Friday, 4 March 2011

Nick Lowe: “headmaster of British rock” and all-round National Treasure

When English rocker Nick Lowe’s Party of One LP came out twenty years ago, I played nothing else for six weeks. Towards the end of that obsessive period, I happened to be browsing in Chiswick’s Fountain Books (long gone) when who should walk in but the man himself, wearing a remarkably silly bobble hat.

Despite this stylistic faux-pas, I approached him and said, “I’ve been listening to Party of One for the last six weeks. I absolutely love it. It’s the best thing you’ve ever done. I just wanted to thank you. I’m now going to leave before I embarrass you any further.” He muttered his thanks as I scurried out, ashamed of disturbing his privacy.

But I just couldn’t help myself.

The only other British solo artist I have more LPs by than Lowe is his erstwhile collaborator, Dave Edmunds. I love his stuff. He made a small fortune when Curtis Stigers’s version of his song, “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding” was featured on the 15-million-selling soundtrack album of The Bodyguard, and Rod Stewart’s cover of “Shelley My Love” and his one-time father-in-law Johnny Cash’s version of “The Beast in Me”(it was specifically written for the Great Man) won’t have done his bank balance any harm, but apart from those successes (and a brief chart-tastic start to his solo career) his sales have been meagre. And he’s brilliant. And a National Treasure. 

But also slightly unlucky. Commercially, nothing quite comes off as spectacularly well as he might have imagined it would. For instance, he started his career with Brinsley Schwarz, basically a Pub Rock band who cut some great stuff, including “Country Girl” and “Surrender to the Rhythm”, but who were destroyed by unjustifiable levels of hype:

Then he went solo and cut an absolute classic high-energy double “A”-sided single at the dawn of the punk era – featuring “So It Goes” and “Heart of the City”, both of which should have been No.1s on the strength of the lyrics alone, but which failed to chart.

The EP Bowi (so-named because David Bowie had released an LP calledLow) contained two very strange and utterly original Lowe classics –“Mary Provost”, based on the true story of a faded Hollywood actress who was found dead  in her flat, partially eaten by her poodles (“she was a winner, who became a doggies’ dinner”), and “Endless Sleep”, a cheerful ditty about wanting to commit suicide (“...makes you want to lay face down on the grass so brown/where the sun beats down on the baking ground/to find sweet release in endless sleep…”).

The heavily-publicised album Jesus of Cool sold a few and spawned a pop 10 single, but the stand-out track for me was the extraordinary “36 inches High”(“Once I was a ruler/About twelve inches long/Three times me made a yardstick/36 inches high” – if you know what it means, do drop me a line.)

Then a truly classic single, the paranoid “Crackin’ Up”, which, as you’d imagine, finds our hero on the verge of a breakdown. (Deserved to be a chart-topper - reached No. 36.)

Meanwhile, Lowe was producing away like crazy – he earned the nickname “Basher” for his method of quickly bashing down the bass and drum tracks before getting to work on the twiddly stuff – helping the likes of Elvis Costello, Dave Edmunds, The Damned, The Rumours, and Dr Feelgood (for whom he co-wrote the hit, “Milk and Alcohol”). He formed the band Rockpile with Dave Edmunds – again some good stuff, but no real sales. 

A series of decent and poorly-performing solo albums followed throughout the 1980s, culminating in my beloved Party of One. The critics hated it and no one bought it. I adore every track, but my favourites are the lolloping“Rocky Road” (Ry Cooder in superb guitar form - many thanks to Ex-KCS for explaining how to replicate this part); the thumping “Gai-Jinn Man” (a witty number about touring Japan –“Everybody kowtow to me when we meet/while the kids cat-calling me in the street”), the joyous “I Want to Build a Jumbo Ark” (in which he tells Mr. Boeing “Get busy with your peppy team/And your compass and protractor/ ‘Cause I’m sent here to contract ya/ To construct this wingéd thing” - it’s not exactly Wordsworth, but it makes me smile); and the  wistful “What’s Shakin’ On the Hill”: Lowe seems always to have suffered from a sense of being excluded – glamorous parties, big houses, inner circles, love, happiness, families – you name it, he’s been excluded from it!

It may not be the greatest music ever recorded, but it was one of those albums which seem to catch you at exactly the right moment in your life – and end up meaning a lot more to you than their content would seem to merit.  

Meanwhile, Lowe went on to help form Little Village, a collection of some of the world’s most grown-up rockers, including Ry Cooder and John Hyatt – but they all hoarded their best work for their solo careers and it soon disintegrated. 

