AUGUST 22, 2019
WHEN I FIRST SAW Nick Lowe at a standing-room-only club in Boston in 1990, it felt as though every person in the room had once sold me a used record. Lowe was fronting his Cowboy Outfit, a tightly coiled ensemble that summoned ballast and menace as they worked through the songs on Pinker and Prouder Than Previous (1988), encoring with that album’s shaggy-dog closer, “Big Big Love.” My girlfriend and I soon had that title engraved into the inner band of our wedding rings.
Only after the show did I discover that “Big Big Love” came into the world as a Wynn Stewart song back in 1961. Lowe had made such a careful yet deeply felt homage to the country novelty that most mistook it for an original. And, in some alternate universe, it counts as a Nick Lowe original because it fits so perfectly alongside numbers like “I Got the Love” and “Lovers Jamboree.” Another favorite from Previous, “Geisha Girl,” started out as a 1957 Skeeter Davis song (by Lawton Williams), made famous by country’s Hank Locklin. Lowe counters its quirky piano riff with tympani, pairing the debonair with the ridiculous. That snatch of repertoire works like a spring hinge on gender roles, genre nostalgia, plastic exoticism, and cheesy postcard stereotypes.
Somehow, though, knowing “Big Big Love” wasn’t a Lowe original only made its hallowed encore status more playful, and more knowing. How had he resurrected this prehistoric gewgaw? (Waylon Jennings’s cover went beneath my radar.) Before the internet, such tracks remained buried deep down in the used record bins and could only be unearthed through chart study and connecting the dots between performers, songwriters, and producers. In the streaming era, where historical canyons open up between clicks, Lowe presides as pop’s surreal curator — someone who started out with his own novelty darts at the Bay City Rollers (“Bay City Rollers We Love You,” from 1975, credited to Terry Modern and the Tartan Horde), and a snarky salute to his management’s indie shop, Stiff (“I Love My Label”), later affectionately covered by Wilco.
These insider diversions, and many others, feature strongly in Will Birch’s Cruel to Be Kind, a new biography by the former drummer for the Records (a late-1970s power-pop band that chased many of the same thrills in songs like “Starry Eyes” and “Teenarama”). Lowe’s influence touches a huge range of talent. By the time of that Boston show, he was crawling from the wreckage of post-punk as a more ambitious figure, someone who would soon revive cruelly forgotten numbers like “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road” (Duane Dee’s minor 1968 country hit, which Elvis Presley loved too much not to sing himself) or “Poor Side of Town” (Johnny Rivers’s number-one 1966 hit). As a producer, player, and songwriter, Lowe helped make sense of acts as different as Elvis Costello, Graham Parker and the Rumour, the Pretenders, the Damned, John Hiatt (all production clients), and Rockpile (his power-pop supergroup), charting how rock itself stumbled through middle age toward geezerville.
Lowe’s storied career climaxes in 1992, when lounge singer Curtis Stigers’s clueless cover of “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” — on The Bodyguard’s soundtrack (45 million units worldwide) — made him rich, long after he mastered the riches of his material. That obscene twist of fate ranks alongside the irony of Chuck Berry’s only number one, his 1972 live cover of “My Ding-a-Ling,” Dave Bartholomew’s self-pleasuring sing-along, beating out Presley’s “Burning Love” (itself an Arthur Alexander cover). In the sweepstakes of pop, as in life, farce has its own triumphant swagger.
Lowe’s personal story collapses into his professional profile. He famously married Carlene Carter, June Carter Cash’s daughter, in 1979, which made him the famous son-in-law to a C&W legend (and regular houseguest), Johnny Cash. (Lowe produced two of Carlene’s better albums, 1980’s Musical Shapes and 1981’s Blue Nun. Their marriage ended in 1990.) Where others might have smelled opportunity, Lowe revered the Man in Black so much that he refused to funnel him songs, even though Cash kept insisting. The goading finally yielded a Lowe stinger, “The Beast in Me,” which many heard on The Sopranos. Cash also sings Lowe’s “Without Love” on the 1980 album Rockabilly Blues.
Lowe’s coyness surrounding Cash, and several of his potential breakthroughs, proved defining. In 1980, after a decade of slogging through early “pub rock” (the British term for bar bands specializing in cover material), and producing and writing his way into more promising opportunities, an early supergroup with Dave Edmunds — Rockpile — failed to catch hold, despite a respectable record. A decade later, his early 1990s Little Village venture (with John Hiatt, Ry Cooder, and drummer Jim Keltner, an insider’s dream team) held even more promise than Rockpile, but faltered due to competing egos and Lowe’s flagging interest. That band’s lone album, Little Village, features far more promise than substance. It was one of those great ideas that live on only in treasured bootlegs of unforgettable live shows. “Big Big Love” rang out as a love letter to pop’s great lost songs, and yet subsisted mainly in fantasy.
