What’s So Funny? Nick Lowe at 70

Nicholas Drain Lowe, the Bard of Brentford, bass player, singer, producer, songwriter, former son-in-law of Johnny Cash, all-round nice bloke (I’ve met him) turns 70 this week, 24 March.

In a professional career of (at the time of writing) 51 years, he has produced records for the likes of Elvis Costello, the Pretenders, Graham Parker (with and without the Rumour), The Damned, Dr Feelgood, Wreckless Eric, Carlene Carter, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, The Mavericks and Johnny Cash. If that weren’t enough, his songs have been covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, Rod Stewart, Englebert  Humperdinck, Curtis Stigers, George Thorogood & the Destroyers, Tom Petty, Dr Feelgood, Wilco, Graham Parker and Lene Lovich.

And himself of course, lest we forget the 14 cracking solo albums since the Seventies. I first bought a Nick Lowe record in 1977. It was called Bowi (a joke I’ll explain later) and I have bought all of them since then, usually on the day they’re released, and would include at least one of them – either 2001’s The Convincer or  Jesus of Cool from 1978, depending on my mood – in my All Time Top Ten of All Time.

WK-BD237_ARENA_P_20120912175432The child of an RAF Group Captain father and a musical mother, he had played in bands at Woodbridge School in Suffolk. After leaving school, he was a cub reporter with the Middlesex Advertiser & County Gazette newspaper in  Uxbridge, until his old school chum Brinsley Schwarz called him up and asked him to join his group Kippington Lodge – named after a Victorian manor house close to the Schwarz family home in Kippington Road Sevenoaks. Tired of writing about suburban flower shows, he said yes without a second’s hesitation. Which was very good news for all of us who have enjoyed his tunes since then.

Kippington Lodge had a record deal with Parlophone – lest we forget the Beatles’ label – but after a flop single, their first bass player left and in late 1967, Nick was his replacement. Parlophone wanted them to be a frothy pop group, replete with the appropriate hair and paisley clothes, but their next four singles all flopped (but sounded great) so they were dropped. Having failed miserably, they needed a new name and a new direction. They chose Brinsley Schwarz, after their guitarist and as it was 1969 and had been listening to a lot of CSN, Music from Big Pink and Dylan’s Great White Wonder bootleg, they went all hippy. Which was fine for the times but before long they were potless. Luckily they saw an ad in Melody Maker in October 1969: Young progressive management company require young songwriting group with own equipment.

It was placed by a company called Famepushers from the rough end of the Portobello Road and headed by a charismatic and entrepreneurial Irishman called Dave Robinson, who had been a tour manager and roadie for a band called Eire Apparent who had supported the Jimi Hendrix’s Experience in the USA. From the tons of replies, the Brinsleys were auditioned and signed.  All they needed to achieve fame and fortune was a record deal but that was proving remarkably difficult to secure.

Robinson had an idea: a big showcase gig to catch the record companies’ eye. The only problem was where? Every suggestion for a venue seemed inadequate so they dreamed bigger and bigger. The Speakeasy? Too small. The Albert Hall? We need bigger. Then someone suggested the hippest music venue in the World at that time, the Fillmore East. Except the Fillmore East was in New York City and Brinsley Schwarz were in Notting Hill, London, W10.

Not lacking in chutzpah, Dave Robinson called the Fillmore’s owner, legendary impresario Bill Graham in San Francisco begging for a slot of the bill, any bill. Despite an impassioned pitch, Graham refused but did say Stop by if you’re ever on the West Coast. Which inspired Robinson to cab it to Heathrow and fly straight to San Francisco, so that less than 24 hours after they had spoken on the phone, he was in Bill Graham’s office. And even then Graham would still only say he’d consider it. A  week later though, he called to say they could open for Quicksilver Messenger Service and Van Morrison at the Fillmore on 3-4 April 1970.

All of a sudden record labels thought hang on they’re on at the Fillmore and got interested. United Artists signed them for £22,000 and Robinson used the money to carry out the most daring – and ultimately unsuccessful – publicity stunt in the history of rock and roll.

