Peace, Lowe and Understanding
The music of Nick Lowe
When Elvis Costello accepted his entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, he said that Nick Lowe, the producer of his early albums, was the first person he knew in London in the 70s who was in a band. He then added that Lowe was a performer who also belonged in the Hall.
The band that Lowe fronted, Brinsley Schwarz, served to shape the musical and commercial direction of Lowe’s career from early on. In a 1970s culture where roots rock, intelligent whimsy, and a gift for melody and hook were valued commodities, Lowe’s band’s attempt at fame backfired. This, coupled with the contrarian stubbornness of a developing New Wave culture in London, helped instill within Lowe a solid commitment to maintaining creative integrity, whether the hits came or not.
And he tried — how he tried — to write hits. But only one, the 1979 “Cruel to Be Kind,” riding the zenith of the New Wave commercial boomlet, made the US Top 40. And ever since, as he transitioned from consciously trying to create followup commercial successes to simply trying to stake out journeyman territory, he has drawn upon his vast musical influences to elongate a career that is hard to top in the rock and roll era for consistent quality over a lengthy period of time.
In June of 2007 Lowe released his 19th solo album, At My Age. The cover features a painting of the 58-year-old artist, a grey eminence alone next to a potted plant in a corner of a room, holding a cup of tea and offering a wise and challenging presence to anyone to who might dare to talk to the old coot.
The new album is his first since The Convincer in 2001, and the six years between releases was the longest hiatus of his career. He recently told the New York Daily News that in that time he found new love (“You are powerless to resist,” he told Jim Farber) and became father to a new baby son.
I’ve listened to the Lowe catalogue over and over in the past couple years, and have come up with what I think are 23 solid choices for a desert-island Nick Lowe collection, with seven honorable mentions. Your mileage, of course, may vary.
All Men Are Liars (Party of One, 1990) “I’m here to tell you that Dick’s a clown,’ says the Voice of Wisdom, with vocal and lyrical command that indicate he’paid enough dues to assume that role. “Dick” here being Rick (Astley, a “Voice of a Bright Young Britain” in 1988), being a dick who, like many a young musical idol before him, made smooth love promises in song that he couldn’t possibly keep. Lowe’s vision of the wicked world he wrote of in “What’s So Funny ’Bout (Peace, Love and Understanding)” shows up in plenty of his songs, and on this one with bracing effect. Here we have girls in the major plural — willing to be cruel to be kind, no doubt — asked to come to the rescue, to pull the rotting tooth of male deceit (how’s that for a British metaphor?) with rusty pliers. All buoyed by a bouncy, Nashville-influenced guitar riff (common in the late 80s-early 90s, but not sounding particularly dated here) that sticks to the mind, as does the solid Dave Edmunds production. This track’s a prime example of Lowe being in that peculiar “casual zone” between anthem and throwaway that he mastered long ago.
American Squirm (Pure Pop for Now People, aka Jesus of Cool, 1978) With two Elvis C. albums under his belt as a producer, the British New Wave scene in full flower, and America the next big frontier (as it was for an earlier generation of British rockers), Lowe had earned another chance at the pop stardom that eluded him in his early career with Brinsley Schwarz. The America that Lowe portrays here is fun and powerful — a means to “spreading in the wonderful world” — but also seems silly and inauthentic, the B-Movie Brilliant Mistake that Elvis (who seems to be singing backup vocals here) would write of. It’s a culture that inspires him to create one of his best songs, built around what sounds like a nice double entendre: Is he moving with an “American squirm” or is he making an American squirm (interesting choice of words, “squirm") deep, deep into the night ... or both? In any event, the track has an outstanding pop production and feel; pure pop for now people, indeed. For all his youthful, rocking passion, this was still a relatively seasoned player who’d already been schooled by 10 years of biz experience.
Maureen (Nick Lowe & His Cowboy Outfit, 1984) Another virtue of Lowe’s work is his ability to consistently recruit top-notch studio players (Dave Edmunds, Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner) who are easily capable of kicking a groove up a notch. It happens here with his mid-1980s band, which simply cooks — while Lowe, as usual, provides Mr. Cool vocals. By now, there was an increasing touch of eclecticism in Lowe’s work: more roots, more willing to go off the safe commercial path. Here it certainly works, a carnal-minded paean to a “skinny little hill of beans.” A rockin’ riff worthy of classic Jerry Lee, and one hopes the Killer would approve.
