Pure Pop for Now People
It’s a funny thing about rock and roll: a lot of smart people love music that’s pretty dumb. Sure, a Chuck Berry song teems with novelistic description, but for every “C’est La Vie” there are a dozen “Tutti Frutti” or “At the Hop”s. And for every dozen pimply-faced j.d.s pushing quarters into the jukebox, there’s a bespectacled kid reading Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n Roll Music.
Nick Lowe is clearly a smart guy, and he must have faced the dilemma of loving dumb music, too. There’s a lot about rock and roll that’s hard to resist: the simple but catchy tunes, the hip-shaking beat, the energy that get you past your reservations about yet another song about young love. So instead of surrendering to the trite, he worked around it. He kept the parts he loved best and adapted the other aspects to his own taste, and for the most part he succeeded in creating a uniquely clever body of rock and roll songs.
Early in his career as a member of Brinsley Schwartz, Lowe tried to make rock and roll smarter by merging it with country music. Country may be schmatzly, contrived, or reactionary, but it always pays special attention to the brain as well as the feet. The problem is that many of the virtues of rock and roll (as outlined above) don’t translate well into country music. Lowe’s early solo records find him with a new approach: writing great rock and roll songs with an ear for detail and lyrics about any old thing that strikes his fancy.
From a rumination on the fruitlessness of United Nations negotiations to a lament for a women who died alone and was eaten by her dachshund to a giddy tribute to Bay City Rollers fans to the story of calling the cops on your sister, Lowe delivers great rock and roll that never feels like he’s scaling back his ideas to make them more popular. The beauty of it all is that the music never fails to entertain, either. Lowe’s a fine if relatively anonymous singer, but his productions have a quality all their own.
The main idea motivating these recordings is to break through on the radio: each song has a powerful instrumental or vocal hook, and a surprisingly narrow frequency response (punchy bass, little high-end, and blaring mid-range) that’s tailored to car radio speakers of the 1970’s (today’s car speakers are beyond the imagination of even hi-fi makers of that era). But Lowe, being a smart guy, has paid attention to the details of his favorite hit records in the past, and echoes of other productions find their way into the mix. “So It Goes” has a jazzy feel and pattering melody like a Steely Dan record, so he gives it a Steely Dan sheen with plate echo and chorused guitars; “Rollers Show” is a delirious teen anthem, so the Phil Spector approach is replicated with multiple overdubs of keyboards and vocals, plus a breakdown to an immense drum beat; “Little Hitler” has that bittersweet mix of irony and melody beloved by the Eagles, so it gets a shimmering bed of acoustic guitars and fruity harmonies; “They Called It Rock” is a clever boogie that chronicles the up-and-down career of a glam band, so it gets the fuzzed-out guitars and clipped drums of a T. Rex record.
Appropriately, Lowe’s at his worst when he writes about those staples of dumb rock and roll: love and the music business. “Tonight” is a weak imitation of the worst aspects of pre-Beatles Philadelphia rock, and “Music for Money” sounds like a BTO outtake.
The album cover shows Nick in a variety of outfits playing different guitars, just like the chameleonic music represented on the album. But if you look carefully, the same guitar strap is in each photo. Similarly, Nick Lowe’s smart and funny personality is present no matter what style he’s performing, and Pure Pop for Now People is like spending half an hour with a bright, amusing friend. Not bad for a guy who’s devoted his life to dumb music.
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