Nick Lowe's career has spanned nearly 20 years of pop music history, beginning in the mid-'60s and extending through the retrenchment of pub rock and the nihilistic poses of the so-called new wave. As the bassist, vocalist and principal songwriter for pub rock pioneers Brinsley Schwarz, Lowe was instrumental in helping bring rock back to its roots in bars and clubs after the bloated excess of the arena/art rock movement; and as a producer and co-founder of Stiff Records, the innovative British independent label, Lowe was responsible for subverting the imagery and energy of punk rock, seeing it, quite rightly, as an attention-getting marketing opportunity, a wedge with which to expand the talents of Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, Chrissie Hynde and others with whom he worked. As such, he is a vital component of the late-'70s British rock revival.
But it was only when he teamed with guitarists Dave Edmunds and Billy Bremner and drummer Terry Williams in a loose conﬁguration known as Rockpile that Lowe began to assert himself as a musician. Rockpile was fast, loud and streamlined in concert, but on record — most notably on Lowe’s pop masterpieces, Pure Pop For Now People and Labour Of Lust — Lowe and his mates displayed such an ear far the melodic hook, and such a penchant for all the major streams in pop music (vintage rockabilly, Motown, country, reggae, and four-on-the-ﬂoor rock ’n' roll) that in same quarters they were seen as heirs to the mantle of the Beatles. Few groups better combined mordant, unsentimental wit with candy-colored rock nostalgia, but Edmunds wigged out and left the band just as it was beginning to make its mark.
While obviously a formidable pop craftsman, Lowe is basically unimpressed by his reputation. His own art — as well as new wave — comes in for some thrashing during this wide-ranging interview.
Do you see yourself as sort of a “keeper of the ﬂame” of Certain traditions in rock 'n' roll? You show a strong appreciation for past contributions.
No, I don't think I've been carrying a torch for anybody. I'm sometimes frustrated that more people, especially over here, don't appreciate the glorious noise that you guys actually gave the world. Soul, rock 'n’ roll and country — I adore that sort of music. I don't even mind (that) they don't play the music, but they don’t even know the names of the people, You can say Gene Vincent or Jerry Lee Lewis or someone like that, and they look at you completely blank, Whereas in England, and in Europe generally, it has a farther and wider appreciation. Joe Blow in the street will know who Bobby Bland is. But I don't feel any real compulsion or mission to educate the world. It's there for anybody to hear; they can make up their own minds.
But you’ve dropped clues along the way as to what we might expect to hear from you. Pure Pop For Now People may be a tongue-in-cheek title, but it’s also accurate in that it describes a specific style within rock and suggests a contemporary interpretation of that style. What do you have in mind when you use the term "pop music"?
I think originally I used the term because it got up peoples' noses so much. “Yeah, I'm a pop singer." Because everyone was so busy trying to tell everybody, "They're trying to force us to go commercial, man. We’re just not into pop." They were so busy trying to tell each other how arty they were that I thought, "Yeah, pop. That's what I do. I strum pop songs." And it used to sort of annoy people. Pop is Foreigner, Styx and Journey. Pop is popular; it’s certainly not me. And they are very popular. I think when people use that term, it does have a different sort of meaning. it means kind of trashy. There's a different sort of connotation on the word pop which I'm probably responsible for. But it's just a throwaway.
When your solo records ﬁrst came to the attention of Americans — ﬁirst as import singles and on Stiff compilations, later with the U.S. release of Pure Pup For Now People — you were quickly lumped into the all-purpose-category of "New Wave." How did that characterization strike you?
Yes, it's funny, that, isn't it? I didn’t really mind. I just wanted to get the records on the radio. I didn't mind if they called me Charlie Farnsbarns, really. Even with the early group I was in, Brinsley Schwarz, I’ve always sort of liked quirkiness, something not quite right. I always liked taking an established style — R&B and Soul, early Stax, country, rock & rol1 — and doing them just off-center a little bit. So from that point of view when the New Wave thing came along and suddenly people who had that
sort of style were okay — it was okay to like them — I sort of naturally fell into it. Also because of my association with Stiff Records, it was inevitable that I get lumped in with that sort of thing. I don't know if I've ever changed my style — if I have a
style. It's just that the rest of the world, or at least a small part of it, seemed to come around to me, rather than me consciously diving in, saying, "Oooh. There's a bandwagon I’m gonna get in on." I suppose I didn't mind.
