By Austin de Lone
NICK LOWE, BASSIST/SINGER/SONGWRITER with Brinsley Schwarz; solo artist and house producer for legendary Stiff Records, producer of Elvis Costello’s first five albums; member of Rockpile with Dave Edmunds, and Little Village with Ry Cooder; writer of “Peace Love and Understanding”, “Half a Boy and Half a Man”, “Cruel To Be Kind”, “The Beast In Me”, and so many more, stepped up to the microphone last October at The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. It was in the middle of the 4th Annual Benefit Concert for The Richard de Lone Special Housing Project. He wanted to introduce “Oliver’s Army”, one of the Elvis Costello songs that he was performing in an evening entitled “Costello Sings Lowe, Nick Sings Elvis – A Rare Bashing of Each Other’s Songs.” He spoke to the sold-out crowd with his usual self-effacing wit and good humor.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “in the 1970s I was fortunate enough to secure a position as Elvis Costello’s record producer. As a result of that, I was welcomed with open arms everywhere I went. Managing directors of record labels would shoulder their way across the room to get to me. It was a very, very happy time. I can’t actually recall what, if anything, I did, because I do recall I would kind of… sit around all day smoking cigarettes, drinking, and cracking the odd joke until it was time to go. But I was mainly watching Declan make his records. It was a fine, fine line of work.”
Indeed The Basher, as Nick was called in those days, became a very sought after producer after his amazing success with Elvis, various other Stiff acts like Wreckless Eric, The Damned, and Dr. Feelgood, the great Chrissie Hynde, and of course his own success as The Jesus of Cool. His reputation was blazing and his technique was unique: take the band into the studio, bang out the songs, tart them up a bit, and send them on their way. His method seemed almost haphazard, but what appeared careless was in fact cleverly calculated to create a true representation of the performer and the material – live, in the flesh, warts and all. This at a time when production techniques were getting increasingly sophisticated, and producers, and production itself, were becoming stars. No longer could you apply the old adage “You can’t polish a turd.”
I WAS LUCKY ENOUGH to be in a band, The Moonlighters, that Nick produced in the early eighties. It was not for money (there certainly wasn’t much of that!) that Nick took us on, but for the love of the simple honest brand of music that we played. In fact Nick turned down several lucrative offers, with some very well known performers, simply because he neither had an affinity for their music, nor thought he was the right man for the job. This dedication to honesty and integrity has been a trademark of Nick’s career.
I first met Nick in 1971 when he was in the band Brinsley Schwarz, and i was a member of Eggs Over Easy, the American band credited with starting the British movement known as pub rock. One night, after performing a set at the famous Marquee Club in Soho, Dave Robinson, then manager for the Brinsleys, suggested that the Eggs come out to the country to visit the Brinsleys where they lived and rehearsed family style – with wives, girlfriends, children and pets all under one roof. I awoke the next morning (my 25th birthday) with a glorious hangover and brilliant memories of rocking all night in the Brinsleys’ rehearsal room. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship.
The Eggs played all that year at The Tally Ho pub in Kentish Town, starting with just one night a week. By the end of the year we were playing four times a week, with the great John Steel, original member of The Animals, on drums, and the Tally Ho became the epicenter of pub rock. The scene was glorious, with the Brinsleys, Frankie Miller, Barry Richardson, Martin Stone, Sharkey Lewis and many others dropping by to hear what their American peers were playing. It was high-spirited, free spirited music – original, fresh and improvisational.
Unable to secure a record contract, the Eggs returned to the USA to record an album for A&M Records in Tuscon, Arizona with guitar hero Link Wray as producer. We continued to tour and record for several years, taking up residence in Mill Valley, California. But the next time I saw Nick was in New York City, climbing on to the Rockpile tour bus in front of The Gramercy Hotel. It was shortly after that that Nick invited the Moonlighters to come to London to record.
Nick remained an important mentor and friend, recommending me as a keyboard player for Elvis Costello in 1987, introducing me to The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Paul Carrack, and acquiring my services for his wonderful album, Party of One, produced by Dave Edmunds. That was where I first met Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner, who were later to perform with Nick as Guitar-Bass-Drums at the Second Annual Benefit for The Richard de Lone Special Housing Project, another soulful, one-night-only event that happened in 2008.
NICK HAS CONTINUED TO put out his brilliant solo albums, with various names for the backing bands – Nick Lowe and His Noise To Go, Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit, The Impossible Birds – and developed his deceptively casual solo stage show, complete with his soulful vocals, crafty guitar work, and magnificent story telling. He is currently winding up his first US tour with a band in 10 years, billed simply as Nick Lowe and His Band, and will soon release another album.
The hallmarks of Nick’s music and indeed his way of life are a casual elegance and simplicity that is mindful of the Beatles and of the classic country artists that Nick so admires – Hank Williams, Wynn Stewart, The Louvin Brothers. The ability to tell a story with but a few words and a simple melodic turn of phrase. Funny, articulate, intelligent, and charming. This has been his approach in a long and illustrious career at the leading edge of rock and roll, from his early days with the Brinsley Schwarz band, as one of the champions of pub rock, to his wilderness years with Stiff Records, a small independent company that thumbed its nose at the big boys and turned the music business on its ear, and on to the present.
He has been happy to sidestep the limelight and to continue churning out good songs and good albums. He has stayed a true blue friend, giving his time freely and willingly in three out of four benefit concerts for the nonprofit that my wife and I started to help people, like our son Richard, who suffer from Prader-Willi Syndrome. He has recently become a doting Dad himself, and is obviously enjoying the duties and pleasures of being a father.
Nick Lowe on the web.
In addition to an important career in popular music, Austin de Lone is also the moving force behind the Richard de Lone Special Housing Project, a non-profit agency dedicated to providing a state-of-the-art group home setting in Marin County, California, capable of serving adults and children with Prader-Willi Syndrome.