Nick Lowe, who was honored earlier this month with the American Association of Independent Music’s Icon Award, is one of the most low-key (sorry) icons you’ll ever meet. Yet his 40-plus-year-long musical career is one of the most varied and diverse of the past half-century. He’s written songs like “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding,” “Breaking Glass” and his biggest-charting U.S. hit, “Cruel to Be Kind.” He produced Elvis Costello’s classic first five albums, as well as the Pretenders’ breakthrough debut single “Stop Your Sobbing” and albums by Graham Parker and many others; as “house producer” of Stiff Records, arguably the first modern independent label, he was an early architect of the sound of punk rock, producing The Damned’s first album and loads of other artists from the era. He was a founding member, with Dave Edmunds, of the legendary rockabilly-tinged band Rockpile, and, as husband of singer Carlene Carter from 1979 until 1990, he was the son-in-law of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.
In his characteristically unassuming way, his influence has been as slow-creeping but as ubiquitous as the unlikely rise of his paean to a disillusioned hippie, “Peace Love and Understanding,” which went from being a non-hit 1974 single from his early band Brinsley Schwartz to the Elvis Costello-sung B-side of one of Lowe’s solo singles, credited to “Nick Lowe and His Sound.” That latter version, which was added to the U.S. edition of Costello’s 1979 “Armed Forces” album, has gone on to become a standard, covered hundreds of times, most lucratively in a version by Curtis Stigers that appeared on the biggest-selling movie soundtrack of all time, the 1992 Whitney Houston vehicle “The Bodyguard.” It was even sung in karaoke by Bill Murray in “Lost in Translation.” Over the years, Lowe has enjoyed a steady solo career, easing down from his late ‘70s chart success with a solid string of solo albums — six of which from the ‘80s, including “Nick the Knife,” “The Abominable Showman” and “Party of One,” are being reissued by Yep Roc and released digitally for the first time on July 14 — and the occasional tribute from admiring influencees like Wilco, who had Lowe open a tour for them in 2011. After receiving the A2IM Icon Award, he toured the U.S. this month, including three sold-out nights at New York’s City Winery.
Yet all of that nearly never came to be. A large part of the reason for Lowe’s low-key approach to his career occurred in April 1970, when Brinsley Schwartz were the subjects of a now-infamous case of record company overhype: Their label flew a planeload of British journalists to New York for a showcase by the band at the legendary Fillmore East. But due to travel problems, both the band and the journalists arrived late, the band played an uneven set on unfamiliar equipment, and the group was lambasted by the press so savagely that it nearly killed their career. Yet the group persevered and became leading lights of the unassuming mid-‘70s British “Pub Rock” scene, which evolved directly into punk rock. Unexpectedly, that’s where this 45-minute-long chat on a sunny morning in New York’s Bryant Park, which touched on many but not all aspects of Lowe’s unique career and features the priceless term “hapless ninnies,” began.
Was that ill-fated Fillmore show your first visit to New York?
Yeah. We were such hapless ninnies! It was such an awful experience for a kid like me — I was so ambitious and so up for it and I swanked away to my friends and boasted to them, “We’re off to the States! Playing the Fillmore, you know!” And when it all fell to bits and we were laughing stocks, it was so utterly humiliating that I remember thinking, how could you have been such a fool? But for some reason we didn’t break up, I do not know why — we sort of clung to each other because we were so mortified by this terrible experience. And now I’ve got so much to thank it for: my idea of what it was to be famous and how to deal with it changed immediately, and I learned to treat being in the entertainment business with a lot more respect. I realized that I wanted to tread this fine line between being a cool unknown person and someone who could just stick my head above the parapet every so often and let the public know I’ve got new product. It’s a very fine line to tread but that’s what I decided to do and largely I’ve managed to do it.
You’ve been honored by A2IM with its icon award. Do you feel like an icon?
Sometimes I do, rather. Mainly because I’ve gone out of my way to avoid preaching to my old audience — I know some people who do that, and they’re expected to behave like they did when they were young, and I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to do that. I was going to try and present myself in a way that I can use getting older to my advantage instead of something to be embarrassed by. And in that way I thought younger people might dig it, “Hey this guy’s alright,” because I’m not trying to get down with the kids. I’m very interested in young people and what they think but I’m not interested in trying to curry favor with them. I thought in that way I could conceivably attract their attention and that’s what’s sort of happened, especially here [in the U.S.] with bands like Wilco. I toured with them and started attracting a newer, younger audience. Now I find myself talking to younger people after shows and I feel a bit like Howlin’ Wolf, [craggy old voice] “Oh yeah, kids, in my day…” I kind of enjoy that aspect of it, but as long as it is like that, and not like some old git who won’t get out of the way.
Stiff Records was one of the first modern independent rock label, and it really relaunched your career in the mid-‘70s. But indie labels weren’t a thing yet — what gave you the confidence to move in that direction?
