In 2011 the (failing) New York Times claimed, “The 40-year career of the English singer-songwriter Nick Lowe constitutes a paradox: the songs he has written are better known than he is.”
Nick Lowe is from Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, England, part of that seemingly endless generation of Brits who grew up with early rock and roll. Lowe first came to the music world’s attention as the bassist (and songwriter) for the band Brinsley Schwarz whose debut album was released in 1970. (Brinsley Schwarz was the name of the guitarist. He later went on to become part of Graham Parker’s backup band, the Rumour.)
Alas for the Schwarz-meisters, their debut at the Fillmore East was a disaster. Their management hyped them as the “next best thing” and flew a bunch of British journalists in to hear them. Due to a series of unfortunate travel incidents, the band got there with moments to spare and played on unfamiliar equipment. Meanwhile the journalists – having some time on their hands – got shitfaced. The critics were underwhelmed by the band and savaged both them and the album.
“We were such hapless ninnies!,” Lowe advises. “It was such an awful experience for a kid like me — I was so ambitious and so up for it and I swanked away to my friends and boasted to them, “We’re off to the States! Playing the Fillmore, you know!” And when it all fell to bits and we were laughing stocks, it was so utterly humiliating that I remember thinking, how could you have been such a fool?
But for some reason we didn’t break up, I do not know why — we sort of clung to each other because we were so mortified by this terrible experience. And now I’ve got so much to thank it for: my idea of what it was to be famous and how to deal with it changed immediately, and I learned to treat being in the entertainment business with a lot more respect.”
Despite – or even because of – this inauspicious beginning, the band hung together for four more years and five more albums. I can’t tell you much about any of that other than to say that on their final album (produced by Dave Edmunds) they recorded their version of Lowe’s “What’s so Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” It’s somewhat more poppy than Elvis Costello’s version of a few years later:
After leaving Brinsley Schwarz in 1975, Lowe and Edmunds formed the band Rockpile. (I delved a little bit into Rockpile’s history here. when I reviewed Seconds of Pleasure.) Now the story changes as punk was starting to take off and a label called Stiff Records came into being. The guys who started Stiff had managed Brinsley Schwarz at one point and so knew Lowe. They hired him not only as a solo act but also as a producer.
The very first record that Stiff ever released (in 1976) was Lowe’s great tune, “So it Goes.” More power pop here, kids. I couldn’t possibly love this song more, words and music:
All day discussions with the Russians
But they still went ahead
And vetoed the plan
Now up jumped the U.S. representative
He’s the one with the tired eyes
747 for the midnight condition
Flyin’ back from a peace keepin’ mission
And so it goes and so it goes
And so it goes and so it goes
But where it’s goin’ no one knows
When Elvis Costello signed with Stiff Records, Lowe became his producer. “Elvis brought a tape into Stiff. I wasn’t that attracted at the start. I thought there were too many words, too many chords,” Lowe recalled. “When I started producing him, I was El Jefe -This has got to go! You can make three songs out of this one!’ That didn’t last very long. It was terrific.”
My Aim is True was a big hit (and a great album) and the first of five straight albums* Lowe produced for Elvis (who, of course, did “Peace and Understanding.”) In 1978, Lowe – whose Sixties sensibility fit in perfectly with the burgeoning New Wave – released his debut album Jesus of Cool. (Renamed Pure Pop for Now People here in the States because as I said in my Rockpile post it was, what, sacrilegious?)
A great tune from this album is “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” which was a hit in the UK and somewhat in the US. There’s an idea floating around that this is a parody of Bowie’s “Breaking Glass” but Lowe swears he hadn’t heard that tune when he did this:
In 1979, Lowe released an album called Labour of Lust which has the incredibly catchy “Cruel to Be Kind,” a song originally written for Brinsley Schwarz. Wikipedia: “Musically, the song was originally closer to a soul style,” Lowe later said, “Initially… the inspiration was a song I loved by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes called, ‘The Love I Lost,’ and the bass line was the same… we loved that Philly disco stuff from the 70’s, The O’Jays, all that stuff, we loved that.”
In 1979, Lowe married Carlene Carter, Johnny Cash’s stepdaughter. The marriage lasted till 1990 but Nick stayed friendly with the family, recording with Cash who did some of Lowe’s songs. When the Cashes stayed with them in London, Nick says, “They did their best to be unobtrusive — which of course they couldn’t possibly be.
I’d get up in the morning, go down to get a cup of coffee and there he’d be, sitting in his pajamas with his guitar in this little tiny kitchen! It was absolutely brilliant. It’s always a bit odd when a person’s mother and father-in-law come to stay, but because it was Johnny and June ….”
In his long career, in addition to Elvis Costello, Lowe has produced a wide variety of artists: the Pretenders, Graham Parker, Dr. Feelgood, Paul Carrack, John Hiatt, the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Nick was arguably more influential in the Seventies and Eighties but always seems to be kicking around. In fact, he’s on tour out West right now and if he comes back this way I’m tempted to see him.
I leave you with one more tune from Nick’s 1990 album Party of One. (Good title.) This song is called “Gai-gin Man.” Gai-gin – they tell me – is Japanese for foreigner and it’s Nick’s reflection on being an outsider in Japan. I picked up this album on cassette years ago on a whim and I totally dug it. Good album here, folks. (Ry Cooder on slide.)
Sources: Wikipedia; Variety interview with Nick Lowe.
*Lowe and Costello reunited in 1986 for Blood and Chocolate.