The Nerd is around, and Columbia Records is in a panic.
The Nerd is a New York rock columnist, and he sniffs Nick Lowe in Columbia's offices. He's right, too; Lowe is chatting away with an interviewer while his publicist worries about getting him to Brendan Byrne Arena, across the river in New Jersey, in time for a sound check. Being waylaid by the Nerd could be disastrous, as Lowe is too affable to know when to pry off his admirers. A Columbia staffer strategically buttonholes the Nerd for small talk while the publicist hustles Lowe out of the building and into a waiting limousine.
The singer/songwriter/Pure Pop exponent is dressed for intrigue. Lowe wears a wrinkled raincoat that looks closer to dirty-old-man garb than Nick the Knife chic. A small yellow rose, harbinger of spring, is stapled to his lapel. Lowe absentmindedly left the coat in a Houston restaurant three weeks earlier, and is overjoyed with its near-miraculous return. Rumpled but comfortable, the coat might bear analogy with Lowe himself. Before leaving the interview he carefully places an open, half-full bottle of Heineken — one of several adorning a desk top — in his coat pocket.
It is the day after Lowe's 33rd birthday, and the final night of a seven-week tour opening for the Cars. To escape the euphoria backstage at Byrne Arena Lowe selects his band's parked tour bus for an interview location. The wood-paneled, compartmentalized interior resembles a Victorian railway carriage. A small white cake on a table toward the front carries the legend "Happy Birthday Basher" around an anatomically impressive female figure in high relief. "That's from last night's party," Lowe remarks. It is untouched.
A moptop of hair, spilling over his collar, is almost as devoid of color as Lowe's eyes. He stares out a window as darkness falls and hordes of kids troop by, oblivious to the bus or its inhabitants. While he talks he idly shuffles a deck of cards, doodles on a matchbook cover and fools around with a wind-up toy. This nervous agitation also suffuses his conversation with witty remarks, comic accents and a plethora of profanity.
As it turns out, Lowe and his new backing band, Noise to Go, don't get a sound check at Byrne. Such is the peril of opening-act status. The last time Lowe was in the US he was headlining venues as one-fourth of Rockpile, but he doesn't seem perturbed by his change of fortune.
"I like being the damned opening act," Lowe protests in nasal British tones. "If I got in a position where I could fill up any of these damn barns we've been playing I'd do it differently. I wouldn't go to see the sermon on the goddamn mount in one of these places. I wouldn't go see the fucking Beatles if they got back together in a place like this. I think it's horrendous; how can anyone watch a rock 'n' roll show in a horrible gap meant for ice hockey?"
But he has no bad words for the Cars. "They're paying us a lot of money to be on this damn tour with 'em, and I'm very pleased about it. They've been bloody good to us as well, the old Cars. They're sports. [Sports cars! — Bloody old Ed.] Their road crew has been really good to us as well. Road crews can make your life absolute hell. You hear all these stories: They only give you a candle to light the stage, and about three watts of power."
Is Lowe himself, then, a big Cars fan?
"Big cars, well, yes, I like big cars," he harumphs distractedly, and it's time to change the subject.
Nick Lowe was a forces brat. Although born in a village 25 miles west of London, his father's career in the Royal Air Force took young Nick to Cyprus and Jordan before he was carted off to a British boarding school. "I spent most of my life on RAF camps when I was a kid," Lowe reminisces. He pauses. "That doesn't make any sense, does it?"
Lowe enjoyed singing as a child, and his mother taught him to play guitar. "She knew a few chords. We used to sing harmony to Kingston Trio songs, quite harmless stuff." Lowe's first record purchases were equally unprophetic: "Magic Moments" by Perry Como and "Sink the Bismarck" by British cover artist Don Lang.
In common with most of his generation, Lowe was profoundly affected by the double whammy of adolescence and the Beatles (and the groups following in their wake). "I realized I wanted to be in a band when I saw these groups getting fucked so much and taking tons of drugs. I thought it would be a far more exciting way of earning a living than what I had going for me."
Before turning pro Lowe traveled the usual emulation route: "I was in a number of bands that used to imitate West London groups like Creation and the Birds (with Ronnie Wood). They were like the Who: three-pieces with a singer, R&B-based with a bit of Motown but a wild guitar sound. Every group used to do 'Heatwave.' I wanted to be in Creation; we used to do all their numbers.
"I was in some bands where I knew only the first names of the guys in them. In those days it was like, 'Let's form a band. I know a bloke who's got a guitar!' You'd ring a doorbell and say, 'Uh, have you got an electric guitar?' Yeah. "You wanta be in a band? I know a bloke who's got an amplifier.' It was just getting people who had some equipment."
