Doesn’t look like the godfather of punk, does he?
Well. Maybe not the godfather, but perhaps a kindly uncle. Either way, Nick Lowe’s footprint on punk — hell, on all of British pop music, really — is a whole lot larger than you’d expect for a guy whose early albums are frequently (for instance, as of this writing) out of print.
How all of this came to be is a little involved. First and foremost, Lowe is known as a progenitor of what’s commonly called “pub rock,” a British phenomenon of the ’70s that sounded pretty much the way you’d expect. The big bands of the era sounded BIG — Queen, T. Rex, Yes — and pub rock’s Working Joe aesthetic provided a stark, welcome contrast. Pub rockers tended to look pretty much the way you’d expect, too; guys like Lowe, Mickey Jupp, Paul Carrack, and Ian Gomm were long on talent and short on rock-star flash.
It’s that talent that made the difference. Calling their music pub rock played up the performers’ working-class roots, but it also obscured what phenomenal songwriters many of them were. The movement gave rise to Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, and a number of others whose names never made it to household status.
Like Nick Lowe.
Now, about that kindly-uncle-of-punk thing. Lowe got his first taste of success as a member of Brinsley Schwarz, probably the most influential band on the pub rock scene. By the time the band dissolved in 1975, he’d earned a reputation for himself as a songwriter and producer, a reputation he used to secure a position as the staff producer and flagship recording artist at Stiff Records. And that’s how Nick Lowe ended up producing The Damned’s debut album, and Elvis Costello’s first several releases, and some early Graham Parker, and…
Well, you get the idea. Lowe’s sharp, back-to-basics approach behind the boards earned him the nickname “Basher,” and was truly instrumental in punk’s development, but — as we shall soon hear — he was a whole lot more than that. In fact, as an artist, he never came anywhere near punk; early on, he was known for his seemingly effortless way with a devastating pop hook, and his first few records have more in common with new wave than probably anything else. (Actually, he may have been known mainly for being Johnny Cash’s son-in-law, but we’ll get into that another time.) Later on, his wandering muse brought him back to the country-inflected folk and pop he’d started off with; in Part 2, we’ll see how the 1990s brought Lowe the best reviews of his career — and made him an accidental millionaire. But first things first.
In the States, Lowe’s debut was titled Pure Pop for Now People; I prefer Jesus of Cool, but no matter what you call it, this is one hell of a debut. He does a lot of things here — the rollicking rock of “Heart of the City” (download), the airtight pop of “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” and “So It Goes,” the brilliant satire of “Marie Provost” (download) — and does them all flawlessly. As a calling card for Lowe’s immense songwriting talent, it works perfectly.
So why didn’t it make Lowe an instant star? Often, I’m able to point to outside factors that might help to mitigate or explain the commercial underperformance of a noteworthy album, but in this case, I got nothin’. Basically, the world isn’t fair. All I can offer you are these songs and my heartfelt hope you’ll purchase Yep Roc’s recently released, lovingly assembled expanded edition.
On his debut, Lowe visited several points on the musical map, but for its followup, he opted for a more cohesive approach. A lot of this had to do with Rockpile.
What’s Rockpile, you ask? It was the group name adopted by Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Billy Bremner, and Terry Williams, and started off as the backing band for Edmunds and Lowe before becoming a recording act in its own right (Rockpile’s lone album release, 1980’s Seconds of Pleasure, is pretty universally regarded as one of the best albums you’ve never heard, but Lowe’s career has enough interesting detours without us making a stop there; check it out for yourself.)
As a group of personalities, Rockpile was ill-fated to say the least, but as a performing unit, the band was without peer, and they lend Labour of Lust a primal rock muscle missing from perhaps all of Lowe’s other releases. It’s fitting that the album contains two of his best-known recordings in the oft-covered “Cruel to Be Kind” (download) and his definitive cover of Mickey Jupp’s “Switchboard Susan.” My personal favorite, though, is the tough-but-tender “Without Love” (download) — it points the way back to Brinsley Schwarz and ahead toward his late-period work, as well as giving you a pretty good idea of why the Man in Black was a fan.
