Simultaneously with the rediscovery of Nick Lowe's classic 1979 album Labour of Lust, someone has dug up an old British television documentary that was shot in Eden studios as Lowe recorded it and posted it on YouTube. The film, titled Born Fighters, has been chopped into 12 tiny pieces, which makes it hard to watch, but it shows the intensity Lowe put into the project.
There were four musicians involved — Dave Edmunds and Billy Bremner on guitars, Lowe on bass and Terry Williams on drums — and depending on who had the most recent album out, they toured as either Dave Edmunds and Rockpile or Nick Lowe and Rockpile. The reputation they had as one of the tightest bands around was, as I can attest from having seen them several times, well-deserved.
Born Fighters (1/12)
One thing about the band was the ability to speak punk without being punk. Edmunds' part of the band stuck closer to more traditional classic rock 'n' roll, but Lowe already had a reputation for having produced bands like The Damned, as well as his protege, Elvis Costello. The British press may have said snide things about their being too old to play like that — the liner notes say their average age was an ancient 32 — but the British press was always saying snide things, and the proof was in the grooves.
Labour of Lust was something of a crucial test for Lowe. His British record company, Radar, had signed a deal with Columbia in the U.S., where radio's resistance to the new music of the late '70s was at a high point. His first album, called Jesus of Cool in the U.K., was retitled Pure Pop for Now People for the American market and was just that — pure pop. But although a couple of singles were pulled from it, they flopped. Gregg Geller, who was overseeing the new album for Columbia, asked Lowe to include a song he'd recorded with his old band, Brinsley Schwarz, and it turned out that the track — "Cruel to Be Kind" — would make all the difference.
"Cruel to Be Kind" was, and remains, Lowe's biggest U.S. hit, peaking at 12 on the Billboard chart, not coincidentally because a brand-new television channel, MTV, showed its video, which was shot at Lowe's wedding to Carlene Carter, part of the extended Johnny Cash family. Some of us had already heard "American Squirm," a single Lowe had recorded with Elvis Costello's band, released in England, and which showed up on the album, which could well have been about her.
But Johnny Cash was a fan of his new son-in-law, and would soon record his version of one of Labour of Lust's best songs, "Without Love."
In the end, Lowe proved to be more of an album artist than a singles artist. He's had a long and fruitful career, and this is the record that established him. It's good to have it back.