Nick Lowe: Aging Beautifully

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By: Dennis Cook

Nick Lowe
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.”

Vintage Lowe
“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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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… In that time you have to get a story told. 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.

Nick Lowe

 

Of Pub Rock And The Brinsleys

The best music tends to exist outside of time, free of too many markers of the era of its birth, able to connect with future generations because of its capacity to speak to universal truths and/or primal gifts of melody, phrasing, etc. For many hardcore record collecting nutters, Brinsley Schwarz is one such timeless combo. Between 1969-1975, The Brinsleys produced a madly winning string of albums that merged honky-tonk with garage rock, sweet folk with acerbic proto-punk, Detroit soul with something quite English, resulting in a sub-genre known as pub rock. It’s a sound very much at home amongst boozy chatter and clinking pints, but also possessed of a sensitive side that drew from The Band, CSN and other U.S. artists finding power in quieter corners.

Nick Lowe
“We had a funny career really. I was at school with Brinsley [the guitarist and erstwhile leader who lent his name to group] and we started a band and went to Germany. It was the very end of the time that people know from The Beatles. We didn’t go to Hamburg but it was still going on that you went to a club for a month to do a residency. You’d play all night, and on the weekends you’d play all day and all night, and for hardly any money. I’d led a very sheltered life up till that time, and I had eyes like saucers over what I saw and experienced,” recalls Lowe. “It was also great training musically. You had to expand your repertoire. Our little two hours we could scrape up before we went to Germany didn’t get us anywhere. You’d try to eek it out with drum solos and guitar solos, all that business, and you got fed up with that very quickly. So, we had to get into the DJ’s booth when the club was closed and listen to what everyone was dancing to between the live music, which was nearly all soul and R&B stuff back then. Europe was really into it in a big way. So, it was fantastic training ground.”

“When we changed the name to Brinsley Schwarz and we started to get on a bit, we signed with a management team who got us a gig at the Fillmore East [in NYC] and everything went wrong, absolutely everything. They flew a planeload of journalists over and it should have finished Brinsley Schwarz off except that we were right in the beginning of this pub rock scene around London. In ways, we could use our old Germany training, because it was a sort of back-to-basics thing as an answer to the mainstream rock stuff, which was all these awful prog rock groups like Yes, Genesis and Jethro Tull [Lowe’s voice drips with genuine disdain when he cites these names] – just dreadful singer-songwriters.”

“So after this Fillmore East thing went wrong, we hung in and started again to forge a new audience in this London pub scene, which everyone seems to agree was the start of the punk rock thing [in England],” says Lowe. “It only really worked in London, and to describe something as ‘pub rock’ eventually became very derogatory, basically describing a very earnest blues, boogie band, very guys’ music. And that’s because one of the best groups to come out of pub rock, which was Dr. Feelgood. It was three-piece with a singer, a sort of blues band and just fan-tas-tic! Unfortunately, because they were so fantastic they spawned a lot of imitators, and there are few things worse than a bad blues band. The pubs became absolutely full of these Dr. Feelgood copyists, and that’s what everyone remembers.”

“At the beginning it was quite different. We were like a human jukebox – that was our shtick. We changed our set every week, and we’d play very obscure R&B tunes but we’d play the Top 10 as well. We didn’t know it but we were like a not very good NRBQ,” chuckles Lowe. “But, there were other people like Ian Dury and The Blockheads who had unusual presentation. It was all R&B and rock ‘n’ roll based, but some bands had very unusual presentation. Stiff Records became the home of all these misfits.”

Jesus of Cool

Lowe’s 1978 solo debut, Jesus of Cool (renamed Pure Pop For Now People in the States), recorded in ’76-’77, ranks as one of that decade’s standouts, a wriggling bundle of creativity harnessed to still ear grabbing production and anchored to an indestructible song cycle about the twitchy ins & outs of love, death and money. Thankfully, Yep Roc put out a swell 30th anniversary edition last year (see JamBase’s review here) so the current generation can thrill to “I Love The Sound of Breaking Glass,” “Little Hitler” and the rest.

“I could tell that something really mighty was going to happen. So, when I got to the front of the queue, so to speak, after having done my apprenticeship, it’s as if a voice said, ‘Step up, it’s your turn. What’ve you got?’ But, my contemporaries and I didn’t really like what we saw when we got to the front of the queue. We didn’t want to join in with Yes and Gentle Giant and all these ghastly bands,” says Lowe. “We thought the first thing to do was sort of tear it all down, to start again. So, that’s what we – along with Stiff and my collaborator Jake Riviera with whom I’m still partners – set about doing.”

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My theory is that part of the fun back then was that there was a straight world and a hip world; nowadays, everyone’s hip. Even the dull people are hip. Look at Simon Cowell [American Idol], he’s a sort of a dull, hip person running things. I far preferred it when there proper straight people running things.