One of Lowe's schoolmates was Brinsley Schwarz, who had an electric guitar and was putting a group together. "He'd only let me join if I got a bass. I did a bit of singing—I thought I was Wilson Pickett for a time—but mainly I played bass. No one wanted to play bass because you had to have a group to go along with it. You couldn't just sit at home and get off playing bass."
Lowe's professional fortunes (the term is used loosely) then followed upon Schwarz' for the next decade, first in Kippington Lodge and then the eponymous Brinsley Schwarz. Turning solo artist of necessity after the Brinsleys broke up, Lowe signed aboard Stiff Records in 1976. For once he was in the right place at the right time. As Stiff rode the crest of Britain's new wave, Lowe gained a reputation for his warped pop sensibilities and production knowhow on albums by the Damned and Elvis Costello, among others.
By 1978 Lowe was juggling his solo career with membership in a shadowy organization called Rockpile, including guitarists Dave Edmunds and Billy Bremner and drummer Terry Williams. Due to different record company affiliations, Edmunds and Lowe released their own solo albums and played back-up on each other's, with the other Rockpilers in tow. When the contractual problems were resolved in 1980 Rockpile released a "debut" album and toured the US to much press hoopla. A couple of months later the band broke up.
Lowe is tired of answering Rockpile questions even though the split has never been explained consistently by the parties involved. Warning that he is about to rattle off a stock answer ("but it's the truth"), Lowe proceeds:
"We used to hate rehearsing. It was all simple stuff we used to do, and the air of spontaneity was part of the 'Pile's act: It looked like friends having a good time, which we were. Especially over here, people liked the fact that we were under-rehearsed and kind of scruffy. But whereas a lot of bands who are better rehearsed and have a slicker show can stay together even if they hate each other because there's a dollar bill in it, when we started losing it we really noticed. Maybe we could have done another tour and pulled the wool over people's eyes, but we were all such good mates that we couldn't lie to each other. We'd just done it for too long.
"It happens to all bands. You get carried away with the euphoria of starting a group. Then there comes a time when you get stuck and stale and you have a choice of either jacking it in or working at it, ironing out what's going wrong. Frankly, we were never committed enough to Rockpile. I rehearsed more for this tour than Rockpile did the whole time we were together. That's why we were good, although it brought about our eventual demise. We knew we were losing our vibe. Our philosophy was, as soon as it stops being fun we tell each other, 'Sorry, fellas, I'm not grooving. I'm off.'
"Dave and [manager] Jake [Riviera] were always having little arguments. Dave's a bit of a businessman — he knows about contracts, which I have no clue about at all — but I felt he engineered this argument with Jake to get out of owning up, so he could leave in high dudgeon or with dignity. I got annoyed with him because I didn't think he was man enough to own up to the fact that it was all over. Another group is breaking up, big deal. I'm not angry with Edmunds anymore; it was a goddamn year ago. The only sad thing about it is I've found I don't miss Edmunds. I'm sure he doesn't me either, but I thought after that time we spent together and how close we were — obviously I was wrong. I was thinking one thing and he was thinking another. That does actually break my heart.
"Dave's a real showbizzer. He was the first one to start talking to people after we split up, and I couldn't believe it when he said, 'Oh, yes, we're still great mates.' I thought, you cunt, how can you possibly say that? Of course we're not mates! I can't be bothered to stonewall people. He's still the fucking best at what he does; there's no one to come near him."
Would Lowe ever consider working with Edmunds again?
"Probably, but I can't see it in the near future. We've just got no reason to. That's the short answer. It's all over now anyway. Bollocks."
Even if the wounds Rockpile left have yet to heal, Lowe remains proud of the band.
"We were a straight-ahead rock 'n' roll band that related to the '80s. We never sat around talking about it, we used to fucking play cards and go to boxing matches. It annoys me when people who play rock 'n' roll feel they gotta grease their hair back and dress like a fucking clown. I don't see why you've gotta walk around to demonstrate to people 'I'm dressed up as the sort of music I play.' There's no need for that at all. The old 'Pile weren't exactly oil paintings but we were a country-rock group in the proper sense — not like the Eagles or some drippy guys in cowboy shirts singing wimpy songs about Colorado. And we were the only damn ones at one point."
Nick the Knife was recorded over a long period of time. Lowe downplays any ideas about its cohesiveness or continuity.
"I kept on recording until someone said, 'You've got enough for an album now.' Then I just stopped. I didn't really think it out. I'm extremely uncommitted to music. It's like a hobby to me — 'something I do in the evenings' is what I always find myself saying."
