|Day 145: Nick Lowe (American Squirm)
May 15, 2022
When first getting into British punk and new wave, I was always a little irked by different versions of albums for British release and for American release. Among other things, it made me want to find these import versions in the cooler record stores. At the time, I hadn't noticed that such differences went back to Beatles' albums.
Generally, it felt like American record companies wanted to avoid controversy, our puritanical streak still so strong 500 years later. How else was I to interpret Nick Lowe's release Jesus of Cool renamed Pure Pop For Now People for American release? Jesus, if Lowe couldn't joke that he was the Jesus of Cool, then I guess no one could. Meanwhile, Lowe's good friend Elvis Costello had the brilliant "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea" and the disturbing "Night Rally" removed from the American version of This Year's Model to be replaced by the single "Radio Radio" (not that there was anything wrong with adding that amazing song to any album). "Night Rally," with its references to "names in forbidden books," "armbands," and "showers," probably sounded too fascist and not farcical enough for Columbia's America office. I can also imagine some fat 65-year old cigar-smoking white guy yelling, "No one in fucking America is going to know where Chelsea is!"
So, when Lowe and Costello collaborated on "American Squirm" and managed to get it on Labour of Lust (with no correction for British album title spelling), I suspect they giggled like schoolgirls. Talk about a song guaranteed to make every American squirm, from the fat 65-year old cigar-smoking record executive to the middle-class parent worried about that crap their daughter buys, to the daughter who wants to get up (and lay down) to squirm.
If all pop songs could be dirty little ditties, energetic little earworms working their way past all the white noise in our heads, they would all be striving to be "American Squirm."
No one does that better than Nick Lowe. Elvis Costello almost does it better, but his dirty ditties too often reek of machismo. Get them together and they made the world squirm. The double entendres fly around so much for a song with few lyrics:
"I made an American Squirm/and it feels so right" - sexual innuendo, cultural clash, and snotty British arrogance all in the first line. Mrs. Brown, your lovely daughter would like a few minutes alone, deep in the fantasy about some English Poof.
"I was spreading in the wonderful world/everything was fine/trying to mate in a horrible state" -- more sexual innuendo, more cultural clash, more snotty British arrogance. Cue Otto from A Fish Called Wanda: "Oh, you English are so superior aren't you?"
Guessing how autobiographical the song is, one wonders if the state was Kentucky, Alabama, or Florida. Certainly British new wave was spreading its seeds, figuratively and literally, from Washington D.C. to Seattle, Washington.
Ultimately, all Americans are tossed aside in Lowe's sexual sneer and performance arrogance, on stage and in bed: "And I thank you for all the time/to kill the time."
Through it all, Lowe, Costello and the Attractions, produce an earworm of a song, even when Lowe sings of a different one. "On the screen was a musical worm," proclaims Lowe, perhaps a little Midnight Special playing, Captain And Tennille going "on and on/deep, deep into the [one] night" stand.
One can't help but chuckle that at this time, Lowe was seeing and eventually marrying Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter Cash and step-daughter of Johnny Cash. Could there have been a more iconic American girl (of music) for him to mate in the horrible states?
If you don't want to squirm when you hear this song, I don't know what is wrong with you, but you might not be an American.
Lowe, Nick. "American Squirm." Labour of Love. Columbia. 1979. Link here.
Day 144: Tom Jones. "Delilah."
Day 146: Yvonne Elliman. "Everything's Alright."
Unfinished list here.