Melody Maker, October 22, 1977

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Melody Maker


The last pop writer

Allan Jones

... that's how Jake Riviera describes Nick Lowe, who himself adds: 'Sometimes I even wish I was Abba.' Allan Jones catches up with this enigmatic character on the Stiff tour

Stiff Records, with the colourful and killer flair for snappy slogans that characterises so many of the promotional devices that have accompanied the company's various releases, designed a particularly neat one-liner for the badges and associated paraphernalia that waltzed hand-in-hand from Alexander Street with Nick Lowe's recent EP, Bowi.

You will probably remember it: but for those for whom the release held no particular significance, and for those who overlooked the small print on the record sleeve, the snappy slogan simply read: "Pure Pop For Now People." Nothing could have been more appropriate for the occasion.

"That's Nick Lowe," Jake Riviera once said. "That slogan says everything there is to say about Nick Lowe. He's the last pop genius, as far as I'm concerned. The last pop writer. Really, that slogan tells you more about Nick Lowe than Nick Lowe will ever tell you.

"Pure pop for now people, man: that's the kind of music that Nick Lowe wants to make. The only kind of music he's interested in. And when he says that he wants to write songs for Shirley Bassey, or Peters and Lee, or Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson, or some banger band from the sticks, he really means it.

"I happen to know that he's got a demon song for Peters and Lee. Demon song. And he really would love them to record it."

Nick Lowe talking: "I listen to the radio with my ears. Most of the people I know listen with their feet. They just tap along to the latest groovy noise. I actually listen to the wireless. All the time. And I listen analytically.

"If a single's a hit, then I'll listen to it on the radio to find out exactly what made the nation groove to it. I'll mentally break it down ... examine the melody, the lyrics and the arrangement ... analyse the production

"Because I want to make hit singles. I really want to produce hit records. There's no greater challenge for a songwriter than getting it all down in under three minutes of perfection and creating a classic pop single. Imagine it.

"And that's really What I want to do. Sometimes I just wish I could do it better. I just wish that I had that extra bit of suss. "Sometimes I even wish I was Abba."

It's a chilling March evening in West Kensington and shelter from the storm is being sought by your correspondent as he tumbles into the Nashville Rooms, exhausted by a frantic flight through the Monday night rush-hour madness to attend a rather special rock and roll event: the London debut of Dave Edmunds' Rockpile, a band potentially so hot you need to wear sunglasses to read the lineup.

The Edmundo, of course, on guitar, supported on rhythm axe by Billy Bremner and on drums by Terry Williams and, on bass, stage centre and very much the man of the hour this night at the Nashville, there's Nick Lowe.

Aside from one off-the-wall recital (also in the company of Edmunds) during the Save The Hope & Anchor campaign in the summer of 1976, this Nashville escapade is Lowe's first fully-fledged British appearance since the demise of Brinsley Schwarz.

And everyone is out for the occasion, it seems: bodies hang like bats in denim from the walls, and the bar sags beneath the weight of eager punters.

Nick Lowe, you see, has, in the two years since his erstwhile combo disintegrated on the rocks of popular indifference, acquired a virtually legendary status among the rock cognoscenti.

His reluctance to entertain any contact with the press, allied to a distinctly enigmatic artistic personality and mercurial creative temperament, has succeeded in creating around Nick Lowe a vague, but tangible, mystique.

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"I don't know about all that. I certainly can't account for the Nick Lowe Mystique. I've read about it ... I'm faintly aware that some people have this strange image of me as ... I don't know ... I've never given it much thought. It's all a bit out of hand, really.

"I mean, I've done f--- all when you think about it. Produced a couple of albums. Released one single and the Bowi E.P. it's not a lot to show for two years, really ... as far as interviews are concerned, I never tried to avoid talking to the press: It wasn't any kind of scheme to build up any mystique.

"It's just that I don't have that much to say. So it seems pointless to give endless interviews to people who maybe aren't that interested in me ...

"But I don't really mind talking to people. talk to anyone, provided they're interested and intelligent and have something to say. I just hate people who waste my time."

