1979 was a busy year for Nick Lowe. After releasing his solo debut Jesus of Cool (aka Pure Pop For Now People) the previous year, producing sessions for Elvis Costello, The Pretenders, Wreckless Eric and many others, and touring non-stop with his group Rockpile, he unleashed his second album Labour of Lust upon the world. Though it contains Lowe’s biggest hit to date, “Cruel To Be Kind,” the album has been out of print for over twenty years, and never available digitally.
That will soon change. On the eve of Yep Roc’s deluxe reissue of Labour of Lust, due out March 15, 2011 [pre-order now], Lowe sets the record straight on a few of our long-burning questions about the album. “I can’t remember having a plan at all, but it was terrific fun,” he says.
Q: Did a lot of advance planning go into the Labour of Lust sessions, or did things come together as you went along?
A: More the latter, I think. Back in those days if you wanted to be in the pop business – and it was a much less crowded business then – you would get on the end of a conveyor belt that would move very slowly towards some point in the distance where you would get your big break. Once you were on this conveyor belt you would learn your craft in total anonymity: you had to write songs if you wanted to stick around and learn how to work a room and how to do a show. It involved a lot of riding in vans and playing thousands of gigs until suddenly the ol’ chance came along for you your fellow travelers.
My chance had come a year before Labour of Lust and that was when the real work started. There was no hint that it was going to come up, it just suddenly did. Labour of Lust was my ticket to the next stage, which was some sort of international recognition. I was signed to Columbia earlier by the great Gregg Geller, but then Rockpile had been doing thousands of gigs in America and when we came back to England I’d go to the studio with Elvis Costello or somebody else. We just seemed to be working at this incredible pitch.
My time on the conveyor belt was spent living in the most appalling sort of squalor. But we were young, you know, and full of pep. It was fabulous, really was fantastic. When all these tours in America started there were shows back to back, with lots of driving hundreds of miles, and then getting back into some vehicle and driving frequently back the same road you traveled the previous day. Sitting here in my cozy London pad, I don’t have any desire to go back to that, but at the same time it was terrific fun and I am ever so glad I did it.
But I cannot remember having a plan at all. It seemed that [Labour of Lust] was just the next thing on the sheet.
Q: I’ve watched Born Fighters [ed. note: this was a documentary on Rockpile made for UK television] several times, and you see sessions for both Labour of Lust, and Dave Edmunds’ album Repeat When Necessary, but there is no real timeline established. You worked on Labour of Lust for the course of several months, correct?
A: Yes, I suppose so. When we weren’t working on those records, I was either with Elvis Costello doing Armed Forces or we were on tour in the states. They were both essentially Rockpile records, but we weren’t allowed to call them Rockpile records because Edmunds was signed to Led Zeppelin’s label, Swan Song.
It was a shame we couldn’t distill the best tracks from Repeat When Necessary and Labour of Lust. I think it would’ve been a pretty good record.
Q: Which raises another question. In Born Fighters you see sessions for [the UK-only track] “Endless Grey Ribbon” and Dave is singing lead. I’ve read that song was intended for Repeat When Necessary, but you took it back. Were there other songs that were up for debate as to which album they would go on?
A: I don’t think we had the luxury of thinking like that back then. There were songs around and however we could make the thing work…we would do it. In other words, if I couldn’t do a job with something I would show it to Dave and if he couldn’t use it, it would just get dumped.
Our big break came along and you sort of had to grasp it like a Supermarket Sweep. “Time is running out! Grab as much stuff as you can in the super market!” And that’s the way it went. All this sort of pondering and chin-stroking came after I turned 40.
Q: Let’s talk about the origins of “Cruel To Be Kind.” I really love the Brinsley Schwarz version. Did you play it live with the Brinsleys?
A: Yes we did. Originally it was sort of a rip-off of “The Love I Lost” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. We weren’t good enough to play it that way, but it was fun to attempt to play that sophisticated stuff. We tried to record it on the last Brinsleys album that was really quite poor. But when Gregg Geller heard the Brinsley demo he subtly put pressure on me, as only he can.
Q: Did it take a lot of convincing to record it for Labour of Lust?
A: I thought Gregg was joking to start with because I was sort of in my new rude, bad boy phase. He slowly tightened the old noose every time I saw him and asked if I had recorded it yet.
I remember I had to come into the studio and tell the boys, “I’m under orders and we have to record this old Brinsley song.” I told them that it would only take a few minutes. Then Edmunds started putting all these harmonies on it and it did start to sound like something. We really started to have fun with it. The rest, as they say, is history.
The funny thing about that song is that it’s a really good little tune. I know that it’s good, not because it was a top 20 hit, but you can do it so many different ways. I can do it on an acoustic guitar or I’ve done more of a punk version, all different sorts of ways. Right now I’m doing it more the Brinsley way, with that sort of Philly thing with my band. I heard the hit version the other day and I thought ‘Crikey! This isn’t how we are doing it now.’ It’s a really cool little tune.
I know a lot of people think that for one hit wonders, like I suppose I am, that one tune can be a real millstone around the neck. They think you can’t get out from under it. There is this one thing that puts food on the table and shoes on your kids’ feet, but you loathe it. Well I don’t feel that at all about “Cruel to be Kind.” I love doing it, it cheers people up and it’s a cool little tune, and I’m very lucky. So thanks to Gregg for making me do it!
