An interview with Nick Lowe for Q magazine, June 1990. This would have been done in some congenial, smoky pub somewhere. (Interviews with Nick Lowe were always done in some congenial, smoky pub.) “Basher” Lowe was on classic anecdote-spinning form: stories here include the PR calamity of his old band Brinsley Schwarz, the birth of punk rock from the ruins of pub rock, and his role in the launching of Elvis Costello.
You can read a follow-up interview, from 1994, here.
A ghastly wreath of cigarette smoke hangs in unnatural suspension above the corner table. A dimpled mug of English bitter sits patiently on that table, awaiting its master’s pleasure. The barman, affecting to polish a brandy snifter, cranes his head across the beer pumps. Conversation stilted, eavesdropping imbibers debate how long they can postpone their next visit to the lavatory.
Comfortably installed, then, in a situation which he looks entirely content to occupy, sits the gangling gent with a snow-white quiff, a good sports jacket and, apparently, the rest of the afternoon to spare. For here, on licensed premises in London town, Nick “Basher” Lowe is embarked upon another rock’n’roll anecdote.
It is, in more senses than one, Springtime For Basher. There is his new album Party Of One, of course. (Sorry? The anecdote? Well, sad to say, space would not permit its telling – save to relate that it involves top producer Quincy Jones, senior personnel of Warner Brothers Records, and an impersonation od Dave Edmunds’ Welsh accent.)
Lowe’s re-emergence follows a lengthy period of self-doubt and re-assessment, Last year Demon Records issued a Best Of Nick Lowe compilation, covering his work from 1976 to 1989. Today, he’s chipper enough to promise that we’ll one day see a Volume Two. “I think so. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I think I’m just getting the hang of it. It’s taken a long, long time…”
The rock’n’roll CV that is headed “Lowe, Nicholas” begins with sundry school bands which led in turn to a late ’60s pop combo – Kippington Lodge by name – formed in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, with his friend and lead guitarist Brinsley Schwarz. Lowe himself played bass. “We were very influenced by The Herd, The Brian Auger Trinity, The Nice, The Move…” Like The Beatles before them, they were assisted in their apprenticeship by gigs in Germany: punishing all-night residencies but “great for learning your chops” as he puts it.
“We were as green as the grass, really naïve. I’d been to boarding school so I was dying to get started. All my mates were at it, whatever ‘it’ was, and I needed to catch up badly, so I loved it. We did a series of singles [released on Parlophone] produced by this guy who seemed ancient, he wore a tie and nylon shirt with a string vest underneath, slightly balding, and sandals with socks.”
Kippington Lodge’s singles evaded the pop charts with impressive agility. It was a technique they were to perfect when, in 1969, the group changed its collective name to Brinsley Schwarz. But the transition did encourage Lowe to start trying out his own songs, while taking on board a new range of inspirations. “That’s when we started smoking pot. We heard Crosby Stills & Nash’s first album and The Band. I started making up songs but their influences were very obvious. The Night They Drove Old Pixie Down. Ha ha!”
The musty volumes of rock lore are all agreed on what happened next. Brinsley Schwarz’s career was all but scuppered when, in April 1970, the group’s enthusiastic overseers booked them into prestigious New York venue the Fillmore East, having flown a plane-load of UK journalists across to witness the triumph. The scribes arrived late, tired, pissed and grumpy, while the show was crap and the band were branded “a hype”. They were utterly blighted. “We’d thought: there’s no problem, we just go over there, get lots of papers to write about it and suddenly we’re superstars, fantastic. Not a bit of it.
“It’s very hard for me to remember now because I was completely bozo’d. But they even had somebody from Angling Times on that plane! You know: ‘Carp-loving Nick Lowe, who’s just played at the Fillmore East, says he only caught a three-pounder at the reservoir…’ It went completely wrong. We were awful.
“We were on with Van Morrison, and I’d never seen anybody as good as that band. It was when Moondance came out, and I remember standing at the back of the Fillmore, watching, and thinking, Son, you have got a lot to learn…
“And of course when we got back it was just vilification to a monster degree. People used to cross over the road if they saw us coming. We couldn’t get any gigs. I don’t know why we didn’t split up. We’d just been through this experience and I suppose we needed each other because we were the only ones who knew what it had been like. We felt very sheepish…”
Tails between legs, the band began looking for ways of salvaging their pride. And indeed they did. The Brinsleys found their niche in that low-key live music circuit then taking shape in Britain, a scene that was soon dubbed pub rock. Although Brinsley Schwarz were invariably left off the guest list so far as the hit parade was concerned, they did win respect, developing a boozer-friendly brand of fluent R&B crossed with country rock. What distinguished them from another hundred outfits was the craftsmanship and wit of Nick Lowe’s original songs, perhaps the most famous being (What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace Love And Understanding.
