Prologue: Top Of The Pops
Everyone gets that glazed marzipan look in make-up. Maybe it's some weird chemical that they put in the booze in the Artists' Bar at Television Centre, but anyone who's been through the make-up procedure ends up looking like a waxwork.
Andy Williams, for example, looks like one of those ageing pretty-boy senators that periodically chance their lance for
nomination as Democratic candidate in U.S. Presidential elections.
Health-club tan, meticulously arranged dry-look hair, leathery complexion drilled and scored with integrity-lines, "casual" clothes that look French or Italian but were almost inevitably purchased in Hollywood... you almost expect a campaign speech' rather than a song. After hearing the song, I think I'd've preferred the campaign speech.
Nick Lowe, the Pure Pop For Now People candidate, sighs into his Bloody Mary. "I wouldn't mind looking that good when I'm his age." Following a five-minute varnish-and-respray job by the Beeb's technicians, Basher looks something like a waxed fruit himself. Stuffed into a fluorescent green suit festooned with question marks — based on The Riddler, a villain from the old Batman TV show — fractionally too small for him, he looks faintly unnerving.
"Damned unmanly, all that make-up," jibes Martin Belmont of The Rumour, who've been pressed into service to mime "I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass" with Lowe for tonight's TOTP taping, seeing as how it was them on the record and all.
"You just calm yourself right down," retorts Lowe as the scrathplate falls off his magnificent black Gibson Everly Brothers acoustic guitar. It's only held on with Blu-Tack, see, and he has the horrors that his axe is going to start falling to pieces right there and then on television. I mean, what a thing to happen to the Jesus Of Cool!
Of course, it's pure jestering. Nick Lowe is many things, but a Jesus Of Cool he ain't. He can perform the role for short periods of time if he's in the right frame of mind, but Nick Lowe is the Jesus Of Cool like Roger Moore is James Bond, and Top Of The Pops is the perfect place to carry off such an impersonation.
Believe it: the whole show is an impersonation. Top Of The Pops is an impersonation of a fast-moving, exciting, all-happening teenage rock and roll show, and of course it's a big barn of a studio with a few tacky sets, a bored orchestra stuck up one end, maybe three or four live acts and the rest on video, a bunch of kids being bossed all over the place, chased around by haughty floor managers and maddened ravening camera-tanks, herded into position in front of the acts to give the impression that there's a lot of them, and the capper: canned applause to give the impression that the audience are enjoying themselves.
The Jesus Of Cool and his Apostles Of Hip are standing around watching Darts do their number at the other end of the studio while the minions set up for Kate Bush.
She's doing her number at the piano this time round in a sort of witch costume, which seems something of a waste since her dancing and general shapes enhanced the visual presentation of the song on previous performances. Problem: the orchestra keep coming in early, and Kate Bush being a comparative newcomer, keeps blushing under her make-up and apologising to everybody.
Rumour keyboardist Bob Andrews, who's had enough to drink to be feeling no pain, can take no more and skids across the studio haranguing m.d. Johnnie Spence and the musicians. Some of the younger, hipper players are on his side, but Spence is mightily uptight when Andrews offers to conduct it himself. Eventually they get it vaguely together, Kate gets through her song and murmurs circulate that the Beeb won't exactly be going out of its way to have Bob Andrews back on TOTP.
Fiiiiiinally, Lowe And Co. clamber onto their tacky set and under a bright shower of canned applause do "Breaking Glass" while the kids down front try to suss out the rhythms enough to dance to them. Lowe is enjoying his impersonation, playing non-chords or nothing at all on his Gibson and moving like Bryan Ferry while Andrews — clearly the man of the moment — does a brilliant looning mime to his splintered piano solo. They get it right first take and disperse. Lowe removes that "damned unmanly" make-up, changes out of his Riddler suit and the assembled company haul their butts over to Eden Studios in Chiswick, where Lowe is assisting Johnny Cash's stepdaughter Carlene Carter. She's a slim girl with long brown hair and a wicked smile, though — happily — she doesn't have a deep voice or a
fixation with trains.
As they depart, Lowe is murmuring to Carlene, "Shall we hold hands in the vocal booth?"
Three days later, it's forty below zero in the great city of Buffalo in upstate New York. Once again, American technology has only just managed to cope with that weird meterological phenomen which we scientists refer to as snow. Lowe had flown in from Amsterdam the previous day with Martin Belmont of The Rumour to link up with Elvis Costello And The Attractions and act as extra added Attractions for the evening's two shows in Buffalo, the last U.S. date on what's been a six-week slog around the North American Continent.