Six months have been erased from the calendar since that evening at the Nashville, and we find Nick Lowe in the bar of one of Liverpool's British Rail station buffets.

It is a location entirely without glamour. The war cries of rabid Jocks echo through the night (they are being chased by police sirens), and a cold wind whispers through the litter around our ankles.

Strangled conversations crawl up the cracked plaster of the nicotine-stained walls.

Nick Lowe resumes the conversation: "I hate people who waste time. That's why I feel fortunate in having worked with people who really know what they're about, people I admire, like Elvis Costello and the Feelgoods.

"People with suss. People who just get on with it. I'm impatient when I'm producing. Easily bored. I want something to be happening all the time in the studio.

"There's no excuse for hanging around for weeks and months in the studio. And I can't tolerate laziness. Perhaps it's because I come from a very disciplined background ... I don't know ... I just don't like any form of self-indulgence.

"There's too much self indulgence in rock and roll today. I think rock and roll took a wrong turning at the beginning of the Seventies. And it still hasn't recovered.

"There're still too many banger bands trying to create art. Which is nonsense. And they labour at it, and there's simply no fun in it. There's certainly no fun in it for me.

"I don't want to be any part of that little scene, thank you. I'm not interested in art. I'm interested in style, and people with style and ideas. People with zip. People with suss and imagination. People who are really on the case, who know exactly what they want and where they're going.

"Elvis knows where he's going. And he'll get there with style. It's the same with Graham Parker. GP's got the same determination, the same style.

"He's not interested in people who keep him waiting. And I'm beginning to find out where I'm going and how to get there. And that's one of the reasons, perhaps, that I thought it was time to leave Stiff."

Dawn is more than a rumour on Bristol's horizon. Nick Lowe paces the length of his hotel room, vodka in hand, talking about his decision to retire from Dave Edmunds' Rockpile during the band's debut American tour with Bad Company.

Lowe makes immediately clear his dislike for Bad Company ("That band is fit only for one thing," he says. "The dumper."), but vehemently denies any personal conflict with either Edmunds, Williams or Bremner.

"Dai and Terry are playing with me now, aren't they? Well, that answers that one, doesn't it ... I think Rockpile is a great idea. It was a great rock band.

"We went out there and we really burned man. There was no one better. Certainly not Bad Company. But it was basically a one-dimensional band. A rock band. And there's a lot more I want to do.

"There's a lot more I know I can do. A lot more I have to do. Rockpile was easy. And I was grooving on it. I really loved that band.

"I love Dai, man. I think he's a genius. I think he's one of the best rock and rollers in the world. I know I keep saying it, but I owe him so much. I've learned so much from ,working with him and watching him work ... I didn't deliberately break up Rockpile ... Jesus, there are times I need Dave Edmunds like I need the strings on my guitar."

Dave Edmunds, who is currently playing guitar and drums in Nick Lowe's touring band, brightens visibly whenever he's in NL's company. "I don't need Nick Lowe," Dave Edmunds comments in a conversation about their association as Glasgow recovers its breath after the myriad delights afforded by the Stiffs Greatest Stiffs touring company at the Apollo Theatre last Thursday.

"I'm sure I could walk onto a stage without him. I just want him there. It wouldn't be as much fun without him. It wouldn't be as exciting. Tonight, you know, was just too much fun. We were really cooking out there. You just look around, and everyone's grooving.

"And I love it," he beams, that Cheshire Cat grin invading his face and suffocating it entirely with humour, "when Nick starts grooving. 'Cos I start grooving. Everyone starts grooving.'

Nick Lowe's current philosophy about recording, I'm told, is violently fundamental. "Bang it down," he says, "and tart it up."

Barry "Bazza" Farmer, the recording engineer at Pathway (the 8 track studio in Islington where Lowe has, over the last year, been preparing his debut solo album), has another angle on that observation: "That's typical of Nick's style," he says.

"He does like to work quickly, get it recorded in one take if he can. While it's fresh. And I agree with him. That's the best way to record rock and roll. Capture the energy.