Pub rock’s easy-going no-frills musical policy stood in defiant contrast to the crotchet-crunching “progressive” acts of the time. And it was a resolutely poser-free zone, its homely uniform of jeans and checked shirts seeming a world away from all the satin-clad glamsters stealing all the chart glory. “We thought we were hip as hell, it’s just that everybody else was completely wrong…”
By 1975, however, they’d begun to tire. Though they were scarcely “dinosaurs”, Lowe had a sense that rock’n’roll in London was about to undergo a sea-change (punk rock was, in fact, just months away), and that the “good old Brinsleys” were just a little too cosy to find themselves on the right side of the impending divide. They split up.
Lowe acquired a manager in one Jake Riviera, whose flat he was staying in; Riviera had managed pub-rockers Chilli Willi & The Red Hot Peppers, and was currently tour-managing Dr Feelgood. As chief songwriter, Lowe was still contracted to the Brinsleys’ old label United Artists. “Jake figured they were getting ready to do me as an English John Sebastian, and I didn’t fancy that at all, cos I knew that things were about to change big time.” To get free of the deal, he and Riviera planned to appal the company by giving them, of all things, a jaunty “tribute record” dedicated to the Bay City Rollers, entitled Rollers Show.
“It was super-loathsome. In the Record Mirror it got the Worst Single Of The Month or something, with a special box around it: Avoid at all costs. Which was the object of the exercise.” (A follow-up single, Let’s Go To The Disco, credited to The Disco Brothers, persuaded UA to let Lowe go.)
Rollers Show had another, unexpected benefit: it was Lowe’s first effort as a producer, and he found himself perversely proud of his work: “I got the taste for it.”
It was around this time, while doing a spot of freelance production work with Dr Feelgood, that Lowe acquired the honorary title of “Basher”. Legend has it this legendary Nick-name (so to speak) was coined in honour of Lowe’s robust, let’s-get-on-with-it approach to studio technique. But that connection, he says, was “just a coincidence. It’s true I had this slogan about ‘bashing it down and tarting it up later’, which I don’t want to dispel. But in fact it’s because I’m very interested in vintage aircraft. My old man was in the air force, and they used to take the piss out of me, saying [in Biggles-style RAF accent] ‘Hello Basher, it’s Ginger here, afraid Nipper’s gone over the side, bail out!’ – that’s where it came from.”
Soon afterwards Jake Riviera teamed up with Dave Robinson (himself a former manager of Brinsley Schwarz) to found the definitive indie label of the 1970s, Stiff Records. Their first release (catalogue number BUY 1) was also Nick Lowe’s first single So It Goes/Heart Of The City.
“I think Stiff worked because it appealed to people’s snobbery in a way. We had this image as a label that might turn around and say, We’re so cool that if we don’t like the look of you, we might not even sell you a copy… It was fun seeing all those big record executives rushing around like headless chickens, trying to get a handle on it. Real good fun.”
By now installed as Stiff’s in-house producer, it fell to Lowe to supervise the UK’s first punk record, New Rose by The Damned, a band that he and Riviera had spotted at the Mont De Marsan festival in France: “There were some real trappy little yobbos up at the back, taking the piss out of the old guard like Roogalator, who were gritting their teeth. And I felt torn, because on the one hand it’s not much fun getting the piss taken out of you, but on the other hand, I thought, These kids are right. Me and Rat [Scabies, Damned drummer] had a scrap about something, but it was a telling little episode.
“When Stiff got cracking, I was producing everything at one point. There was a period of about six months that I remember going up to the studio, Pathway in North London, a tiny eight-track place. I’d go up there with Bazza the engineer and we’d sit and wait for the door to open, see who Stiff had sent up. Very often it was people who should have been lying down, they certainly should not have been loose. They’d show up, I’d say, show me your song. I’d have a drummer waiting in the pub across the road and I’d get the song into some sort of order on the acoustic guitar, wheel the drummer over and cut the record. I’d do a few overdubs and Bob’s your uncle.
“That’s great experience and I don’t think that’ll ever happen again, because the music business is such a career move now. Then it was still a bit naughty. You’re not here to be naughty any more, which is a pity.
“I had a hand in signing Wreckless Eric. He brought a cassette in, and he was howling drunk. We’d seen him walk up and down the street a couple of times, he’d obviously been getting himself a bit of Dutch courage. He was so nervous. I listened to the tape straight away after he’d gone, and I heard The Whole Wide World and thought that was fantastic.”
But it was with another Stiff signing that Lowe was to enjoy his longest run of success… Elvis Costello.
