Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe by Will Birch
Of recent times, the rock star autobiography has become a fashionable means by which some of the most famous former music biz debauchees get to reminisce about the crazy days they’ve seen and how, despite it all, they’ve managed to live to tell the tale. Several examples of this genre serve up nothing more than unappetising dollops of tedious sensationalism and cod philosophy on nearly every page, thus demonstrating how damaging the effects of a life surrounded by stimulants and sycophants can be on the average ego-bloated narcissist. Nevertheless, in amongst the dross some worthwhile efforts have been produced, usually because the autobiographical subjects in question don’t take themselves too seriously or have interesting things to say about the circumstances in which their careers blossomed. This seems to particularly apply to those musicians who first came to prominence in and around the punk era of the mid to late seventies, a period in which the prevailing popular music verities were unceremoniously upended against the background of a volatile political and economic climate. So, for example, memoirs by such luminaries as Patti Smith, John Lydon, Richard Hell and Viv Albertine are all well worth a look, as is that of someone more closely identified with the new wave musical style which arose out of punk’s nihilistic demise, namely Elvis Costello. Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink sees Costello deliver a weighty, six-hundred-pages-plus account of his life and times which, much like his music, is by turns inspired, moving and provocative but can also be occasionally verbose and self-indulgent. An important player in Costello’s career, and the producer of his first and several subsequent albums, was Nick Lowe. He is the subject of Will Birch’s recent biography Cruel to Be Kind: The Music and Life of Nick Lowe.
Rather than take the plunge and pen his own life story, Lowe has opted to endorse Birch’s book, whilst showing reluctance to call it an official biography. Birch opens his account by explaining that back in 2015, Lowe had publicly ruled out writing his own memoir, but had then made veiled references to a researcher who was working on an account of his life and times. Lowe, however, didn’t seem completely comfortable with this development, remarking to a Sunday Herald journalist, “Actually, the writer Will Birch is doing a book about me. I sort of disapprove of it.” With Lowe’s typical drollery, he also expressed unease at seeing his considerable stash of anecdotes committed to cold, hard print “without the hand movements.” Despite such misgivings, which, at one point, saw Birch offering to pull the project due to some ominous messages from the musician’s management team, Lowe eventually gave the venture his qualified blessing to the point where he agreed to review the text and offer suggestions and amendments to key passages. The result is an intriguing account of its subject’s life and times.
Lowe was born in 1949, the son of a handlebar-moustached RAF Group Captain and a musically gifted mother. His early years were spent living in a succession of RAF accommodations before the family moved to Jordan in 1956, where his father had been sent by the Air Ministry to provide security support to King Hussein during the Suez Crisis. Hussein soon became a family friend and would often turn up at the Lowe household with his Arab army soldiers in tow, who would let the young Nick “climb up onto the armoured car and fiddle around with the machine gun.” It was at this time that Lowe, like so many other future rock musicians of the sixties and seventies, discovered the delights of Elvis Presley and Lonnie Donegan and was given a ukulele banjo, which he set about mastering. In 1960, with the family back in England, Lowe was sent off to Woodbridge Boarding School. A naturally sociable and musically gifted youngster, he soon formed his first group, in which he took on the role of all-round driving force. However, the arrival of a new boy at Woodbridge in 1962 would prove a crucial moment in Lowe’s nascent musical career. Brinsley Schwarz was not only an accomplished young guitarist, whose group Lowe would soon join, but he would also lend his name to the band in which both musicians would go on to savour their first taste of fame. Before that, though, Lowe would spend the sixties developing his musical abilities, getting into the Mod scene, and, after leaving school, becoming a trainee journalist. However, by 1968 he’d hooked up with Schwarz again and joined his band Kippington Lodge, a name which reeks of floral pattern shirts, bell bottoms and patchouli oil. Having recorded a number of failed pop singles, and with their musical influences increasingly veering towards the likes of Crosby, Stills & Nash and The Band, it was eventually time for a change of name and image, which is why, in 1969, the group decided to call themselves after their lead guitarist and thus Brinsley Schwarz (the group) came into being.