What do you think are the positive and negative effects of what has been called New Wave on rock music in general?
I can only think of negative things. To me, the most ghastly and frightful records have been perpetrated. When old Johnny Rotten said anybody could do it, he was absolutely right. Anybody can pick up a guitar if they want to. But if then they've got to inflict those horrendous thrashings on the ears of ... me, I'm sorry, no thank you, I like to hear it played in tune. I don't see the glamor of somebody who's just bought a guitar the day before and there they are doing a gig. It sounds bloody awful. There's no way in the world it can be called art. It's just a frightful racket.
Also, a lot of these New Wave and punk groups have copped this attitude that really annoys me. They take themselves far too damn seriously. They think they’re Picasso or something. Good God, they're self-important little gits! Or else they cop this "wild in the streets" attitude. But they're not. I know those geezers are not. They're just little wimps. People who are wild in the streets are like postmen or bloody coppers or bakery people, not those idiots with half-baked political illusions who strum guitars. The political ideas just make me laugh. In fact, I suppose it makes me embarrassed to actually be in this business when I hear some of the old codswallop that some of these people come out with. I remember when I left home and got my passport, I wrote very carefully, “Occupation: Musician." I was really pleased. Now. I'd rather tell somebody I was a plumber. The pose of the New Wave people gets up my nose. Don't make me laugh. I keep on wanting to give them a clip around the ear and a spell in the Army, some of them.
You did produce one of the first punk records with the Damned.
I thought they were awful. I remember going to the Sex Pistols as well. They were awful. What intrigued me was this attitude that they had. That's what I got excited by. I thought, "This is really annoying people. Fantastic." I remember my father leaping out of his chair and switching the television set off when the Kinks came on. "Disgusting" (imitates his father's sneer). I'm not particularly crazy about them now, but at the time I was 15 or 16 and I thought they and the Stones were terrific, because it got up my parents' noses. But parents don't get annoyed about Journey. It has about as much threat as Anson Williams. I can't see any difference between those people and Barry Manilow. They have exactly the same soporific effect on me. When friends — the guys who'd studied their chops and knew their blues and knew their rock 'n' roll — saw (the punks), they'd say to me, "Those bastards! What a little shit!" and I'd go, "You old shit." It was the fact that (the punks) engendered that fury in people that I knew and was really friendly with. I thought, "Let me see if I can produce these snotty kids." And it was easy. (The Damned) were just the same as any other group. They were young and they wanted to cop a bit of a stance, but they wanted it to come out good. They wanted to like it. It wasn't a total anarchic thing.
In addition to annoying people, do you think punk/New Wave had any good effects in terms of shaking up the music industry?
The industry is on its knees in any case. Just what the world needs is another independent label, isn't it (sarcastic) I really don't know. I think of rock music as a dodgey old man that people keep on trying to breathe life into. It never will go away. No, I don't think (punk/New Wave) did anything particular, except as far as I'm concerned (laughs). If it hadn't come along and I didn't get lumped into this sort of thing, I probably never would have had a hit record or wouldn't be doing these tours which I love doing. I hate to sound cynical ... well, I am cynical. But I don't want to sound jaded. I just think (punk is) exactly the same as everything else. Like the hippie thing or something like that. Johnny Rotten is to the Seventies as what's her name, Janis Joplin, was to the Sixties. I can't really see any difference between the two of them.
Did the label "pub rock," which was applied to the Brinsleys and other English groups that played in bars, have any special meaning?
It did. It was started, funny enough, by Eggs Over Easy from Mill Valley (California). They had come over to England to make a record with Chas Chandler; why, I don't know. It was so at odds with what was happening in England at that time, which was all glam rock, which we just weren't into at all, not being very glamorous. And we got friendly with them because they played the same sort of stuff that we were playing. When we met them they had started building up this following. It was incredible. Nothing like that had happened in England for so long: a band that didn't have their names in the papers or weren't shucked out on some vast tour. They were just playing in this gin palace and the people would drive out to see them. You'd have all these different sorts of people — Pakistani guys, bikers, hippies, very straight people — all packed into this pub. So when they went back to the states we took over their residency. And because we were better known than they were, it sort of took off even more. Martin Belmont from the Rumour (and currently Lowe's lead guitarist) started a band called Ducks Deluxe. And then Kilburn and the High Roads, which had Ian Dury in it, started up. Graham Parker. Dr. Feelgood. Even Elvis Costello. There were all these groups. And all these pubs started opening up all over London, and outside London as well. It was really good clean fun. I think that's when drink came back into fashion.
