Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Basher Gets Cruel To Be Kind

In February 1978 Nick Lowe released the single ‘I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass’, which broke through on the British charts soon after, where it peaked at #7. The track featured on Lowe’s album ‘The Jesus Of Cool’ (UK#22/ OZ#77), released as ‘Pure Pop For Now People’ in the U.S. (#127). The album was co-produced by Dave Edmunds, and featured the backing of Lowe’s side project Rockpile. It proved to be a tour de force for a pop-rock chameleon, clearly capable of traversing a myriad of musical styles, and subversively infusing each combination with a burgeoning lacing of sardonic humour (a trademark of Lowe’s lyrics). Nick Lowe had done the hard yards as a rock and roll journeyman, and though technically a debut set, ‘The Jesus Of Cool’ reflected the work of an artist who was clearly a master of his craft, with an uncompromising commitment to roots-rock authenticity.

Later in 1978 Nick Lowe played bass on Carlene Carter’s self titled album, and a year later he married the daughter of country legend Johnny Cash. After producing the Pretenders’ debut single ‘Stop Your Sobbing’, Lowe continued touring with Rockpile into 1979, and he produced fellow ‘Rockpillian’ Dave Edmunds’ album ‘Repeat When Necessary’. Together with Lowe’s next album ‘Labour Of Lust’ (UK#43/OZ#53/ US#31), they were essentially Rockpile projects, on which the quartet assumed all playing and production duties. ‘Labour Of Lust’ benefited from the then powerful musical chemistry of Rockpile, and Lowe’s hook laden pop melodies are super-charged by the quartet’s potent roots rock energy. The lead out single ‘Cracking Up’, crackled up the British charts to #34, but it was the follow up that would deliver Nick Lowe the biggest hit single of his performance career.

From the opening burst of ‘Cruel To Be Kind’, the song hooks you and simply doesn’t release you from its sublime pop-rock charms, even beyond its final fade-out. ‘Cruel To Be Kind’ had actually been gathering dust for several years, as a never released Brinsley Schwarz track, co-written by Lowe and Ian Gomm. With its pristinely produced Rockpile brand makeover, the song scored an even dozen on the charts all round, peaking at #12 in the U.S., Britain, and Australia during 1979. The follow up single ‘Switchboard Susan’ was a cover of the Mickey Jupp song (which Lowe had previously produced), and the album was brimming with a five star assortment of edgy, pop-rock masterpieces. Over the course of the next eighteen months Lowe devoted most of his time and energies to Rockpile, which had evolved into a fully fledged rock entity - see recent Rockpile post for more details of this period - though Lowe did find the time to produce (and play on) two more Elvis Costello (& The Attractions) albums.

By early 1981 Rockpile had experienced and acrimonious split, and Nick Lowe turned his attention toward re-establishing his solo career. For most of 1981 Lowe was chained to the producer’s chair, overseeing albums by his wife Carlene Carter (‘Blue Nun’), Elvis Costello & The Attractions (‘Trust’), Ducks Deluxe, and The Pretenders. Lowe resumed recording his own material late in the year, and his first post-Rockpile album ‘Nick The Knife’ (UK#99/OZ#50) was released in early ‘82. The more light hearted album was Lowe’s first for the Columbia label, but still featured the services of Rockpile alumnus Billy Bremner and Terry Williams, hinting that the main reason for Rockpile’s demise was a splintering of musical direction between Lowe and Edmunds. Soon after Lowe had established a new backing band, dubbed The Chaps, who included ex-Ace/Squeeze vocalist/keyboardist, and all round music journeyman, Paul Carrack (see future post), ex-Rumour guitarist Martin Belmont, and drummer Bobby Irwin. The Chaps were renamed Noise To Go during 1982, and they toured extensively during that period, with Lowe exchanging bass duties for rhythm guitar, when bassist James Eller was added to the line-up. Lowe remained active in the production booth, and worked with Texan roots-rock and blues powerhouse The Fabulous Thunderbirds on their fourth album ‘T-Bird Rhythm’ (The Fabulous Thunderbirds had opened for Rockpile on their 1980 U.S. tour). Lowe’s 1983 album ‘The Abominable Showman’ (US#129) was a distinctly more countrified album, hinting a return to his early country-rock roots. Stylistically, the album found Lowe caught uncomfortably between new wave and country rock camps, and the result was an inconsistent, and on the whole, poorly received set. The album did feature the track ‘Time Wounds All Heels’, co-written by Lowe, his wife Carlene Carter, and a young staff writer by the name of Simon Climie (see recent Climie Fisher post), and the lead out single ‘Ragin’ Eyes’ illustrated Lowe could still produce a wryly witted, yet infectiously catchy pop-rock. Lowe also produced John Hiatt’s 1983 album ‘Riding With The King’, and the two would later hook up in a ‘supergroup’ that would aid in reviving Lowe’s fortunes.

