Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Schwarz Is Strong With This One

One of the best value ‘best of’ CD compilations I have purchased, in terms of bang for your buck, has to be Nick Lowe’s ‘Basher: The Best Of’, released on Demon Records back in 1989. From memory, I picked up my copy a few years after that, for the most part to obtain a CD copy of one of my all-time favourite pop-rock tracks ‘Cruel To Be Kind’. I was also familiar with a number of other Nick Lowe songs at that point, but I found the 25 track album to be a non-stop rollicking ride of old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll and melodic power pop.

Nick Lowe grew up the son of a Royal Air Force officer, and spent much of his childhood shifting between England and parts of the Middle East. As a sixteen year old Lowe was a founding member of the beat/psychedelic rock combo Kippington Lodge, which formed during 1965, and featured Lowe (vocals/bass), Barry Landerman (organ), Pete Whale (drums), and Brinsley Schwarz (guitar sax). Lowe had already played with school friend Schwarz in a little outfit called Sound 4 Plus 1 back in 1963. Between 1967 and 1969, Kippington Lodge released five singles on the Parlophone label, beginning with ‘Shy Boy’ (not the Bananarama song) in 1967, through to a cover of The Beatles’ ‘In My Life’ in May 1969. None of the band’s singles managed to find board and lodgings on the charts, and by early 1970 Schwarz, Lowe, ‘68 recruit Bob Andrews (organ), and new drummer Billy Rankin, were at the collective crossroads of their music careers.

Like so many before, and since, the quartet found themselves under the spell of an ambitious talent agent, who saw great things ahead for the band. David Robinson was a former tour manager for Jimi Hendrix (not sure if he was the one who ensured ample supplies of lighter fluid for live shows), and now headed the subtly named Famepushers Agency. He came up with the grandiose scheme of flying a plane load of music journos to New York to see the newly dubbed quartet Brinsley Schwarz play a show at the Fillmore East club in April 1970, in support of Van Morrison. Robinson hyped up the band’s credentials in slightly overzealous fashion, akin to the arrival of the new Beatles, and outlaid over $100,000 on the exercise. Predictably, reality failed to ascend to the anticipatory heights of the hype, and a plane load of well miffed journos returned to Britain feeling as if they’d been duped. The concurrent released of Brinsley Schwarz’s eponymous debut album on the United Artists label suffered as a result. The music press largely turned their collective noses in the air, which is a pity given the album was a very agreeable blend of country-rock, with playful touches of southern-style boogie and R&B thrown in, echoing influences from The Band, The Byrds and Grateful Dead.

Brinsley Schwarz bounced back late in 1970 with the album ‘Despite It All’, which featured the country-rock classic ‘Country Girl’, and despite the charts remaining elusive, the band quickly established a strong following on the live scene as skilled, and unpretentious purveyors of no-nonsense, back-to-basics roots music. Guitarist/vocalist Ian Gomm joined soon after, but it was Nick Lowe who had clearly taken on a lead role, as both lead singer, and chief songwriter. Over the course of 1971 Brinsley Schwarz (the band) continued to hone their straight up recipe of country, folk, R&B, and rock & roll, which was served up on their next album ‘Silver Pistol’, with an American bar band called Eggs Over Easy, a strong influence during this period. Despite achieving an almost cult-like status on the live circuit, making the popular Tally Ho venue their own and scoring a support slot for Paul McCartney & Wings, Brinsley Schwarz’s army of ardent followers didn’t manage to conquer the charts on the band’s behalf. Over the next couple of years the band continued to release solid albums, ‘Nervous On The Road’ (1972), and ‘Please Don’t Ever Change’ (1973), and Nick Lowe’s melodic vocal style, and skewed sense of humour strongly informed the band’s sound. Brinsley Schwarz were largely free of the excesses and pretentiousness that plagued popular music at that time, and their back to basics spirit played a key role in laying the foundations for the explosion of pub-rock, and punk/new wave to follow, with the likes of Elvis Costello and The Clash clearly influenced by them.

Brinsley Schwarz’s final album came in 1974 with ‘The New Favourites Of Brinsley Scwarz’, produced of course by Dave Edmunds (see previous post), at Edmunds’ Rockfield Studio. The album featured some of Nick Lowe’s best work to date, including ‘Peace, Love And Understanding’, later recorded by Elvis Costello & The Attractions on their 1979 ‘Armed Forces’ album (produced by Nick Lowe). That same year the band appeared (uncredited) as electricians, alongside Dave Edmunds, in the film ‘Stardust’. They released a handful of singles during 1975, including a cover of The Beatles’ ‘I Should Have Known Better’, which was credited to Limelight, but soon enough Brinsley Schwarz decided that it just wasn’t going to happen, and amicably went their separate ways later that year. Ian Gomm went on to record solo material, and scored a US#18 hit in 1979 titled ‘Hold On’. Bob Andrews and Brinsley Schwarz (the guitarist) went on to become key members of Graham Parker’s backing band The Rumour (see earlier post), whilst Billy Rankin played with Terraplane, before retiring from the music business.

As mentioned in the previous Dave Edmunds’ post, prior to disbanding, Brinsley Schwarz served as the backing band on Edmunds’ 1975 album ‘Subtle As a Flying Mallet’, for which Nick Lowe wrote and co-produced a number of songs, establishing a lucrative creative partnership between the two, which would weave its way through both their respective careers over the next six years. Lowe’s time in the producer’s booth with Edmunds, led him along the natural pathway toward producing other artist’s work. Over the course of 1976 Lowe produced two albums for Graham Parker (& The Rumour), ‘Heat Treatment’ and ‘Howlin’ Wind’, and released a couple of tongue in cheek pseudonymous singles ‘Bay City Rollers We Love You’ (as Tartan Horde), and ‘Let’s Go To The Disco’ (as Disco Brothers), as an exercise in trying to break free of his United Artists recording contract (the bizarre antics on record eventually did the trick). Lowe also became one quarter of Rockpile, alongside Edmunds, Billy Bremner (guitar) and Terry Williams (drums) - see three posts previous for more extended coverage of Rockpile’s activities during this period.

In August 1976 Nick Lowe’s debut solo single (under his own name) ‘So It Goes’ was released on the newly formed Stiff Records label, which Lowe played a key role in establishing with Jake Riviera. During 1977 he released the EP ‘Bowi’, followed by the single ‘Halfway To Paradise’, but principally Lowe honed his craft as a producer for other artists signed to the Stiff Records roster, quickly earning the nickname ‘Basher’ in reference to his raw energy, take no prisoners production style. During the next year Lowe produced albums for artists including, Dr. Feelgood (‘Be Seeing You’), another rootsy pub-rock act, punk-goth rockers The Damned (‘Damned Damned Damned’), and Elvis Costello’s debut set ‘My Aim Is True’. At that time Costello hadn’t put together the Attractions, and was backed in studio by a country-rock outfit called Clover, whose usual lead singer was one Huey Lewis (later of The News), and someone who would work with Nick Lowe a decade later. Lowe became Costello’s principle producer over the next decade, sitting at the controls for seminal Costello albums such as ‘This Year’s Model’ (1978), ‘Armed Forces’ (1979), and ‘Blood And Chocolate’ (1986), and Lowe’s pop-rock production sensibilities proved a perfect foil for Costello’s sharp edged, cynical approach.

In late ‘77 Nick Lowe followed Jake Riviera across to his new label Radar Records (with Costello also making the leap), and it was there that Nick Lowe would finally start chalking up the chart hits, as a performer, that he so richly deserved.

No comments: