1979: Nick Lowe / Labour Of Lust
by J A Gray
I’m well aware that I’m putting in an underdog to bat here. The star album of 1979 is almost definitely London Calling by The Clash. That record’s ambition and scope blew the narrow confines of what punk was supposed to be wide open. It was a masterclass in music and songwriting and fully deserves all the accolades that it has received down through the years. But I want to be honest with you here so I want to talk about my personal favourite album of that year, and that’s Labour Of Lust.
It’s strange for me to see recent footage of Nick Lowe. He looks like such a frail old man, with his big black specs dwarfing his wizened face, topped off with a snow-white quiff. But then I have to remember that the punk/new wave era wasn’t the start of this man’s music career. His first band, Kippington Lodge, started out in 1967. They morphed into Brinsley Schwarz, stalwarts of the British ‘pub rock’ scene during the early to mid 70s, and during this period he wrote what is probably his best known song, (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding. By the time that he relaunched himself as a punk-friendly solo act, he was already in his late twenties. He had also become an in-demand producer for the likes of Elvis Costello, The Damned, and The Pretenders. Initially most of this work was done in-house for Stiff Records. His productions were done on the cheap but with a great ear for what made a good sounding record. He was nicknamed Basher after his manifesto: “bash it down and we’ll tart it up later”. That his name was now linked to these rising stars of the new wave did a lot to raise interest in his own recordings during this period.
Marcus bought many of these records. He had Lowe’s solo singles So It Goes and I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass (Lowe’s biggest hit here in the UK), his Bowi EP*, and Jesus Of Cool, his first solo LP. Jesus Of Cool was a strange album. It sounded like what it was – a collection of variable songs recorded at a bunch of disparate sessions with very little in the way of unity of sound, style or mood. Some of it was strong but much of it was undermined by jokiness – at times it almost sounded like a novelty record.
My next memory of Nick Lowe was seeing him on TV when we were over at Glo’s house. BBC 2 were showing a documentary called Born Fighters about Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds recording their new albums. The two men had known each other for a while, but had now begun playing in the same band, Rockpile. Rockpile played gigs under their collective moniker, but because Lowe and Edmunds had separate contracts with different labels they couldn’t issue records under the group name. They had already recorded Edmund’s 1978 LP, Tracks On Wax 4, and were now back in the studio recording enough tracks for two albums, Lowe’s Labour Of Lust and Edmunds’s Repeat When Necessary, and a BBC film crew were there to see what went down. I had become fascinated with how groups worked together in a recording studio ever since seeing The Beatles’ Let It Be. Born Fighters was probably only the second film of this ilk that I’d seen, so I sat their utterly enraptured watching Edmunds and Lowe record vocals, or hot-shot guest picker Albert Lee add his jaw-dropping lead guitar to Sweet Little Lisa**, and Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott dropping by for a listen and a chat. I watched it again a few years ago and my memory had played tricks on me. The studio was much more low-budget than I’d remembered and the musicians less glamorous and well-heeled. But it stands up as a fascinating document of those people and times, and I recommend you give it a watch.***
Within days of seeing the documentary I bought Repeat When Necessary at HMV in Manchester. The title proved to be somewhat ironic. Side one, track one, Girls Talk jumped like billio and I had to persuade Dad to take me back to exchange it. Twice. Every copy jumped. Of course this was because the whole batch was the same pressing – I know that now, but I didn’t understand about those things back then. My poor father. By now we were over at Grandma’s house in Abram, and the drive to Manchester was a bit of a hassle for him. It was certainly too much to do it a third time. I was resigned to having a faulty LP and tossed it onto the car’s rear parcel shelf in disgust when we began the return journey to Richmond at the end of the holidays. And guess what? It played just fine on my own record player. I was delighted, if ever so slightly guilt-ridden.
I bought Repeat When Necessary first because it was released first, in the spring of 1979. I think I thought that Marcus would get Lowe’s record when it came out a few months later, though actually he didn’t. The reviews of Labour Of Lust probably put him off – I remember one writer being disappointed that it was more a traditional rock record than Jesus Of Cool, and that it sounded more akin to Edmunds’s sound. No surprise there as it was the same band after all, but what the writer was really bemoaning was Lowe revealing himself to be less new wave than his recent credentials had suggested. He was daring to show his roots (and in more ways than one – the album cover showed the artist’s barnet speckled with grey hairs). None of this mattered a jot to me and I bought the album later that same year.