Where’s My Everything (The Impossible Bird, 1994) Lowe gained greater command as a lyricist over the years — more straightforward and literate, less vague and slight — and this is evidence. Working off a simple mellow country riff, he elegantly captures the darkness of thwarted ambition in a way that lends the personal drama a certain ironic self awareness of how banal self-pity can be, while not dismissing the emotional intensity of the disappointment. Quite a trick. The vocals, both lead and backing, are first-rate. (The lament of a modern iconoclast: “Where is the beautiful family home / That I was promised on the news at 10.”)
What’s Shakin’ On The Hill (Party of One, 1990) I remember seeing David Lee Roth reminisce about 80s pop, saying that “everything smiled!” Well, if the dominant 80s pop meme was that it was Hallelujah Day on Main Street USA (thanks Phil Nugent), then clearly Lowe went in a different direction. He
must have figured that joining the elite on the “hill” was beyond his grasp, his longing for membership among the elite set on the hill “wishful thinking.” His honesty about heartaches and being “too blue to be played with” sets him apart from “that carefree crowd.” He’s great with the pathos here, making the listener feel lines like “Though I long so strong to be inside” and “There’s an organ blowing on the breeze for the dancers hid behind the trees.” This is adult music, with mature vocals and fine guitar work. And of course, a catchy hook.
Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day (At My Age, 2007) There are plenty of worthy candidates from Lowe’s fine new CD, and this one gets a nod because as a produced track — featuring solid work from Nick Payne on sax and Bob Loveday on viola and violin, as well as top-notch engineering from producers Lowe and Neil Brockbank — it’s arguably the most fully realized. Elsewhere on the CD we hear Lowe’s devilish side with the loose and almost conversational “I Trained Her To Love Me” (the inner life of a manipulative ass man: “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 got”) and “Rome” shows a more appealing flip side of the same character. He has confidence and patience to make the object of his affection believe he’s her man, no matter how long the process might take. That kind of focused passion usually spells empowerment, whether you’re a twisted old rake or not, and the skilled, tight production compliments the projection of power in Lowe’s lyrics.
So It Goes (Pure Pop for Now People, 1978) The first Stiff records single, recorded in 1976, shows the musical influence of a hit from earlier that year, Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back In Town.” It ties the madness of the rock and roll lifestyle to the chaos of the world situation, as the “US representative” trudges through the Cold War “with tired eyes.” On his (Henry Kissinger’s?) arm “there’s a skin tight vision.” Power is an aphrodisiac, whether you’re Henry Kissinger or Nick Lowe. Bouncy, jangling rock and roll, with another kick-ass hook. The young rocker saw a world of intense action and hype, one with a distinct lack of long-term perspective.
Raining Raining (Nick The Knife, 1982) This is one of those songs whose charm, beauty and catchiness make you wonder why the hell it wasn’t a big hit. The style seemed to fit the 1982 pop moment. Maybe Columbia Records and/or the singles-buying demographic figured there were enough “rain” songs on the market, thank you. Don’t know, but it’s hard to find better hookcraft and skilled pop production than here.
Cruel To Be Kind (Labour of Lust, 1979) More superb pop production from a master of the game. His only US Top 40 single, at a time shortly after “Oliver’s Army” (which Lowe produced) should’ve been Elvis C.’s first US hit single, were it not for Elvis refusing to take out the line referring to soldiers as “white niggers.” “Cruel” represents a fairly radical break from the 70s “Have a nice day” pop aesthetic, the notion that cruelty “in the right measure” can be an expression of love. The video accompanying the song features Nick and new bride Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter Cash. As in “All Men Are Liars,” the notion here seems to be that a man’s world needs women to provide the unvarnished lowdown.
Freezing (Dig My Mood, 1998) As with “Raining Raining,” Lowe does a wonderful job of evoking a seasonal mood. This time, it’s in order to create a great aural setting for a love song, with mellow sax and Nat King Cole-like arrangement and vocal stylings, and jazzy pop piano. The lyrics match the mood, as Mr. Cool (or should I say “Mr. Freeze”?) strikes again in a compelling way: “Come inside, love, into the warm ... Out there it’s cruel and cold / Please do as you’re told.”