By the time Knife was released, Rockpile had run its course; though Lowe still relied on Williams and Bremner for the album, his relationship with Edmunds had soured. Possible personality conflicts aside, it’s easy to see where Lowe and Edmunds split musically; where Edmunds has never been anything other than a strict roots-rock fundamentalist, Lowe can never go long without tweaking the formula somehow. Though I don’t think this is one of Lowe’s better albums, it’s representative of his skewed humor and retro-revisionist approach; try “Heart” (download), “Stick it Where the Sun Don’t Shine” (download), and “My Heart Hurts” (download) on for size and see if you don’t agree.
Columbia was expecting Nick the Knife to build on the success Lowe had hinted at with Labour of Lust, but it didn’t contain any “Switchboard Susan” or “Cruel to Be Kind”-sized hits, and his solo career was showing signs of foundering. Part of the problem was that Lowe was a little too aware of what people were expecting from him, and his records were starting to sound a little strained. Even his flattest moments were more inspired than most, but still — his albums were starting to miss their spark. A change in direction would be necessary to rekindle Lowe’s interest in his own music.
But first, The Abominable Showman. By far the worst of Lowe’s early albums, Showman essentially made it clear that he was never going to be a major commercial concern in America. It’s like the genre-hopping Jesus of Cool‘s frail cousin: There’s finger-snapping rock in “Raging Eyes” (download), impeccably clever pop in “Time Wounds All Heels” (download) and “Man Of A Fool,” and everything else listeners had come to expect out of Lowe’s bag of tricks. Just, you know, not as much. Where it’s supposed to rock, like on “Saint Beneath the Paint,” Showman sounds muted; where it’s supposed to be tender, like on “Paid the Price,” it’s just turgid.
He could do better; he had before, and he would again, sooner than later. Showman marks the end of Lowe’s flirtations with the pop mainstream as a solo artist — from here on out, his albums became much more insular (and much better).
Less a true band than a loose collective of friends and co-conspirators, the Cowboy Outfit brought Nick Lowe back from the brink of creative stasis, and sent his solo career in a whole new direction in the bargain. From the opening notes of “Half A Boy and Half A Man” (download), you can hear the difference; he’s broken out of his new wave-ish rut and returned to the meaty, neo-trad country/rock hybrid of his early career. But with a sly twist: Just listen to the way “Half” uses a Farfisa to bridge the gap between old and new, turn it on its head, and get you up off your ass all at once.
He sounds re-energized, and it isn’t just on the opening track; “Maureen” (download) is three of the most perfect minutes you’re likely to hear on record, and the slinky, quasi-instrumental “Awesome” (download) is the fat-bassed stuff of Duane Eddy’s aging dreams.
The critical consensus seems to be that Nick Lowe & His Cowboy Outfit is a better album than The Rose of England, but I spit in the eye of critical consensus: Rose is not only better, it’s one of Lowe’s best overall.
There are reasons for shrugging off Rose. It’s more reliant on outside material than most of Lowe’s albums, for one — but when two of the covers are brilliant takes on Elvis Costello’s “Indoor Fireworks” (download) and John Hiatt’s “She Don’t Love Nobody” (download), all is forgiven. There’s also the matter of Huey Lewis producing part of the album; certain rock snobs believe the Lewis-produced version of “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock & Roll)” is inferior to Lowe’s earlier take on it. Eh, I like them both, and I’m even in favor of Lewis’ presence on The Rose of England — his association with Lowe stretches way back to the mid-’70s, when Lowe brought Lewis’ previous band, Clover, to England and used them as the backup group on Costello’s My Aim Is True.
(You’ve got to love rock’s gnarled family tree.)
Huey Lewis was trying to throw Lowe a bone — providing a big break in return for one — but it didn’t really work; though Rose generated more buzz than his previous few albums, it didn’t sell to many more than the faithful few who already counted themselves as fans. (And the odd Huey Lewis fan, like my dad, whose Rose of England cassette provided my introduction to the wonderful world of Nick Lowe.) And that, my friends, is a dirty shame. In a perfect, alternate universe, this album’s title track (download) was just one of several Number One hits from The Rose of England.