He chartered an Aer Lingus Boeing 707, filled it with journalists and flew them to NYC on the Saturday for the shows and flew them back on the Sunday. The whole thing would be filmed for a documentary they would release in the cinemas for which Brinsley Schwarz would provide the soundtrack. The money would roll in. What could possibly go wrong?

As it turned out, everything. There were visa problems for the band who pretty much had to sneak in via Canada. The 707 took off late, developed engine problems over the Irish Sea so had to make an emergency landing at Shannon airport, before finally leaving for NYC at 4.30pm. That was 11.30am US time with the band due on at 8pm and it’s an 8-hour flight. They managed to land dead on 7pm New York time and got to the Fillmore at 8.20pm, just as the band they’d all come to see took the stage. They played for 35 minutes and were terrible.

Stressed, under-rehearsed playing a large venue for the first time and were patently knees-a-knockin terrified. The next day they all flew back the next day with hangovers and a massive sense of disappointment. The Melody Maker referred to it as The Biggest Hype Of All Time. They were not only a laughing stock, they had overspent and were £13,000 in debt. When their debut album came out at the end of April, it achieved at best a lukewarm response. All they could do was live cheaply and gig furiously till it was all paid back, which is exactly what they did. They made five more albums of country-oriented based  R&B, based on the gifted songwriting of Nick Lowe, led the entire UK Pub Rock movement, got in all the papers, even supported Paul McCartney’s Wings on tour – and sold almost no records and so split up in March 1975 with a farewell gig at the Marquee on Wardour Street.

The other members went their separate ways, but as the main songwriter Nick was still contracted to United Artists, who saw him as a singer/songwriter in the James Taylor mould. Nothing against Sweet Baby James but that wasn’t Nick’s bag, so he did a kind of Producers thing where he deliberately made a single so terrible that it was bound to flop and he’d be dropped by UA, free to go somewhere else.

The problem was he put so much effort into making Bay City Rollers We Love You, it turned out to be a fantastic record. The lyrics were so tongue-in-cheek no self respecting Rollers fan in the UK was going to buy it, but the Japanese did – huge Rollers fans, the Japanese – and it went to Number One. United Artists were thrilled and wanted more, so he quickly did a follow up called Rollers Show, which was also a success. Finally he released Let’s Go To The Disco, as the Disco Brothers, which thankfully flopped everywhere so he was eventually released from the label.

Next he became an artist and in-house producer at Stiff Records, the new independent label formed by Dave Robinson and Nick Lowe’s flat mate, Jake Riviera. For just £45 he made the label’s first release, So It Goes, released in August 1976, with the witty catalogue number BUY1 and the words Mono-Enhanced Stereo, Play Loud! engraved on it. It made Single of the Week in Sounds and the NME and John Peel played it every night on his Radio One show.

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As a producer, he had already produced Graham Parker & the Rumour’s debut Howling Wind and at Stiff was responsible for producing the country’s first punk single New Rose by The Damned as well as the wonderful Whole Wide World by Wreckless Eric. The records were made cheaply in small studios and his bash-it-down quickly-and-tart-it-up later philosophy earned him the nickname Basher. He also produced the first album by Elvis Costello, My Aim Is True. Costello had been a massive Brinsley Schwarz fan who dropped his demo tape off at the Stiff offices only to bump into Basher on his way home on the steps of Royal Oak tube station. Stiff loved the tape, signed him for an advance was £150, a battery powered amp and a cassette recorder. Nick Lowe was assigned to produce and between them they gave us the first five Costello albums and singles like Watching The Detectives and I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea. Fabulous stuff then and fabulous stuff still.

Your then 16-year old correspondent missed out on So It Goes but became aware of him when he released an EP in 1977 called Bowi. My regular rock and roll reading, Sounds, explained the joke: that if David Bowie couldn’t spell his name properly, then he wasn’t going to spell the Thin White Duke’s properly either (Bowie had just released the album Low). Tickled, I bought it forthwith and grooved to Born A Woman and Shake That Rat et al while I crammed for O Levels.

