In these days, where even the most obscure 45 is a mouse click away, it’s a legitimate shock when hit records fall out of print. Such is the case of Nick Lowe’s 1979 record, Labour of Lust. Despite boasting Lowe’s biggest hit, the album fell out of print almost immediately after its debut on CD in 1990. Now, 20 years later, it’s back and receiving the deluxe treatment. As was the case for many British bands, there was a different track order for the UK release and the U.S. version, and this reissue combines the two versions and adds a B-side for good measure.
The early carrier of Nick Lowe would be enough to stop even the best multitasker cold in their tracks. In between his time as a solo artist and frontman for the band Rockpile, he was also the in-house producer for Stiff Records, and also took other production jobs on the side. He’s best known as the man behind the boards for Elvis Costello’s first five albums, but he also worked with the Damned and the Pretenders, among others. In some ways, he’s a relatively unsung hero of the early days of British new wave. And of course, he’s the one that wrote one of Costello’s signature songs, “(What So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding.”
One of the more interesting aspects of Lowe’s early days was his co-fronting of the band Rockpile. Due to the fact that Dave Edmunds, with whom Lowe shared frontman duties, was signed to Led Zeppelin’s label and Lowe was signed to Stiff spin-off Radar, Rockpile couldn’t officially release an album. So even though he spent most of his days touring as a member of Rockpile, he was technically a “solo” artist. He had some modest success with his first record, Jesus of Cool (or Pure Pop for Now People in the U.S.) and the song “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass,” but the album that followed is the one that became his defining moment.
Labour of Lust is for all intents and purposes a Rockpile record. It’s one of the only records during that time period that has all of the members performing on nearly every track, the notable exception being Costello and the Attractions backing Lowe on “American Squirm.” But that’s only trivia for geeks. While “Cruel to Be Kind,” the opening track and Lowe’s biggest American hit, is one draw, Labour of Lust is nearly overstuffed with great songs. However, those expecting more of “Cruel to Be Kind,” were most likely thrown for a loop. The record has a country-rock underpinning that on first spin is really noticeable, but soon fades into the background. Still, songs like “Without Love” could have (and probably should have) been country radio hits.
Lowe’s expertise as a producer is also on display here. The original running time of the record was 32 minutes, and even with the restored track listing, rejoining “American Squirm” and “Endless Grey Ribbon” and a B-side, it still clocks in at a lean 39 minutes. Every song sounds complete in a very crafted, but unlabored, way. The combination of country-rock with new wave should have been more jarring, but for Lowe and the band it appears effortless. And who can argue with an appearance by Huey Lewis on harmonica? While Lowe is a respected behind-the-scenes figure, Labour of Lust shows that his music was just as vital as that of his contemporaries.
Dorian S. Ham