And here’s the part where I mention that, besides being an ace producer, brilliant songwriter, empathic vocalist, and Johnny Cash’s son-in-law, Nick Lowe was also an alcoholic, and that Lowe did more drinking than music-making for the next few years. He wouldn’t make another album until…
Okay, so this isn’t a horrible album. It’s just pretty listless and bland, two things you could rarely have accused Lowe of being before. Having abandoned the Cowboy Outfit, Lowe seemed unsure of what he was supposed to do next; Pinker has its share of the twangy, bottom-heavy roots rock that he explored on the Outfit albums, but it’s got all the form and little of the function — tracks like “I Got the Love” (download) and “Black Lincoln Continental” (download) try to groove, but never gather any momentum.
The thing is, on paper, this seems like it could have been Lowe’s best: Dave Edmunds was back as (part-time) producer, and the band included John Hiatt, Paul Carrack, Pete Thomas, Jimmie Vaughan, and the inimitable Geraint Watkins — but their performances are, to a man, unexceptional, like the songs. Of all Lowe’s out-of-print albums, Pinker is the most deserving of its fate — and yet, as I write this, the cheapest copy on Amazon is selling for around $25.
My point? Even bad Nick Lowe isn’t that bad. I hate Pinker and Prouder Than Previous, but only in comparison to what came before and after.
“I woke up one morning and it was like the clouds had parted,” Lowe told Rolling Stone after Party of One was released. “I felt like writing again.”
And write he did — if I’m not mistaken, Party is the only Nick Lowe album that doesn’t contain any cover songs. It’s true that this is a rather uneven set of tunes — for every “You Got the Look I Like” (download) or “What’s Shakin’ On The Hill,” there’s a half-baked trifle like “All Men Are Liars” (download) or “Honey Gun” — but it’s got the sort of relaxed, loose-limbed spirit that renders such quibbles sort of academic.
This has a lot to do with Dave Edmunds’ sharp, sympathetic production, as well as the cast of characters assembled for the album: Party‘s core band consisted of Lowe on bass, Jim Keltner on drums, Edmunds and Ry Cooder on guitar, and Paul Carrack on keys. Hardcore rock nerds will recognize this outfit as three-fourths of the crew that brought you John Hiatt’s Bring the Family album, and if Party doesn’t come near Family‘s heights, it’s still a solid record, and a step in the right direction.
Speaking of that Bring the Family band — Lowe, Keltner, Hiatt, and Cooder — they decided to attempt a high-profile reunion after Party of One. Calling themselves Little Village, they lasted for only one album and one tour before going kaput. We didn’t take an in-depth look at Rockpile’s Seconds of Pleasure, so we sure aren’t going to spend much time on the inferior Little Village (of which Lowe has said, “It’s a shame we left behind this rather limp record, which got limper and limper as certain members of the group messed around with it”), but we will be making a stop out Little Village way on an upcoming Bootleg City. The record wasn’t much to write home about, but the tour was the stuff of legend (Lowe, in his understated British way, said “The last live shows we did were exquisite”).
In 1992, Curtis Stigers — an artist whose name means nothing to roughly everybody now, but at the time, was being aggressively promoted as the Next Big Thing by Arista Records — covered an old Nick Lowe tune, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?,” for the soundtrack to a little film called The Bodyguard. It went on to become the biggest-selling soundtrack of all time, putting a nice pile of coin in Lowe’s pocket in the process; when I saw him on his 1999 tour, he joked, “This song helped paint my house” before playing “Understanding.”
It isn’t a particularly profound story, I know. But I like it: Lowe had been dumped by Reprise Records after Little Village splintered, and — in the days before every Tom’s Harry Dick was declaring himself a record label and securing worldwide distribution via iTunes and Amazon — his options were relatively few in number. His earnings from The Bodyguard enabled him to record his next album, The Impossible Bird, on his own dime, and license it to whomever he damn well pleased; in this case, it was Upstart Records, a tiny, Rounder-distributed label whose other major signing was…um, Big Ass Truck.