“I’d known Elvis for a long time prior. He used to come to the Brinsleys gigs whenever we played up Liverpool way. We’d always see him there and he was generally on his own, and he looked odd, even then. In fact the first time he saw us was at the Bickershaw Festival (1972), when the Grateful Dead came over. When we came on, the heavens opened and we got absolutely soaked. And somebody was on the stage behind us with a camera, they shouted at us, and there’s this photo of us all, absolutely soaking, hair plastered to our heads, turning round to look at the camera. And almost between my legs you can see out into the crowd, and there’s Elvis!
“One night we were playing at the Cavern in Liverpool, and we were in the Grapes across the road, sitting there having a cocktail before getting ourselves set, and he came in, and somebody said, Look, there’s that weird-looking geezer who’s been at a few of the shows. And I thought, Well, it’s about time I bought him a pint and introduced myself – because he never used to come backstage or anything. So I went over and said, Hello I’m Nick, I’ve seen you at a few shows, what are you having? All we used to talk about was music, we liked the same stuff.
“I sort of stayed in touch with him. He moved to London and got a band together, which I went down to see. Flip City they were called, and he was head and shoulders above anyone else in the band. And then I lost touch with him until the day I ran into him on Royal Oak tube station, the day that So It Goes came out and he’d been up to Stiff to buy a copy.
“He had his guitar with him, and I said, How’s it going? Oh, not too good, man. He used to have this thing, like from the old movies, where they’d go into a music publisher and say, Boy, have I got a song for you! And you’d bash it out on the piano. But he said, ‘People get real embarrassed, I take my guitar in cos I think if I get an interview I’ll play my songs to them instead of leaving a tape, which they probably won’t listen to.’ Now, have you ever been in close proximity to Elvis when he’s playing a song? It’s a very intimidating thing indeed. Even if there’s only one person there he gives it absolutely everything. I can just imagine these people going, Erm, I’ve got a very urgent appointment…
“So I said, Why don’t you take a tape in to Stiff? He said, Well I just have as a matter of fact. So I said goodbye and when I got up to the office, Jake was raving – he’d heard Mystery Dance and he said, This’d be a great one for Dave Edmunds to do, we should sign this guy as a writer. I thought that was a good song, but the other stuff I thought was too wordy, like five songs in one song. And I said, Are you sure about this? Jake was mad for it, Oh yeah, we should definitely sign him.
“So I got the job of producing him, which I was not too thrilled about. The first thing we did was Radio Sweetheart and Mystery Dance, and after working with Elvis for a bit I started changing my mind: Boy, I see now, this guy is a bit bloody special. And when we got some decent players in, Clover, the marriage of very good musicians with Elvis’s bile and venom, it was a great combination.
“And our roles sort of changed. I was the dominant one to start with, and slowly that changed. But when we were most equal was when we did the best record, in my opinion, of anything I’ve ever done, which is Watching The Detectives. Absolutely fantastic, that record. After that he became more dominant, but we went on to make some great records. Ah lurrve him.”
(The Costello connection survives to this day: Lowe has produced six of his albums, the last being Blood And Chocolate, and played support on Elvis’s 1989 tour. Both men are still managed by Jake Riviera.)
In 1977 Lowe wrote Dave Edmunds’ hit I Knew The Bride (“when she used to rock and roll”) and the Edmunds/Lowe link looked to be a lucrative one: they joined forces in Rockpile.
“It seemed like we couldn’t put a foot wrong.” The band secured a support slot on Bad Company’s US stadium tour and, by Lowe’s account, “Pile” gave the headline act a run for its money. “So they started cutting down our set, which was fatal because then we only played our best shit. And when we went down really well, we could have got an encore but we’d have to go. Sorry, love to, but we’re not allowed to. Finally they fired us.”
(Ironic footnote number 1: Lowe came off the tour describing Bad Company as “about as exciting as a sack of old rotting spuds.” Yet he co-wrote Rocky Road, a song on his new album, with Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke: “But he can’t even remember Rockpile opening for them. He’s convinced he’s never met me before.”)
“When it started looking like we could finally break in America, suddenly through the diet of amphetamine sulphate and Stolichnaya which we used to exist on in those days, somebody got through and said, You can really do this, guys. But we were having far too much of a good time. And I could see this huge wall of hard work looming up in front of me.
“I don’t like stadiums anyway. It’s great fun if you’re an opening act, because you always stand a chance of blowing the main act off. And if you don’t, you just go, Bollocks, cloth-eared morons! But either way, you can be out of that place and doing something infinitely more interesting before the main act had even stepped outside of their dressing rooms. As for being a big act in those places, I thought, it’s not for me.”
Consequently Nick Lowe walked out of Rockpile, much to Edmunds’s displeasure. Indeed, the twangular Welshman and Jake Riviera had a major falling out. (Ironic footnote number 2: Lowe’s new album was produced by Dave Edmunds – at Riviera’s suggestion. “He said it through clenched teeth. Poor old Jake. It was probably one of the hardest things he’s ever had to say.”)