Lowe’s story makes sense only in the context of the history he helped frame, which Birch describes in detail. The nascent genre, power pop, born in the aftermath of the Beatles with Badfinger and the Raspberries, compresses rock’s verities down to its atomic elements. Inside every power-pop hook (from Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me” to Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” to Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back” to XTC’s “Mayor of Simpleton”) lay the promise that the entire history of the form, from one-offs to top-40 royalty, could somehow manifest inside the ideal three-minute single: the frisson of a tight melodic coil unwinding through bombast.
Power pop favored obsessives, to the extent that, even if a particular act missed the big time (with odds so formidably stacked), they pressed forward knowing that craft mattered, and faking successful sounds mattered at least as much, if not more, than hitting the big time (think the Rubinoos, the Romantics, or the Knack). Even if great bursts of inspiration like the Plimsouls or the Dwight Twilley Band barely ever cracked the Top 50, every so often something stuck in the weirdest way (like Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine”) and refocused the charts as if gravity had the hiccups. One of the form’s ideal expressions came with Paul Westerberg’s “Alex Chilton,” for the Replacements, as late as 1987, a manifesto that turns the arrow into the target (“I’m in love … with that song!”). That’s why, on the right night, if the gods smiled, a decent bar band could send listeners into a frenzy for lost promises, or resplendent teen stupor. The power-pop ideal harnessed an indelibly simple formula that was the opposite of easy to pull off. When captured on tape, the heavens rejoiced.
After the 1970s sputtered and splayed into slick country rock (the Eagles) and bloated metal foghorns (Zep, or, say, Heart), stray meteors of melody caught the larger wave (Stephen Stills’s “Marianne” or Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Get Down”), and the promise of pop crossover was enough to keep fans chasing glory (down through the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Shake Some Action” or Big Star’s “September Gurls”). An early model for this formula lay in the refried splendor of Dave Edmunds’s “I Hear You Knocking,” from 1970, where he found the keys to the universe in the engine of an old Smiley Lewis song (from 1955, written, once again, by Dave Bartholomew and Pearl King). Astride T. Rex guitars and a whooping slide lead, Edmunds literally phoned in his vocal over a telephone line from some parallel reality. When he hollered the names “Fats Domino! Smiley Lewis! Chuck Berry! Huey Smith!” during the guitar solo, hordes of true believers returned to the used bins to connect more dots.
Beginning with two pillars of the form, Jesus of Cool (1978) and Labour of Lust (1979), Lowe’s early solo records made such dots sizzle, with a sprinkle of perversity: “Marie Provost,” ripped from the pages of Hollywood Babylon, recounts the story of faded movie star Marie Prevost, who was discovered dead after days alone in her apartment, bitten by her dog in attempts to wake her. “She was a winner / That became the doggie’s dinner,” Lowe sings to an incandescent hook, with soaring backup vocals. Its swing made it sting.
By 1977, when the Eagles and Elton John and Led Zeppelin hogged the mainstream with needless, multi-platinum Greatest Hits packages and preening irrelevance, punk’s disruptive noise gave the industry a cold, hard kick in the keister. As a result, power pop seemed poised to conquer. As he bellied up to his breakthroughs, Nick Lowe sang Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Halfway to Paradise,” a consummation prayer made famous in 1961 by Tony Orlando (in the United States) and Billy Fury (in the United Kingdom). Lowe’s version was a resurrection: the song came newly ornamented, both sincere and achingly cynical. The chemistry plumed, but Lowe’s track bombed.
Nick Lowe found Edmunds’s “Knocking” a marvel of both taste and execution, its promise irresistible. Edmunds met Lowe while producing his notoriously hardworking yet meagerly recorded “pub-rockers,” Brinsley Schwarz. When Schwarz fell apart, Lowe met Jake Riviera (a.k.a. Andrew Jakeman), whom Lowe dubbed “the manager from another planet” (and whom critic Nick Kent called a “garrulous speed-freak Jerry Lee Lewis wanna-be”). Riviera helped set up Stiff Records, putting Lowe on the line as a producer. By 1977, he had formed Rockpile, although nobody knew it. He simply joined a fluid company of players Edmunds assembled on stage and in the studio for “Knocking,” including guitarist Billy Bremner and drummer Terry Williams. That unit opened for Bad Company in Denver on April 25, 1977. “It was a great eye-opener,” according to Lowe. “I didn’t think it was possible for a group to make enough noise for people to hear music in basketball arenas, but they went nuts for us.”
Lowe started sponging off Edmunds’s production tricks, and Riviera sent him off to produce the then-unknown Elvis Costello’s debut, My Aim Is True, with Huey Lewis’s backup band, Clover. Birch describes how Lowe’s bedside manner included plenty of drink and lots of talk. Acute listeners note how the members of Clover never sounded so keen, so severe, as when playing from straight inside Costello’s vocal twitches. While unsung engineers like Kingsley Ward, Vic Maile, Mike Gardner, Chas “Chazza” Herington, Paul Riley, Aldo Bocca, Brendan Walsh, Colin Fairley, Neil Brockbank, and Barry “Bazza” Farmer scrambled with sound levels, Lowe freely tweaked arrangements (a vastly underrated skill) and coaxed out tart rhythmic precision, especially when he sat in on bass or guitar. “Nick had his own language in the studio,” Chrissie Hynde tells Birch regarding the “Stop Your Sobbing” session. For example: “Make it sound like dinosaurs eating cars!”