Clearly, he’d lucked into a big pile of what the kids are calling “fuck you” money, and liberation agreed with him completely; Bird is arguably his best record. Freed from major-label constraints and beyond worrying about sales, Lowe turned in his most relaxed, confident, and mature album to that point. And though “mature” isn’t exactly what you’d think to expect from the man who wrote “Bay City Rollers, We Love You,” it really works. This is the sound, basically, of a man aging gracefully.
Honestly, there isn’t a bum number in the bunch, though some have grown in stature more than others through the years. Lowe’s former father-in-law, Johnny Cash, covered “The Beast in Me” (download) on his first American album, and Rod Stewart tipped his admittedly fading hat to “Shelley My Love” (download); other notable highlights include the Paul Carrack co-write “I Live on a Battlefield” and the brilliant “14 Days” — but as I said, you really can’t go wrong with this album.
Call it The Impossible Bird, part II, but don’t go thinking it’s just a mindless rehash; though Dig My Mood shares its predecessor’s quiet, laid-back vibe, Lowe isn’t repeating himself, just crafting the sort of minimalist, casually wonderful records that you’d expect from a songwriter of his age (he was 49 when Mood came out) and stature.
In the comments to Part One of the Lowe Guide, some people mentioned a frustration with Lowe’s inability or unwillingness to really rock out, despite frequently hinting that he might; starting with the trilogy that began with Bird, that’s no longer a concern. When his songs do manage to kick up a little dust, it’s a very refined dust. For the most part, though, he’s content these days to live in the spaces between the beats — like on the stately, swinging “Time I Took A Holiday” (download) — or just abandon the beat altogether, as with “Faithless Lover” and “Failed Christian” (download).
Personally, I prefer it when my albums work a little harder to gain my affection, but I’m not immune to Mood‘s charms. When the chips are down, though, I turn to The Impossible Bird when I want to hear Lowe’s brand of parlor music.
These songs might be hard to swallow for fans who wish he’d go back to more uptempo fare, but Lowe is well into his fifties now, and Mick Jagger he ain’t; he no longer plays many of his older songs in concert. He says a lot of them feel “callow” now, and even the ones that don’t come from a place he can’t identify with anymore. As I said about Bird, this is the sound of a man aging gracefully. More often than not, graybeard rockers either cope with their advancing mortality by completely ignoring it (a la Jagger) or totally abandoning their musical identity (a la Billy Joel). Lowe makes an, ahem, convincing case for the middle path.
He’s always been an iconoclast, and though it sounds a little funny in reference to the distinguished, grandfatherly-looking gentleman on The Convincer‘s cover, an iconoclast he remains. Songs like “Homewrecker” (download) and “She’s Got Soul” (download) may not reach out and grab you as forcefully as “Cruel to Be Kind” or “Heart of the City,” but what they lack in immediacy, they make up in other ways.
And here’s where the story ends, at least for now — a wry, sprightly (for late-period Lowe) set that hearkens back to the midtempo heights of The Impossible Bird. Fans hoping for another Jesus of Cool (or, heck, another Rose of England) should know by now that Lowe isn’t going to give it to them — but for those of us who have followed along (and enjoyed) Basher’s progressive mellowing, At My Age offers resounding proof that he’s still got plenty of gas in the tank.
Though Lowe admitted at the time of its release that Age was a difficult album to write, you don’t hear any signs of struggle within the bars of these songs; in fact, of the record’s dozen tracks, nine are Lowe originals, and they’re all better than the covers (which are, for the record, Charlie Feathers’ “The Man in Love,” Faron Young’s “Feel Again,” and “Not Too Long Ago,” a little-remembered side from the Uniques).
The song that got the most attention was the rakish “I Trained Her to Love Me” (download), but Age‘s charms certainly don’t end there; check out “The Club” (download) for just one example of why Nick Lowe remains cooler than all of us put together. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another six years before he gets around to releasing another album.
As a brief side note, I hasten to add that you should also check out two releases we aren’t covering here: The live album Untouched Takeaway, released last year, which captures Lowe in truly fine form, and the boxed set, The Doings, which covers every album except The Convincer and includes a ton of live and previously unreleased tracks.