By: Dennis Cook
Nick Lowe knows how to write a song. Besides one of the strongest catalogs of the past 50 years, the English singer-songwriter extraordinaire has been covered by luminaries like Tom Petty, Elvis Costello and Johnny Cash, as well as further afield acts like Lene Lovich, Dar Williams and J Church. He was a member of short lived super group Little Village with Ry Cooder, John Hiatt and Jim Keltner. He produced the debuts of The Pretenders and Graham Parker, amongst others, and he's even on the soundtrack to cult classic Rock 'n' Roll High School. Yet, Lowe remains far from a household name, particularly outside the U.K.
But fame is rarely a barometer of one's true worth and folks that know – serious musicians and music lovers – have flocked to Lowe since he first started pumping out records in the late '60s. Luckily, for those wanting to find out about this marvel of top flight craftsmanship and style – a worthy successor to what Lennon & McCartney and their forebears got rolling – there's a brand new anthology of his work, Quiet Please...: The New Best of Nick Lowe (released March 17 on Yep Roc), that dips into all facets of his decades long outpouring. If one wanted to get schooled on how to get the job done and done quickly they'd do well to study this set with academic intensity. Thing is, school is rarely this wildly enjoyable or dance floor ready.
While he may be known (even if folks don't know it) for his global anthem for "Peace, Love and Understanding" (as famously played by long-time buddy/creative foil Elvis Costello), there's much more to Nick Lowe, and JamBase delights at the chance to pick his big brain about his fruitful history, a through line that runs through the '70s FM radio heyday, punk rock and into today's classiest singer-songwriters.
"I'm very much a product of my time, in that all the songs I grew up with had to fit on a 45 RPM record. That meant they were two-and-a-half to three-minutes long. So, I'm from that generation so I naturally tend to write songs about that length – a fast one is two-and-a-half minutes and a slow one is three-minutes-fifteen-seconds [laughs]. In that time you have to get a story told," says Lowe. "I was going to say it's a dying art, which sounds a bit like I'm some old craftsman on the way out, but I don't think it is. I think it's still saucy to be able to do that. But there's no doubt about it that melody isn't as crucial as it once was."
A random sampling of mainstream airwaves reveals rhythm and sensation as the operating principles behind the majority of today's pop, and in many ways it feels like The Beatles lost. However, slip on a Nick Lowe album and the world of well-shaped, hummable singles is set to right.
"I lose not one moment's sleep about it. It's absolutely fair enough," says Lowe. "I'm still interested in telling a story in a short amount of time and engaging the listener. That's why I like country music and gospel and soul. American music is what I love, although I like what happens to it when it comes over this side of the ocean. The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, The Who, they all loved American R&B and all that great American music, which we just lapped up."
"The other thing for people of my vintage is it was very hard to find [these American records]. You had to really look for it," continues Lowe. "I can remember hearing that someone who lived across town had a Jimmy Reed record, and we'd find out where they lived and knock on their door and say, 'We hear you have a Jimmy Reed record. Do you mind if we listen to it?' And they'd say, 'Oh sure! Come in!' And the same thing happened with a Stratocaster, and my friend and I knocked on that person's door to say, 'Can we have a look at it?' I remember opening the case and sniffing it as well [laughs]. 'The smells of America,' I remember us saying. We loved it, and of course, we had NO conception of the size of the States or that there was regional music. Now, I'm much more attuned to all of that stuff. I can spot something from Cleveland and all that stuff now, but back then we just thought it was a bigger England."
"My father was in the RAF, and when I was a kid I lived with him wherever he was stationed, which a lot of the time was the Middle East – Jordan, Cyprus, places like that. So, we listened to the British Forces Network radio station, which was pretty terrible. Occasionally they'd play Little Richard. I remember my mother leaping across the room like a startled fawn when Little Richard came on singing 'Tutti Frutti.' And that made me even more intrigued," chuckles Lowe. "But, wherever there was a British base there was usually an American base not too far away, so we could pick up American Forces Radio, which was WAY, WAY better. And that's when I first heard this stuff, which was unsettling [laughs]. You had someone named Howlin' Wolf! Or indeed, Ferlin Huskey or Lefty Frizzell, just fantastic names of these strange people. I still think it's like people came down from outer space and made these brilliant records. And they've all cleared off now – there's no sign of them. All they've left behind are these fabulous records and a few crappy, beaten up old amplifiers that you buy at junk shops. Besides that, you can't make hide nor hair of these people who made squillions of great records."
There's a palpable charge from music that throws its lines back to the '40s and '50s that feels very punk rock in its way. Lowe's work, particularly his early solo albums in the '70s and his work with Dave Edmunds in Rockpile bristle with misbehaved charm.
"It's so full of innovation and fun and mischief and dark stuff and soul – just bags of soul from very young people. It's astonishing," observes Lowe. "When I left home at 18 to join a band in 1968, I thought I'd missed it. I thought it was all over. It's arguable as to when rock 'n' roll started. People talk about "Rocket 88" on Sun Records as the first rock record, but that's completely arguable. So, I left home in 1968, which was 16 years after the supposed birth of rock 'n' roll, and I thought it was all over. It was like, 'If I don't get in the war soon it'll be over by Christmas' [laughs]. That was my feeling. And look, it's now been 30 years since punk rock."
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