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TERRY GROSS, host:

In the upheavals that have rocked the music business over the past couple of decades, countless albums that were once considered essential or classic have gotten lost.

Nick Lowe's second album, "Labour of Lust," was released in 1979 and has been out of print for nearly 20 years. Yep Roc Records has remedied that situation with a new reissue, and rock historian Ed Ward has a review.

(Soundbite of song, "Born Fighter")

Mr. NICK LOWE (Musician): (Singing) Well, here she comes again, blowing everybody's circuits. Girls like that bring a lump to my pocket. Everybody says I can never get her. I've been a lot of things. But I never was a quitter. I'm a born fighter. I've got a wriggle for my will now. I'm a born fighter. How I hate it on a plate. Shoe shopping...

ED WARD: Simultaneously with the rediscovery of Nick Lowe's classic 1979 album "Labour of Lust," someone's dug up an old British television documentary which was shot in Eden Studios as Lowe recorded 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.

(Soundbite of song, "Big Kick, Plain Scrap")

Mr. LOWE: (Singing) Big kick, plain scrap. You better shut that trap or come and get it. You kick like a mule. You eat like a pig. You drink like a fish. Oh you're a queer one, baby. Oh, when you hold me, in the night. On drugs. You're so nice on drugs. Big kick, plain scrap.

WARD: One thing about the band was their ability to, as it were, speak punk without being punk. Edmunds' part of the band stuck closer to more traditional classic rock and roll, but Lowe already had the reputation of 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. but re-titled "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 to make all the difference.

(Soundbite of song, "Cruel to Be Kind")

Mr. LOWE: (Singing) Oh, I can't take another heartache. Though you say, oh my friend, I'm at my wit's end. You say your love is bona fide, but that don't coincide with the things that you do, and when I ask you to be nice you say you've got to be cruel to be kind in the right measure. Cruel to be kind it's a very good sign. Cruel to be kind means that I love you. Baby, got to be cruel, got to be cruel to be kind.

"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 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.

(Soundbite of song, "American Squirm")

Mr. LOWE: (Singing) I made an American squirm and it felt so right. On screen was the musical worm, deep deep into the night.

Yes I was living in a wonderful world. Everything was fine. Tried to mate in a horrible state. Deep deep into the night. It goes on and on and on. It goes on and on and on. It goes on...

WARD: 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."

(Soundbite of song, "Without Love")

Mr. LOWE: (Singing) Without love, I am half human. Without love, I'm more machine. Without love there's nothing doing. I will die without love. Without love I am an island all by myself in a heartbreak sea. Without love there's no denying. I am dying without love.

Oh there is nowhere I can run and there is no hiding place. Sticking out like a sore thumb by the gloomy look upon my face. Without love...

WARD: In the end, Nick 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 which established him. It's good to have it back.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the South of France. He blogs at wardinfrance.blogspot.com. He reviewed the reissue of Nick Lowe's album "Labour of Lust."

You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.

(Soundbite of song, "Switchboard Susan")

Mr. LOWE: (Singing) Switchboard Susan, won't you give me a line. I need a doctor, give me 999...

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