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.
Jesus of Cool (1978)
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” (download) and “So It Goes” (download), 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 find a used copy of the CD for less than the $50-$60 it seems to be going for these days.
Labour of Lust (1979)
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” (download). 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.
Nick the Knife (1982)
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.
The Abominable Showman (1983)
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” (download), 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).
Nick Lowe & His Cowboy Outfit (1984)
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 Rose of England (1985)
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 1988’s Pinker and Prouder Than Previous, a record I wish I could leave out of this Guide. I can’t, but I can leave it for Part Two…