A friend recently tagged me on Facebook. “Post the cover of a great album,” his post began. “No need to explain why it’s a great album.”
Naturally, I started mentally riffling through my entire album collection. Should I go with one of my all-time favorites, like Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde”? (Which isn’t just “one of” my all-time favorites, it’s the pinnacle.) Do I go with something recent, like Alabama Shakes’ “Boys & Girls”? (But it’s a crummy cover.) Do I go with a classic album with a great cover, though I’m not a huge fan of the music? (The Mothers of Invention’s “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” comes to mind.)
I finally settled on Nick Lowe’s “Jesus of Cool.”
Well, “settled on” isn’t quite the right phrase. I’ve been a huge fan of Lowe’s 1978 solo debut since I purchased it sometime in the ’80s under its American title, “Pure Pop for Now People” — a title which, though it’s not as subversive as “Jesus of Cool,” may be more appropriate and a better name, too. (Hell, it’s up there with “Weasels Ripped My Flesh.”)
Indeed, the American album is pure pop from track 1, “So It Goes,” which begins:
I remember one night the kid cut off his right arm
In a fit to save a bit of power
He got fifty thousand watts
In a big acoustic tower
And it never flags from there. (The UK version opens with the final cut on the U.S. version, “Music for Money.”)
The album’s other songs have an equally oddball mix of cheery melodies and perverse lyrics. “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” is about exactly what it says. “Marie Provost” retells the story of a silent-film star who died, alone and destitute, and then was eaten by her dog. (That’s the story Kenneth Anger tells in “Hollywood Babylon,” anyway; the truth is less sensational. Also, her name was actually “Prevost.”)
Lowe encapsulates the story in three lines: “She was a winner / Who became a doggie’s dinner / She never meant that much to me.”
And on it goes: “Tonight,” a ’50s pastiche; “They Called It Rock” (originally “Shake and Pop”), somewhat based on the disastrous American history of Lowe’s old band, Brinsley Schwarz; “Nutted by Reality,” which begins “I heard they castrated Castro”; and one of the all-time great two-chord bashers, “Heart of the City.”
“Pure Pop” also contains “Rollers Show,” which pulls off the trick of both glorifying the Bay City Rollers and mocking them. This was the follow-up to Lowe’s first solo single, “Bay City Rollers We Love You,” written in an attempt to break his contract with United Artists. Bizarrely — or maybe not, because we’re talking Nick Lowe — it became a hit in Japan.
Why none of these songs cracked the U.S. Top 40 is beyond me — they’re gold, every single one. But Lowe finally broke through the next year with “Cruel to Be Kind,” from his second LP, “Labour of Lust.”
In the years since, he’s become somewhat of an elder statesman of the British pop scene, admired by songwriters even if he’s never sold enough records to headline anything bigger than a decent-sized theater. He’s handled it all with good humor: After all, this is the guy who, when he unexpectedly received a seven-figure royalty check for writing “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding” — covered on the “Bodyguard” soundtrack — decided to invest a chunk of it in a low-key American tour. Just because.
Incidentally, that guy on the album cover who looks like Dave Edmunds? It is Dave Edmunds. You learn something new every day.