Everyone's had a bitch of a time getting in to New York City to rendezvous at the Gramercy Park Hotel. Elvis and his boys were travelling in a customised luxury Greyhound bus which had broken down en route from Glendale and Lowe and Belmont had been subjected to massive delays because JFK airport had been snowed in, a fact that also delayed the flight that me and Chalkie Davies had hopped from Gatwick. We'd originally arranged to meet at CBGB to see Pere Ubu, but we blew that one... whatever. A real teeth-chatterer.
Performing-wise, the deal was that Belmont came on to wind up Elvis' set with a storming, riotous "Pump It Up" and then Lowe — nervously cradling a borrowed Telecaster — would appear for the encore to do a medley of "Nutted By Reality" / "I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass" followed by "Shake And Pop" and "Heart Of The City."
A rough and ready affair indeed, with Lowe's Tele plugged into Elvis' amplifier and Belmont using a miked-up 30-watt practice amp. Belmont prowls the stage, rearing and jerking like Herman Munster under electro-shock, mouth working furiously, slashing and wrenching at his brand new Gibson L-6 as if he was about ready to rip the neck off the sucker. His stage presence is exceptional, both because of the sheer force and conviction of his playing and because one has an inkling of the enormous amount of havoc that Belmont would be capable of wreaking if his temper ever got the better of him.
Costello slips into the role of backing musician with almost indecent ease, wandering up to the mike to sing spot-on vocal harmonies — he and the Attractions virtually learned Lowe's material at the afternoon soundcheck — and playing rock-solid second lead guitar between Belmont's compulsive solos and Lowe's scratchy, spiky rhythm.
The only one who seems the slightest bit ill-at-ease is Lowe himself, which is understandable considering that he's coming onstage after Costello has spent forty-five minutes or so winding the audience up to a state of almost unbearable excitement with weird, dangerous performances of "Watching The Detectives" (things always get weird and dangerous when Costello performs without his guitar) and a "Lipstick Vogue" that screws every nerve to shrieking pitch.
Also, apart from stints with Rockpile and the Stiff tour, Lowe hasn't performed live with any regularity since Brinsley Schwarz split up (the group, that is. The guitarist is alive and well and in one piece and performing with The Rumour).
He must have presented U.S. audiences with a figure fully as weird as Elvis himself. Accustomed to boogie beasts, singer-songwriters so sensitive that they vanish under a strong light, and platform-booted exquisites, what are they to make of Nick Lowe? Big, beefy and beaky, crammed into tight black Levi corduroys and introducing himself by caroling, "Well, I heard they castrated Castro / cut off everything he had"... well, it's nice to know that chaps from Blighty can still show the colonials a thing or two.
At that first show, he compounded his nervousness by muttering self-consciously about hey, this is Elvis' show and I really shouldn't be here blah blah, but a rousing "Shake And Pop" and a flinty, propulsive "Heart Of The City" saved the day and by the second show he had it all down right nice.
And he'd better have it down better than that yet again in a month or so's time, because after Costello's British trek the King will be returning to the Americas, with Mink DeVille supporting and Nick Lowe opening the show. Nick Lowe and Rockpile? Nick Lowe and The Rumour? Nick Lowe and Thin Lizzy? (Ignore that last one. It's just a fantasy of Lowe's to perform "So It Goes" with Lizzy backing him, since he nicked half the riffs off Lizzy and sings it just like Phil Lynott). Nick Lowe and Led Zeppelin? Nick Lowe and... wait and see.
American audiences won't know they're looking at The Jesus Of Cool, since over there the album's called Pure Pop For Now People... so's not to offend any of you religious folk out there who might be listening in to Radio Station KWIMP...
I first met Nick Lowe round about '72 or '73, when he was the bearded, pony-tailed bassist / singer for an all-hippies-together country-rock / soul / '50s / reggae band called Brinsley Schwarz.
Martin Belmont was their roadie for a time ("He was one of the greatest roadies that ever lived. Ever see him lift a speaker cabinet? Christ!") and the rest of the group were Brinsley himself on guitar (now a Rumour), Bob Andrews on keyboards (ditto), Billy Rankin on drums (now, I believe, a barman) and Ian Gomm on rhythm guitar (about to re-emerge as a featured artist. Watch out!)
Apart from their early Crosby Stills and Nash phase, which I never much liked, they were pretty good and more than that during all their incarnations, and what incarnation they were in depended pretty much on whoever Nick Lowe was trying to write songs like at any given moment. He did an excellent Robbie Robertson, a fair Allen Toussaint and generally worked in a league that would have resulted in Instant Deification (Asylum Records division) if he'd been American instead of English.
