debut Jesus Of Cool. Retitled Pure Pop For Now People in the US so as not to offend, the album was a watershed release for British rock. A mixture of styles featuring the energy of punk combined with the playfulness and pop smarts of new wave, the album sounded like nothing else. The unfortunate renaming of the album even reveals some of its’ charm. While Jesus Of Cool is way…um, cooler, Pure Pop For Now People is the perfect description of the music contained within.
Thanks to Lowe’s many years in the studio with his own bands and various other artists, Lowe was able to craft an album in which no one song sounded like any other. In fact, where common music business practice dictated a whole album have a common sound, Lowe decided to craft each song as its’ own entity, doing what was right for each song and not caring how one song sounded compared to others on the album. By doing this, the album sounds more like a collection of hit singles than a cohesive statement of its’ own. Whether it was planned that way or not, Lowe hit upon something because the album instantly became one of the hippest releases of its’ time. Mirroring the disparate styles of songs on the album, the cover features photos of Lowe in various get-ups which gives the impression Lowe felt he could do anything he wanted to musically, in any style, in any format. After one listen to the album you will know for sure Lowe was right on the mark, despite the braggadocio. Filled with bonus tracks (most of the solo singles he released before the album), this is one of the best albums Lowe ever made and though he still releases great albums, he never quite reached the level of excellence of this album again.
Fans of power pop and pub rock are going to love this reissue. Though most consider Lowe a one hit wonder, his pedigree as artist and producer is above reproach and this album highlights everything that made and makes him one of the greatest songwriters ever. If you like pop music with clever wordplay and irresistable melodies, you’re going to need to get this album pronto.