I had a manager, Jake Riviera [also Costello’s early manager], who co-founded Stiff. He was quite a character, and I started spending more and more time sleeping on the floor of his flat because the Brinsleys had run their course and I could tell the writing was on the wall — I knew that something was about to chan, I didn’t know what it was but I knew something really, really big was about to happen, and so did Jake. So the two of us naturally spent more and more time plotting how we could be in on this together. We had a lot of luck in that at the time the British music press was very widely read — there were five weekly papers, the NME, Sounds, Melody Maker, Disc, and another one — and they all had a massive readership. There was a handful of respected writers and we all knew each other, we all used to drink in the same three pubs and one nightclub, Dingwalls. So all Jake and I had to do was say “We’ve got this idea” and it was in the paper the next week. It was like our own personal broadcast to the nation. It wasn’t underhanded, it was because they knew we were onto something and we knew they were onto something. So that gave us an enormous advantage over the straight record labels and their press departments, where it would take a month to arrange an interview: We could talk over a pint of beer at the Lamb and Flag and it would be in the paper, in front of that huge readership, in a week.
Where do you feel the ‘80s albums that are being reissued fit into your body of work?
That was a tough period for me, because I’d had a couple of pop hits but, as inevitably happens, the public were tiring of my schtick and looking elsewhere for fresh talent. I didn’t have either the talent or the energy to stick with it like an Elton John or Neil Diamond or Cher (laughing). I knew I wasn’t one of those people, so I was drinking and taking too many drugs in a bid to try and get inspired, but tastes were changing and the phone wasn’t answered quite so rapidly when I called people up. So I thought, “Right, enough is enough, it’s time to take stock. First of all, I’ve gotta get myself cleaned up and then have a think about how I’m going to carry on.” That’s when I decided to explore what I was just saying about trying to use the fact that I was getting older as an advantage. At that time the business had no use for people in their 40s, let alone their 50s and 60s.
And that helped turn things around?
That, and … It’s so hard to put into words, but Johnny Cash once said to me, “Nick, you know what the secret is? The secret is: You’ve got to be yourself.” And I thought, “Man, is that the best you can do? ‘Be yourself’?! Every clapped-out old has-been in show business says that!” But the older I get, that tired old cliché is actually true. Once you realize that you don’t have to try to hide your flaws, it’s much easier if you admit you are who you are instead of trying to be… you know, I always thought ‘People don’t want to see me, they want to see something magnificent so I have to be that’ – and it’s exhausting keeping that up. So I suppose that was it. The ‘80s was when one world stopped and another world started.
You must have spent a lot of time with Johnny Cash. What do you remember best about him?
He was absolutely great, I miss him still — and June, she was an absolute darling. They were so kind to me. And one of the things I liked about John was that he was sort of hopeless — he was quite a flawed person, but flawed like my best friends are flawed. My best friends f— up all the time, they’ll let you down occasionally and you row and then everything’s fine. And that’s one reason I liked him so much. He’s portrayed as a rather stern, father-of-the-nation type, and I never saw him like that at all. When I knew him he was on prescription drugs and drinking, we used to get sloshed together, but he was under an enormous amount of pressure because he was lugging around this enormous sort of Johnny Cash revue with a huge cast of characters, and it was really past its sell-by date. It was extremely square and he knew it, and it was costing him fortune, but the poor chap was supporting all these families and if he stopped then these families were really going to suffer, so he had to keep going. He was revered but was being taken for granted. And he was in a lot of pain, certainly physical pain and probably emotional pain.
We used to listen to records together, he’d be like “Oh — listen to this, listen to this! Wait, it’s not that track, THAT one! Sh-sh-shh! Listen to this!” Most of the stuff he played I’d never heard of — lots of old folk stuff, but also Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. He’d pick a guitar up and be like “Do you know this song by so-and-so?” It was unbelievable, we’d be sitting in this little house [Lowe and Carlene Carter] had in a not-very-nice part of London — he and June used to come and stay there with us. They did their best to be unobtrusive — which of course they couldn’t possibly be. I’d get up in the morning, go down to get a cup of coffee and there he’d be, sitting in his pajamas with his guitar in this little tiny kitchen! It was absolutely brilliant. It’s always a bit odd when a person’s mother and father-in-law come to stay, but because it was Johnny and June ….
Each one of the albums you did with Elvis Costello sounds very different from the one that came before it. How did you keep that up?
Well I was also a real music fan, and because I had listened to a lot of records, I could make a guess at how to achieve a sound. So when Elvis said “I want to get this rattley old Stax Records sound” or some garage-rock thing, I’d say “Okay, we’ll take all these microphones off the drums” and so on and so forth. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.
Do you own the publishing on “Peace Love and Understanding”?
We’re not involved with each other anymore but Jake really was a fantastic manager, and one thing he did was to make sure I owned my publishing and my recordings. With “Peace Love and Understanding,” I’d signed a publishing deal in a sort of haze of marijuana smoke at the age about 20, and the company was owned by a guy who wasn’t a publisher at all, he pioneered the transmission of boxing matches to cinemas around the world. Anyway, our manager went to America to raise money for the groups he managed [and came back with this deal]. But because he wasn’t a real publisher these songs sat in a file cabinet, he never worked them or anything, and when I grew up a bit, that deal ran out and I got another publisher. By this time my fortunes had changed, I’d had a few hits, and my new publisher said, we’ve gotta get those songs back. I said there’s some really awful songs in there, how much is this gonna cost? He said it depends on how much he wants to fight, it could cost a lot but it’ll be worth it. I said they’re not that great I don’t know how much I want to spend. He said I think you should. Anyway, it was very hard and it cost me a six-figure sum, but we got our day in court and I got all of my songs back — and the songs from our former manager’s other groups — and the only one that was worth anything was “Peace Love and Understanding.” And after that, Elvis recorded it and the rest is history.
The song is a standard. Whenever I hear people do it now it’s almost like I had nothing to do with it!