When Jesus of Cool and Labour of Lust stalled commercially, it suggested something daft about punk’s fallout on listeners. That Lust’s breakout single, “Cruel to Be Kind,” bombed on radio only intensified its mystique as a minor masterpiece: like Kacey Musgraves today, it critiqued radio by making its vast immateriality tangible. Meanwhile, Lowe kept afloat by playing out a lot and overseeing Costello’s development, from This Year’s Model and Armed Forces on to Get Happy!!, the R&B manifesto that brought New Wave to the altar of the groove. He continued the streak with three more Costello early 1980s heat-seekers: Trust, Taking Liberties, and Blood & Chocolate, which all hold up better than they have any right to.
At the end of Armed Forces, Costello and his Attractions set loose a parched, implacably straight take of Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” that sliced open its hippie satire for stinging rebuke. (How had anybody not taken this song seriously before?) “It was originally supposed to be a joke song,” Lowe admits, “but something told me there was a little grain of wisdom in this thing, and not to mess it up. Just to keep it real simple, and don’t be too clever with it.” That shows you how thoughtful paradox can be, and how much self-awareness Lowe practiced from within his sardonic bunker.
Lowe’s partnership with Edmunds finally crystallized on a long-awaited Rockpile debut, billed as “four promising solo careers bite the dust” (or, as Riviera put it, “a Beatles in reverse”). That single record, Seconds of Pleasure, had them poised to conquer all known worlds. But by the time it finally appeared in 1980, it rang out like an anticlimax. “I loved Rockpile,” Lowe now admits, “but I saw it as a stepping stone. […] My heart wasn’t really in it.” (Edmunds, meanwhile, had delivered another Costello power-pop slider, “Girls Talk,” produced by Lowe, who played bass.)
To atone, Lowe did a feisty, high-torque remake of Edmunds’s “I Knew the Bride,” in order to appease Columbia, his giant record company. It’s a feast of a record, with a cut-up video featuring Carlene Carter. Another keeper, “Half a Boy and Half a Man,” went nowhere (although it still pegs Michael Jackson too perfectly: “When his fingers do the walking / In the middle of the night / You’d better run / You’d better hide”). Failure rarely sounds so much like success.
Birch’s book respects this story with a flood of quotes, even as he wisely resists philosophizing. He makes two key decisions that boost the narrative considerably, but only near the end: he siphons a lot of Lowe family prehistory (grandparents and the like) into an appendix. This plunges readers straight into the music without fussing over dusty birth certificates and census data. Then he channels music critic Peter Silverton for his own choice insights, such as: “It is hard to think of many hit singles that take a genuinely ironic stance. Randy Newman’s ‘Short People’ is a rare example.” (Newman found a huge mainstream audience more through Toy Story’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” than “Short People” and “Sail Away” had achieved combined.) Says Silverton:
They saw “Short People” as a novelty record. […] To me, Nick’s irony is so very clear in “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love And Understanding” by Brinsley Schwarz. The song is structured around irony. Does he really mean it? Doesn’t he really mean it?
Nick is a smart man in a business that is not really full of very smart people. […] [H]is ironic self-deprecation […] is inherently a lie, but it knows that it’s a lie. […] And I think there’s a lot more cunning in Nick [than] he would ever admit to. I don’t think even he knows it.
Birch slings plenty of Lowe quotes too, many of them howlers. But a final meditation on the songwriting process reads like prophecy: according to Lowe,
[It’s as if] there’s a radio in the flat next door, permanently tuned to a cool music station. It’s left on day and night and [the songwriter] can hear it coming through the wall, although the sound is muffled and indistinct. One day the station will programme [sic] a great new song which he can hear through the wall clearly enough, but it’s over before he can learn any of it. Knowing they might play it again at any time, he keeps a notepad ready so that with each play he can capture a little more of it, until he’s got it all.
In his latest guise, the Yep Roc label, which publishes country’s Jim Lauderdale and garage warriors the Fleshtones, pairs Lowe with Los Straitjackets, an oblique surf troupe that wears Mexican wrestling masks. A few years back, he cut a choice holiday jingle, “Christmas at the Airport,” and has just released another handsome remake, of Sammy Turner’s 1961 “Raincoat in the River.” A legion of former used-record clerks eagerly awaits a Lowe/Straitjackets cover of Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff.”
Tim Riley’s latest book is What Goes On: The Beatles, Their Music, and Their Time (2019), co-written with Walter Everett, from Oxford University Press. It’s the first college textbook on the music of the Beatles. See his personal website for details.