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Off the Beaten Tracks: Lowe Life

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LAST week’s column mentioned that Nick Lowe regarded Randy Newman and Bob Dylan as the two greatest songwriters. Praise indeed, because Lowe himself is no slouch. He is one of a very select few who have improved with age, so here’s a look at his long solo career.

Nicholas Drain Lowe was born on March 24, 1949, in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey. Drain is a family name handed down the generations – his father, an RAF war hero, was known to all as Drain although his first name was actually Geoffrey. I have already described Nick’s early days in a column about Brinsley Schwarz, so let’s cut to 1975.

After the break-up of the Brinsleys, Lowe found himself still contracted to United Artists. According to Will Birch’s recent book about him, Cruel To Be Kind, UA wanted to market him as ‘some sort of rock-lite artiste, like James Taylor or John Sebastian, quirky and be-denimed’. Nick, however, saw his immediate future as a nattily dressed power-pop star and resolved to force a change of record label on more lucrative terms.

Hoping it would gain him the sack from UA, he recorded a terrible tribute single, Bay City Rollers We Love You, by The Tartan Horde, in the belief that it would bomb. ‘Derek, Alan, Eric, we love you; Les and Woody do you feel the same way too?’ Nick’s voice was speeded up to make him sound like a child and for the songwriter’s credit, he adopted the name Terry Modern. Sadly, it was a big hit in Japan and the label demanded a follow-up. Recorded at Dave Edmunds’s Rockfield studio in Wales, this was the equally dire Let’s Go To The Disco, by The Disco Brothers. This caused UA finally to realise that Lowe was taking the mickey and he was given the bum’s rush.

Our boy spent much of 1975 in the company of Andrew ‘Jake’ Jakeman, a publicist and budding entrepreneur. He arranged for his friend to produce Howlin’ Wind, the debut album by Graham Parker and the Rumour (who included several ex-Brinsleys). Despite Nick’s lack of experience (the Rollers single had been his first time behind the mixing desk) the project proved a big success, his good humour bringing out the best in the musicians. He also went along when Jake was tour manager for Dr Feelgood in America, acting as ‘guitar roadie’ and signing himself into hotels as ‘Dale Liberator, equipment handler’.

In June, 1976, Lowe spent four hours at Pathway Studios, North London, recording his first single under his own name, So It Goesb/w Heart of the City.   It was the first release by Stiff Records, a company set up by Jakeman, by now calling himself Jake Riviera, and former Brinsleys manager Dave Robinson.

By September Lowe was producing the first British punk rock single, New Rose  by the Damned, released on Stiff three weeks before the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK came out on EMI.

Some months earlier Dave Edmunds had arrived in London following an acrimonious divorce and he formed a strong musical relationship with Nick. Together they recorded an Edmunds solo album, Get It, then went on the road as Rockpile, with Dave on guitar and vocals, Nick on bass and vocals, former Man drummer Terry Williams and rhythm guitarist Billy Bremner (no relation to the diminutive Leeds United firebrand who once fought Kevin Keegan in a shirt-removing contest). Nice abs, Kev.

Lowe began 1977 by producing Elvis Costello’s debut album My Aim Is True for Stiff, and recorded the label’s first EP, Bowi – a jokey response to David Bowie’s album Low. It comprises cover versions of Sandy Posey’s Born a Woman and Jody Reynolds’s Endless Sleep, plus the originals Shake That Rat and Marie Provost. The latter is an irreverent account of the demise of silent movie star Marie Prevost (sic) in 1937. She shared her Hollywood apartment with a dachshund, and by the time her body was found several days after she had drunk herself to death, the dog had nibbled her legs. To a jaunty rhythm, Lowe sings: ‘She was a winner, that became the doggie’s dinner.’ On Endless Sleep, a roadie told Will Birch, ‘Nick’s instrumentation consisted of a Senior Service cigarette lit by a Swan Vesta match, a Fender Telecaster guitar and a cider bottle, possibly Bulmer’s, banging on a cardboard box.’ On Born a Woman, Lowe delivers with great glee the words ‘If you’re born a woman you’re born to be lied to, stepped on, cheated on, treated like dirt.’ A mischievous advert for the record duly appeared in the feminist publication Spare Rib.

