|Tom Hull's Old Rock Critic Writings|
Nick Lowe's Nonchalance
Brinsley Schwarz started out as Britain's answer to Poco, moved on to become the premier band of the pub rock movement, and wound up something akin to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Hooks. They produced six albums plus their Original Golden Greats sampler, ranging from their stodgy, rambling first (eponymous, as they say) album, on through Nervous on the Road, perhaps the best rock of the down-homey, easy-going ilk sine Delaney & Bonnie & so on, and New Favourites, their brilliant reworking of pop legend as genre. They started out overhyped and wound up underrated; their last three albums were never even released in the US of A, and they quietly disbanded a couple years ago.
Or, regrouped, one should say. Nominal leader Brinsley Schwarz and keyboard virtuoso Bob Andrews soon showed up in an outfit called the Rumour, a band that could do everything and had the vocalist/author they merited in Graham Parker. A combination good enough for a friend of mine to remark, "You know, Parker almost makes you glad Brinsley Schwarz broke up." Yeah, almost -- but the real talent behind the Brinsleys was bass-player Nick Lowe, who had become easily the best genre writer in rock, cranking out impeccable Berry-toons with Dave Edmunds, astounding Motown with Ian Gomm and Brinsley Schwarz, and by his lonesome self a Byrds/Who concoction, "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding," that rivals the Move's "Do Ya" up in pop singles heaven.
Well, Nick Lowe didn't disappear from the scene. He took to the studios and produced two Graham Parker albums, both Elvis Costellos, and damn near everything Stiff Records has unhatched. Meanwhile his songwriting gave Dave Edmunds something to crow about on Get It, Edmunds's best record in years; and he even slipped the Rumour the best song on their Parker-less Max album. But the most interesting stuff has been a series of odd and occasionally macabre 45s under his own name, leading up to the album Jesus of Cool (British title)/Pure Pop for Now People (American).
Those bits and pieces I found rather bewildering. Lowe's rep as a genre writer credits him with wit and cunning in his manipulation of commonplace elements -- with a little affection the very essence of pop art. The key to success in pop is recognition -- genre work provides a readymade framework, simplifying things without resorting to parody or satire. The problem is that while something like New Favourites' "Down in the Dive" could readily be tagged as, like, nasty, blaring saxes over a latter-day Temptations funk amid miscellaneous barroom noise -- a thoroughly marvellous invention -- the bits and pieces to Pure Pop for Now People completely defy such pigeonholing. (Well, not quite: "Rollers Show," is a ready-made Beach Boys joke and a complete throwaway, but (a) it was tossed in only as an afterthought tot he U.S. edition -- CBS must've been amused -- and (b) disposability is the essence in pop kulchur, so the only thing it spoils is my sentence.)
Together, though, and so neatly packaged, Lowe's meanderings evince an almost transcendental anti-literate cleverness; dispensed with is sophistication of genre, the inner circle of the knowledgeable. "Pure" is the simple invitation to abstraction; abstraction would just as soon be simpler as more complex, and in everyday encounters to distinguish between the two is hair-splitting. The whole transaction is an elaborate play on the word "Pop" -- that quaint Anglicism for rock, that elevation of the mainstream, that despoiling of the significant, the clever idiom itself. The approach is through the invention of "Now People," a recycling of teen and fab and neat and cool -- by the Jesus of Cool himself.
Which in the practical-ethical sense spells nonchalance. Or, "She never meant that much to me." And so it goes, and so it goes. "I Love the Sound of Breaking Class" has all this and more: one phrase (and almost any one note) of the stunning piano (Bob Andrews) satisfies as well as the entire song, an amazing elementalism. In fact, the piano is so kinky it throws the whole song askew, which is the sort of anarchism self-doubting concepts lean to. When he says "I need the noises of destruction," he's not being ironic -- he means it.
As a pop artifact, Pure Pop for Now People is both sublime and compelling. As a concept,it is rigorous and detailed. In both it is virtually unprecedented, which alone would imperil any attempt to analyze it. But I suspect that the real culprit is the basic nonchalance of the organizing concept itself. One could sermonize on this, but why bother. Critiques/reviews are themselves hopelessly mired in the literacy that engenders them, and perhaps when literacy disappears, luggage like "genre" and "irony" will go with. I count only one strike on each count (irony in "36 Inches High," the only non-Lowe song), but both swings are so wildly humorous they are hard not to forgive.
Lowe acquits himself on any criticism with the same grace and aplomb: While Pure Pop for Now People can support the most grandiose theoretic scrutiny, it is also totally oblivious to it. The reader who has survived this critical onslaught with at least a grin can be counted a good candidate for the now people, as can those who couldn't care less. More worldly souls might be better off with Elton John. Or if that's beneath one's dignity, Warren Zevon.
Nick Lowe makes everything cool. And now again!