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Nick Lowe

+ {Little Village}

Forever and a day caught in the coat-tails of enigmatic label-mate ELVIS COSTELLO, the self-proclaimed “Jesus of Cool”, NICK LOWE, nevertheless proved himself to be witty, articulate and intelligent, as well as a consummate musical chameleon capable of traversing rock’n’roll boundaries, while injecting his canny compositions with a rootsy authenticity. As his country-rock/pub-rock combo BRINSLEY SCHWARZ petered out in the mid-70s, the singer-songwriter (and bassist) was there at the first blush of England’s new wave/indie scene, as he strode up to the plate with the formidable “Stiff” classic, `So It Goes’.
Born Nicholas Drain Lowe, 24 March 1949, Walton-on-Thames, Surrey; though raised in Woodchurch, Suffolk, one could trace his musical roots back to 1963, when he formed his first semi-serious enterprise, Sound 4 Plus 1, along with school friend Brinsley Schwarz. This unit subsequently evolved into KIPPINGTON LODGE, a pseudo-psych outfit that dispatched a series of flop 45s before re-launching, in 1969, under his buddy’s BRINSLEY SCHWARZ banner. Despite a disastrous beginning (that concerned a NY gig, a promoter and a hundred disgruntled journos), the group became one of the leading lights of the 70s pub-rock scene. The quartet-cum-quintet dropped a clutch of fine rootsy albums before their eventual demise in 1975. As well as handling bass and vocal duties, Nick had penned the bulk of the band’s material. He finally embarked on a solo career the following year after a short stint on DAVE EDMUNDS’ “Subtle As A Flying Mallet” set.
Although his first releases were a couple of pseudonymous pop platters (i.e. Tartan Horde’s `Bay City Rollers We Love You’ and Disco Brothers’ `Let’s Go To The Disco’), in mid 1976 he’d a hand in helping Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera’s seminal Stiff imprint.
LOWE’s aforementioned debut single, `So It Goes’, was the label’s inaugural release; the “Bowi” EP (a tongue-in-cheek riposte to his hero) was his follow-up; it featured a cover of Joey Reynolds’ `Endless Sleep’; his third and last 7-inch for Stiff was a cover of BILLY FURY’s `Halfway To Paradise’.
Nick also helped shape both the operation’s identity and the careers of its artists such as The DAMNED, ELVIS COSTELLO (his first five LPs) and WRECKLESS ERIC; to name but a few. The in-demand in-house producer also added to his CV by way of outside contract work for GRAHAM PARKER & THE RUMOUR, DR. FEELGOOD et al.
But by late ’77, LOWE was lured away to Riviera’s next venture, Radar Records, where he hit the Top 10 with `I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass’, a song spawned from his Top 30 album, THE JESUS OF COOL (1978) {*8}. Released in the States by Columbia Records under the title, “Pure Pop For Now People”, the set saw the man’s writing take a distinctly more sardonic turn, although his lyrical barbs were rarely as razor sharp as those of label mate COSTELLO. `Little Hitler’ was in fact co-scribed with old mucker DAVE EDMUNDS, whilst he recalled a tune – `36 Inches High’ – from underrated country-folk act, JIM FORD, who’d supplied a few songs to Nick’s former band, BRINSLEY SCHWARZ.
On the back of producing The PRETENDERS’ debut single, `Stop Your Sobbing’, 1979’s LABOUR OF LUST {*8} harvested his second major hit single in `Cruel To Be Kind’ (penned with IAN GOMM from the Brinsleys); a song that also cracked the American Top 20. The album itself was a power-pop classic, and although mostly authored by the man himself (with the exception of Stiff’s MICKEY JUPP for `Switchboard Susan’), the man deserved a bit of chart action for `Cracking Up’ (only a minor hit) and `American Squirm’.
From the summer of `77 onwards, LOWE had again been a member of EDMUNDS’ Rockpile (as alluded to previously), whilst his buddy and other band members played on LOWE’s solo material; the outfit graduating from live work to releasing an album, “Seconds Of Pleasure”, in 1980. Although the record was a minor success, the group folded shortly afterwards. LOWE duly divided his time between production (working with PAUL CARRACK, The FABULOUS THUNDERBIRDS and JOHN HIATT, amongst others) plus solo work.
The turn of the decade – 1979 to be exact – also saw Nick marry country star CARLENE CARTER (step-daughter of JOHNNY CASH), a successful singer in her own right who’d numbered among LOWE’s production clients.
Recorded with fresh backing band, The Chaps (subsequently Noise To Go: and featuring guitarists Martin Belmont and Billy Bremner, keyboardists PAUL CARRACK and Bob Andrews and MAN’s drummer Terry Williams), NICK THE KNIFE (1982) {*6} was LOWE’s first album for Columbia’s F-Beat subsidiary, and his last to enjoy any kind of UK chart action. Nevertheless, there were two songs of interest in his co-Carlene-penned `Too Many Teardrops’ and `My Heart Hurts’, whilst there was merit in joint effort, `One’s Too Many (And A Hundred Ain’t Enough)’, with The FABULOUS THUNDERBIRDS’ Kim Wilson.
