Friday, February 01, 2008

"Cruel to Be Kind" / Nick Lowe

In the end, I suppose, we'll see all the answers and understand how everything is connected. But until we hit that nirvana state, the best we can do is study song lyrics. And when I run into a set of lyrics that connects Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, AND Ray Davies--well, imagine the explosion of little lights inside my brain.

I'm talking, first of all, about "Cruel to Be Kind," Nick Lowe's one (and, sadly, only) chart-topping hit song. It came out in 1979, and I'm ashamed to admit that, although I heard it constantly on the radio, I didn't register whose record it was. (The same is true of Dave Edmunds' "I Hear You Knocking"--what kind of a fog was I in?) I knew who Nick Lowe was, all right; he was Elvis Costello's producer. I saw his band Rockpile perform live in 1978, but . . . well, to be honest, they didn't make a big impression on me. That was the night of the weirded-out Van Morrison concert . . . well, it was the 70s, details tended to go hazy in the 70s.

And when I did hear "Cruel To Be Kind," I thought it was a golden oldie -- that clean retro-pop sound was pure early 60s, wasn't it? In fact Nick did write it ages earlier, when he was still with Brinsley Schwarz. The other members of the band rejected it then, but he pulled it out again for Labour of Lust -- and by some stroke of fate, finally got his moment in the Top 40 sun.

Now, years later, I listen to "Cruel to Be Kind" and . . . well, I'm baffled. When it was just another song on the radio, I didn't notice, but now I'm tormented by the fact that This Song Just Doesn't Make Sense. I mean, I get that the guy in the song is being treated badly by his girlfriend.
As Nick puts it, in his plaintive boyish vocals --"Oh, I can't take another heartache, / Though you say you're my friend, / I'm at my wits' end!" My favorite line comes next: "You say your love is bona fide, / But that don't coincide with the things that you do." (few songwriters can use words like "bona fide" and get away with it; it's that deft mid-line rhyme with "coincide" that pulls it off. )

But her defense -- in the chorus -- is totally specious. She says she has to be "cruel to be kind, in the right measure / Cruel to be kind, it's a very good sign / Cruel to be kind, means that I love you / Baa-a-by / You've got to be cruel to be kind." I know that this "cruel to be kind" business comes from Shakespeare--in Hamlet, Act III, scene iv, if you want to get specific. In this song, though, the logic just doesn't fit. I can't see how the girl's cruelty has any ulterior purpose; it's just a glib excuse. Yet the poor sucker singing this song actually buys it, willing to go on taking her crap so long as he can stay in this relationship.

Naturally, this makes me switch into Unreasonable Fangirl mode. What sort of woman would be mean to Nick Lowe? Doesn't she appreciate that she's the luckiest creature on the planet to be with him? Let me at her; I'll scratch her eyes out...well, like I said, this song works me up. At one stroke, Lowe makes us hate this manipulative woman and pity the spineless shlub for staying with her. And yet that arrangement is so darn bouncy, with its matey back-up harmonies and power-pop guitar, the sickness of this relationship slips right past us.

If I had paid attention to "Cruel To Be Kind" in 1979, though, I might have noticed that its title "coincides" with a line from a Kinks song: "The Hard Way," from the 1975 album Schoolboys in Disgrace. Schoolboys came at the tail end of a string of, um, eccentric Kinks albums, in which Ray Davies blithely followed his theatrical muse. I saw the Kinks perform this show, in full costume, in 1976 in London, though my memories of that night are a little muddled (detect a theme here?) Honestly, it's not my fault, the Kinks themselves had no idea what was going on on stage that evening.

At any rate, the line in question comes in a song when the evil Headmaster is preparing to punish the disgraced schoolboy of the title (a character loosely based on Ray's rapscallion brother Dave). "Now it's time for confrontation," the Headmaster warns, darkly, "And I'm tired of being patient / So I've got to be cruel to be kind."
I don't buy the Headmaster's excuse either--he loves being cruel.

I used to worry that Nick had nicked this line from Ray (Nick has been known to steal entire songs), but now that I know Nick wrote his song earlier, I can sleep again at nights. Not only that, but I can credit both my favorite songwriters with a Shakespeare allusion, which obviously makes me a high-toned intellectual too. Or something like that.