You began working with Dave Edmunds toward the end of Brinsley Schwarz. He produced the Brinsleys last album. What was it that initially attracted you to him — his musicianship or his production style?
I think it was everything. He's a very mysterious bloke. In the Sixties he had this group Love Sculpture. He was like a whiz-kid fast guitarist. That was what the star wars in England (were like) at that time, the late Sixties — who's got the fastest guitar in the West. And he was definitely a good contender. The Brinsleys used to record at this place called Rockfield, which is a little village just outside Monmouth in Wales. It's not far from Cardiff, where Dave is from. Dave had been recording at Rockfield for a long time. He had the big hit, "I Hear You Knocking," and he bought this house in Monmouth. It's one of the most modern studios in Europe now, but then it was just getting started. I used to see old Edmunds sort of scurrying around. I'd always thought, "He's a pretty cool bloke to know." Also, I loved his records. There weren't many people making records in England at that time who I liked. He was about the only one. It was great to hear someone actually slamming it down on vinyl, which we could never do. I didn't know anything about recording then. I didn't realize that you can make somebody sound like anything if you twiddle the old knobs. So I sort of nodded at Edmunds one day, and he sort of grunted back at me and hurried off. But that was a long conversation, apparently. Everyone thought how marvelous it was that I'd had a conversation with Edmunds. He didn't have any friends. He wasn't interested in our music. He was taking a lot of drugs. He wasn't in very good shape. His marriage was breaking up. But he was still making these incredible records on his own. Most intriguing. Got to get to know this bloke. And I slowly did.
And worked on his Subtle As A Flying Mallet album.
That's right. He started phoning me up. I was really pleased about it. He was having a terrible time, always drunk and standing in the street shouting and things like that. He wasn't in control. But he always used to phone me up from the police stations and I would go and get him out. I got him out of the hospital one day. He had been chasing - someone down the street with a knife and he stabbed himself by accident. We used to laugh about that. I'm not betraying any confidences by talking about this; it's just an illustration. Anyway, he said, "I'm going down and do some recording. Do you wanna come with me?" At first, I was just there as an audience. When he was fiddling with echoes and things like that, I'd say "What you doing there, Dave? Why does it sound like that?" And he'd tell me what he was doing. And I'd say to him, "How did you get that Motown hand clap sound?" And he'd go, "Ooh, a bit of 2.8, slow delay, with a bit of spring." I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. But when I came to do records myself, I'd say to the engineer, "I want to put some handclaps on this. Can you give me a bit of 2.8, slow delay, and a bit of spring?" And he'd go, "Yes. Okay," and out it would come!
I just watched Edmunds. He taught me loads of stuff. He was very good for me writing songs as well. Stripping it down. Sometimes I put too many chords in. I now find myself doing it to other people all the time, saying "Why'd you put that chord in there? You don't need it. Strip it down so there's nothing there that isn't needed." Once we got to know each other better, we started writing together and then singing together. It was sort of a gradual process. We used to have terrific rows. But he always used to win. I always used to back down from him, because he was my hero. And in a way he still is. I've fallen out with him, but I still think he's terrific. He's absolutely unique. I loved my time with Edmunds. He did teach me a hell of a lot, directly or indirectly.
Shortly after that Edmunds project, you helped form Stiff Records. How and why did that come about?