In keeping with the grab-bag approach, "Queen of Sheba" dates back to at least 1973, although Brinsley Schwarz never performed it. "Heart" appeared on Rockpile's sole LP, Seconds of Pleasure, but Nick the Knife's spare arrangement is the way Lowe originally conceived it.
"I did a demo of it ages ago, over-dubbing everything and with a tape loop for the drum part. And that's how I re-corded this. A lot of stuff on this record was done with just me, engineer Aldo Bocca and tape operator Neil King in the studio. Aldo can play lead guitar, which I can't. Neil played a lot of keyboards."
Elsewhere Lowe used Martin Belmont (guitar), Paul Carrack (keyboards), James Eller (bass) and Bobby Irwin (drums). These musicians also comprise Noise to Go. Lowe didn't have a hard time recruiting them.
"They were all bloody out of work! Bunch of fucking scoundrels. They were playing with Carlene [Caner, Lowe's wife] on some gigs; when she stopped I just swung in and picked them up. Martin, of course, I've known for years. He was a roadie for Brinsley Schwarz; I used to employ him to carry my equipment! [Belmont achieved greater fame more recently in the Rumour, Graham Parker's late backing band.] Paul I know from his pub-rock days with Ace in the early '70s. Bobby Irwin played on a lot of things I did with Stiff and was with Lene Lovich and the Sinceros."
Two Nick the Knife cuts, "Zulu Kiss" and "Stick It Where the Sun Don't Shine," were recorded with ex-Rockpilers Bremner and Williams. Some people think "Stick It," a bitter put-down, refers to Lowe's falling out with Edmunds. The song predates Rockpile's split, however; Lowe and Edmunds even used to sing it together before it assumed final form. Its composer describes it as an "inverted love song ... It's not about anything, really. None of my songs are about anything!"
Lowe fans will certainly disagree. Nick the Knife's preponderance of love songs ("I never was an angry young man") seem to have edged out an earlier predilection for bizarre subject matter. Lowe's infamous "Marie Provost," for example, relates the true story of a down-and-out Hollywood actress whose corpse is nibbled on by her pet dachshund. After a pro forma denial of conscious intent, Lowe nevertheless admits some things have changed.
"'Marie Provost' was then, and now is now. There comes a time when you can beat up this fucking smart-ass doing a glib little tune. The number of tapes people have given me and said [adopting a greasy American accent], 'Listen, Nick, ya're gonna love this man, it's about a kid who got run over by a train and lost both his legs, man, it's gonna kill ya!' — I think, what the hell do you think I am? I thought 'Marie Provost' was a sensitive song — a bit tongue in cheek, but it's a sad song."
Lowe can't be blamed for favoring love songs these days, considering his marriage to Carlene Carter. He paints a picture of domestic bliss; the couple have even been collaborating on songs.
"We find it very easy to write together. I vibe her up and she calms me down. Carlene and I are very similar in so many ways. We both like to — how can I explain it — live life to the full!"
One of Lowe's increasingly rare outside production credits was for Carter's last album, The Blue Nun. He claims her American label, Warner Bros., turned down the R&B-inflected record because it was "too sparse." ("They wanted a surrogate Linda Ronstadt.") He recently worked with the Moonlighters, a San Francisco band formerly with Commander Cody, and will produce the Fabulous Thunderbirds in Austin, Texas this June. "I only work with people I like," Lowe says of his lowered production profile. "I almost don't care if I don't like their music."
Idiosyncratic? No doubt Lowe wants to sound that way. A similar openness about his eclectic compositional methods gave him a reputation he's still living down.
"Everybody steals riffs; it's all been done before. That I cheerfully owned up and admitted it shocked people when I first came over here. Now everyone looks into every flicking note I play. It annoys me when people think I've nicked some song I've never heard in me life.
"After I did 'Breaking Glass' Elvis Costello came to the studio. I said, 'Listen to this,' turned it up really loud and it sounded fantastic. He said, 'Well, that's great but you're gonna run into a lot of trouble, aren't you?' And he told me to my horror that David Bowie had a song called 'Breaking Glass.' I'd never heard of it. It was just an incredible coincidence. It's such a weird title for a song; I'd never steal something as obvious as that.
"There's a difference between the way I plagiarize and copping someone's act, wrapping yourself in someone else's persona. That's why the music business is in such a state: There are too many wankers about sounding like something that's gone before."
Uh oh. Lowe on the music-industry warpath is not family entertainment.
