We’ve Got A File On You: Nick Lowe
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
There’s a trope about guys like Nick Lowe. He’s the cultishly beloved songwriter, the guy who was around for all this stuff, sometimes obviously and sometimes not, and who other musicians adore, but who never quite gets his due until further down the line. It’s not like people didn’t know who Lowe was back in the day, and he had some big hits to his name. But at the same time, he’s woven in and out of view to some extent, which then makes it more daunting to consider all the different eras he’s touched.
Lowe’s career goes all the way back to the late ’60s. He was around for one great mythologized era, but as part of the pub-rock circuit — in a sense, helping define a subplot running alongside the big ’60s narratives. But because of his involvement in that scene, he was primed for the next great mythologized era, and finally got broader notoriety in the punk and new wave eras. While Lowe never went anywhere, there seemed to be a resurgence of sorts in the last decade, when indie artists began talking about him more. Now, perhaps he’s finally got the reputation he deserves, as a sly songwriter who was able to keep moving and adapt to radically different eras and genres.
On the occasion of the 20th anniversary reissue of The Convincer, we called Lowe to talk about some of the higlights from these past five decades — all the way from his younger days, to snarking on David Bowie, to the days where Johnny Cash was his father-in-law, and beyond.
Brinsley Schwarz (Late’60s To The Mid-’70s)
You’ve had a lot of bands and solo years along the way. Going all the way back to your origins in the ‘60s, what were you envisioning then?
NICK LOWE: Many people say, for most people from my era their main interest was meeting girls. There was nothing arty-farty about it at all — to be sort of famous. I had an idea I wanted to be on the TV. But I wanted to be cool. Who did I see myself as… Well, I liked the way Eric Clapton behaved at that time. He looked really good. He was sort of a mod, but he played the blues. He was in a cool band, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Everyone thought he was cool. I’d never heard anybody in England playing blues guitar like that. I didn’t even really know that existed. But I thought he was cool because he wasn’t in everyone’s face all the time. That’s the kind of person I wanted to be. In other words, I wanted to be famous without having to do any of the unpleasant fame stuff. [Laughs] That wasn’t a bad ideal, actually. But unfortunately you make a deal with the devil, you’ve got to do some pretty humiliating shit.
”Cruel To Be Kind” (Early ’70s/1979)
One of the things I want to talk about is all the different scenes and eras you’ve been a part of. You wrote some of your signature songs during those earlier days, one of which was “Cruel To Be Kind.” Which you then didn’t release until 1979. Did you not think much of it back in the early ’70s?
LOWE: I did, but it was strange. At that time, the Brinsleys were doing quite well but quietly. In that respect, my plan for being not very famous but having a good time was going quite well. We never had any big success really. But we played clubs and small places and we’d fill them up. We knew how to work a room and all that sort of thing. But I was very interested in writing songs for a purpose. You’d think, “Well, if only we had another floor-filler song.” “Another fast one, we’d have taken the roof off the place.” We’d talk about that in the van ride home. So I’d write one. I was very taken with this song “The Love I Lost.” It was a big hit at the time, by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. That was the template for “Cruel To Be Kind.”
It might seem a bit hard to believe, because the version that everyone knows doesn’t sound anything like Harold Melvin. It was the original concept. It would have that driving disco style. Our group was pretty good, we did all different kinds of styles — R&B, country, we all liked disco. That song was written purely for the purpose of the beat, the groove. When the band broke up, I could see punk rock coming over the brow of the hill. As far as I was concerned, a song like “Cruel To Be Kind” had nothing to do with punk rock at the time. That was squaresville, man.
But Mr. Gregg Geller, who was my A&R man at Columbia Records and is still a friend of mine to this day, signed me and Elvis Costello. He heard the demo of “Cruel To Be Kind” and really leant on me to record it. I didn’t want to do it at all. I wanted to do songs about film stars’ dogs eating them. But he said, “Look, I really, really think this is going to be a big hit.” After a while I gave in. I went to see my colleagues — by this time I was in Rockpile. And I said, “Boys, I’m sorry, I’ve got this song which I’ve been told we’ve got to record, and it goes like this.” They grumbled a bit about it. Anyway, we recorded it and the rest is history.
Do you have warmer feelings towards it once it did turn out to be a hit?
LOWE: Oh, definitely, yeah. It’s fantastic. I count myself extremely lucky that I did have one sort of genuine hit record of my own. I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of my songs covered that have done quite well. But in order to give yourself a bit of credibility it helps if you can have one of your own. I had that one, and I had a couple of other more local hits over here. That one was pretty much an international pop hit. Not a smash, but big enough. I’m really pleased about it. When I do it, even in my solo shows, people really love it. I’ve got some friends who roll their eyes a bit at the thought of having to do their big hits. I just don’t understand that.
