by Perry Meisel
When I first heard Rockpile at the Bottom Line last year, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds & Co. sounded no better to me than an energetic bar band stranded somewhere between a Vassar mixer and a roadhouse further upstate. Nor did Lowe's Pure Pop tag help me understand what was going on. The only trouble with calling Rockpile's music Pure Pop is that there's nothing pure about it. Rockpile is all alloy. And that's the hugely ironic source of the band's uncommon wit and power. Not just because Lowe (re)assembles nearly every rocking shtick there is into an uncanny synthesis that makes the familiar new again, but because he overhauls the the existential stance of the rock (Brits read pop) star in the process.
Tom Hull rehearsed the complicated history of Lowe and Rockpile collaborator Dave Edmunds in these pages a year ago, tracing Lowe's urbane roots from the pub-rock Brinsleys, whom the rawer Edmunds produced in 1974. Lowe himself soon graduated to production work for Graham Parker and Elvis Costello, and was already the cultist's cultist before emerging as a star in his own right with the release of Pure Pop for Now People in 1978.
But though they're London rockers, both Lowe and Edmunds still managed to sound like real Colorado duffers - and believed that they were! - when they cooed sweet country harmonies over a band that could do anything at Central Park's Wollman rink on July 9. Rockpile's repertoire - two parts Lowe "originals," two parts Brinsely-mafia originals, one-part classics - proved a what's what of rock and roll as they hurtled through Berry Blazers ("Trouble Boys"), ride-em high-honkers ("Crawling from the Wreckage"), and orthodox stompers ("I Hear You Knockin' ") with energy I haven't encountered since the Clash at the Palladium. Though Lowe is a cunning master of the studio (as early efforts with eight-track equipment testify even more eloquently than his newer work with whatever gimmick he wants), in concert all he and Edmunds need are non-stop drummer Terry Williams and premier second guitarist Billy Bremner to rival any gigging band you can name. In Rockpile's hands, the minimal rock and roll unit becomes what the Who (appropriately) called maximum r&b, not boiled and shrivelled artpunk but big-boned stuff spoiling for a fight.
Usually Edmunds prefers a rockabilly accent (viz Get It and Tracks on Wax 4) so perhaps Lowe is the more interesting artist because he prefers no accent in particular - he digs 'em all, as Pure Pop aptly demonstrated in its apparently sincere command of more styles of rocking than any honest artiste is supposed to have. Though he and Edmunds have collaborated in Rockpile since 1977 or so, they continue to record as solo artists. No ego hassles here - what's really amazing about it is that two such peerless musicians would want to combine energies at all.
Edmunds relies on neither originals nor standards on his new album, Repeat When Necessary, but largely on tunes by tried and true colleagues like Parker and Costello. In fact, Repeat When Necessary has the big range of bags and nuances-into-the-distance that you tend to expect from Lowe himself, who delivers all that and more on his new record with Rockpile, Labour of Lust (Love's Labour's Lust?). No sequel to Pure Pop (which unlike Edmunds's Tracks on Wax 4 was not a Rockpile album), Labor of Lust pits breadth of musical allusion against recurrent crises of desire and exasperation ("I don't think it's funny no more," croons the desperate voice aswim in "an ocean of emotion" on the J.J. Cale cop, "Cracking Up") and teases you into thinking that Lowe has finally decided to dramatize the way traditions strangle the personal when he appears to lament the mechanical aspects of acquired behavior in the sexual allegory "Skin Deep" (why just "belly to belly," he asks, and not "eye to eye," too?)
But compared to an overtly theatrical band like Blondie, which headlined Monday's Central Park bill, Rockpile is aggressively self-effacing conceptually. Though Lowe seems to be "dying," as he puts it, for want of some action on a country bumper like "Without Love," his belief in the twanging, two-beat formula not only gets him through, but even makes his desperation irrelevant in the face of non-stop musical celebration. The imbalance of sentiment and groove is in the service of an aesthetic that focuses on something other than the Romantic assertion of coherent personality as the crucible of the rocker's art.
My first serious take on Lowe was that he labored under the particular anxiety of McCartney's influence, at least on the evidence of some habits he seems to have when he sings. Even on the new album's opener "Cruel To Be Kind," Lowe's voice doesn't just seem to choose the McCartney vocal model (in preference to the Buddy Holly or the Everly Brothers who are also suggested), but seems to settle pretty completely into a full-blown McCartney head - Abbey Road harmonies, early Wings acoustic guitar, even the Harrison timbre of the electric guitar coming out of the solo. But tracking allusions in Lowe is an impossible business, despite your momentary certainty that you know exactly what song or riff in the rock archive is being alluded to.
Lowe's genius is clearest when his strategies are compared to those of personally ambitious rockers like Bryan Ferry, who write songs or arrangements as direct and unmistakable answers to very particular sources - the voicings from "As tears Go By," for example, that Ferry uses as an intro to his cover of "It's Only Love," turns both songs inside out and awards a belated power over them to Ferry himself (just as Blondie's "Sunday Girl" is a rewriting of "Georgy Girl"[!] and represents Deborah Harry's new priority as heartthrob of the moment). The drama in such cases is the struggle of the newcomer to reverse, or at least to neutralize, the influence of specifiably oppressive classics that rob him/her of originality and that require direct answers to direct precursors in image, music, or both. Lowe and Edmunds have no such axes to grind, not because they're not strong artists, but because they've shifted the very terms in which "art" gets articulated.
So even though Lowe's voice is resplendent song to song with momentary - and convincing - personality, there's no particular attitude you can point to and say with conviction, "This is the Basher" - hence the nine ways of looking at a pop persona on the cover of Pure Pop. Lowe is every rock and roll voice as well as none in particular, never just "himself" because he has no "self" other than the one the groove of the moment gives him. This is what Pure Pop really seems to be: the medium speaking for itself, with the singer/songwriter just the (witting and willing) vehicle for something bigger and impersonal that speaks through him.
Modernism, then, gives way to the post-modern, Mick Jagger to Nick Lowe. For Lowe replaces an aesthetic of expression with an aesthetic of interpretation, and in the process exchanges the usual rock project of self-discovery for one of self-production instead ("I'd make a knife out of a notion," sings Lowe on "Cracking Up"). The New Wave has already prepared us for this jaunt beyond rock existentialism - Rockpile's brand of Lowe-life gets the mainstream there, too.
Originally published in The Village Voice, July 23, 1979