I'd left United Artists Records. But (before leaving) I needed to get another advance. The way to do that was to make them a crappy record. I had to be sort of subtle about it; it couldn't be too over the top, like saying I'd gone into Indian music with a Javanese flavor, or something like that, where they'd say, "Oh God, he's gone weird. Get rid of him." Or conversely, "That bastard's trying to get out of his deal. Let's nail him." So I had to make it look as if I was being really keen. Jake Riviera, whose couch I was sleeping on at the time, said, "Why don't you do a Bay City Rollers fan record, like they used to do with the Beatles?" And I had this real poppy tune going around. I said, "All right. Yeah." That ("Bay City Rollers We Love You") was the first record I produced myself. I had gotten all these school kids in to sing this ludicrous song. I did it all myself, with the exception of the drums. Steve Goulding from the Rumour played them. And I was really quite proud of it. It was frightful, but it was honest crap. I took it in to the record company, and, to my horror, they thought it was great. This wasn't the reaction I hoped for. However, I did another one, "Let's Go To The Disco," by the Disco Brothers, and that did the trick. I got fired shortly afterwards. Then all the other deals I got offered with other companies were terrible — 12-album deals, two albums a year. I couldn't do that. So Jake said, "Sod it. Let's start our own record label." Everybody said, "You can't do this. The majors have got it sewn up. Can't get a hit record." He plugged at it, really by appealing to the snob in people. The way we advertised it was, "We've made this record. And it's so cool, such a fantastic record, that we don't know if you're cool enough to even hear it. In fact, we might not even sell you one if you don't measure up to being cool enough." So, like the emperor's suit of clothes, they all went mad for it. It was fun, again, to break all the rules. And no one could believe that it was so easy to do. It was just playing with the music business, toying with it, turning it back on itself, making people see how ludicrous the whole thing was. That's the first rule: there aren't any. And it took off from there.
How important was tinting to Stiff's success, coming at a point (1976-77) that coincided with the punk thing?
Stiff had been going for about nine months when the Sex Pistols started doing their gigs, but it was still the same sort of thing. The cocktail party in the music business was starting to wind down. It was getting very stale and stodgy. And then it seemed that there were all these people who felt the same way.
During 1976-78 you seemed to be popping up everywhere as a producer, working with Costello, Graham Parker and the Rumour, the Pretenders, the Stiff acts. Do you feel you developed a distinctive style? Or did you work differently with, say, Graham Parker than you did with Costello?
Yes, I think so. I've got this reputation as being a successful producer, and I'm not, really. I've made loads of records, but I've had very few hits. There's plenty of people who have a far better track record than I do. I think the reason why I've got this rep is because at the time I came along, I was the first one who actually mid why not? When an engineer said, "You can't do that," I'd say, "Well, if you can do this and you can do that, why can't you do that?" If I wanted to make a drum track out of a slamming door, for instance, they'd say, "You can't do that." And I'd say, "Let's try it. Why not?" And I'd take risks like that. Also, I liked to do it as quickly as possible. Apart from that, I do each person differently. You have to be sort of a psychoanalyst, I think. Some people like to have their egos stroked, told how wonderful they are. Your job is to get the best performance out of them by whatever means, fair or foul, at your disposal. Some people like to be bullied. "Come on, you asshole, is that the best you can do?" Some people, believe it or not, like getting a bit of verbal abuse.
Can you give any examples?
Funnily enough, sometimes Elvis does. And Edmunds is like that as well. Whatever it takes. You have to work out what they want to hear in order to get it done. I tend to produce in an old-fashioned sort of way. I thought that a producer was someone who just sort of sat there, some guy who'd tell you whether it was in tune or not. I like to make people aware that they're making a little aural film. Sort of act it out, get that across as best as possible.
What about when you're producing your own records?
That's harder work, cause I don't really care so much about my own records. I far prefer working with other people, because I feel that they're my records too. I especially like writing songs for other people. It's rather like making a suit. You show them some fabric. "Do you want a lightweight, semi-weight ... " And then you ask how wide they want the lapels. I like seeing how close I can get to writing a song that's sort of made to measure. I can do it really easily; it's almost like a hobby. But with my own stuff, I don't care to much about it. I don't feel like I'm a dedicated musician. Don't get me wrong: I'm a proud man. But I have so little respect for people in the music business, it's the way I sort of treat myself. I've got every bit of respect for cracking music; it's the only thing I really like, in fact. But it keeps me sane if I don't get too involved in it.
During the late Seventies, Rockpile would play on both your albums and Edmunds' albums, and then tour under the name of either of you. Why did you decide to change that and make an album (Seconds of Pleasure) as Rockpile?
I had never liked the solo projects that the Beatles had done as much as I liked the Beatles together. There's something about a group. You're restricted quite a bit. You have to do something that the drummer's gonna like. There's all these things keeping you in check all the time. So when we came to do the Rockpile album, we thought it would be like the Beatles in reverse: We'd all done our solo shit, so when we'd come to do our Rockpile album, we thought it would be groovier, better. In fact, it didn't work out that way at all. There was no one in the chair, no one sort of directing and taking charge. It was either me or Edmunds, depending on whose record we were making. Because of that, it came out a little wishy-washy.