The Brinsleys had their genesis when Schwarz and Lowe were at school together. Brinsley ran the school group, and he said that Lowe — an unreconstructed banjo player from the Lonnie Donegan era — could join if he would buy and learn the bass. This he did, and they happily set to work playing Beatles hits at school dances.
Fifteen years later, the connection still holds. The newly-named Brinsley Schwarz (they'd been together before as Kippington Lodge) was launched with the now-legendary hype disaster of the Famepushers / Fillmore affair.
You must have heard of that one: how the Brinsleys were booked as the opening act at Bill Graham's Fillmore East in New York City, an entire planeload of media types were flown in from London, the band didn't go down any better than any other unknown opening act would under the same circumstances and the band were left with a dreadful reputation, debts adding up to some ludicrously astronomical amount.
By all conventional criteria, the group were completely screwed. Their solution to the impasse in which they found themselves was to start playing the pubs.
"We were just as green as the grass then. That Famepushers' business had a lot to do with the very cynical view that we developed. We got very cynical about everything. We weren't just put together for the hype, — we'd been together for a while before that — and we had a marvellous time. We thought it was really great. It was after that that we thought Gawd, this just ain't it at all, and it was that that formulated the cynicism. We wanted to keep going and we couldn't think of anything else to do."
Yeah, but surely the act of taking the group into the pubs — and trust me, no-one gets to be a tax exile playing the Hope — was an act of idealism rather than cynicism?
"That wasn't the main reason. There were a lot of other things — like we were taking a lot of acid at the time — and we got this crusade. It was almost "We'll show the fuckers... no matter what happens we won't get conned again". Don't get me wrong, we were 'conned' in the literal sense: we did it with our eyes open, but we were very inexperienced.
"We had a marvellous time, I don't regret anything that happened, but it was just so horrifying to us. We developed this attitude, and we got this house. When groups share a house, you tend to share a lot of the same ideas: it tends to stifle your individuality quite a lot, which can be a very good thing, but it has its drawbacks as well. You can get intimidated and just go along with things.
"But for a good two or three years we played it very low key and that's why we got this almost legendary reputation. It wasn't because we were a particularly good group, because really we weren't. It was just that the attitude that we had used to intrigue people."
In the British rock of the time, the main squeeze was the Bowie / Bolan / Roxy / Slade thing — and that's a massive generalisation, lumping together people who probably couldn't share a railway compartment let alone play together, but you get the idea — while underneath all that — literally, if you take the cellar of The Hope into consideration — a bunch of people were discovering each other and forming alliances and friendships which would emerge in the late '70s as being one of the vital connections.
"At that time, there were a lot of people around who thought that they were the only ones who thought like that. There were a lot of events that brought a lot of people together who were involved in that pub-rock thing. Eventually it got very snobby and very elitist, but there were a lot of people who shared that cynical / idealist attitude. It showed itself in a lot of ways, like the style of writing in the music press which is very common now, but before then it was still very much 'what's your favourite colour, Nick!' 'What a snappy chap Cliff is first thing in the morning' and all that sort of thing. I think that was directly responsible in a lot of ways for the punk thing.
"Certainly in terms of fashion. English people always like to have some kind of badge to dress up to show what kind of music they like, and the Feelgoods were the ones to crack it clothes-wise."
It almost seems that there's a musicians' pool: a very fluid set-up involving Rockpile, The Rumour, The Attractions, Lowe, The Blockheads and a few other bands with their vague genesis in such disparate scenes as London Pubrock, Canvey Island, and the Swansea Mafia. Consider the careers of the alumni of groups like Chilli Willi, the Brinsleys, Ma, Love Sculpture, Ducks De Luxe, The Kursaal Flyers and a few others. The fact that master gardener of rock's family trees — Pete Frame by name — now works at Stiff is almost an official blessing from God to the whole scene.
"Yeah, but the reason that all that is such good fun is not necessarily because they're all wonderful musicians, it's because they've all got something up there." He taps his skull meaningfully. "They've got some brains, a bit of common sense. The thing is that there's just so few people around who've got any kind of flair. They don't have to be wonderful musicians, but they're good because they've got something up there.
"And that's what makes it different from that whole boring L.A. thing where all those musicians are on all those records, all those people who used to play on James Taylor's records. People would actually buy albums because Jim Gordon was on them. I wouldn't ever want it to be like that but I don't think it ever would be because it's too Blighty. It's all founded on a bit of a sense of humour.
"I don't mean that we're all loony chums perpetually having a great laugh together, any kind of let's-all-piss-it-up-chaps sixth form outing. I'm deadly serious about the whole thing. Vicious, even. I could be vicious about it.