In 1984 Nick Lowe unveiled his new backing group, with Paul Carrack still on board, and released his next two albums under the moniker ‘Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit’. The new ensemble’s 1984 album was a self titled effort (US#113), and featured the snappy, party fuelling pop-rock number ‘Half A Boy And Half A Man’ (UK#53/OZ#66). On the 1985 follow up album ‘The Rose Of England’ (US#119/ OZ#100), Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit pumped out a good time mix of roots rock variations, with numbers such as the rockabilly standard ‘7 Nights To Rock’ a highlight. Lowe re-recorded the track ‘I Knew The Bride (When She Used To Rock & Roll)’ (previously a hit for Dave Edmunds in 1977), with former Clover singer Huey Lewis (and The News) providing back-up, and Lewis co-producing. ‘I Knew The Bride’ was Lowe’s last foray into the U.S. charts (#77) and enjoyed a short honeymoon period on the Australian charts (#26) in early 1986.

Lowe then experience a difficult couple of years battling depression and alcoholism, and at one point, demoralised by the apparent lack of interest in his brand of music from the mainstream pop industry, he seriously considered retiring from the business altogether. Old mates Jake Riviera and Elvis Costello encouraged Lowe to head back to the studio and do what he did best. Lowe worked as producer on John Hiatt’s ‘Bring The Family’, The Damned’s ‘Light At The End Of The Tunnel’ (aptly titled given Lowe’s circumstances), and Costello’s ‘Out Of Out Idiot’, before beginning work on his own solo album. Lowe co-produced 1988’s ‘Pinker And Prouder Than Previous’ with Colin Fairley, and welcomed back a swag of old friends to help out on the record, including Terry Williams, Bobby Irwin, Martin Belmont, and Paul Carrack. It wasn’t one of Lowe’s best albums, but it helped him regain his footing after a difficult period. During the same period Lowe began working with Elvis Costello’s touring band (as bass player), undertook a solo acoustic tour of England, and produced two albums for then up and coming British folk-rock outfit The Katydids.

By 1990 Nick Lowe had sorted out his differences with former Rockpile comrade, and roots rock kindred spirit, Dave Edmunds, and Edmunds helped produce Lowe’s album ‘Party Of One’ (OZ#88/US#182), which spawned Lowe’s last incursion into the Australian charts with the single ‘All Men Are Liars’ (OZ#76). The title of the album had a tinge of irony to it, given Lowe’s 1990 divorce from Carlene Carter, and it was the first release by Lowe to feature all original material from the artist himself. Over 1991 Lowe stuck mainly to his first love of playing bass, and contributed to Elvis Costello’s brilliant ‘Mighty Like A Rose’ set, and blues legend John Lee Hooker’s ‘Mr. Lucky’. Two of the guest players on the, admittedly at times stilted, ‘Party Of One’ album, were guitarist Ry Cooder and drummer Jim Keltner. With Lowe, and John Hiatt, they continued their collaboration to form the ‘supergroup’ Little Village - actually the quartet had all played together on Hiatt’s 1987 album ‘Bring The Family’, but it took another five years for them to manage to reconvene. Little Village released a single self-titled album in 1992 (UK#23/OZ#56), with Hiatt, Cooder and Lowe sharing vocal, and song-writing duties, and they undertook an extensive tour thereafter, before the predictable tensions of the supergroup environment surfaced, and the quartet returned to their respective individual career paths.

After performing bass duties on Elvis Costello’s ‘Brutal Youth’ album, Nick Lowe released the critically acclaimed country-rock album ‘The Impossible Bird’ in late 1994, though yet again mainstream pop fans remained largely oblivious to the albums charms, which is a pity as ‘The Impossible Bird’ offered up some of Lowe’s most heartfelt, and personal songs. The album did find an audience amongst fans of the burgeoning Americana movement, prompting Lowe to undertake his first solo tour of the U.S. in more than five years, with former Commander Cody guitarist Bill Kirchen included in Lowe’s backing group. As with Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe’s prolific level of creative output was somewhat tempered during the latter half of the 90s, but he returned in 1998 with the album ‘Dig My Mood’. After signing with the independent Yep Roc label, Nick Lowe has released three more well received albums over the last decade; ‘The Convincer’ (2001), ‘Untouched Takeaway - Live’ (2004), and ‘At My Age’ (2007), all of which show traces of Lowe’s pop-rock roots and inherently wry humour, but imbued with a strong sense of a more mellow artist, comfortable in his advancing years.

Given a bountiful, and consistently high quality, output as a producer, and artist, in partnership with his influential and pioneering integration of roots rock influences into cutting edge fare, Nick Lowe rightly deserves acknowledgement as one of the great, unsung heroes that has graced popular music over the last forty years.

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