"that's another thing he's great at: he's able to relax the band, he's able to encourage them and keep them busy. If something's not working, he won't make a big drama out of it. He'll distract them from the problems. Keep their minds on what's happening.

"He'll keep them at it even when something's going wrong. He won't show them that he's worried. He doesn't want them to be disturbed.

"But he really does worry more about things than he'll ever let on. He's always really concerned, really concerned to get it right. But he's still only interested in the essentials. The feel of a song.

"He might spend ages on a solo overdub to get it right. But it won't be anything that's unnecessary. It'll be something that he knows is absolutely right for the song.

'"He's not interested in studio techniques for their own sake. It's always the song he's interested in. Getting, that down as economically as possible. He's really into the idea of stripping everything down to the bones.

"At the same time, if one of the bands gets an idea, he'll try it out. He's not afraid to experiment, but he's got no time for anything that's just an effect. It has to add in some way to the actual song."

Nick Lowe's production credits are as diverse as the records themselves are entertaining. They embrace with equal verve and confidence Graham Parker's debut album, Howlin' Wind (and the live bootleg recorded at Marble Arch studios), the Damned's "New Rose" and their subsequent album (which, it's said, he produced on a budget of no more than £600 and completed in 24 hours), Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True, and a variety of one-eyed oddities on the A Bunch Of Stiffs compilation, including his own lugubrious "I Love My Label" and Wreckless Eric's "Go The Whole Wide World."

His most recent work has been on the Feelgoods' Be Seeing You and Graham Parker's Stick To Me, and EC's new single, "Watching The Detectives."

He will also be producing, at the culmination of the current Stiff trek, sessions for Elvis's second long-player.

"I've no special talent as a producer," he says as the Bristol moon, anticipating the sun's ascent, slips on a pair of shades and prepares for the day.

"I've no great technical knowledge. I think the role of the producer is overrated. If I have any talent as a producer, it's not that I know how to get a great studio sound. I can leave that to the engineer, if I have enough confidence in him.

"That's why I like working with someone like Bazza. Someone who's really on the case all the time.

"I know, though, that I'm good at getting the best out of musicians in the studio. I can vibe them up. Relax them, or provoke them. I can really wind them up if I have to.

"Like, I know that Brinsley Schwarz plays best when he's really angry. And I'm not afraid of really winding him up something rotten, even if I know he'll eventually throw a bit of a wobbler about it. With someone like John Mayo, it's different. That boy just gets in there and he burns.

"The other thing I'm good at is arrangements. I'll know exactly what a song needs to bring it to life. It may just need a certain harmony. A solo ... just something that introduces a little extra colour.

"And I'll often hear that before the musicians. But really, in the end, it's all down to the musicians. If they've got it then it makes it easier for me. I'll just groove on what they're doing.

"But if they haven't got it I can't give them anything. It's when •they haven't got any idea of what they want to do that we all start to struggle."

Nick Lowe says it has be his policy never to work more than once with the same artist. It is, of course, a policy that he allowed to lapse recently, when he was brought in to re-record GP's new album:"That," he reflects, "was a special case. An emergency. I was just helping them out.

"It's the same, 'in a way, with Elvis. He's changed so much since the first album and he's got a band now. So it's a different game, and I think I can still contribute something. We won't be repeating ourselves ...

"It was different with the Damned. I don't know if they wanted to work with me again, but I didn't really want to get involved. They're a bit out of favour with me at the moment.

"I shouldn't really say that, I suppose ... but I did that first album with them because it was a challenge. At first I didn't want, to know about it. I didn't want a thing to do with' them. That coach trip to Mont de Marsan, you know; really put me off.

"Then I thought, 'Hold on. Let's see what's going on here.' And 1 did that album and I really grooved on them, on their cheek ... they had so much nerve. I loved it.

"But the new album, I think, is a bit dodgy. Like, it took Brian James something like five years to get all the songs together for the first album. And they were good songs, man.

"But this time don't think he had strong enough songs. And he wasn't man enough to admit it. So the songs aren't up to it.

