Nick Lowe - Biography
British singer-songwriter-producer Nick Lowe has earned himself a devoted cult following through a distinctive series of solo albums issued since the late ‘70s. A battle-scarred veteran of London’s pub-rock scene (an association he frankly despised), he established himself as a player in the new punk-era wave of English musicians with a run of singles and a pair of hard-rocking albums that introduced his sardonic humor, his clever wordplay, and his ease with a panoply of styles — from rockabilly and R&B to country and reggae. His early solo work bears favorable comparison with that of Elvis Costello, whose first five albums Lowe produced — and who established Lowe’s composition “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” as a rock standard with a furious cover version.
Born March 24, 1949, in Woodchurch, Suffolk, England, Lowe was the son of an RAF airman and a mother whose family had worked in the English music halls. After a peripatetic childhood, his family settled in the British village of Sarratt, where his schoolmates included guitarist Brinsley Schwarz. He joined Schwarz’s group Kippington Lodge as a bassist; later assuming Schwarz’s name, the band morphed into a pub-rock era unit that survived a wave of hype (not unlike that accorded the similarly benighted American band Moby Grape) to produce six well-honed, country-inflected studio albums, which introduced Lowe as a songwriter. (“Peace, Love and Understanding,” which sarcastically mocked the waning hippie ethos, made its bow on the album The New Favorites of Brinsley Schwarz .)
Following the collapse of Brinsley Schwarz in 1975, Lowe was kept on at United Artists, the group’s label, as a highly unwilling solo artist. Typically, he managed to get the company to drop him by issuing a pair of pseudonymous, deliberately (albeit cheerfully) offensive singles that took irony-laden aim at contemporaneous music excrescences, “Bay City Rollers We Love You” and “Let’s Go to the Disco.”
Newly independent, Lowe hooked up with manager-impresario Jake Riviera (still Lowe’s handler today) and Dave Robinson and went to work as artist and in-house producer for their fledgling Stiff Records. His single “Heart of the City”/”So It Goes” was the first release by the label, whose mocking advertising campaigns and tongue-in-cheek sloganeering (“If it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a f*ck”) helped set the anti-establishment tone for punk-era indies. Lowe’s productions during this epoch included debut albums by Graham Parker & The Rumour (which featured ex-band mates Brinsley Schwarz and Bob Andrews) and The Damned (whose Stiff bow Damned Damned Damned (1977) was also the first full-length LP released by a UK punk band). He also commenced his fruitful collaboration with Elvis Costello, whose version of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” first appeared, credited to “Nick Lowe and His Sound,” as the B-side of the 1978 Lowe single “American Squirm”).
Lowe’s full-length solo debut Jesus of Cool (1978) — issued in the US almost simultaneously, with a different track listing, as Pure Pop For Now People — etched its author’s caustic, bitingly humorous style on the sharply-limned music-biz commentaries “Music For Money,” “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass,” and “Shake and Pop” (aka “They Call It Rock” in its rockabilly-styled incarnation). The LP also included Lowe’s bleakly funny “Marie Provost,” about the horrific true-life demise of a washed-up Hollywood actress, and a live workout on “Heart of the City,” which also featured singer-guitarist Dave Edmunds, guitarist Billy Bremner, and drummer Terry Williams, known collectively as Rockpile.
The Rockpile members backed Edmunds on his solo albums of the period, and also supported Lowe on his sophomore long player Labour of Lust (1979). The album, a consistent follow-up to Jesus of Cool, included the top-flight songs “Cracking Up” and “Cruel to Be Kind” (a remake of an earlier single, and Lowe’s only top 20 single in America), as well as the countrified “Without Love” (later covered by Johnny Cash, Lowe’s father-in-law after his 1979 marriage to Carlene Carter). The album became Lowe’s top-charting US LP, peaking at No. 31.
In 1980, Rockpile issued their lone album, the muscular, rollicking Seconds of Pleasure, and embarked on an American tour. Among the finest live acts in rock history, the band, which largely appeared as an opening act, blew headliners like Blondie off the stage, but tensions that arose during the trek fractured the band. During the early ‘80s, Lowe also remained active as a producer, working with Costello, Carter, Dr. Feelgood, and The Pretenders (who bowed with a version of The Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing,” a Lowe production).
Lowe has little good to say about his ‘80s output. As he admitted in the notes for the four-disc 1999 retrospective The Doings, “I was churning out records when I didn’t have enough good material. I was seeking inspiration in the bottle, and whatever else was going on at the time. You can’t do that consistently, and sooner or later, usually sooner, you get found out.”
Lowe’s albums of the period include Nick the Knife (1982), The Abominable Showman (1983), Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit (1984), The Rose of England (1985), and Pinker and Prouder Than Previous (1988). These records produced a handful of distinguished performances — “Heart,” “Time Wounds All Heels,” “Half a Boy and Half a Man,” “Crying in My Sleep” "We Want Action," "Queen Of Sheba," "Stick It Where The Sun Don't Shine." In 1990, Lowe reunited with Dave Edmunds, who produced and played on the lighthearted, rocking Party of One.
In 1992, Lowe became a member of the demi-supergroup Little Village, which also included singer-songwriter John Hiatt, guitarist Ry Cooder, and drummer Jim Keltner, the band on Hiatt’s 1987 breakthrough Bring the Family. Though much anticipated, their self-titled album was a commercial and critical disappointment.
The same year, Lowe was the beneficiary of a major career windfall. A cover of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” by Curtis Stigers appeared on the soundtrack album for chart-topping pop/R&B singer Whitney Houston’s movie debut The Bodyguard. The album — released, ironically, by Arista Records, the target of Lowe’s scorn on “Shake and Pop” — was No. 1 for 20 weeks in the U.S. and sold 17 million copies out of the box, and made its composer a millionaire.
After two years of reflection and money-counting, Lowe returned with The Impossible Bird. Deeply felt and mellifluously sung, the album included such outstanding compositions as “The Beast In Me” (unforgettably covered by Johnny Cash on American Recordings ), “Shelley My Love,” “I Live On a Battlefield,” the loveaholic’s lament “12 Step Program (To Quit You Babe),” and an aching cover of Dallas Frazier’s “True Love Travels On a Gravel Road.” Widely lauded critically, it was succeeded by the darker Dig My Mood (1998), which contained “Faithless Lover,” “Man That I’ve Become,” and “I Must Be Getting Over You.”
Lowe’s late-career renaissance continued with the tart, restrained The Convincer (2001) and the slightly derivative but nonetheless effective At My Age (2007). He released a career-spanning single-disc best-of Quiet Please in 2009. His songbook has inspired two tribute albums, Labour of Love (2001) and Lowe Profile (2005). After years of touring with an estimable band that included keyboardist Geraint Watkins and guitarist Steve Forrester, Lowe has appeared on stage in recent years as a solo performer, armed only with a guitar, his brace of brilliant songs, and his inexhaustible sense of humor.
Typically self-deprecating and amused, Lowe said of his latter-day career in a 2009 Mojo interview, “When I reinvented myself a lot of my audience dropped away because they thought that where I once rocked, now I rock not. But they’ve been replaced by another audience with a lot more young people and women, which I’m very pleased about.”
In 2011 Lowe released his 13th studio record, The Old Magic.