For anyone who knows anything about Brinsley Schwarz, one particular event in their history is notorious. In Birch’s biography the chapter devoted to this episode is simply entitled “The Hype.” By 1970 the group had fallen under the managerial auspices of Dave Robinson, ex-Jimi Hendrix road manager, music biz wheeler-dealer and future co-founder of Stiff Records. In a bid to significantly raise their profile and attract a lucrative record deal, Robinson and his associates had come up with the idea of getting Brinsley Schwarz a prestigious gig at the much-fêted Fillmore East rock venue in New York, whilst also arranging for a convoy of journalists to be flown out to witness this landmark event. Although this idea might appear to have had “massively risky venture” written all over it from the outset, who’s to say that it wouldn’t have paid off —had it not been for some behind-the-scenes financial shenanigans, work permit issues, flight delays and a plane-load of journalists who, as one of them later recalled, had been drinking free booze before and during the trip “until it was coming out of our eyes.” Added to all this, once the inebriated press pack had been herded into the theatre to witness the big event, the group turned in what, by all accounts, was a nervous and underwhelming thirty-five-minute set which garnered only muted applause from those members of the audience who could still remember what they were doing there. By the time the plane carrying all concerned, along with their substantial hangovers, had touched down back in London, the printing presses were, as Birch puts it, “about to rattle with the story of one of the greatest public relations disasters in modern entertainment history.”
Perhaps surprisingly, following such a Spinal Tap-esque debacle, Brinsley Schwarz didn’t implode under the weight of their own collective embarrassment. Instead they became a well-respected country-rock-meets-rhythm-and-blues outfit who would end up releasing six studio albums, with Nick Lowe’s burgeoning melodic songwriting to the fore. In addition, they also became one of the first bands to be associated with the so-called Pub Rock scene, which had its early seventies origins in and around the Greater London area. However, it was also during this period that Lowe’s drug intake, and in particular his use of hallucinogens, began to seriously affect his personality and musicianship. Lowe’s behaviour in this period, as recounted by Birch, seems to have drifted dangerously close to the kind of chemical stupours that so tragically overcame Syd Barrett, with tales of him assuming a trance-like silence in between gigs or suddenly deciding to stop playing halfway through a song. As Lowe would later recall, “I had to be literally led around for months. I didn’t speak and I was covered in lice. I was a horrible hippie case and my mind had really gone.” Eventually he sought and found therapeutic help, albeit discovering along the way that alcohol was an attractive alternative drug of choice. Then, in 1975, the days of Brinsley Schwarz playing in a succession of sweaty venues across Britain and Europe, whilst gaining a hard core of committed Pub Rock devotees along the way, came to an end with their farewell performance on the 18th of March at London’s Marquee Club.
The group’s demise coincided with Lowe’s increasingly close friendship with one Andrew Jakeman, who, in the guise of Jake Riviera, would found Stiff Records in 1976 along with former Brinsley Schwarz manager Dave Robinson. In its original incarnation, the Stiff ethos could be seen as the sniggering antidote to Punk’s occasional tendency to demand a po-faced intensity from its adherents. Although Stiff could boast of having released the first UK Punk record with New Rose by The Damned in 1976, the label quickly distanced itself from the legion of insufferable bang/crash/wallop copyists who soon popped up in the wake of the Sex Pistols’ success. Instead, Stiff took some of the joyful, clammy exuberance of Pub Rock and mixed it with a dash of end-of-pier humour and dada-esque perversity to come up with a label which seemed to delight in depicting itself as a slightly down-at-heel and mysterious set-up. Several of the artists it signed, such as Wreckless Eric, Ian Dury, Lene Lovich and Max Wall exemplified this mercurial aura, whilst other signings, such as Dr Feelgood, Graham Parker, and Elvis Costello showcased the considerable, hard-hitting musical talent that the label had on its books.
For Nick Lowe, the birth of Stiff Records presented the opportunity for him to kick-start a whole new phase of his career as a solo artist and producer. After the demise of Brinsley Schwarz, Lowe had whiled away his time guesting in other people’s bands, acting as temporary tour manager for Dr Feelgood and even recording a novelty song in praise of the Bay City Rollers. However, by August 1976 Lowe’s solo career and Stiff Records were both launched with the release of the single So It Goes. In early 1977 Lowe produced Costello’s debut album, for which he also enlisted the help of studio virtuoso and fellow musician Dave Edmunds, with whom he would go on to form the occasional four-piece known as Rockpile. However, it wasn’t until March 1978, with the Top 10 hit I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass under his belt, that Lowe released his first album Jesus of Cool, hailed by the Melody Maker as “a masterpiece of contemporary pop.” If Costello was already shaping up to be a viperish critic of human frailties, Lowe was more the phlegmatically witty commentator with a keen pop sensibility (as well as, in the song Marie Provost, a distinctly dark sense of humour). With his career once again in the ascendant, Lowe was soon re-immersed in the touring life which, on one occasion, included an appearance with Rockpile at the Bottom Line in New York City, where they were joined by a somewhat “emotional” and gravitationally-challenged Keith Richards who eventually outstayed his welcome and had to be ushered off-stage to the sound of colourful heckling from a furious Dave Edmunds.