"People go on about how awful radio is over here. It's not radio's fault, it's the witless bozos who make the records. Musicians are the stupidest bunch of people; the record company makes them feel they're on top but they're ripped off blind. They ought to do something original, that has a spark of personality, instead of saying, 'Hey man, we really wanta get a hit.' They go out to make a record which sounds like it will get on radio; that's why no one is buying records, and I'm fucking glad. If it gets tougher to get a record deal the music will get better, not blander.
"I think there's too much damn music on radio over here. Everybody's still copying a sound that was made in the early '70s. Spare me! It's nice and safe, and it doesn't get on anybody's nerves. I remember my dad leaping out of a chair and flipping the TV off when the Kinks came on — the fucking Kinks! Nowadays I imagine most kids' mums and dads go see Journey with 'em! That's not what it's supposed to be about. There's supposed to be an element of danger — and not just some wimp saying 'fuck' in a song. Those stupid LA punk groups — it's so tame. Bloody Barbra Streisand singing 'I'm a Woman in Love' has got more sex and style and flair."
The Byrne Arena looks considerably less than sold out as Nick Lowe and his Noise to Go hit the stage at 7:35 p.m. Those who are there know who they're seeing, and they try to make up in enthusiasm what they lack in numbers.
The band delivers a no-nonsense package of Lowe favorites: "Breaking Glass," "Switchboard Susan" and of course Lowe's one genuine US hit single, "Cruel to Be Kind." Lowe strums an electric guitar. "I hit it every time I hear the snare drum — exactly the way I used to play bass."
Oddly enough, on this tour Lowe is performing "Shake and Pop" instead of the revised "They Called It Rock." Both songs are essentially the same, but Edmunds had convened the stompy "Shake and Pop" beat to a smoother shuffle and come up with the new title. Perhaps Lowe still does hold something against his former guitarist buddy. "They Called It Rock" was the first recording Rockpile made.
"Heart of the City" is played slower than Rockpile's breakneck pace, with Carrack's rolling piano figures replacing the Edmunds/Bremner guitar spitfire. Carrack also takes soulful lead vocals on a new Lowe song, "It's Always Better with You," and "Tempted," from his shortlived Squeeze membership. The latter number receives a round of cheers even as it's announced.
Lowe's casual stage banter veers toward self-destructive. "That sound in tune to you?" he asks the audience as he strums his guitar between numbers. Turning to his band he remarks, on-mike and laughing, "They're all deaf." A humorous reference to Bruce Springsteen brings boos. You don't joke about the Boss in New Jersey. Lowe modestly introduces "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" as "a song Elvis Costello recorded" — he himself only wrote it — and the band quits the stage after 35 minutes. There is no encore. Afterwards a rather placid Lowe sums up the performance: "That's the longest film I ever sat through."
The Cars tour is over but the next night Nick Lowe and his Noise to Go headline at New York's Palladium. Lowe seems correspondingly up for the occasion. "Story of my life!" he blurts out during "Shake and Pop" 's cynical scenario, and he clearly relishes the lyric's naughtiness ("Someone in the newspaper said it was shit-tuhh!"). Somebody in the audience throws a toothbrush at Carrack; "good idea!" Lowe retorts. He trots out some rarely performed oldies ("Marie Provost," "Nutted by Reality"), and converts "Switchboard Susan" to her English cousin, "Switchbox Susan." He tells the crowd how well he was paid for touring with the Cars, whose name elicits a mixed response. (Stonefaced Elliot Easton, the Cars' lead guitarist, joins Lowe onstage for encores.) This time when Lowe introduces "Peace, Love and Understanding" he mentions that he wrote it.
It's a good show, but more than one observer misses Rockpile's freewheeling synergy. If Lowe does he's not talking.
"I think 'bands' are really quite dull. I don't know if there's such a thing as bands anymore. Rockpile was one of the last, where each person was as important as the other one. There was never any question of substitutions. But Rod Stewart hasn't got a band, he's got a bunch of geezers he's fuckin' hired to play with him. I had a terrific time on this tour, the way Rockpile used to."
So Lowe won't be sublimating his ego to a group effort anymore?
"That time's gone, it's all over."
Although Nick the Knife finds Lowe as winsome as ever, the album stalled in the record charts. It failed to beat Labour of Lust, Lowe's previous album, or Rockpile's Seconds of Pleasure. But the coiner of the term "pure pop for now people" ("It's now a cliché, which I suppose is a high compliment") isn't the type to get upset over losing the slippery grip of the American masses. His solid following cuts across many post-new wave duchies.
"I don't know if I have particularly succeeded," Lowe muses. "I get away with it. I make a living."