Keeping His Cool

Nick the Knife's regained his edge, and the world's a better place for it

The Jesus of Cool is back. Not that he was really gone -- it's not like he died or anything like that -- but Nick Lowe is fresh from a trip through Little Village and on tour for the first time in five years to promote a new solo album, The Impossible Bird.

For those of you unfamiliar with Lowe's oeuvre, think of him as 1) a damn fine songwriter; 2) a seminal producer; and 3) the godfather of post-punk.

Lowe got his start in Brinsley Schwarz, the most talented of the bands to emerge from England's pub rock scene in the early '70s. Pub rock was punk's wiser older brother -- the pubbers and the punks were reacting against the same overblown self-seriousness and intellectual vacuity that characterized so much of rock in the early and mid-'70s (Frampton Comes Alive, Boston, Brain Salad Surgery, etc.). But where the punks threw what turned out to be just a large tantrum, the pub rockers stripped down the instrumentation to a slightly countrified minimum, played small venues (hence the "pub") and developed a clever, biting lyrical style.

But just as punk never really caught fire stateside, the pub rockers didn't really survive the journey across the Atlantic. Though they had some English hits with "Ebury Down" and "Country Girl," both written and sung by Lowe, Brinsley Schwarz (the name of the band and its lead guitarist) had about as much a chance of being stopped on the street as Delmore Schwartz. As the band broke up in 1976, Lowe and Brinsley manager Jake Riviera formed Stiff Records (motto: "If it's a Stiff, it's a hit"), whose first release was Lowe's debut as a solo act, "Heart of the City" b/w "So It Goes." Instead of following up his critical and (for the first time) commercial success with an LP, Lowe went full-time into production work.

He secured his position in rock history by producing Elvis Costello's 1977 debut, My Aim Is True. Costello, back then a skinny kid with dorky glasses and a scary intensity, leavened (or sharpened) the anger and energy that were punk's hallmarks with some of the sharpest songwriting around. Lowe shared Costello's love of intricate wordplay and pub rock musical sensibility, but instead of Costello's sputtering anger -- early on Costello named "revenge and guilt" as his biggest inspirations -- Lowe, perhaps in reaction, cultivated an air of bemused detachment. The casual, almost nonchalant (some would even say sloppy) air of Lowe's productions diluted some of Costello's bile, sometimes making Costello fight his way out of the mix just to be heard, but Costello needed the humanizing influence. It's almost frightening to contemplate the result if Costello had hooked up with a producer intent on distilling his essence or focusing his energy or whatever -- unmitigated viciousness can be pretty hard to bear.

Costello recognized his debt to Lowe in part by always closing his shows with an old Brinsley Schwarz tune, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." While producing Costello's first five albums, touring with Stiff colleagues Ian Dury and Wreckless Eric, as wells as producing discs by The Damned, Dave Edmunds and Costello sidemen the Clovers, Lowe found time to record his own solo album, released in 1978 as Pure Pop for Now People stateside and as Jesus of Cool in Britain. One could indulge in lame rock-crit labeling and call it the first postmodern rock album, but it is more a delightful survey of late '70s rock genres. Lowe effortlessly switches gears, accelerating from "Marie Provost" (about a silent film star who is eaten by her pet dachshund) to "Rollers Show," an up-tempo salute to the teen idol Bay City Rollers. Behind it all was Lowe's fondness of and talent for country rock. Unlike the Eagles, who seemed to do it because they were too tired to really rock, Lowe embraced the style and used it as a platform for his acidly witty lyrics.

Lowe's cool was one of intelligence but not intellectualism, and it allowed him to stand apart from the pandering mainstream and the adolescent punk fringe. Unlike most others who affect a certain superiority, Lowe wasn't a poseur. He had the chops -- musically and lyrically -- to back it up. The reputation for apparent laziness as a producer he developed while working on Costello's albums underscored this attitude: if the idea was good enough, it would carry its own weight. Endless takes and overdubs just weren't worth the effort; he crafted the song, not the record. This respect for the listener -- giving pride of place to the lyrics and assuming the consumer doesn't need everything spelled out -- usually vanishes when singer-songwriters get hold of big budgets and large studios, but Lowe kept his cool.

Labour of Lust, his 1979 album, proved the point. The little touches that make the album were the result of inspiration, not endless repetition -- such as the almost-corny backing vocals of "Cruel To Be Kind" and the cutting guitar line in "Cracking Up." As a whole, the album's mordantly witty love songs are just as good, or rather great, as the stuff on Pure Pop. Also in 1979, Lowe produced the Pretenders' first single, "Stop Your Sobbing," which landed the group a major label contract, and married Carlene Carter, daughter and granddaughter, respectively, of country icons June Carter and Maybelle Carter.

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