"And the production isn't right for them. They're great geezers, but the Damned aren't the greatest musicians in the world. So on the first album I purposely went for a kind of dense sound to disguise the individual instruments and 'brought the' voice right out front. I wanted to focus on the voice and have everything else as a kind of blur. It was more exciting than musical. And I think that worked:

"Nick Mason's done the new album, and it's so clear that you can hear every instrument. And the Damned just aren't up to that kind of scrutiny. It works for the Pistols. Chris Thomas gets that kind of clarity and separation, and it works because the Sex Pistols have really got it. They can get away with it.

"I mean, 'Anarchy' has to be one of the best-ever singles. When you hear that being played, everyone stops and listens. It's like at parties or discos when someone put on a Stones' track — everyone stopped and listened. "The Stones had that kind of quality. The Pistols have it; too. They demand your attention.

"I'm not sure about the Damned at the moment. Actually, I suggested that since they didn't have the songs they should have recorded a 'Damned Play The Old Wave' album.

"Can you imagine the Damned playing all Deep Purple and Black Sabbath songs? It'd be an absolute gas, man. And it'd be straight up the chart.

"They didn't have the bottle for it, though."

Nick Lowe bangs back another belt of vodka and runs his fingers through the lank flaps of hair falling across his face.

"Style," he says, "is everything. If you haven't got style, as far as I'm concerned you're out of the game. I'm not interested in people who haven't got style.

"That's why I'm so bored with the safety-pin brigade. They've got f---- all style, apart from the Pistols. I look around and see all these bands ... Generation X and little wankers like that ... and they've got no style. It's just a fashion. I'm not interested in being a part of any fashion at all.

"I want to be on the side, creating fashions."

Jake Riviera has said that one of the more frustrating aspects of Nick Lowe's personality is his apparent inability to finish anything: "He'll write a song, and he'll go into Pathway," Jake said, "and he'll start work on it.

"The next day he'll go back in, with maybe only a few harmonies and overdubs to put on it but he'll have written a new song and he'll be impatient to get to work on that.

"So he ends up with all these half-finished tracks that are more than demos, but aren't quite complete enough to put out. He's a b—. I just wish I could stop him writing until he's finished his album. At the rate he writes we could he hanging about for ever."

Nick Lowe allows himself a sly grin. He tosses down another vodka and tonic. The station bar in Liverpool is oblivious to his confession: "It's true, I'm afraid," he smiles like a precocious schoolboy.

"I do find it difficult to finish anything. The thing is that I'm often more interested in ideas than finished product. I just wish there was a way of getting these ideas out more economically.

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"It's not really a question of being particularly prolific. I mean, I don't often have much trouble writing. I'll occasionally dry up, but I don't panic. I just wait it out.

"Yeah, I know, I've got 70 tracks down, but the quality varies, I mean, you should hear some of them. There's as much crap in there as there is gold. I'm as capable as anyone of writing pretty dire songs.

"That's why I'm waiting until I've got 12 really dynamite tracks for the album. I'm in no hurry now that I'm getting there. I won't be pushed into it.

"No, I don't feel any particular pressure. I don't care whether people are going to be disappointed in the album when it finally comes out. Those will be the people with different ideas to me about what I should be doing. They can say what they like about it when they hear it.

"F--- them. As long as I'm satisfied with it, that's all that counts. And I won't release it until I am satisfied that it's an absolute killer. And I don't care how long that takes."

Jake Riviera (again): "If Nick Lowe decided to write a John Lennon song it would be he best song that John Lennon ever wrote."

To which Nick Lowe replies: "I haven't written a Nick Lowe song for years. I don't think there will be any more Nick Lowe songs."

Nick Lowe, in the company of Brinsley Schwarz, used to write songs so precisely crafted that it Often seemed that he had a direct line to heaven's immaculate juke-box.

The vintage romance of those BS classics ("Nightingale," "Country Girl," "Don't Lose Your Grip On Love," " The Look In Your Eyes Tonight' and, of course, the star-spangled "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding") has, over the last two years been surrendered — as has been elsewhere observed — to a more overtly cynical approach that ultimately reflects the years of neglect Lowe suffered.

