Tuesday, March 20, 2007

“I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” / Nick Lowe


Nick Lowe is often called the Godfather of Punk, most likely because when Stiff Records blazed onto the scene, he was (largely by default) their house producer. But Nick himself didn’t record much that I’d call punk music. Even this track, which has punk attitude up the wazoo, is a giddy syncopated number sung lightly and tongue-in-cheek.
You’ll find it on Nick’s 1978 solo debut LP, called Jesus of Cool in the UK and Pure Pop For Now People in the US.

In the four years since he’d left Brinsley Schwarz, Nick had released a couple Stiff singles, produced other artists (Elvis Costello, the Damned), and gone on the road with the legendary Stiff Tour, but didn’t record an album of his own until Jake Riviera left Stiff to form Radar Records. By then Nick was playing with the core of musicians who would eventually tour as Rockpile – Dave Edmunds, Billy Bremner, Terry Williams – though for contractual reasons they had to release their LPs as solo acts. For all intents and purposes this is a Rockpile track, charged up with irrepressible rock & roll energy, a far cry from yesterday’s laidback Brinsley Schwarz jam.

This song (which Nick wrote with Andrew Bodnar and Steven Goulding) is a perfect expression of teenage nihilism – “I love the sound of breaking glass / Specially when I’m lonely / I need the noises of destruction / When there's nothing new.” MY NICK LOWE THEORY #2: The “I” in Nick Lowe songs is usually a character, but Nick’s such a chameleon, he can get into another person’s mind with total conviction. When this track came out, I’ll bet plenty of people thought Nick was advocating vandalism (just like people thought he was a hippie when he wrote “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding,” though in interviews Nick says he thinks he was poking fun at flower children – he just can’t remember why).

After all, with the Clash and the Sex Pistols and the Stranglers around, anarchy was the order of the day; Nick had to deliver something in that vein. But I feel no threat here, just a reckless sort of joy. The weird disconnect going on here is textbook adolescence – the kid’s smashing windows in the deep of night just for the aural sensation, not out of any social rage or personal malice. He just likes the feeling it gives him to hear that sound.

The chorus’s call and response works perfectly – various phrases (“nothing new,” “all around,” “safe at last,” "change of mind” ) are invariably answered with “sound of breaking glass,” which Nick sings with a shrug, almost like a kid idly riffing through things to do. Whatever’s going on, hey, breaking glass is as good as anything. SMASH.
Nick has nailed so well what it feels like to be a juvenile delinquent on a rampage -- and in a way, I suppose being at Stiff was Nick’s turn to be a juvenile delinquent. What can we get away with? This’ll piss off the old guard, won’t it? Wot larks.

Still, the song is way too syncopated, and at 3:05 minutes, way too long to be standard punk issue; the arrangement isn't stripped-down enough for the punk aesthetic. Can anybody tell me who played the electric piano on this number? It’s fantastic, all these shattering glissandos, playing off the reverb chords on the guitar and the offbeat smash of a tambourine; it’s like you can hear the rocks being pitched in the dead of night, echoing off the surrounding walls. But Nick’s voice floats carelessly over it all, his bass line lounging negligently beneath. I imagine him chewing gum as he sings, sticking out his tongue at his mates. Anarchy, yes, but the fun kind. You don’t have to throw rocks, you know, but with that hooky syncopation, you really DO have to dance.



Anonymous said...

Hail to Nick! One has to mention, now that it is his week, that he also produced a milestone album in rock music; Damned Damned Damned/The Damned

Cheers Holly

Julie said...

I've always loved this glossy little pop song. But the kid should pay for those windows! LOL

Cory said...

I'm guessing that it was Bob Andrews (the Brinsley Schwarz chap) who played the piano, though I don't know for certain. Good piece!

Ton said...

This classic Lowe tune was featured in a Dutch TV-commercial that promoted glass-recycling. A lovely choice at that. The lyrics got a whole new meaning. Very funny.

Wakeup said...

Gotta say it's my fave NL cut, narrowly edging out 'Cracking Up' due to it's light touch and quirky humor. A wonderful tune.

Holly A Hughes said...

I'm laughing my head off over something I just learned about this song (with the imminent reissue of Jesus of Cool, there's been lots of press about these songs). I know it was also on Nick's EP Bowi, which was a joke on the title of David Bowie's EP Low -- but, not having heard Low, I didn't realize that "I Love The Sounding of Breaking Glass" was also a goof on not one but two songs from Low. It's a reply (of sorts) to Bowie's track "Breaking Glass," but the sound of it perfectly parodies another Bowie track, "Sound and Vision." I'd always wondered why Nick went for this atypical dense production sound -- it's like proto-electronica. Now I know he just ripped it off of Bowie. But of course, because it's Nick, the resulting song is better than either of the two he's poking fun at!

All of which just makes me love the Nickster more....

Alec Cumming said...

Nice essay! But that isn't Rockpile on the track. Nick here is backed up - brilliantly - by his co-writers Andrew Bodnar (bass) and Steven Goulding (drums), as well as by Bob Andrews (Piano). All three if them are from The Rumour, which then was best known as Graham Parker's backup band. Nick gave Andrew and Bob co-writing credits because their parts were so essential to the song, and now says he regrets not getting Bob Andrews' name on the credits as well. The story with the piano part, according to Bob, is that he was asked by the recording engineer just to do a test sound check on the track, so they could get levels; Bob, not thinking it was going to be a serious take, had fun and played all those generous glissandos and over-the-top flourishes. When the "test" take was over, Bob told Nick he was ready to do a real one, but a delighted Nick told him that it was done - he had just recorded it.

Holly A Hughes said...

Yes, thanks for that correction, Alec. In the seven (yikes!) years since I first wrote this, I have filled in much of this info, and in fact had the pleasure of seeing Bob and Steve play this piece during the early stages of the Rumour's reunion. I first wrote this long before I re-discovered Graham Parker and the Rumour, which has been such a delightful find for me. But I hadn't ever heard that story about the test take, and it totally rings true for me. Thanks for that!