(I Love The Sound Of) Breaking Glass (Pure Pop for Now People, 1978) Another track from the heart of the New Wave boom, a time when Nick could easily employ a Steve Nieve (or a Nieve sound-alike) to add magic piano, cinching another tasty piece of pop whimsy. Nick needed “the noises of destruction” when lonely and bored, and had via rock and roll (and expert hookcraft) the power to make it happen, at least on record. This and the rest of Pure Pop show what advantages Nick’s approach could have when freed of what Robert Christgau has called Elvis C.’s “fussy as Streisand” tendency.
People Change (At My Age, 2007) Nick’s definitely changed over the years, although look who’s still available to come aboard the Good Ship Lowe: the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, whose first single (a cover of the Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing”) was produced nearly 30 years ago by Lowe, a man they nicknamed “Basher” for his brash production style back in the day. The voice of wisdom that Lowe has honed for most of these past three decades is in full force here (“Now you say those times you had were never that many / Just be thankful you had any”) and the presence of Hynde plus a people-pleasing hook and upbeat mix (complete with organ, piano and overdubbed sax) makes this the new CD’s most video-friendly track.
True Love Travels On A Gravel Road (The Impossible Bird, 1994) This was released as a single on Demon Records, the first after he’d been let go by Reprise in the early 90s. No longer with a major label, he was still able to record and release “Bird” as a fully professional Nick Lowe offering, on his own dime, thanks to the royalties windfall he earned when “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” was covered by Curtis Stigers on The Bodyguard soundtrack. In a 2001 interview with CNN, Lowe said that the million he’d earned from The Bodyguard was by then gone; what remains are gem tracks like this, a touching and tasteful (and terrifically sung) cover. Though written by A.L. Owens and Dallas Frazier, Lowe’s songwriting had matured enough by this point that one can believe it a song Lowe could’ve written.
Heart (Nick The Knife, 1982) After the fireworks of the New Wave period died out, Lowe expanded impressively as a singer, adding a new shade of mellow to his bag of cool tricks, while not sacrificing his gift for creating eminently catchy pop. Originally presented as an uptempo number on Rockpile’s Seconds of Pleasure (a 1980 LP that Lowe did with Dave Edmunds, Terry Williams and Billy Bremner), this more laid-back version is one of the first public signs that, perhaps in relief and resignation both, he’d begun abandoning the lust to Make It Big, in favor of a more casual journeyman approach designed for the long haul.
Man That I’ve Become (Dig My Mood, 1998) Is this the greatest Johnny Cash song not recorded by Johnny Cash? Cash covered “Without Love” and “The Beast In Me,” and I wonder if the Man In Black gave this one a shot during the latter part of his American Recordings sessions. On Lowe’s version we again see the artist’s refreshing gift for exposing the down and dirty in plainspoken and clever terms. He strikes a chord of empathy for the old fart who wants the damn kids to get off his lawn. It comes complete with Jordanaires-style backing vocals, a skilled rhyming of crumb and become, and what, along with “Failed Christian” on Dig My Mood, seems a telling glance at Lowe the apostate: “He won’t go to church / ’Cause his faith’s all gone / The sweet singing of the choir / Will only drive him home.’
Basing Street (16 All-Time Lowes, 1984) The b-side of “Cracking Up” from Labour of Lust, “Basing” is a mini-play put to music, and strong evidence that from early on, Lowe was (like Elvis C.) too big a songwriting talent to stay only within the parameters of New Wave. He unflinchingly captures a dark urban scene here, and balances wrenching drama with detached perspective and an eye for subtlety. He understands that the truth of what might seem a throwaway gesture can at times speak louder than making a big Statement about this wicked world. (Note that when Lowe does go for the big statement, as in “What’s So Funny,” he typically tries to make sure it comes with a suitably clever conceptual twist.)
