AS I WRITE THIS, it's 35 years to the day since John Lennon was assassinated, a tragedy the world still seems to be reeling from. My Facebook feed is a torrent of memes—a picture of Lennon's bloody glasses with a caption detailing gun violence statistics since 1980, when a plainly insane Catcher in the Rye fan murdered one of the planet's most beloved celebrities with a legally purchased firearm. There are, of course, the obligatory quoted lyrics from "Imagine," the song that formally signaled the songwriter's transition from Beatle to boilerplate peacemaker. Say what you will about Lennon and you'd most likely be right—that he never practiced half of what he preached, that the media consistently whitewashes his history of violence toward women—but "Imagine" is still eternally, universally poignant.
In 1974, Nick Lowe's band Brinsley Schwarz released "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding," a song that reads like both a response and homage to "Imagine." The idle utopianism of Lennon's masterpiece is swapped for the grim meta-observation that humanity is essentially and immutably fucked.
The best-known recording of "Peace, Love, and Understanding" is Elvis Costello and the Attractions' version, originally recorded as a B-side and later affixed to the end of Costello's third album, Armed Forces (a somewhat ironic climax to a record intent on comparing its narrator's experience with romance to dysfunctional bureaucracy—the album's working title was Emotional Fascism). Costello's sneer transforms the song into a parody of the "smile on your brother" songwriting trope, as only he could. But the original Brinsley Schwarz version is still the best—its pessimism is tempered by a wall of harmonies and Lowe's polite, innocent lilt. "Peace, Love, and Understanding" might not have the same aphoristic pull as "Imagine," but it's the more realistic peace anthem: It knows we're desperate for something that doesn't actually exist.
When Lowe launched his solo career in the late '70s, he seemed poised for superstardom. An accomplished songwriter, instrumentalist, and producer, Lowe was the vanguard of the hard-to-define pub rock scene in 1970s England, a burgeoning group of proto-punk artists that also included Costello, Dave Edmunds, and Wreckless Eric. It was not to be, however: Lowe's debut solo LP, Jesus of Cool, is a power-pop pièce de résistance but remains largely a cult record, often checked by pop dorks in the same hushed tones as the Raspberries' Side 3, the dBs' Stands for Decibels, and Jellyfish's Spilt Milk.
The cover of Jesus of Cool (which was released in the US as Pure Pop for Now People) depicts Lowe in six distinct outfits, a reflection of the album's stylistic elasticity. From the topical, disco-tinted "Music for Money," to the funky "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass" (his biggest UK hit), to the AM-radio pop reverence of "Tonight," Lowe established himself early on as a master of the pastiche, paving the way for future genre-blenders like They Might Be Giants and Beck.
Thirteen solo records later, Lowe's still got it. 2011's The Old Magic was a "mature" album in the purest sense of the term, one that grappled with its author's ripening age without being corny or esoteric. He's currently on tour for the second holiday season in a row in support of his Christmas album Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family, a record that makes Bob Dylan's Christmas in the Heart seem like the Trans-Siberian Orchestra by comparison. In some ways, Lowe is the prototypical rock underdog—the second fiddle to Elvis Costello, a nerdy curator of highbrow power-pop. But an examination of his discography reveals that he's one of the most tasteful and consistent singer/songwriters in the annals of pop music. What more could you want?