Nick Lowe has a fondness for slogans. Pressed for an instant appraisal of himself Lowe offers that he is "a flea on the back of the elephant of the rock and roll business" — a claim to be an irritant which is tempered with the understanding that the rock business is a cumbersome and thick-skinned animal which is hard to rouse, but that it is at lease worth making the effort.
"Pure pop for now people" is another Lowe catchphrase, coined in 1976 as a flip description of his own musical output, and that of Stiff Records, the label which he had been instrumental in founding. Variously styling itself as the label where the fun never sets (nor the pun, for that matter) and "undertakers to the industry." Stiff breathed new life into the music business, and into the corpse which Nick Lowe's career had become at the time.
As house-producer at Stiff, Lowe nurtured the early career of Elvis Costello, as well as producing such British arts as Graham Parker and the Rumour and Dr Feelgood. Having since helped to steer Costello into the mega-dollar league in America over the past 12 months, Lowe has gone on to lay the foundations for a career as a solo artist, songwriter, and member of Rockpile, with whom he winds up a current tour in Edinburgh on Friday.
For Lowe rock is less a question of what you do than the way that you do it. The original Stiff philosophy of promoting records with a practical joke and a fast punch line — an eccentricity which has since become a record-industry convention — is very much Lowe’s style. He claims not to regard himself as a musician at all. He can, he says, play the guitar and make a bit of a racket, but his real forte is "teasing people" — treating the whole business as a wheeze in the grand schoolboy tradition.
It is an attitude best illustrated by the saga of a little-known record called "Bay City Rollers, We Love You," which Lowe made under the pseudonym of the Tartan Horde in 1975 with the express intention of persuading his record company of the time to sack him. Described by Lowe as "an honest attempt to make a ghastly record," with the daughter of the studio caretaker singing lead, the song surprised everyone — not least Lowe himself — by going to No. 1 in the Japanese charts — the sort of back-handed joke which appeals to Lowe enormously.
By his own admission, unreliable, undisciplined and reluctant to get out of bed in the mornings, Lowe is fortunate to have found his way into rock — possibly the only field where such shortcomings are actually an asset. A gangling and untidy 30-year-old, one imagines that he would have been the first to light-up behind the bicycle sheds at the minor public-school in Suffolk to which he was "farmed-off" by his father — a peripatetic RAF officer.
A failure academically, he left to work his way through a succession of fruitless jobs, before joining a group called Kippington Lodge — a mud-on-the-wall group, says Lowe, signed "for a 3s 6d advance at a ½ per cent royalty rate" on the record-industry principle that if you throw enough mud at the wall some of it is bound to stick. If nothing else it was an education in recording techniques: 2½ hours to record an "a"-side; half an hour for a "b" side; after which the producer would mix the recording through a transistor radio to gauge its effect on the popular marketplace — a lesson Lowe heeded well: even now all his own and Elvis Costello’s records are mixed through the cheapest stereo system he could find.
Kippington Lodge subsequently became Brinsley Schwarz, a likeable pub rock band who since their demise have achieved a cult popularity which even Lowe admits is out of all proportion to the group’s actual merit. Their principal claim to fame is that they were subject to one of the rock’s most ill-starred promotional exercises, when a posse of journalists were flown to New York at great expense to witness the group’s one and only American appearance, arriving just in time to see them leaving the stage.
Lowe says that the experience of being momentarily famous for all the wrong reasons quashed any ambitions he may have had for stardom. But, paradoxically, the fact that he was party to such a blunder has only served to enhance his reputation and made his eventual arrival at Stiff, without contract or prospects, even more apt.
In challenging the stranglehold in which the major record companies and established performers held the record industry, Stiff became the midwife in the birth of the new wave, Lowe produced what was arguably the first British punk rock record, by the Damned, and various other Stiff acts, including Elvis Costello, and recorded a handful of singles himself, which true to Stiff’s principle of appealing to the snob in record collectors, became mysteriously unavailable almost as soon as they were released.
It was not until 1978 that Lowe’s solo career took off in earnest with the album, Jesus of Cool and a top-5 single, "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass." Jesus of Cool evidenced an ear for the traditions of the pop song a talent for pastiche which some critics felt was tantamount to theft. Lowe himself prefers the term "recycling." All songwriters borrow from the past, he says, the only difference being that he alone has always been happy to admit to it. He complains that such is his reputation that he is now accused of stealing melodies, lyrics and arrangements from records he has never heard. "Virtually all the chord changes in rock were exhausted 10 years ago" he says. "I think even grand larceny is perfectly acceptable, as long as it’s done with style."
His criterion for a good song is not that it is original but that it moves the listener — if only to disgust. More and more of what he hears nowadays fails even to do that. Happy to resort to cliche, he complains that they don't write 'em like they used to — certainly not like Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers, who were as great in their own way as Cole Porter was in his. His own taste is for simplicity — strong melodies with the ragged edges showing. "So many records now sound as if they were made by machines, they're so polished. I like records where you can just see the joins — that sound like human beings have been in there making the noise. And it's convenient. I do like records like that because I am so lazy basically that I can't be bothered to do take after take when I'm recording myself; I can only play or hear anything two or three times before I'm sick of it."
His new album, Labour of Lust, is as uncomplicated as one could wish — a straight-forward collection of rock and roll and country songs, different from the last in both its greater sense of musical continuity and its absence of what Lowe calls "in-crowd clever-dickery" — typified on Jesus of Cool by a song about a Hollywood actress being devoured by her pet dog. Lowe received all manner of letters about people losing limbs and being decapitated by railway trains as a result of that, which he thought a bit much, not to mention being rather old hat. "I wanted to get away from all that sort of thing." he explains. "just be a dull old fart again, simply because no one was expecting it. I do like being out of phase, for my own pride if nothing else.
The jokey cleverness which Stiff were responsible for injecting into the music business has now become a tiresome cliche, be says. Worse, the new generation of rock musicians have started believing their own publicity, taking themselves seriously and raising the spectre of Art — a word Lowe actually cringes when he uses. "Really, when I hear people trotting out all that 'genius is pain' stuff it makes me sick, because they all started in the village hall whacking away at the top-10. Patti Smith and all these people just need a good clip round the ear basically.
"I'm totally against the mystique that rock people try to create about themselves and what they do. It irritates people when I say that anybody could do what I do, but it's the truth. It's only when people listen to my records that they say 'He's right; anyone could do that. So why is Nick Lowe getting away with it?'" That, Lowe admits with a smile, is one question he doesn't have an answer for.