The following year Lowe produced The Pretenders’ first record, Stop Your Sobbing, and then joined Riviera and Costello on the newly-formed Radar label. And suddenly there was Nick Lowe on Top Of The Pops with his first real hit I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass. Then came another in ’79, Cruel To Be Kind. Somehow, he had become a pop star.
“It all seemed quite natural. I was disappointed, I thought that being famous was going to be a much bigger deal. It’s lovely to get chart success because it’s a big game and you’re taking on people who really know how to do it, and if you do something your way and it gets through the net, it’s knockout. But again I back-pedalled, because it seemed too much like hard work.”
Over the next decade, despite the occasional issuing of albums such as Nick The Knife, The Abominable Snowman (“my worst record”) and Pinker And Prouder Than Previous – and also his marriage to US country singer Carlene Carter, by dint of which he became Johnny Cash’s son-in-law – Basher’s commercial fortunes took on a more meagre aspect.
“I sort of lost the plot in the ’80s. I was drinking very heavily… especially when Carlene and I were together, we had this big house in Chiswick and it was just open 24 hours a day. We had some wonderful nights there. But we grew apart because I’d come back from touring and she’d go away on tour, and I was behaving pretty horribly. I’d get back and see the ash-tray over there, and I’d go, Sorry, I’d like it here. Little nags and niggles, until eventually you stop even nagging each other, the thing’s just gone. We’re still married, but we’ve been separated about five years now. We adore each other still. In fact, I get on better with her now.”
(Carter, we learn, has just recorded a new LP for Warners in America. “It’s seriously happening music,” reports her ex, “and God knows, when it comes to Carlene I’m extremely hard on her, but it’s a really good record.”)
Vowing to clean his act up, Lowe spent two-and-a-half years aboard “the wagon”. And then he fell off it: “I was walking past a pub one day and I thought, I wonder what would happen if I went in and had a pint? So I had a pint of ESB and bounced off all the walls getting home after one pint. Absolutely legless. But I just thought, I’ve tried this no-drinking now, and I don’t really like it very much.
“Obviously, I don’t have anything like the same capacity that I used to, but moderation in all things suits me. It just doesn’t suit me, not having a bevy. It doesn’t suit me at all. So I decided to start again, simple as that.
“It was shortly after that that I woke up and thought, You’re losing it. Carlene and me had gone sour, so we split up. I got a flat, quit doing stuff, learned to drive. As I started to feel better, I started getting depressed. Why is it that on paper I’m a washed-up old has-been, and yet I myself feel that I haven’t even started?
“All the people at Columbia [his US label] who I thought were cool had left. By and large they were signing groups that all looked like women, the heavy metal groups with names like Strider, Stronger, Strungler, Sculptor, Scribbler… I just didn’t fit in. And that’s when I got the call from Elvis, who helped me out by asking me to go on tour with him. And I got a call from John Hiatt about playing on his Bring The Family album with Ry Cooder, which is where I met Ry.”
Cooder gave Lowe another boost by agreeing to play guitar on the Party Of One album – despite his having “a pathological hatred of England and English people. He’s quite a strange man, completely illogical – he thinks that we stole the blues. Of course he hasn’t or anything like that…” A second scoop was securing the services of West Coast drummer Jim Keltner. Evidently the Party Of One sessions went a long way towards restoring Lowe’s self-esteem.
But a separate project didn’t fare so well: there was a plan to form a trio with Cooder and Keltner, to be called Guitar Bass & Drums. Then Cooder invited John Hiatt to join. According to Lowe it was Hiatt’s on-off attitude that finally sank the scheme, and it still rankles: “He’s a real bad advertisement for giving up drinking. You can’t go shitting on the good guys. This business is full of wankers. Shit on them instead. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t want to do it. Because it’s not like the world is waiting for a new John Hiatt album, or a Ry Cooder album or, goddammit, a Nick Lowe album. We’re very much the poor relations. I like our sort of stuff but millions of people don’t, so any kind of help we can give each other seems like a good idea. I was very cross indeed, but he didn’t give a shit.
“So I picked myself up and went back to my own record.”
“There’s a real fine line in my stuff between doing something that’s interesting and it being some poxy country-rock thing. Nobody digs that stuff unless they’re a half-wit. And it’s a fine line between being witty and cute; you can just tip over the old hill and suddenly you’re in cute-dom. And that’s no bloody good either.
“Making mischief, that’s what I’m interested in – although I do like to buy a shirt, or take a girlfriend out to dinner. I can’t understand Phil Collins’s thing at all, you know that story in Q the other month, about how hard he works? I can’t understand it. What for? He’s a real good musician, why does he work so hard promoting those boring records, when he could play with great people? Why doesn’t he go fishing? Rather that than hang out with a lot of Belgian disc jockeys for the day…”