Although he had yet to hit the big time, Lowe was burning the candle not only at both ends but in the middle too, consuming major amounts of drink and drugs. He seemed to think this had no effect on his ability, cockily telling journalist Nick Kent that he could ‘write songs two-a-penny’ and adding: ‘Playing bass is nothing to me, anyone can do that. I’m a songwriter. Period. If this was the sixties, I’d be one of those Tin Pan Alley junk-pop tunesmiths knocking out an album’s worth of tunes for the Peters & Lees of my time. I could write any song to order. If the Clash want new songs, or the Jam, say, I could churn ’em out. That’s what I’m good at.’

Following a major bust-up with Robinson, Riviera left Stiff taking Lowe and Costello with him. It was on his new Radar label that the first Nick Lowe album appeared in 1978. It was named Jesus of Cool in the UK but in the more religiously sensitive US it was retitled Pure Pop For Now People, a slogan which had originally appeared on the Bowi EP sleeve.

Track two, I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass, provided Lowe with his only top ten hit, reaching number seven. It was another reference to Bowie’s Low album, which includes the song Breaking Glass. Nick never played it live, explaining in an interview with GQ magazine: ‘It’s a really good record, but there’s not actually any song there. It was a half-baked idea I had when I went to the studio, and the bass player and drummer sort of put a little sauce in it. But if I played it with just an acoustic guitar, the audience would probably give me a little clap in recognition, but by verse two, they’d be looking at their fingernails, waiting for the next one. There really isn’t anything to it.’

Little Hitler is an example of Lowe’s ability to ‘churn ’em out’. Elvis Costello had told him he was writing something called Two Little Hitlers and Nick stole the idea, coming out with his song overnight. Nutted By Reality contains one of my favourite lines: ‘She was well into the racing on the TV.’ Several of the songs on the album had been available previously, but as the New Musical Express said: ‘If you’re not already familiar with these titles then you at least have nothing to complain about, seeing that they’re almost uniformly superb.’ The doyen of American critics, Robert Christgau of the Village Voice, described the record as ‘an amazing pop tour-de-force’.

The following year saw the release of Nick’s second album, Labour of Lust. The first track, Cruel To Be Kind, was co-written with Ian Gomm when the pair were still in the Brinsleys. Released as a single it was a hit in the UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, remarkably reaching No 12 in all five countries. The video accompanying the song featured footage from Lowe’s wedding to Carlene Carter, Johnny Cash’s stepdaughter.

My favourite track is the only one not written by Lowe. Mickey Jupp’s Switchboard Susan is a brilliant collection of telecommunications puns such as ‘why can’t we be friends, after six, at weekends?’ and the smutty ‘when I’m with you I get an extension, and I don’t mean Alexander Graham Bell’s invention’.

Thanks to his endless partying, record production duties and touring with Rockpile, it wasn’t until 1982 that Lowe’s third album Nick The Knife came out. Three singles were taken from it – Heart, which had been previously recorded by Rockpile, Stick It Where The Sun Don’t Shine and My Heart Hurts, co-written with Carlene – but none was a hit. One’s Too Many and a Hundred Ain’t Enough, a collaboration with the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Kim Wilson, comes from a line in the film The Lost Weekend, in which Ray Milland plays a hopeless alcoholic.

According to Will Birch, it ‘neatly acknowledged the level of drinking that had become the nightly norm’ for Nick. Cocaine didn’t help either.

The next LP, 1983’s The Abominable Showman, is not one of his best although there are some decent tracks such as Mess Around With Love and Wish You Were Here. Lowe admits that almost all his music at that time was rushed, adding: ‘I felt freaked out the whole time.’

By the end of the year, it had finally come home to 34-year-old Nick that he was destroying himself with drink and drugs. ‘I got out of the bath and caught sight of myself in the mirror,’ he told Will Birch. ‘I looked like some creature I didn’t recognise, really overweight, unhealthy and pink, and turning purple. I was jowly, with bags under my eyes and starting to go grey. I was radiating unhappiness. I said to myself, “This is it. Today is the day. It’s clean-up time. Lose the booze and get yourself a new act”.’

Tune in next week to find out how Lowe changed his life around – and pulled Superman’s bird.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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