Crawdaddy, July 1978

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The chimpanzee of cool:
Slick Nick's pop Lowedown

Jon Pareles

MINNEAPOLIS — "I think I've gotten this reputation as being some sort of amiable piss artist," Nick Lowe complains. "I sound like a bozo." Lowe is explicating the studio technique that has made him — as producer of Elvis Costello, Graham Parker and The Rumour, uncounted singles and his own lp, Pure Pop for Now People (released in England as Jesus of Cool) — a pivotal figure in England's newest wave: for lack of a better label, power pop. Right now, Lowe is touring the States with Rockpile, a band he co-leads with friend and mentor Dave Edmunds, opening for Elvis Costello.

"I seem to be in this funny position," Lowe reflects, "a music fan in the position to make the sort of records I'd like to hear. My style is that I haven't got any style; I always reserve the right to change my mind. And if I hear a good bit on an Abba record or a Bee Gees record, I don't think, 'Oh, I mustn't' — 1 just steal it. I like music that doesn't take any effort to listen to, but not in this Fleetwood Mac, easy-listening way. It's got to move you. Also, it shouldn't take itself too seriously."

Lowe himself seems immune to self-importance. He claims he took up bass because "I could pull more chicks if I was in a group," and that the gambit worked "for a time, until I started shaving." To this day he contends "I don't really think of myself as a bass player. I mean, a chimpanzee could play bass — they're all fixed strings, you can't miss." The first group Lowe joined was led by a schoolmate, guitarist Brinsley Schwarz, and eventually became the quintessential "pub-rock" band in early-'70s Britain, playing mostly Lowe-composed songs.

"It was exciting at the time, because up 'til then if you didn't wear platform-soled shoes and have dry ice machines, you weren't anywhere," Nick recalls. "It was like the rock 'n roll clubs again, like when I first started going out." Brinsley Schwarz, along with groups like Ace, Ducks Deluxe, Bees Make Honey and Chilli Willi and the Hot Peppers, established a circuit of receptive pubs, touring constantly and playing one-nighters for audiences that came to dance. It wasn't stardom, by any means — at one point, when the Brinsleys found themselves without a place to live, the landlord of the Hope and Anchor pub put them up on his floor — but in glitter-crazed England, the pub-rockers were a human alternative.

"We had a real good time," Lowe recalls. "Then, after a while, like anything else, people started getting greedy. And the pub owners started getting greedy — they started wheeling in really daft bands — and no one started going anymore."

The Brinsleys broke up after seven unappreciated albums; Schwarz and keyboard man Bob Andrews later formed The Rumour. Lowe, as "a loser songwriter" who'd "had it with gigging," teamed up with Jake Riviera, a "two-bit hustler" who had managed Chilli Willi, out of mutual respect. "We didn't have anywhere to live," says Lowe, "and we did what we could to pay the rent. I was with United Artists in England, and they weren't about to let me go, so I figured the best way out of that was to get fired. And the best way to do that was to do a crummy single. So I did this "Bay City Rollers, We love You" record, and I'd never done any producing before. To my horror, United Artists loved it! It sold about 40 copies in England, although about two years later it did really well in Japan."

"Finally, I had a few offers from record companies, but they all seemed like idiots to me. They didn't know what was going on at all, and there was definitely the beginning of a movement in England. It wasn't a big movement, it was just a change of mind. You kept running into musicians who were out of work, but they definitely knew what they wanted to do. Jake eventually said, 'Fuck this. Let's start our own record company."'

And so they did. With Nick's "I Love My Label" (written while he was with UA) as its anthem, Stiff, "the world's most flexible record label" was born. Stiff's philosophy (variously "Reversing into tomorrow" and "Yes, but is it art?") derived from Firesign Theater, and its roster grew to include not only Lowe but such eccentrics as Ian Dury, Wreckless Eric and Elvis Costello.

"I met Elvis at a Brinsleys gig at The Grapes, across the street from The Cavern in Liverpool. I'd seem him at a few gigs, and he asked me something or other. He's always been quiet, I don't know too much about him, really. He tried hard to get a record deal, and had a lot of doors slammed in his face.... He used to come down and sleep on my floor when he would come down to London. I knew he could play guitar a bit, but he never used to play me any of his songs or anything. Later, he got a group together, but he was always much better than the group. It wasn't until I heard his stuff a few years later, just him and acoustic guitar, that I liked it." Elvis may be angry onstage, but Lowe, who produced both My Aim Is True and This Year's Model, says "He's always very polite to me."

Lowe the producer treats each song as a single. "It doesn't matter if it's 15 minutes long," he argues, "if you make it with that singles mentality: Trim off all the spare, all the waffle, all the stuff you don't need. I don't like fiddlin' around with getting the sound organized too much, because you can do all that in the mix. Nowadays, with the gadgets they've got in studios, you can make anything sound like anything by twiddling a few knobs. I'm more interested in making sure the people who are recording are in a good frame of mind to perform right. All the rehearsal in the world can't get that enthusiasm, to get people ready to burn.

"You've got to be a bit of a psychologist," he continues. "Some people, like Brinsley [Schwarz] — he only plays real good guitar when he's pissed off. So if I'm going to do an overdub later on, I'll needle him for an hour, so he's a bit pissed off at me."

And how does Nick Lowe, producer, treat Nick Lowe, pop singer/songwriter? "I used to drink about two bottles of vodka, that used to do the trick," he laughs. "It makes it much easier. But I've stopped drinking now — I haven't actually tried to record straight. Maybe I'll just smoke a lot of cigarettes."


Crawdaddy, July 1978

Jon Pareles profiles Nick Lowe.


1978-07-00 Crawdaddy page 22.jpg
Page scan.

1978-07-00 Crawdaddy cover.jpg 1978-07-00 Crawdaddy page 23.jpg
Cover and page scan.


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