Cameo In Stardust (1974)
It’s a brief scene, but you performed in the movie. What was it like being on a film set?
LOWE: Oh, man, I could write a slim book about the three days we spent on the set of Stardust. We got hired because of Dave Edmunds, really. I was becoming friendlier with Dave. He was a very hard man to become friends with. He was the archetypal loner. But we used to record down in Rockfield Studios and that’s where he used to record. I was a fan of his, so I kind of shadowed him and bugged him, really. When we’d finished at the night, that’s when he’d turn up and record all through the night. I thought this was wild.
Anyway, he got a part in Stardust, and they wanted a band to play the part of a backing band in the scene. It was very exciting. They put us up in a hotel, which was a British chain. They didn’t really exist in the UK. We didn’t have anything like that. Especially the Brinsleys, we used to stay in these creepy guesthouses, sometimes sharing a bed with each other. It was quite basic. But for three days they put us up in one of these brand new chain hotels which had a television in the room! We couldn’t believe it. This was the height of luxury. I could go on about it and what Keith Moon got up to, oh my God.
It was a wild set?
LOWE: It was definitely wild. Culminating in the producer of the film, who went on to produce some very big hit movies, he was just starting out then. He got a Knighthood and everything. He was so furious with us. We stayed up all night and we were late on set. He said to me, “I will personally make sure that you never work in movies again.” And, you know, he was absolutely right. [Laughs]
In-House Producer For Stiff Records (‘70s)
Were you just discovering this was a part of the process you were becoming more interested in or were you considering that, having seen that punk rock wave coming, you were maybe done being a performer yourself?
LOWE: As the Brinsleys wound down we realized we had gone as far as we could. We’d done alright, actually. We’d had a pretty interesting career. But I really could feel something different was coming. We’d been in this scene known as the pub-rock scene, these bands playing in these big London pubs that all had music rooms or little stages. There’d be predominantly Irish music or jazz playing in these pubs, but due to an American band called Eggs Over Easy from San Francisco, they started this movement of bands playing in these pubs who actually wrote their own songs. We got friendly with this group and when they went back to the States we took over their spot and sort of their act. It only really took off in London and Holland. The Dutch really went for this bar band stuff. It was a very cool little thing for a couple years. We benefited from it in a big way, but we’d taken it as far as we could.
A lot of the things that the pub-rock scene threw up directly led on to punk rock. I could feel this coming. I knew I was too old, really, to be a punk rocker. And also I didn’t really like the music, or where I could see it was going. I was too old for that. Whereas I loved the Ramones, and I love garage rock ’n’ roll like the MC5 and Iggy and those sorts of things. But I couldn’t stand that deliberately playing out of tune stuff. I was too old for that, I liked R&B and blues too much. The mischief that was coming along, that was the thing that really, really interesting to me. The music business was so complacent and boring.
I could see an opportunity. Me and my contemporaries, it was almost our turn. We had done enough going up and down the motorways, and who ever decides these things — the big cheese in the sky, you know — said, “Right” and points a finger. Step forward, it’s your turn. Suddenly, you are next, and it’s, “What’ve you got?” I could feel this coming, and I knew when it was my turn I wasn’t going to meekly do what I was told or do what some record company had in mind. I knew this was going to be different, and that I was going to be part of it. One thing I decided was not to be categorizable. That I keep moving. Every time that people would think, “Oh, he does that,” I would move away from that. It was a fabulous time. It was a really exciting time. I started spending more time with this guy Jake Riviera, eventually I was sleeping on his floor. Then we became partners when he started Stiff Records.
Producing The Damned’s First Album (1977)
It’s interesting you talk about how some of the music was for you and some of it wasn’t, because around this same time you also produced the Damned’s first album — which Wikipedia at least likes to credit as the first UK punk album. Was that a band you did feel some kinship with?
LOWE: I thought they were a really great band. I really thought they were fantastic. They had all that energy. They were really, really young. Actually Rat Scabies, the drummer, lives around the corner from me now and I see him around. He’s just had a grandchild. [Laughs] They used to take the piss out of me really bad. They called me “Granddad” and “Uncle.” I think I was 25 or 26. [Laughs] But I was very happy to help with their record.
I don’t know what it was I did. That was in the days where you didn’t really have to know anything about the technicalities of making a record. The producer’s job was a sort of a… entertainment officer, or something. A cross between some sort of mental health nurse and a shaman. I don’t know how you’d explain it. I remember encouraging them all the time. Make them realize they could go further. That was what I enjoyed about producing records, and that’s also the reason why I stopped. That job became redundant sometime in the 1980s. I was never really interested in learning how to twiddle knobs. I was much more interested in getting something to happen.