The remaining 80s was a difficult period for LOWE; increasingly countrified sets such as THE ABOMINABLE SHOWMAN (1983) {*5} and NICK LOWE AND HIS COWBOY OUTFIT (1984) {*6} didn’t quite cut the mustard, so to speak, but were still enjoyable enough if never threatening to break him back into the mainstream; a minor UK hit, `Half A Boy And Half A Man’, was hardly stuff of legend. The wholesome and lightweight, THE ROSE OF ENGLAND (1985) {*7}, couldn’t decrease the downward spiral for Nick; however there was compensation by way of a re-churned Stateside Top 100 entry for `I Knew The Bride (When She Used To Rock & Roll)’; several years back it’d hit the UK Top 30 for loan-star EDMUNDS. Apparently loved by critics with a penchant of roots-rock nostalgia, for many it was a case of been-there/done-that for the likes of covers from ELVIS COSTELLO (`Indoor Fireworks’), JOHN HIATT (`She Don’t Love Nobody’) and VAN MORRISON (`Everyone’); interspersed by rock’n’rollers `7 Nights To Rock’ and `Bo Bo Ska Diddle Daddle’.
Demon Records would duly take up the challenge for 1988’s PINKER AND PROUDER THAN PREVIOUS {*6}, but despite saving-face covers of GRAHAM PARKER’s `Black Lincoln Continental’ and HIATT’s `Love Gets Strange’, the whole retrograde rock & roll and country shebang had left the building a long time ago.
Nick then sunk into depression and considered retiring from the music business altogether. And during this testing time in which his divorce was signed off with Carlene, a semi-convincing return to form via PARTY OF ONE (1990) {*6} led to a brief US chart appearance. An infectious, invigorating no covers album – highlighting nostalgi-a-billy numbers `You Got The Look I Like’, `Honey Gun’ and `All Men Are Liars’ – the record saw the man reunited with producer EDMUNDS, whilst featuring the likes of Jim Keltner and RY COODER.
The latter two giants of roots rock consequently hooked up with LOWE and JOHN HIATT in an all-encompassing high-calibre supergroup, LITTLE VILLAGE – the same formation that played on HIATT’s 1987 album `Bring The Family’ – in order to unfetter an eponymous LITTLE VILLAGE (1992) {*6} set. A fairly average affair, the album – and the likes of `Don’t Go Away Mad’, `The Action’ and `Don’t Bug Me While I’m Working’ – nevertheless saw Nick back in the Top 30 for the first time in more than a decade. A sort of alt-roots take on The TRAVELING WILBURYS, the quartet did a promotional tour before saying sayonara.
Yet this brief liaison with the record buyer failed to have a knock-on effect in terms of his solo career. THE IMPOSSIBLE BIRD (1994) {*7} failed to cross over to a wider audience despite widespread critical acclaim for the country-cool `Soulful Wind’, `The Beast In Me’ and `I Live On A Battlefield’ (interspersed with rear-view-mirror covers of `True Love Travels On A Gravel Road’, `Trail Of Tears’ and `I’ll Be There’). It was indeed typical of LOWE’s undulating career; the man remaining something of an unsung, ebb and flow hero, when at the very least, he deserved some kind of reward for his dexterity and perseverance.
While 1998’s DIG MY MOOD {*6} – featuring a finale cover of IVORY JOE HUNTER’s `Cold Grey Light Of Dawn’ – found crooner LOWE in balladeering mode, the equally laid back musings of THE CONVINCER (2001) {*7} – his first for Yep Roc Records – proved that, if his muse flowed as easily as it did on this record, then he didn’t actually need to convince anyone at all, least of all his fans. Apparently the final piece of the trilogy that began with “The Impossible Bird”, the 50-year-old was in slumber mood for `Homewrecker’, `I’m A Mess’ and `Lately I’ve Let Things Slide’; not forgetting covers of `Only A Fool Breaks His Own Heart’ and JOHNNY RIVERS’ `Poor Side Of Town’.
Certainly if one loved his/her alt-C&W bittersweet and blue, then the silver-haired LOWE was driving home the misery in spades. And if long-time fans had missed some of the treasures from his past (including `What’s So Funny…’) that had set in place the building blocks of his own career; rather than that of other nostalgia-addled heroes, the in-concert round-up of UNTOUCHED TAKEAWAY (2004) {*6}, was just what the doctor ordered.
2007’s AT MY AGE {*7} and 2011’s THE OLD MAGIC {*6} kept up his golden-era soft-shoe shuffles to the max. Like romantically carving out initials from the bark of an ageing old oak tree, it was as if The BEATLES had never been invented; never mind his breakthrough pub-rock/new wave period that had given him the right to chill country style. But that little foible mattered not to a man (and his fans) in the so-called prime of his life. One could hardly tell the wood from the trees by way of Nick’s originals or covers; examples all apparent when comparing the latter set’s `Sensitive Man’ and `I Read A Lot’ (and even a re-tread of ELVIS COSTELLO’s `The Poisoned Rose’), to TOM T. HALL’s `Shame On The Rain’ and Jeff West’s `You Don’t Know Me At All’.
Whilst his previous record had rustled the US Top 100, the festive period took over for rock’n’roll retrospective, QUALITY STREET: A Seasonal Selection For All The Family (2013) {*5}. A subsequent tour led to a fun-packed joint effort with LOS STRAITJACKETS, entitled THE QUALITY HOLIDAY REVUE live (2015) {*6}, whilst the latter long-running surf-rock instrumentalists must’ve been on a high a few years on when LOWE sanctioned a whole album of his greatest bits a la “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love And… Los Straitjackets”. If only The SHADOWS were still around.
© MC Strong 1994-2004/GRD // rev-up MCS Aug2019

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