So where's the Elvis Costello connection? Well, it's a stretch. I'm sure as a schoolboy Declan Macmanus read his Shakespeare, it's possible he was still a Kinks fan in 1975 (though I doubt it). But on his 1982 Imperial Bedroom album, on the opening track "Beyond Belief,” Elvis almost says it, in an insinuating hoarse whisper: "Charged with insults and flattery / Her body moves with malice / Do you have to be so cruel to be callous?" He did have to rhyme with "malice," of course. But I've always heard it as “cruel to be kind,” especially as he shifts the rhythm, as if to match Nick's song. Imperial Bedroom was the first original LP Elvis recorded without Nick Lowe in the control room--was this a shoutout to his missing pal? I like to think it is.

It has occurred to me that if I didn’t spend so much time thinking about stuff like this, I could actually do something with my life. But would it be this much fun? Nah.

Cruel to Be Kind sample


Uncle E said...

If Oliver Stone reads your blog he may try and make a movie out of your recent post!
Wow. You sure have an endless supply of knowledge on Mr. Lowe, dont'cha?
A modern (1994, modern to me) who used this lyric to great effect: The Beautiful South.
"They say treat her like a lady and she'll treat you like her jewels
They say cruel to be kind, I just say cruel to be cruel".

Once again and excellent, entertaining post.

Uncle E said...

By the way, two more things:
#1. Any suggestions on which Kinks albums, from their 'eccentric' phase? I kind of lost track during that phase of theirs.
#2. Don't worry 'bout Philbert, he enjoys rattling the cages of others. He's really a good guy! Wacky, bizarre, opinionated, but extremely well versed in music history (like you). He IS that guy Jack Black played in 'High Fidelity'.
I am quite enjoying the back-and-forth--good debate! I am with you on John Mellencamp, I think he deserves better! We should probably remind Philbert that John will be inducted into the R&R Hall Of Fame in 2008--not attained by people of questionable talent!

Mark said...

Great post on a great song! Cruel To Be Kind is so insanely catchy, I find myself humming it all the time. It's one of those perfect records, great lyrics, well sung, perfect guitar break, awesome harmonies, etc.

Kudos for catching the "cruel to be kind" lyric in the Kinks' "The Hard Way," another great song. I'm jealous that you got to see the Kinks in concert!

Julie said...

My head just exploded.

Holly A Hughes said...

Mine too, Julie, mine too. :)

Unc, I've been pondering which of those thespic Kinks albums to recommend -- there are some wonderful songs on all of them, the question is which of them come across best as a total concept. Schoolboys In Disgrace rocks out much more -- Dave Davies and the other Kinks were getting so fed up with Ray, he had to give them the kind of material they wanted to play -- but the story isn't as compelling as it should be. I fear that the Preservation stuff is not for everyone--at least it wasn't in the vinyl days, when you had to listen through snippets of radio announcements and dialogue to get to the songs. (Maybe the experience is different on CD.)

There's dialogue also on Soap Opera, but for some reason that's a campier production altogether so somehow it's easier to listen to. Personally I adore Soap Opera, self-indulgent as it is. I also LOVE Everybody's in Show Biz, which was from the same time period but is a high-concept album rather than intended as a rock opera. It's often overlooked for that reason, but it contains some of my favorite Kinks songs ever, sampling a full gamut of musical styles with delicious verve.

I'll be interested to hear what you think.

Still singing along, Mark? I am too; I knew once I wrote about this song it would drive everything else out of my head for days...

Franko6677 said...

Thanks for commenting on my Marshall and Jimmy posts.

Very cool blog concept here! Great stuff - I'll add to the links on my page.

"Cruel to Be Kind" will always be one of my favorites.

Holly A Hughes said...

Well, Frank, no praise of Marshall Crenshaw will ever go unseconded if I can help it!

coffeebaker said...

nice take on the song...I just got tickets yesterday to his April Fillmore (San Francisco) show, you're presumably got your NYC tickets..? Enjoy!

Franko6677 said...

I just found a near mint copy of "Labour of Lust" in a used bookstore for 50 CENTS!! Woohoo!