Bowi EP (1977) And “I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass” (1978)
This was a response to Bowie’s Low. Is it true that “I Like The Sound Of Breaking Glass” is also a play on his song “Breaking Glass”?
LOWE: I was never really a Bowie fan. I’ve always been an admirer of his. I was much more interested in what clothes he was wearing, and his hairstyle. So I never really concentrated that much of his records. This sounds so unlike me, but I wasn’t aware he had a song called “Breaking Glass.” There was another song with something about breaking glass here. So there was a lot of breaking glass going around at that time. But Bowie was the guy who had that title first of all. I think the music on my “Breaking Glass” has something to do with him. I think I pinched something off of him in the music.
My record was an example of making a record out of a real half-assed idea. We went to the studio and called up a couple guys and said can we work this up. We did, and it was successful. I tried that so many times, and it’s just been a nightmare trying to chase an idea up and down the stairs. You never get anywhere with it more times than you do. I started thinking, “I’m not going to make any more records until I absolutely know how the song goes.” But “Breaking Glass” was one where it did work.
Did you ever have a conversation with Bowie about all this?
LOWE: I never met him. I’ve got lots of friends, some of whom were very good friends of his. I would’ve liked to have met him, because everybody told me what a lovely guy he was. It was such a different time really. You could do something like that. “I’m gonna call my record Bowi.” No one really cared. It wasn’t a big deal. It was much more parochial back then.
Writing “The Beast In Me” For Johnny Cash (1994)
Once upon a time you had a familial connection to Johnny Cash, and he recorded one of your songs for what turned out to be his ‘90s resurgence.
LOWE: I’ve spat this story on a few occasions. In a nutshell, if I can do it in a nutshell: It was an idea that came to me one night just before John and June were bringing their Johnny Cash show to London. They were doing a big show. Obviously we were going to see it, me and Carlene [my wife at the time]. The night before, I had this idea for this song, “The Beast In Me.” I could really hear him doing it. I stayed up most of the night writing it, but I never really got any further than the first verse. I think because they were coming the next day. And I was drinking vast quantities of wine to give myself fuel to write some magnificent opus to put before the great man the next day. The first verse was really good, and the rest of the stuff I wrote got worse and worse as the night turned into the early hours of the morning. The next thing I heard was, when I woke up, Carlene on the phone to June, “Oh yeah, he was up all night writing it, yes, he’ll play it to you this afternoon when you come over.” I woke up thinking, “Oh my God, no, please no. I know this is a bad idea.” [Laughs]
Anyway, they came. It was a huge tour bus right outside our house. The band all came in, nannies, cooks, wives, all came into our house to hear this song. Well, they came in to say hello. But John was coming over to hear this song. I had this foul hangover and there’s papers with terrible handwriting all over. It was awful. He made me play this song, and I got to the end of it and there was this silence in this room full of people. I knew it was shit. John knew it was shit. Everybody knew it was total shit. And they also knew I was hungover, sweating and everything. [Laughs] Even now thinking about it — well, it’s funny now, but at the time it sure as hell wasn’t. Then he made me do it again. The second time was even worse than the first time. At the end of it, he said, “Well, it’s not finished, is it?” The kindest thing he could say. I never wanted to hear the thing again. I never wanted to hear “The Beast In Bloody Me” again. But he said, “You’re on to something, there’s something there, I like this bit.” “OK, yeah, yeah yeah, OK, goodbye, goodbye.” Pushing them out the door so I could go back to bed.
Every time I saw him after that, he always asked me about it. He’d always say, “Have you done any more work on ‘The Beast In Me?’” To start with I thought he was joking, because he was quite a joker old John was. I thought he was tugging my chain a bit. But he meant it. Every time I’d go home and mentally get this song out of the box again, but I could never get past the first verse. This went on for years. Maybe 12 years. Until one night, he was playing in town at the Albert Hall. Every time he came to town he’d always get me up to do a tune. I really didn’t like it. I was flattered that he’d ask me, but I really didn’t like it. I am and I was a fan of his. And I know what British fans of people like Johnny Cash are like. They would just not like someone like getting up and singing with Johnny Cash. I wouldn’t have liked me getting up and singing with Johnny Cash. I would’ve gone, “Ah, for fuck’s sake, this guy? Can’t he give it a rest two fucking minutes? Why’s he got to bloody turn up every time?” But it’s Johnny Cash asking you to do it so I’d always say, OK, yes, sure. Part of me was pleased, but a bigger part of me would have preferred not to.