(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding (b-side of single, 1994) On Lowe’s box set The Doings there’s his rock-band version of this song, similar to the more well-known version on Elvis C.’s Armed Forces album. It’s a decent celebration of the song’s sentiment, but the playing is inferior to The Attractions’ inspired work on the Costello cover. Better is this quieter version, and it’s certainly more in keeping with later Lowe. It’s an impressive interpretive performance — just a man and his guitar, and Lowe’s vocals simply soar as his classic lyrics do. (“So where are the strong? / And who are the trusted? / And where is the harmony?”) For the mature Lowe, a song can thrive in the quiet moments when revolutions are born, as well as in the loud moments when revolutions expand.
Failed Christian (Dig My Mood, 1998) A quiet late-night chat over coffee and cigarettes, with a starkly confessional tone like John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero.” Lowe remembers “tears when the choir sang in harmony,” and says he is “a firm believer of spirit in music” who prays “with my soul.” He’s against the religious instruction he can’t understand, and can’t abide the blood on the hands of the church.
The Other Side Of The Coin (At My Age, 2007) In recent years, as Lowe has indulged more in classic country music stylings (one can easily imagine Ray Price or George Jones singing “A Better Man” from the new CD, in their primes), he’s also expertly dabbled in the style of classic, classy Tin Pan Alley, and this track ranks as one of one of his best slices of retro pop. As usual, the wistful and world-wise lyrics match the mellow mood: “Yes there’s much for which I could atone / But let him without sin cast the first stone.”
Without Love (Labour of Lust, 1979) His connection to the Johnny Cash inner circle made by marrying June Carter’s daughter (and Johnny’s stepdaughter) Carlene, Nick was able to sell the Man In Black on this tune, enough for Cash to cover it. Lowe’s version further reveals his gift of musical versatility, his knack for catchy melody and a wise and soulful approach to lyric writing. With the Rockpile musicians backing him, the track sounds slick and spirited.
The Beast In Me (The Impossible Bird, 1994) Vocal influences on the Lowe style include Cash, Lennon, Costello, Nat Cole and ... Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards? Sure seems like he’s listened to Ukelele Ike (or at least Jiminy Cricket) after hearing his wonderful vocalizations on this track. Lowe looks back knowingly on a young adulthood filled with sex, drugs and rock and roll; plus a painful divorce, alcoholism, and lowered commercial expectations. With, as always, an unusual willingness to face what his pal Elvis called the deep dark truthful mirror, Lowe has a knack for gazing at his inner demons in an illuminating and musically compelling way. Again with only vocals and guitar, he delivers a summation of his “Beast” with sublime eloquence: “Sometimes it tries to kid me that it’s just a teddy bear / Or even somehow manage to vanish in the air / And that is when I must beware.” Absolutely first-rate singing and songwriting, and perhaps he was never better.
Time I Took A Holiday (Dig My Mood, 1998) Later Lowe wants to sell us on the value of hard-earned and/or badly needed comfort. Of course, it must include some attention to his baby’s arms. This is feel-good music for grownups; pure pop for people who want to “go get cooked.” Nice piano playing and, as usual, skilled vocals.
Let’s Eat (Stiffs Live Stiffs compilation, 1978) An early example of how Lowe could tear it up as a live performer. A good potential theme for a restaurant, although with Lowe’s history of sly lyrics, you can wonder if the desire to “chew chew chew chew” is a carnal as well as a culinary one. Released the same year as Talking Heads’ classic LP More Songs About Buildings and Food, produced by Brian Eno, which brings an interesting thought to mind: as Eno looks down the shrinking list of performers he hasn’t yet produced, maybe he should consider Lowe.
Honorable Mention: “Cracking Up,” “Ragin’ Eyes,” “Marie Provost,” “12 Step Program (To Quit You Babe),” “You Inspire Me,” “I Trained Her To Love Me,” “She’s Got Soul.”
What, no “Little Hitler”? No “I Knew The Bride (When She Used To
Rock and Roll)”? No “Switchboard Susan”? No “Hope For Us All” or “Long
Limbed Girl” from the new CD? And what Lowe’s contributions to Rockpile’s
one and only album? (“Teacher Teacher” and “When I Write The Book” certainly belong in any conversation about classic Lowe.)
Ah, but we could go on, and that is a testament to just how many good songs Mr. Lowe has given us, and how worthy a long-term contender he is to be seen as one of pop music’s pantheon of greats.
Thanks to Jean and Andy Wilson for their help with this article.