"It's not like we're all part of the same chums' club. That's why I like Elvis so much. He's deadly serious. He means it, maaaaaaan. It's not a drinking club. Bullshit.
"I mean, Jake (Riviera) and I have always had this agreement from the very start. It's like an agreement never to get too close because even though we like each other we respect each other for what we both do — and Elvis as well — and there's this element of keeping each other at a pole's length. All three of us are very committed in a very obscure way and if you're committed to something, you can never afford to cling onto something too tight, because it's a golden egg or he's a marvellous chum that you always want to be with.
"Because you can change your mind about people all the time. We've never actually talked about this: it's just how I feel. And it's this that keeps us tight, in a way. Okay, we're good buddies and everything, but always reserve the right to change your mind.
"You can go back on anything and not feel embarrassed or ashamed about it.
"You say, 'That was then; I've changed my mind. I'm really sorry, but I can't help it.' It's just an instinct that we all have. A recognition."
Almost equivalent, in a way, is that Lowe's songwriting mode moved from the ostensibly "personal"/ semi-autobiographical stuff that he was writing for the Brinsleys to the ironic, detached style of his current material.
Lowe's reaction to this comparison between a controlled distancing in his relationships with his colleague and the similar distancing between himself and his material is oddly unsure. He launches into a veritable barrage of umms and arrhs.
"I've always been influenced up until quite recently by musical trends. Sometimes if I hadn't... I've maybe just liked something that I've had a feeling for and copied it because of inexperience when writing songs and that style has become well-known for some reason... err... I'm trying to follow it too far back now. The answer to your question is yes.
"I used to write songs that were about me, and very lyrical and personal, but a lot of it... you can get away with murder if you write those sort of songs. You can woffle a lot, but a lot of people will think it's really wonderful stuff even though you know you're just a woffle-maker, and the more you go on the more you realise that you can't go any further with that. That's what you call experience.
"But when you're younger you tend to get influenced by very stylistic people, like I wrote very much in a Crosby Stills and Nash vein. Someone played me their first album which I thought was great, and I went overboard trying to write in that style. And then it was The Band. Then you get interested in their influences.
"I don't do that any more. I keep my ears open — I listen to the wireless, to Muzak in restaurants, anything — but nowadays there isn't an artist who I listen to and think, 'Oh, where did he get that lick?' You just make it up yourself. I know the chords now. I don't have to pretend that I'm Robbie Robertson or whoever.
"Nowadays I just steal the stuff. I don't try and write in anybody's style: if I hear a good lick on a disco record or something, I'll just pinch it and use it and by the time it's come out it's only students of the genre who'd recognise it and know where I pinched it from. In some cases it's almost a virtue to pinch — and it's like the difference between... Eric Carmen, say. When you hear him pinching from Paul McCartney — the style of the voice — he's trying to steal a bit of McCartney's thunder, you know, to get over to people like Paul does.
"He's got it down, he's very clever, but it's like the difference between The The Beatles doing The Beach Boys on 'Back In The U.S.S.R.' That's so obviously Beach Boys and so obviously just lumped out of there. Eric Carmen is just 'ahhhhh, go listen to your bloody Paul McCartney records then', but The Beatles are 'wooooohhhhh great! They've done a Beach Boys bit!'
"That's what I'm trying to do. Basically I'll just lift ideas because I think ideas are the most exciting part of the whole thing. Nowadays, I buy the music papers, man, and I read them cover to cover because it's much more off-the-wall now. It's all just a lot more fun because the rule book's been bunged out of the window.
"I don't think of myself as A Songwriter or A Producer. I'm just in a great position to really live a few fantasies because I'm basically a fan and I can do what I want. And if people actually like it that's fantastic and if they don't... well, I'll go and do something else.
"It's all just ideas. And I can always change my mind. I might go jazz. Or folk.
"I've got a funny feeling about acoustic guitars. I think they might just come back in a big way. I've got a feeling about folk music and the folk scene... that whole scaling down of volume. I mean, Elvis could do a killer gig in a small place with just an acoustic. People who've got good chewns and know how to put 'em, across, because I'm not really a performer, but there's a few people..."
Yeah, but it was punk that virtually quadrupled the number of groups in the country...
"Just like the Beat Boom. But 95% of them will end up back in the biscuit factory and they'll have the Antoria Les Paul copy under the bed and get married and move into a council house. It'll be just like the Beat Boom. Can you imagine how many Gibson 335s under beds in Liverpool when the guy just thought, 'I know we're having another nipper and we need the extra money but I'll just keep the old guitar'?