Some people have made the analogy to a couple that has lived together very happily for years and then decide to get married and everything falls apart.
Yeah. Really, it was just a bloody embarrassment. No one would take charge, yet they wished that somebody would. Yet that's not the point we were trying to make — we should all be taking charge. I started getting really annoyed at people for nothing. I'd get annoyed with Billy (Bremner), for instance. I'd think, "Why the fuck should I make all the running? What do you reckon it should go like?" And he'd say, "I don't really mind." "What d'ya mean you don't really mind, ya bloody wimp." So we had a few shout-ups. But we always did — that's healthy. It just wasn't, much fun, basically. Edmunds didn't like some of the tunes on it that I'd written, and I thought that some of the ones that he wanted to do, some of the covers, were a bit wet and could have been better. I think it's still a pretty' good record, but it was so much less than we thought it was gonna be.
Did the subsequent tour convince you to break up the group?
Well, yeah. We'd reached these crossroads. Like most groups do when they form up and they got on quite well, you get this sort of momentum that can sometimes carry you for six months or six years. I rehearsed for this (current) tour more than Rockpile did the whole time they were together. We never used to rehearse 'cause we hated it so much. The people who liked as liked that about Rockpile — the scruffiness, underrehearsedness. And because we used to have fun, we'd come across as if we were enjoying the shit out of it. The only trouble with that is that as soon as you start going through the motions, pretending that you're having fun, it's really noticeable. A lot of groups can stay together if there's a dollar bill in it, even if they can't stand the bloody sight of each other. But all our music was based on the fact that we were mates, really good mates, and we loved playing that sort of music. When that goes and it starts getting a bit tired, it seems to be noticed much, much more. We had six years of terrific times. I don't regret a single blade about it. I felt it's not the end of the world. We're all still chums. Let's do something else. We can always change our minds again. And then, to my amazement, Dave wimped out of it. Dave and Jake used to row quite a lot. But then suddenly it got really nasty. And Dave, I thought, invented this row so he could leave righteously. I said to hint, "Come on. I can't believe what I'm hearing. What are you doing? Let's just pack it in." It was so pathetic, this contretemps we had with Dave. It wound up he didn't want Jake to manage him anymore. All the rest of as knew that the group couldn't possibly carry on if Dave was being managed by somebody else. It didn't matter to me, but Terry and Billy ... I'd got plenty of irons in the fire. I'd be a tour manager again (laughs). I'd do anything to pay the rent. I'm an absolute prostitute. There's no depth too low for me to crawl into. But I thought he was really pathetic. It's a year ago now, and I just don't see Dave anymore. I'm not angry with hint, but I don't particularly miss him either.
The music on the new album is an extension of the stylistic potpourri you explored on Labour Of Lust and Pure Pop For Now People. Do you actually relate to each and every one of those musical genres?
Yes. I'll just have a go at anything. Like, for instance, "Heart" (On both Nick The Knife and Seconds Of Pleasure). I recut that. The way it's on the new album is the way I originally wrote it. Now I'm not a reggae expert. We used to do a bit of reggae in the Brinsleys, because you hear it all the time in England. It's quite natural for white groups to put that little chop in.
Nick the Knife seems to be somewhat less cynical and more romantic than Labor of Lust.
I think you have to be quite romantic to be a cynic. I admire people that actually don't mind putting their emotion on the line. I mourn the passing of wit in pop music. "The Tracks of My Tears" by Smokey Robinson is a beautiful, tender, passionate song, yet it's filled with wit oozing out of every pore. Nowadays people don't like to, or they've missed the craft of being very emotional without coming over like a bloody, limp-wristed wimp. Whether or not I fit into that category is in the ear of the beholder, but I try not to.
Another theory I've come up with recently is that although there's no rules in recording, there used to be one thing they used to say — "You can't shine shit." If the song's no good and the singer's no good, there's nothing you can do about it. In other words, to make a record it's very important to get a good song and somebody who's really made for it to sing it. But unfortunately, with recording techniques nowadays becoming much more sophisticated, that is right out the window. You can, in fact, shine shit very, very easily. That's why there's so many ghastly, emotionless records around — you can make an average song and an average singer sound terrific by fiddling a few knobs. I'm sorry about that.