But anyway, on this particular night, he asked me, “OK, what are we going to do?” I went to see him before the show in the dressing room. I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “What’s the matter?” On this night I told him this. I said, “Look, you do know don’t you, that your fans would like to throw rotten tomatoes at me for getting up?” They could see me any bloody time they want. Anyway he thought this was really funny. And he made me do it anyway. [Laughs] We did rather well that night, and I was quite buoyed up by it. Just before I said goodbye to him after the show, he asked me about “The Beast In Me” again. I don’t know why, but on this occasion I went home and just finished it. It sounded like the new bit connected up with the old bit. It was really peculiar. It was almost like it had been just waiting all that time.
I recorded it — actually the demo I recorded is the version of mine that appears on my record. I sent it to John, I didn’t do any explanation, didn’t call him or anything like that. I just sent him the tape, and I didn’t hear anything and I thought, “Oh God, he still thinks it’s no good.” A few weeks went by and then my stepdaughter Tiffany, she had been staying with him in Jamaica and said “Oh, Granddad’s playing your demo to everyone who comes to the house, he loves it.” I was like, “Oh does he now? He sure hasn’t told me.” The next thing I knew, there it was. He recorded it. I didn’t even know he was making a record with Rick Rubin. But there it was. Really, really fantastic. It’s one of a few stories I’ve got about Johnny Cash.
”The Beast In Me” Appearing In The First Sopranos Episode (1999)
So after this long saga with this song, then it also plays in the very first episode of The Sopranos.
LOWE: I think John wanted too much money. [Laughs] They wanted his version but he wanted too much money so they got the poor relation in. My wife has never seen The Sopranos, and we started watching it from the beginning last month. We watched the first one and I’d forgotten all about it, and the two us just went “Wait a minute, what the hell is this!?”
Were you a fan when it was first coming out?
LOWE: I had never seen it. My manager phoned me and said, “Yeah there’s this crazy show they want to use ‘The Beast In Me.’ They’re cool people who are making it, but it sounds quite weird. It’s mafia like Goodfellas but it’s their domestic life.” I mean how do you explain The Sopranos? But he said he thought it would be cool, so it was a shot in the dark. But why would I say no? It sounded like a great idea to me.
Covering “The Weight” With Wilco And Mavis Staples (2011) And The “Sensitive Man” Video (2012)
I feel like there is sometimes this narrative spun, that you are a cult songwriter and these artists came out in later decades talking up your influence. Do you feel that way about it? For example, someone like Jeff Tweedy.
LOWE: I suppose it was something like that happening. Thing is, if you’re me, you don’t really put these things together. I was aware of Wilco. I knew they were a good group and cool people. I knew they had taken an interest in my stuff, word had gotten back. Then out of the blue, they decided to do a version of my song “I Love My Label.” That coincided with them doing one of their lengthy bouts of touring and they asked me to open for them acoustic. By this time, I had been opening in big venues for people with acoustic guitar, and I rather enjoyed it. I didn’t find it that daunting.
Plus, I knew that they had an audience that I was very keen to put myself in front of. They were musically literate but young. As much as I love my people, I don’t want to just play to my people. They’re perfectly welcome, but I’m very anxious to bring new people along. [Laughs] I don’t want to get down with the kids, that would be sort of disgusting. [Laughs] I still want to do something that’s relevant that young people would enjoy. I thought, this is a great opportunity. They were going to places in the States I really had no audience in at all, i.e. the Midwest. It turned out not only are they charming and fabulous boys, but also their audience were extremely welcoming. So much so that I can go to the Midwest now and entice quite a sizable following through the door. I owe it all to Wilco, really. They really did me a fantastic favor. Then the topping, of course, was although I had met her before, I got to hang out with Mavis, who is just about the most delightful person you could imagine. I toured with her after that as well, which was a real treat.
Then you did this video with Wilco and Marc Maron and some other folks.
LOWE: I’m lucky enough to have some pretty swinging friends over there, who delight in thinking up slightly off-the-wall ideas that someone like me could pull off because of my privileged position. Which I’m very grateful for. I seem to have a position in the music business all to myself. [Laughs] Which is very pleasing.
Producing The First Five Elvis Costello Albums (Late ‘70s To Early ‘80s)
What was different here that made you want to work with him for so many records?