Nick Lowe

 

“I never really saw the punk rock thing, which by then was starting to happen. I never really cared for punk rock music, really. It was almost uniformly ghastly. But, the mischief and the mayhem was what I was interested in. I saw these big wheels in the music industry – who I thought were completely talentless clods – scramble while for a few weeks it seemed the monkeys were running the zoo. Their heads rolled, one by one, and this included really powerful disc jockeys at the BBC, these awful idiots who wouldn’t play anything good and treated the artists like idiots and had nothing but contempt for them. They were awful people and one by one they lost their jobs because they couldn’t cope with it.”

“We had all sorts of people to help with this [mayhem program] because there was one club we’d all meet at called Dingwalls and a handful of pubs. And we knew all the music journalists, the cool ones anyway, and the NME and Melody Maker came out every week and had a huge readership. The NME was up to 6 or 700,000 copies every week, which is unbelievable. So, we could get these stories put into these incredibly widely read papers every week. Major labels could not compete with that; they had to compete through the usual channels of publicists, etc. A lot of really good writers were in on the joke, so to speak,” recounts Lowe. “The big boys couldn’t cope with it and they completely lost control of it. And that’s when we got rid of them. It didn’t last long – they’re all back now. My theory is that part of the fun back then was that there was a straight world and a hip world; nowadays, everyone’s hip. Even the dull people are hip. Look at Simon Cowell [American Idol], he’s a sort of a dull, hip person running things. I far preferred it when there proper straight people running things [laughs].”

Strong Language

Nick Lowe
While punk may have accomplished its goals through artless power chords, shouting and bruising percussion, Lowe has often unearthed tremendous power in the effective use of strong, pointed language. There’s nothing lazy about a Nick Lowe line, and one may find themselves cheerily singing along before they suddenly stop cold, realizing that they’ve just crooned, “She was a winner that became a doggie’s dinner” (“Marie Provost”) or a more recent dark-tinged creepy nugget like, “This one’s almost done/ now to watch her fall apart/ I trained her to love me/ so I can go ahead and break her heart/ If you think that it’s depraved and I should be ashamed/ so what/ I’m only paying back womankind for all the grief I’ve got” (“I Trained Her To Love Me” off 2007’s stellar At My Age). In Lowe one finds the pen is as mighty as any blade or pitchfork.

“I have sort of habits that I have to really watch and censor out of what I do. Some of the things my fans really like are things that make me kind of cringe [laughs]. So, I try to keep it as straight as I can now, not too many puns and the like. I went through a terrible stage where I was quite pun-tastic for a couple of years, which I have a bit of trouble listening to now,” offers Lowe. “If you can take two or three words together and really make them count, there’s something really satisfying about that. You don’t want to cloud it up with too much waffle.”

Recent compositions like “What Lack of Love Has Done” and “Love’s Got A Lot To Answer For” reveal just how effective getting the fundamentals right can be.

“The people I admire, that’s what they seem to do and that’s what I aspire to. I try to work at the song until I actually think I’m singing a cover. This is a process. I just work at it and work at it and work at it, always taking stuff out, until you get to a place where you think you’re singing ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’ or ‘Tracks Of My Tears’ or some old standard. And vice-versa. When I find a cover song I like, if I hear a song I think I can do, I work at it and work at it until I actually come to believe I wrote it. It’s like the reverse process takes place,” says Lowe. “It’s the same when I hear covers of my songs done by other people. The ones I like are always when the artist has taken it somewhere else. Sadly, it’s how I earn my living, by having my songs covered. It’s good whenever anyone does one, but artistically it’s disappointing when you hear someone do a slavish version of one’s own rendition. That’s why I used to love it when Johnny Cash used to cut my things, which he did two or three times. He’d just slap his thing right on top of it. There’s certain phrasings and things he does that I’ve started doing like him because they’re just much better than the way I did it!”

Which brings us to “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” a tune known worldwide as an Elvis Costello number but was originally penned by Lowe in 1974 and appears on Brinsley Schwarz’s The New Favourites of Brinsley Schwarz (and thankfully opens the new Quiet Please… anthology).

“I don’t lose any sleep about it,” offers Lowe flatly. “It’s not like he’s stolen it from me, quite the reverse actually. It would have been lost if he hadn’t pulled it out of the dustbin that my old band Brinsley Schwarz disappeared into along with that song. He’s the one that put all that anthemic thing and passion into it that people reacted to so positively. If he hadn’t done that then the song would be totally forgotten.”

“It’s absolutely amazing that the song has become a sort of standard. You hear it absolutely everywhere,” Lowe continues. “It doesn’t really feel like my song anymore. A strange thing happens, where my chest doesn’t swell with pride. I just get a vague feeling of astonishment that someone else is singing it. It’s odd.”

Nick Lowe will be returning to the U.S. for a tour later this year and will hit the road in England in May. JamBase will keep you updated as the Stateside dates firm up.






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