"It'll be just the same with the punk thing, but the ones that are really keen on it... it'll be just the same as happened to me during the Beatle era. I was just playing in school-bands and all that, but it just gets to you. You can never do anything else again, and you'll force yourself to learn more about it, because there's nothing as pitiful as someone who hasn't got any fucking clue and is just hanging on.
"But the people from the punk thing who've got any kind of sense of what's going on... maybe they've been thwarted, and they'll go off and get jobs and then they'll learn a bit more and have another little stab.
"I'm convinced that anyone who's got any idea and thinks that they know what's going on, they're the ones who'll find that it'll come round to them.
"When I hear people moaning, 'Awww, fucking record company never did a thing for us, they fucked us up' — in a lot of cases it's true, but in too many cases it's because they're shit. And people can pick that up. You don't have to be a musician to know if someone's doing it. You could be a baker standing in the audience and you'd know if someone's really crackin' it. There's no way, f'rinstance, that Paul McCartney could not have been discovered. John Lennon probably yes..."
If they were fifteen years younger, Macca'd be on Top Of The Pops and Lennon would've had three singles out on Stiff.
The badges emblazoned with "Pure Pop For Now People" started to appear almost a year ago, well before all this powerpop garf. What does "pop" mean to Nick Lowe?
"I started to want to do more pop stuff because I was sick of copying people. I just wanted to steal it. With a poppier approach and a bit of commonsense you can do whatever you want. It doesn't mean just doing all smiling faced pop songs. Anything to get across the emotion that you want to get across. You could do a heavy rock thing: you can buy gadgets now where you just step on a pedal and go from Nashville to Croydon.
"It's easy for me, that's why. I've got to make a living, and this is easy but also I think there's a lot of people who can do that and get off on it and dig writing in different styles without thinking, 'That's a bit uncool! I'm gonna geta hard time for this.' They can do that and get their personality across too. It's good from an audience point of view, because it's easy to listen to but still a bit thought-provoking."
Yeah, but lOcc exist as an awful warning for what happens if you follow that philosophy too far...
'Yeah, but they got worried about drying up and so they started to force it and use too much technology whereas what I'm into doing is keeping it simple and keeping it so that people can understand it. This whole 'pop' thing has sprung up now, whereas I meant it as a very simple, easy-to-use-no-embarrassing-bending formula for listening to music which I described as pop music because then it was a real unfashionable word.
"Now it's fashionable and it's got these awful overtones — and I view it with mounting horror — of a rush of awful smiling groups like chuck-outs from New Faces all going 'I love you dicky dicky boo' with thin ties on. That'd be fucking ghastly. That's not what I mean at all.
"It has never got to be tepid. I love rock and roll with too much passion to ever let it wimp out like that. If I do something wimpy, it's gonna be super-wimpy. Right over the top..."
Nick Lowe is a man without guilt or shame — musically, anyway. "I used up all my supplies of guilt years ago." The song "Little Hitler" on his album — and, just to set the record straight, is about petty authoritarianism with no straightforward political overtones whatsoever — derived from the time when Elvis Costello mentioned that he was writing a song of that title.
Lowe had his song down before Costello even had the time to finish his. A slightly aggrieved Costello subsequently suggested that Lowe's next album be called "Grand Larceny".
An anecdote for dessert. Lowe's nickname "Basher" was given him by Lee Brilleaux during sessions for the Feelgoods Be Seeing You album after the Nth time that Lowe told the band to "bash it down and we'll tart it up later". Perhaps this ultra-casual approach can be best demonstrated by recounting what went down when Lowe delivered the tapes of Elvis' new album to CBS in New York for mastering.
"Mastering" is the process whereby a tape is transformed into the master disc from which copies of a record are pressed, and a lot of bands and producers use the mastering process to boost frequencies on the record to cover up for weaknesses in performance or mix.
So Basher swans in with the tape and the cutting engineer asks him, where he wants the volume and frequencies boosted. "No, it's all right squire," says Basher. "It's all right, I've mixed it. Just bash it down and make it as loud as possible."
The engineer can't believe this, because they spent three days tiddling about doing Chicago's last album, boosting here and there and whathaveyou and here's this drunken Brit telling him to do it straight.
So after much headshaking and well-if-that's-what-you-really-want-it'll-be-your-own-fault-don't-blame-me, he does it like Basher says and lo and behold, it's the loudest, cleanest album he's ever mastered. He expresses his surprise.
"Told you it was all right, didn't I?" says Basher. "See ya..."
And he slopes out.
Finally Nick, what's the last lick that you liked enough to steal and when can we expect to hear it?
"Oh, you bugger! That's a very good question, that is... you know what?"
"I'm not going to tell you."