Another album, Labour of Lust, followed in 1979. Like its predecessor, it remains one of Lowe’s best albums, and also yielded his signature worldwide hit Cruel to Be Kind. However, it was another single from that album, Cracking Up, which would prove to be something of a foreshadowing of the sporadic physical and mental issues which would assail Lowe whilst he pursued the rock-star lifestyle. It was also during 1979 that Lowe married Carlene Carter, whose family were country music royalty; her mother June was married to Johnny Cash. By 1981 Lowe had become a well-respected, if entertainingly unorthodox, producer who would adopt the role of resident wisecracking comedian-cum-motivational coach in order to get the sound he wanted from the artists he worked with. One engineer recalled that Lowe was never without his vodka and orange juice, along with a packet of Capstan Full Strength, to fortify him during lengthy studio sessions.
As the early eighties rumbled on, more solo albums followed which, if they didn’t contain the hit singles that Lowe had once enjoyed, usually boasted several memorable songs which combined his facility to conjure a driving tune with ingeniously wry lyrics. However, as Birch tells it, during this period a constant cycle of writing, recording and touring, all fuelled by alcohol and other recreational drugs, saw Lowe’s health and personal relationships deteriorate in ways that recalled his encounter with hallucinogens early on in his career. Indeed, his lack of self-care was plain for all to see – or as Lowe himself put it, having caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror around this time, he looked like “an animal at bay.” On top of all this, in 1985 his marriage to Carlene Carter came to an end, whilst what was left of the eighties saw his career take a noticeable dip compared to his late seventies heyday — a situation which, as he recalled, became all too apparent when, instead of being welcomed with open arms at record company bashes, he now had to explain who he was to the security on the door.
Having well and truly hit the skids, Lowe, by the dawn of the nineties, had set about renouncing his bad habits, a process which entailed him embracing the single life and sobriety. Unfortunately, these efforts didn’t reap instant benefits: friends remarked on how thin and ill he looked, whilst professionally he felt “unhappy and getting unhappier.” Not that he was ever musically inactive during this period. There were still albums to be made, records to be produced, and musical collaborations in which to take part. However, it was the album The Impossible Bird, released in 1994, which would see an older and revivified Nick Lowe make a much-lauded return to form. His commitment to adopting a more disciplined approach to writing and rehearsing new songs led him to hire the function room of a nearby pub, where he could sit alone for hours honing each piece. When it came to recording the new material, Lowe wanted a stripped-back, simplified approach from the band he assembled, stipulating “no Saturday afternoon guitar licks. No guitar stuff, no keyboard stuff, you know, that stuff musicians do because they learnt it in the guitar shop on a Saturday afternoon.” The resulting record was praised for its low-key melodic warmth, lyrical introspection and exquisite craftsmanship. It was followed, in leisurely succession, by Dig My Mood and The Convincer, which, along with The Impossible Bird, amounted to a triumvirate of albums which firmly established Lowe as an older and wiser purveyor of the expertly executed torch song.
Further albums have followed since, albeit with increasingly large gaps between each one. At this stage in his life Lowe, happily remarried and with a son, seems content to have retreated once more into the musical hinterlands, not least because it is now on his own terms or, as Birch puts it, he “maintains his outsider status to the point of immaculacy, and maybe that suits him.” Indeed, even when fame came calling in the late seventies and Lowe was in danger of being promoted to the top flight alongside the likes of his erstwhile protégé Costello, he just about managed to avoid all the fuss – or, as his former boss Dave Robinson commented, “Nick would always slope off before success.”
As is inevitably the way with biographies of those who are still around and have reached a point in their lives when they can reflectively take stock, Cruel to Be Kind sputters towards its end, with a potted survey of Lowe’s most recent activities mixed in with contemplative musings on his journey up until the present day. If, in keeping with the Stiff Records ethos of eschewing plans for world domination in favour of just letting things happen, Lowe is widely regarded as someone who has ploughed his own furrow rather than chasing after anything so crass as a glittering career, nevertheless his contribution to some of the key developments in the English music scene of the past few decades should not be underestimated.--Mark Jones