LOWE: It was always — well, not always fascinating, but I can’t remember the times when it wasn’t. One of the most interesting things for me was how our relationship changed from when I first met him. Elvis — or Declan, as I knew him — he used to come see Brinsley Schwarz whenever we played in the Liverpool area. We’d see him at these shows because he looked so distinctive and he was nearly always on his own. One day we were playing at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, which post people know as where the Beatles started out. It was on its last legs, really, but it was still going. We were in the pub across the road, almost as well-known as the Cavern Club. It was called the Grapes. That pub, if walls could talk. All those bands would drink in there. The Beatles, probably the Stones as well. All those Merseybeat groups. We were in there and Declan walked in and he and I… we have differing stories about it. I claim that I approached him and said “Let me buy you a drink,” and he reckons that he approached me. But that’s where we met the first time.
To start with, he was very much a fan of mine. When he got signed by Stiff, I was aware that he had a band on the pub-rock scene, just as Brinsley Schwarz was moving away from that. He had a band starting out on it. They weren’t that great. He was definitely the best person in the band. Then he got signed to Stiff, and initially they were just going to sign him as a writer, but then Jake Riviera listened to his tape and said, “I think this guy has really got something going, but he needs to get his stuff straightened out. It’s too complicated, it’s too many words. You go in the studio with him and try to get him to prune out some of these verses.” So that’s what I did. I wasn’t that keen on it, I thought it was too wordy and too many chords. I did my best.
But then a funny thing happened. We did the first record, and before the end of the first record, really, things started to change. I knew he wasn’t just some crackpot who had walked through the doors of Stiff and said “Let me make a record with you guys.” I had done a few of those with people, who had just walked in off the street. That was pretty good fun too. But I knew Elvis wasn’t one of those people. He was something altogether different. So from me being rather “OK, kid, this is how it’s going to be,” which is how it started out — “You gotta get rid of some of these words, it’s got six verses and we need three.” Somewhere I realized, no, this is going to need a different approach. Even before the end of My Aim Is True, our relationship started changing. I suppose the last record we did where I was sort of in charge was “Watching The Detectives,” which we did after we’d finished. I know “Watching The Detectives” was on Elvis’ first album in the States, but it wasn’t over here. That was the last where I was in charge.
After that, I’d turn up in the studio and say, “Elvis, how do you want this to go today?” It was much more collaborative. It was the same as the Damned. I can’t remember what I did. He’d formed the Attractions and that was a completely different animal, and we’d started doing This Year’s Model. I became much more of a cheerleader and suggested things they could do, but I didn’t throw my weight around. It was a team effort. And he kept on asking me back. I must’ve done something. But I can’t actually remember, particularly, what it was. Especially with a band, you can upset people quite easily and sooner or later they’re going to start agitating to get someone else to do this “important work.” [Laughs] But they kept asking me back. I didn’t enjoy it all the time. Sometimes it was quite fraught and tedious, frankly. But like all these things, you can never remember the tedious times. Thank goodness. All you remember is the really exciting moments where you have a total breakthrough. Like, “Oh my God, this is a brand new kind of music!” That is really exciting when that happens.
”(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding” (1974)
His signature song is one you wrote. You were saying earlier, a lot of people have covered your songs. And this is like a standard now. When you first wrote that song did you think there was anything to it, or did it take one of those breakthrough moments with Elvis?
LOWE: I could babble on about the history of the song, but the version that Brinsley Schwarz recorded, that Elvis heard at the gigs, was recorded by Dave Edmunds. It had quite a big full sound. When the Brinsleys split up, that should’ve been the end of it. That’s what happens to bands’ songs when they split up, the songs go in the dustbin of history. The song was never a hit, it never caused much of a stir at all when we did it originally. “Cruel To Be Kind,” we did a demo, but it never caused a stir even if it did well when we played live. That should’ve been it. But it was those two songs that got pulled out of the dustbin.
Elvis pulled out “Peace, Love, And Understanding,” and said, “You remember that song? I think it’s a real cracker, I want to do that.” Up until that point, he hadn’t done any covers at all, I don’t think. I said, “Are you sure?” It wasn’t me as a producer saying “Elvis, I really think you should record my song.” It was totally his idea. I was none too sure if it was a good idea until they actually went into it and was like “Oh my God, this is fantastic.” But the success of the song is really all down to Elvis. He’s the one who put the hurt on it, which people identified with.
Since then, I’ve heard all kinds of different treatments of it. It’s a song that can really be done in many, many ways. I’m grateful for it. It was sort of a hippie that wrote the song, and the hippie in me wishes a time would come where the song would not be required anymore. But the narrow-eyed chancer I’ve become, thinks now “Well, royalties, ha ha ha!” [Laughs] I’m grateful for it in two ways, the spiritual side and the fact it gives people so much pleasure to perform it and hear it.