I think of these two records as two halves of a whole – a double album released as a pair of single LPs. One song – Endless Grey Ribbon – was originally tried out with Edmunds singing, but eventually wound up on Lowe’s album with his vocal replacing Dave’s attempt. Lowe’s record is the stronger and more consistent of the two, but a good half of the Edmunds set is absolutely wonderful. Between them they notched up three hit singles (Girls Talk and Queen Of Hearts from Dave’s record, and Cruel To Be Kind from Nick’s) and that’s no mean feat. The major difference between the two artists was that Edmunds was principally an interpretive singer whereas Lowe was a singer/songwriter. These days he has a reputation for writing bone-dry, grown-up songs, usually in a sparse ballad setting. Back then, Lowe was louder, goofier and considerably saucier. The songs on Labour Of Lust are filled with wordplay and entendre. Born Fighter kicks off with the lines “Well here she comes again blowing everybody’s circuits/Girls like that bring a lump to my pocket”. The girl in Love So Fine “make[s] the backbone quiver when the egg man deliver”. And the cover song Switchboard Susan, written by pub rock contemporary Mickey Jupp, contains a whole directory of telephone puns from “she’s the greatest little operator”, to “come on, sugar, let’s get engaged”, and culminating in the so-bad-it’s-great “When I’m near you, girl, I get an extension/And I don’t mean Alexander Graham Bell’s invention/Switchboard Susan can we be friends/After six, at weekends?”
Despite this, the songs on Labour Of Lust are less played for laughs than those on Jesus Of Cool. And all of this sexual levity is balanced by more serious themes found on other songs on the record. Cracking Up is a sharp-edged depiction of a soul in despair (“Cracking up, like a worn-out shoe/Ain’t wet but the world’s leaking through/l’d run but I’d find no pace/l laugh but it’s wrecking me, wrecking me”), Big Kick Plain Scrap is an unflinching portrayal of two heroin-using lovers, and the stripped-down solo acoustic You Make Me, which sounds like a recent Nick Lowe song sent 30 years back in time, is naked, honest, heart-on-the-sleeve stuff.
The differing moods of the lyrics are unified through the sound of the band. Dave Edmunds and Billy Bremner’s guitars ring out loud and clear. The sound is urgent and joyous – a blend of power pop and classic rock ‘n’ roll. Riffs and hooks are scattered around like they’re ten-a-penny. Edmunds and Bremner also contribute harmony vocals which do much to flatter Lowe’s more limited vocal range. In case you’re not aware, Dave Edmunds can really sing up a storm. Having him as a backing singer must have been a real kick. Listen to his voice sing the “I don’t think it’s funny no more” refrain on Cracking Up – he absolutely sells the song to the listener.
Much of the attention was focused on the album’s hit single, Cruel To Be Kind, which went to number 12 in the charts both here and in the States. It remains Lowe’s sole Stateside hit. A fine pop song, he had already recorded it twice – once in an unreleased recording with Brinsley Schwarz (Lowe co-wrote the song with that band’s rhythm guitarist, Ian Gomm), and once, in a decidedly throwaway arrangement, as the b-side of Little Hitler from Jesus Of Cool. Nick was persuaded to record the song a third time when others heard an untapped commercial potential in the song, so he acquiesced and this time he captured it perfectly. Unfortunately the success of the single didn’t have much of a knock-on effect – both of the other two singles pulled from the album flopped, and the album stalled outside the American top 30, and didn’t even go top 40 at home.
The good news was that by the following year, 1980, Rockpile were finally free to record their first album under their collective name. The bad news was that the album was a stinker. Edmunds, Lowe and Bremner shared the lead vocal spotlight on Seconds Of Pleasure but this new-found democracy appeared to succeed only in watering down the band’s strengths. Or maybe they’d just run out of steam. Before very much longer Lowe and Edmunds had a big falling out, and Rockpile was done.
Anybody wanting to hear the band at its best though only needs to pick up Labour Of Lust and Repeat When Necessary. Oh and you may as well pick up a copy of Tracks On Wax 4 while you’re at it. There’s not a year goes by when I don’t dust these records off, crank up the stereo, have a beer, and salute one of the all-time best kept secret rock ‘n’ roll bands.
* Nick reasoned that Bowie’s Low LP was almost named after him, save for missing off the final ‘e’ from his name, so he responded in kind.
** Sweet Little Lisa can be heard on Repeat When Necessary. It could possibly be my favourite guitar solo ever. It’s so good it makes you laugh with astonishment. Albert Lee (not to be confused with either Alvin or Arthur) had been the lead guitar player in Heads Hands & Feet, had replaced none other than James Burton in Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band, and went on to play with both Eric Clapton and The Everly Brothers amongst others.
*** Thankfully someone somewhere had the record button pressed down on their trusty VCR, and you can see Born Fighters for yourself on YouTube. It’s a little bit blurry but still eminently watchable.
N.B. Labour Of Lust is currently available on CD, in remastered form. The original LP had slightly different track-listings in the UK and the US. The American version re-jigged the running order and left off Endless Grey Ribbon (ironically the most American-themed song on the record), and replaced it with an earlier single, American Squirm, which didn’t feature Rockpile. The remaster combines both variations and adds the solo acoustic b-side, Basing Street. It’s sister album, Dave Edmunds’s Repeat When Necessary, is also available on CD.
My other nominations for 1979 albums of merit:
The Clash / London Calling
The Stranglers / The Raven
Serge Gainsbourg / Aux Armes Et Cætera
Neil Young & Crazy Horse / Rust Never Sleeps
Neil Young & Crazy Horse / Live Rust
Culture / Cumbolo
Dave Edmunds / Repeat When Necessary
Squeeze / Cool For Cats
Elvis Costello And The Attractions / Armed Forces