It marked a turning point for Lowe, who had already worked out that he was too old for further success as a mainstream pop/rock star, and that his future lay in great adult songs which other artists might cover (which they duly did).

Since then there have been a series of widely-spaced, critically-lauded albums with stripped-down production, a constantly maturing song-writing style, and much-improved vocals: together, they mean more to me than any other artist’s work from the past two decades. Stand-out tracks – there are at least a dozen – including the delicate “High on a Hilltop” from 1997’s Dig My Mood and the rocking “Twelve-Step Programme (To Quit You Baby)” from 1994’s The Impossible Bird (objectively, probably his finest album).

Part of the problem with Lowe is trying to describe his music: there’s barely a genre he doesn’t embrace – from the “Pure Pop for Now People” of his Stiff Records phase to self-penned Great American Songbook would-be standards, encompassing Rockabilly (he recently described himself as “a sort of rockabilly singer”), heads-down-no-nonsense-mindless-boogie, Rhythm ‘n’ Blues, Soul and pure Country. No doubt his sheer musical catholicism has hampered him commercially – but it’s what delights his fans: you never know what the next track’s going to sound like. Lowe himself cites laziness as a barrier to major recognition: “I think of myself as the anti-James Brown – I’m the least hard-working man in showbusiness”.

He turns 62 later this month (if I see him again, I’ll try not to wish him Happy Birthday), he still tours occasionally, and when you least expect it, another album creeps out of the woodwork. I imagine song-writing royalties mean he’s not short of a bob or two, and he’s a well-respected figure in proper music circles (“the headmaster of British Rock” as he was once described). I doubt if he any longer gives a toss about public acclaim, but I can’t help wishing that he was better known – after all, he’s still creating the wittiest, most hummable, quirkiest and most indefinably English rock music since Ray Davies in his heyday. (And he tells a good anecdote, which I always think is a plus, and I’ve never heard him saying anything even vaguely political, which is a relief.) 

I bet he doesn’t feature on David Cameron’s trendy iPod selection – but it would be nice if the Coalition did something right before losing the next election by arranging for this distinguished Englishman to be awarded some sort of gong in recognition of his general wonderfulness.Who knows?It might help make him feel less excluded.


  1. Yet more proof that the blogging boy from Norway has impeccable taste. If Nick Lowe had written a few songs about the evils of Thatch and the Tories he would no doubt have been revered as a genius, like his overrated Stiff contemporary Costello. As it is, he is as good now as ever.

    I look forward to more of your overlooked artists posts, which always send me off to You Tube, Spotify and Amazon.
    Sunday, March 6, 2011 - 09:25 PM

  2. Nick Lowe is at Chapter 8 on the website Daryl's House. This has long been a favourite of mine, with top US musicians playing for the joy of it with no audience to show off to, great acoustics and a sense of fun and humour threading through the whole thing. The Todd Rundgren sausage making episode is worth it just for the badinage.

    Nick Lowe's set is acoustic and he is in good nick. (You're fired: Ed)
    Sunday, March 6, 2011 - 09:55 PM

  3. Agree with you on Elvis Costello, Ex-KCS – apart from his first two LPs, which I loved: it was downhill all the way from then on (oddly enough, the start of his decline coincided with his first foray into anti-Thatcher political rhetoric, namely “Oliver’s Army”. When pop stars go political, or team up with string quartets or ageing songwriters (Burt Bacharach), you know they’ve lost the ability to write decent songs.

    Thanks for Daryl’s House recommendation – I particularly enjoyed Toots and the Maytals, and I am looking forward to an opportunity to use the phrase “crank your own sausage”.
    Wednesday, March 9, 2011 - 11:17 AM

  4. As BBC 4 seems to have turned itself into MTV for the older generation, perhaps it could be persuaded to do a documentary on Nick Lowe, followed by a compilation of his performances from the archive, followed by a live concert. I vaguely remember a programme about him producing an album for Dave Edmonds in which the future “headmaster of British rock” spent most of the time in a state of advanced intoxication. The music was still better than anything I hear today…there may be a lesson in there somewhere. For what it’s worth, my own favourite Lowe tracks are Shelly My Love, All Men Are Liars and Trail of Tears…the guitars on the last one are out of tune throughout, and there may be a lesson in that as well. Also thanks to EX-KCS for Daryl’s House tip.
    Monday, March 14, 2011 - 11:33 AM