Q: Another thing I’ve always been curious about is what parts of Labour of Lust were recorded in Finland? Weren’t there some sessions done there?
A: Actually, I don’t think any part of it was recorded in Finland. I did go to Finland on a harebrained scheme with two guys, Terry Williams who was the drummer in Rockpile and went on to be the drummer in Dire Straits, and another fellow Martin Belmont who was in Ducks Deluxe – a pub rock group – and was later in a band I had called the Cowboy Outfit with Paul Carrack and Bobby Irwin. I had this idea that I wanted to record somewhere unusual. I wanted to go to China, but I couldn’t afford that. The nearest weird place was Finland. Back in those days it was near well a communist country. It was very bleak and it was not like being in a western country at all. We went out there and had a terrible time. We met up with a Finnish guy named Albert Jarvinen who was in this fantastic group called the Hurriganes. Not Hurricanes, they couldn’t spell Hurricanes. They couldn’t really speak English, they just sort of made English noises.
They were pretty great, and good guys too. Sadly Albert is no longer with us, but he was the other guitar player and we decided to try and make some records. We probably could have done better but the songs weren’t that good and none of it survived.
Q: Do you think the tapes are gone entirely?
A: Yeah I think so. There’s a reason why this stuff doesn’t come out. It’s crap. I suppose there is a vague interest in someone drunkenly slurring into a mic – and believe me I am interested in someone drunkenly slurring into a mic – but it has to be good. I am glad that some of this stuff disappeared.
Ed. Note: We’ve discovered that the Finnish studio was listed on the credits to Labour of Lust in order to include those sessions on the budget submitted to Columbia, and not because any actual songs for the record were recorded there. In the spirit of authenticity, we have reproduced this misinformation faithfully on the reissue. Gregg Geller comments: “Now he tells me! Is there a statute of limitations? In these troubled times Columbia just might demand a refund….”
Q: Let’s talk about the difference in the tracklist between the UK and US versions of Labour of Lust. “Endless Grey Ribbon” feels more like an American song to me, and “American Squirm” more like a British song. Yet “Endless Grey Ribbon” was on the UK version and “American Squirm” was on the US. Was that your idea? Jake Riviera’s? Gregg Geller’s?
A: I think it was probably Gregg’s. I don’t remember having any say in that at all. I suppose it goes back to what I said earlier: once it was done we were off to something else. I don’t remember poring over the sleeve either. We had the great Barney Bubbles doing the art, and I never stuck my nose in that either.
Q: How about “Switchboard Susan?” You originally recorded that for Mickey Jupp’s Juppanese album, correct?
A: Yes. Mickey recorded Juppanese with one-half produced by Gary Brooker and I think he did that half first. It’s rather unusual to have half a record done by one producer and the other side done by another. Plenty of records have multiple producers but they are all jumbled up. I was wheeled in to do the other side of the record and Rockpile was hired to be the backing group. We cut “Switchboard Susan,” and we all thought it was great and we were jumping up and down. The next morning we went to the studio and Mickey pronounced it shit from top to bottom. I waited until he calmed down a bit and told him if he didn’t want it I would buy the tape and put it out myself. He said ‘Alright, alright I never want to hear it again, it’s rubbish.’ But he was wrong about that one. It’s cracking.
Q: I’ve read some interviews that you did with Creem and Trouser Press during the Labour of Lust days. You were very complementary of Cheap Trick. Were there other contemporary bands, outside of your circle, you were listening to when making Labour of Lust?
A: Cheap Trick were fabulous, and still are. We really liked this Australian group called Jo Jo Zep & the Falcons, too. They had this song called “So Young” that we were very keen on. Joe Camilleri their singer was sort of bluesy guy, but they had this great pop thing going. That’s the one that really comes to mind. I’m sure there are others. We liked Bob Seger quite a lot, some of his early records. But that’s all I can remember.
Q: Maybe we can talk a little more about Born Fighters. Have you watched it recently?
A: No, I haven’t seen it for about 30 years.
Q: Did it feel like much of a disruption when the cameras were in the studio? Did you have any reluctance going into it?
A: I think the director did something on TV over here that we all liked. He contacted us and I was, at any rate, flattered. We thought he was cool and that it might rub off on us. We were just about to start doing these two records so there was a story there. I remember a big bulky camera and few hairy microphones and a girl with a clipboard so it was a kind of production. That we were very pleased with ourselves and sloshed is quite evident in the film. We were rather delighted with the whole idea.
Q: We see quite a cavalcade of stars pass through the studio in the film. Not just musicians who played on the records. You see Phil Lynott in one scene. Maybe you can describe the scene of the sessions a bit. Did other musicians frequently stop by, or did you try to isolate yourself.
A: No, we loved it when people used to come to the studio. The thing that I will say about Rockpile is that we were extremely sociable. Our recording sessions were quite liquid, you might say. When people dropped in it was very pleasing. We would put them to work if there was something for them to do or we were happy to have an audience, so we could show off. Back then Huey Lewis was knocking around. He came to London with Clover and he and I became pretty good pals. We still are to this day. Huey had gotten very friendly with Phil, so he brought him round. I was friendly with Phil as well, but Huey really hit it off with him.
Q: Is there any chance that Phil is on any tracks on Labour of Lust?
A: Oh no, I am almost sure of that.