Every now and then, a “criminally overlooked” record gets picked up and re-released by a hip label to glowing reviews. The collective blogosphere, the music press, and rock lit nerds, anxious to latch onto a little piece of hidden history, are quick to extol said album’s virtues and heap praise at its feet. It’s easy to get desensitized to the whole process. I mean, can this “unknown classic” really be that great? If it’s so amazing, why haven’t I heard it?
Well, put your record industry mechanics aside, and let’s cut straight to it: Nick Lowe’s 1978 solo debut, Jesus of Cool is undoubtedly a rock ‘n’ pop masterpiece, and every single shining review you’ve read about it is right-freaking-on.
Perhaps you’ve noticed Nick Lowe’s name on a few of your albums. A legendary knob twiddler, he’s always been known as the man behind the boards on Elvis Costello’s best records, as well as an in-house producer for Stiff Records, where his fast-paced recording style earned him the nickname “The Basher.” But Lowe was a prominent performer in London’s pub rock scene in addition to his production credits, playing bass and writing songs with Brinsley Schwartz, who’s ruckus live shows paved the way for the burgeoning punk scene.
Cobbled together from various fly-by-night sessions and recorded on borrowed or stolen studio time, Jesus of Cool featured Nick flanked by a who’s who of the London scene, featuring contributions from members of the Rumour, Larry Wallis (Motorhead, the Pink Faries), and longtime associate Dave Edmunds. The album was released in 1978 on Radar Records, former Stiff main-man Jake Rivera’s new label, and was surrounded with ubiquitous sloganeering brought over from Stiff’s ad department: “We’ve finally nailed the Jesus of Cool” read posters all over London. “The Jesus of Cool recordeth for your sins. The Jesus of Cool is a testament to the Church of Aural Sects.”
Not surprisingly, “conservative” American audiences were given the same album under a different name (Pure Pop for Now People) and saw a slightly different tracklist. Fortunately, “Pure Pop” says as much about the album as the original title. With reckless abandon, Lowe tackles a variety of pop styles, and the results are exhilarating. We get tales of vicious show promoters sung through a Thin Lizzy-inspired lens and Jackson Five-style dancefloor pop that grinds its gears midway, launching into something like Paul McCartney’s English reggae excursions.
“Tonight” recalls The Everly Brothers; “Rollers Show” chews the bubble gum of its subject matter, The Bay City Rollers; and “Heart of the City,” recorded live, finds Lowe and company blasting their way through a straight-ahead rock tune with snarling punk rock intensity. It’s not hard to see why audiences were more than a little confused with Jesus of Cool. It was too punk for the rockers, too rock for the punkers, too traditional for the new wavers, and too new wave for the pub-rockers.
Opener “Music for Money” chugs along with heavy menace, its lyrics reflecting Lowe’s disdain for the music biz. “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass,” inspired by a trashed hotel room during a tour with Bad Company, is a perfect piece of new wave pop, it’s bassline pogo-ing about while tinkling piano and syncopated drums dance around endlessly. Lowe’s lyric “I love the sound of breaking glass/ Especially when I’m lonely” somehow manages to sound utterly goofy and poignant at the same time. The gleefully gruesome “Marie Provost” is similarly conflicted: a sly ditty about the silent film actresses’ mutilation by her dogs, the track certainly sounds like it would appeal to a shock-hungry audience, yet Lowe sings over it with a wistfulness that paints a more complex picture -- at once sad, funny, and lonesome. It flew smoothly over the heads of the average listener.
Jesus of Cool is indeed Nick Lowe as pop prankster, but even more, it’s Nick Lowe as pop fan -- a record collectors record: sonically all over the map, witty, charming, and fun without ever being easy. His later records maintained a master craftsman's quality, but would move in more subdued directions, embracing polite pop, rockabilly, and country sounds. “In those days I wasn’t interested in creating serious art," Lowe states in Yep Roc’s deluxe-edition liner notes. "I was much more interested in the mischief. I wanted to make music that was accessible, but just as you’ve hooked people in, you would screw it up and throw it across the room. I do regret it somewhat, but time was of the essence and it had to be disposable.”
Lowe doesn’t give himself enough credit. If Jesus of Cool is in fact disposable, then it can only be disposable in the best possible way.