Concurrent to all this soloing and producing, there was Rockpile, a basic 50s rock and roll outfit with a very modern twist headed by the twin talents of Nick and Dave Edmunds. Rockpile actually recorded four studio albums, but Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds were contracted to different record labels – Nick Lowe to Stiff and Edmunds to Swansong, Led Zeppelin’s label – so only one, Seconds of Pleasure, was ever released under the Rockpile banner. They tried to get out the Swansong contract and thought Zep’s mercurial manager and label boss Peter Grant might be a tad busy making billions with the Zep and other charges Bad Company in the USA to be concerned about little old Edmunds. They drove all the way to Grant’s moated estate in Sussex to negotiate, but he didn’t recognise their car so he wouldn’t raise the drawbridge. Negotiations there were none.

However, if you bought a Dave Edmunds or Nick Lowe solo album in 1977, 1978 or 1979, you were really buying a Rockpile album – Tracks on Wax 4, Repeat When Necessary, Twangin’ and Labour of Lust all have the same players on them and were often recorded side by side. If it was Dave singing, they went on his albums, if it was Nick they went on his. Between them they had a number of hits, the likes of Girls Talk, Queen of Hearts, Crawling from The Wreckage plus his biggest hit Cruel To Be Kind and Cracking Up.  

Nick’s first chart hit though was the splendid I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass, which got to Number 7 in March 1978 and is from his debut album Jesus of Cool (although anyone reading in the USA will not know it by that title; the US record label CBS thought it was too racy a title and wouldn’t sell in Peoria or other such god-fearing places, so it was renamed Pure Pop for Now People).

Finally in 1980 Edmunds got free of his Swansong contract and they were finally able to release Seconds of Pleasure as Rockpile – at which point they split up. Nick was now solo and released a series of very fine albums throughout the 1980s with wonderful titles like Nick the Knife, The Abominable Showman, Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit, The Rose of England, Pinker and Prouder Than Previous.

In 1979 he married Carlene Carter, the daughter of Johnny Cash’s wife June Carter Cash, which means he sort of became Johnny Cash’s son-in-law. Johnny, June and the Cash entourage were frequent visitors to Nick and Carlene’s house in Shepherd’s Bush and Cash covered a number of Lowe songs, including The Beast In Me. 

The late 1980s were perhaps not his best time, his marriage ended so older and wiser he moved further out into West London. Into the 90s, he surprised a few people when he formed a supergroup called Little Village with Ry Cooder, John Hiatt and Jim Keltner. They made only one rather decent album and when they played three nights at the Hammy Odeon in February 1992, the marquee out front said Tonight live from Nashville, Los Angeles and Brentford … Little Village.

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The Nineties were the time he moved from being a pop star to a mature songwriter, dropping great albums of sensitive, witty and often melancholy songs every few years, recorded live with a steady company of great, understated musicians. What helped was the windfall when old Brinsley tune What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love & Understanding? was covered by American singer Curtis Stigers and found its way onto a movie soundtrack album. Luckily, that movie was The Bodyguard, with Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner, and at last count the soundtrack has sold over 45 million copies worldwide. Anyway, the thoroughly decent royalty cheque enabled him to record at his own pace and develop the music he could hear in his head. The results were fine albums like The Impossible Bird, Dig My Mood, The Old Magic, At My Age and my personal favourite The Convincer.

These days he still lives in Brentford, with second wife Peta Waddington and their young lad Roy and is as active as ever. Tours of the USA, a couple of new EPs, a new biography from author Will Birch and a UK tour in June, including the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, for which me and Mrs Routemaster already have tickets. I look forward to going back there as it was where Nick’s mum asked me to move seats in 1994 because my head was too big and she couldn’t see. How could I turn her down?

Will Birch’s biography, Cruel to be Kind: The Life & Music of Nick Lowe, is out in August, published by Constable and is already listed on Amazon and other online bookshops.

 

 

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