The songs that have appeared to date on Stiff — "So It Goes," "Heart Of The City," "I Love My Label," "Mary Provost"and "Endless Sleep" — have assured us that his grasp of diverse pop structures is as firm as ever, but there has been an encroaching cynicism about them that separates them emphatically from say, the celebration (admittedly wry) of the likes of "Happy Doing What We're Doing" or the glorious "Surrender To The Rhythm."

This cynicism has elsewhere been exaggerated, and it has not yet flirted with any entirely misanthropic inclinations, but its presence in these recent songs has still enhanced Nick Lowe's public image as a Machiavellian manipulator: there is the breath of conspiracy about his actions sometimes that provokes a certain suspicion of his motives.

The apparent flippancy of new songs like "Shake And Pop" and, more pertinently, "Music For Money" — the lyric of which runs, "Music for money / Gibson's for gain / Music for money / Fenders for fame ..." — may isolate admirers of his former style and fuel the arguments of those who discredit him as a lost cynic.

But really, they are more evidence of a contemporary disenchantment with the state of the music business.

He is not unaware of this.

"There was a time when the fun went out of it completely. I didn't want to be bothered. I was more satisfied tour-managing for Graham Parker than I was interested in writing.

"But I am a writer. It is my one real talent. I might as well use it if I can. It would still be really easy to slip into a totally cynical attitude about what's happening and what's happened.

"But I'm probably more sceptical than I am cynical. It would be too easy to be deliberately cynical about everything. I'd score too many easy points. That's not the final answer.

"There's still a lot to do and I don't honestly feel I've really, started yet "

<< >>

Melody Maker, October 22, 1977

Allan Jones interviews Nick Lowe.

Ian Birch reviews the single for "Watching The Detectives"

A half-page ad for the single runs on page 26.

Melody Maker reports on the Stiff's Greatest Stiffs tour.

An ad for the tour runs on page 4, and the gig guide (page 35) lists five tour dates.


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Cinematic Elvis

Elvis Costello & the Attractions / Watching The Detectives

Ian Birch

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Many will rush to hail "Detectives" as a masterpiece and, unquestionably, it is a superior record especially when set aside the unnerving mountain of dross currently on release.

Elvis is not afraid to experiment and so has built the song around a (deliberately) artless reggae pulse over which weave (deliberately) unpolished textures. There's a strident, early Shadows-like guitar sound plus organ washes around the superb chorus which vary from the jerky to the elongated.

Nick Lowe (producing yet again) has opted for a reggae mix where instruments and "noises" will suddenly flash in and out. Great, no complaints there at all.

The slight reservation lies with the lyrics. The album showed how superlative a lyricist Elvis can be — impassioned feeling zeroed in on spontaneity and brooding austerity. But here, what I can so far make out (so final judgements are pending) sounds too sophisticated, too consciously assembled. Like "She pulls the eyes out with a face like a magnet" and "She's filing her nails, while they're dragging the lake."

It's like a screenplay for a Film Noir, but instead of evoking Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep we get Gene Hackman in Night Moves. Am I getting ridiculous? The other two tracks (I'm running out of space) are fine live reworkings of the album classics. The man still leaves hordes of contemporaries whimpering in the shadows.

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24 hours getting Stiff

Melody Maker

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As the Stiffs Greatest Stiffs Live tour continues on its manic trek through these once fair islands, there has emerged in its crazed midst a select elite of ace looners, renowned as the 24 Hour Club.

This happy band will easily be recognised by bags looming beneath bloodshot eyes and prickly stubble growing.

When the rest of the Stiff lads and ladies arrived in Liverpool they encountered Dave Edmunds, blearily wandering the corridors of the Empire Theatre, suffering, he confessed, from the worst hangover of his life. "I really thought I was going to die," a weary Edmundo told your correspondent later.

The rest of the crew were nowhere to be found. Later, we discovered that they had sought sanctuary and relief in a local cinema where they attempted to enjoy the latest James Bond epic, The Spy Who Loved Me. "I never realised," commented a tired and emotional Larry Wallis, "that a movie could be so loud."

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