The English rock group Brinsley Schwarz disbanded in March 1975, having recorded five albums in a little more than five years without ever advancing beyond their status as cult favorites. Their only American tour was something of a disaster, and in England, despite occasional work that opened for name groups, they were most closely associated with the new pub circuit that emerged around 1972. Their music had become harder‐edged by the mid‐1970's, but it was still rooted in American country‐rock, heavily influenced by performers like The Band and Neil Young. So, it has been somewhat astonishing to watch various former members of the group and their associates emerge as leaders and trend setters in the English new wave. Probably the only thing Elvis Costello, Graham Parker and the Rumour, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Ian Gomm, and the ownership of the influential Stiff label have in common is some association with Brinsley Schwarz or spinoffs thereof.
The key figure in what has become very tangled chain of events is the affably manic Nick Lowe, who plays bass and guitar with Brinsley Schwarz and who wrote most of the group's material. A year after the breakup, Mr. Lowe began working as a writer, producer and artist for the new Stiff label, co-founded by the former Brinsley Schwarz manager Dave Robinson and Mr. Lowe's friend and business associate Jake Riviera. The first Stiff release was his single "So It Goes" / "Heart of the City," but he was even more important as a producer and molder of raw talent. His somewhat unorthodox methods involved putting off‐beat but distinctive artists together with solid bands (often including some of his former associates), helping them work out concise arrangements that held most of their songs to under three minutes and recording them very intensively, often knocking out an album in a week or two. Among his most successful productions were all three of Elvis Costello's albums and Graham Parker's first and third LP's. Mr. Parker's backing group, the Rumour, which also records on its own, includes two charter members of Brinsley Schwarz — the guitarist Brinsley Schwarz and the pianist Bob Andrews.
Somehow Mr. Lowe has found time for his own performing career. His first album, Pure Pop for Now People, released in the U.S. in 1978, collected tracks from as early as 1976, featured both the Rumour and the band Rockpile, which Mr. Lowe co‐leads with Dave Edmunds, and still stands as the definitive statement of his increasingly influential esthetic. Recently, he has put more effort into Rockpile, which backs him on his album Labour of Lust, and is also heard behind Mr. Edmunds on Repeat When Necessary. Rockpile is presently touring the U.S. as opening act for Blondie, and at a performance in Central Park a few weeks ago they pumped out danceable rock 'n' roll with great gusto and a walloping beat. Blondie sounded arch and artsy by comparison.
The critics have come up with several generic descriptions of what Mr. Lowe does. Some see it as a continuation of English pub rock; others call it power pop. But it really is the sort of rock 'n' roll that flourished in the late 1950's, got temporarily shelved by the manufactured teen idols of the early 1960's, came back again with the British invasion of the mid‐60's, and once again disappeared, this time due to the incursions of psychedelic and heavy metal rock and the rampant self‐consciousness of the post‐Sgt. Pepper period. Between them, Rockpile's two principals cover the entire range of classic roll 'n' roll, with Mr. Lowe specializing in the more melodious styles while Mr. Edmunds prefers the hard edge of rockabilly and rhythm‐and-blues.
If Mr. Lowe's Labour of Lust and Mr. Edmunds's Repeat When Necessary had been a single Rockpile album, it would have been one of the most stylish rock 'n' roll LP's of all time. Even with Mr. Lowe and Mr. Edmunds fronting Rockpile on different labels, the results are generally if not uniformly splendid. Labour of Lust has its ups and downs, but "Love So Fine," is the most endearingly sexy rock 'n' roll song of the summer and Mr. Lowe's remake of "Cruel to be Kind," a song he originally recorded with Brinsley Schwarz, is a sterling example of his ability to write irresistible melodies and frame them in arrangement's that are very nearly perfect.
Still, this listener prefers Repeat When Necessary, Mr. Edmunds's strongest album to date and a winning demonstration of how much an original talent can still do with rock 'n' roll basics. Mr. Edmunds, who produced the final Brinsley. Schwarz album, unleashes Rockpile's full fury in a way Mr. Lowe never quite brings off, and he has proved with this latest venture that he doesn't have to depend on Mr. Lowe for material, either. "Sweet Little Lisa," kicked along by Terry Williams's crisp drumming and Billy Bremner's rhythm guitar and featuring some spectacular lead guitar by guest artist Albert Lee, is the most sizzling rockabilly performance of recent years. And in the Elvis Costello song "Girls Talk," Mr. Edmunds tackles the sort of airy pop lyricism that is Mr. Lowe's specialty with consummate taste and skill.
Several former members of Brinsley Schwarz have released albums of their own recently. Ian Gomm, a guitarist and songwriter who joined the band in 1972, is closest to the original Brinsley Schwarz sound. His Gomm With the Wind retains a great deal of the old band's country‐rock flavor, provides unfailingly upbeat dance music and presents 10 original songs and covers of Chuck Berry and the Beatles that are simply laden with catchy hooks.
In fact, despite Mr. Gomm's currently fashionable affiliations, much of this music sounds like an English variant of the sort of fare James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt have been giving us for the past 10 years or so. The difference — and at times it is a very subtle difference — is that Mr. Gomm, and in his more country and pop moments Mr. Lowe, aren't afraid to rock, something Mr. Taylor and Miss Ronstadt have rarely managed to do on records.
The intensity and disciplined musicianship the Rumour displays behind Graham Parker make them one of the most devastating bands performing in rock right now, but their second album on their own, Frogs, Sprouts, Clogs and Krauts, is something of a disappointment. The group's first LP, Max, found them considerably closer to Nick Lowe's stylistic orbit, and it was a tight, consistent piece of Work with more than its share of memorable tunes. This latest effort sounds like an attempt to break away from the fold and establish a more distinct identity, but most of the songs aren't particularly memorable, and Bob Andrews's orchestral keyboards blunt the edge of a band that at its best cuts like a razor. The roots of this music are partly documented in Brinsley Schwarz, a collection that brings together that group's first two albums. Mr. Lowe was still developing as a songwriter in those days, and some of his more country‐style numbers are rather insipid. But even then he contributed a sense of identity to the group, much as Mr. Parker does to the Rumour. One suspects that this fine rock's most incisive interpreters, not its progressive eclectics.
Nick Lowe and the various other progeny of the Brinsley Schwarz band are both widely imitated and commercially successful in England. They haven't really caught on here yet, and much of the resistance to them seems to proceed from the peculiar notion that rock is supposed to be heavy and profound. What Mr. Lowe, Mr. Edmunds, and Mr. Gomm and the Rumour at their best have understood is that nothing produced by any of the self‐consciously artistic rockers of the 60's and 70's signaled fundamental social changes as incisively as Jerry Lee Lewis's "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" or Phil Spector's productions of the Crystals and the Ronettes or the Rolling Stones's "Satisfaction." If rock 'n' roll turned revolt into style, as an English critic once asserted, it has often been at its best when the style itself constituted an assimilable but genuine gesture of revolt. In the present musical climate, which is still shackled to the concept of rock as art, the music Mr. Lowe and his friends and allies are making constitutes a revolt that is both genuine and potentially explosive. The hard‐core punk bands have been trying to undermine the established musical order with abrasiveness and nerve, but Mr. Lowe and a growing number of kindred spirits are aiming their more polished efforts at the medium that made rock 'n' roll important in the first place: pop radio. They are going for the jugular.