Nick Lowe on Chrissie Hynde, the early days of Stiff Records, Rockpile and more
On Friday, Jan 27, the news hit that the retailer hmv had gone into receivership. Canadian hmv stores would be closing as of April. Does this mean that I will no longer be contributing copy to the hmv.com/ca site, and that indeed the hmv.com/ca site as a place to go for new content about upcoming releases is at an end? Yes and yes. Does it mean that the hmv.com/ca site will cease to exist completely, and all of my (and others’) contributions along with it? Don’t know yet. In the meantime, though, I thought I’d post some of my favourite pieces from my nearly two-year tenure (from April 2015 until now). I’d like to thank my editor, Kim Hughes, for the opportunity to write for the site – an all-too rare occasion where a retailer ran original content, and gave me the chance to (often if not always) write about subjects in which I’m interested in. For example…
Nick Lowe has made a career of being in the right place at the right time. A songwriter’s songwriter, he was a pioneering member of the ‘70s British pub-rock scene that gave way to punk rock. From there, he became the house producer at Stiff Records, one of the earliest and coolest of indie punk and new wave labels.
Later, he worked with John Hiatt on the latter’s 1987 masterpiece Bring the Family and with Hiatt, guitarist Ry Cooder and drummer Jim Keltner in the band Little Village. He is also a founding member of the short-lived but beloved late ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll band Rockpile (along with guitarists Dave Edmunds and Billy Bremner and drummer Terry Williams). And, by wedding singer Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter (who later married Johnny Cash), Lowe married into one of America’s most famous country music families.
Throughout, and beginning with the 1978 album Pure Pop for Now People, Lowe has maintained a steady solo career marked by ever-expanding songwriting powers. He has penned such classics as “I Knew the Bride,” “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace Love and Understanding” and “The Beast in Me” (recorded by Cash). He is currently touring the U.S. (with one Canadian date, Vancouver, on Dec. 19) with Nashville band Los Straitjackets. The tour is in support of his latest release, The Quality Holiday Revue, a live recording of seasonal tunes like “Christmas At the Airport” and Lowe favourites such as “Raging Eyes.”
SC: What do you remember about the early days of Stiff Records? There must have been a lot of characters coming through the doors.
NL: It was an amazing time, that. Certainly in London, it was in between two sort of phases. One was the pub rock scene, where bands started playing in pubs for free. It was an antidote to what was going on in the music business at the time, witih big prog-rock groups and glam-rock. It was a much more back-to-basics scene. And it drew quite a lot of really weird characters who wouldn’t have been able to get a record deal at all, they were too eccentric and too out-of-step with what was going on. But Stiff Records started, and opened the doors to these people, and said these are the kind of people we wanted to have on the label. People like Ian Drury, Elvis Costello, and Graham Parker, were all around at that time. That led directly to the punk rock scene.
So the Stiff Records thing was a really interesting time. I wasn’t really part of the running of the company, but I was one of the three people there at the start. I suppose you could say I was the house producer. I didn’t know much about producing records. But then, you didn’t have to in those days. If you said you were a record producer, then you were, and you just made it up as you went along. But because I had more experience in the recording studio than the other two (Stiff founders Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson), I got the job as an in-house producer. I was able to be there when some really great records were made.
SC: You produced The Pretenders’ first single (“Stop Your Sobbing”).
NL: Chrissie (Hynde, leader of The Pretenders) and I were friends before that. She asked me to produce her group because her guitar player, Jimmy Honeyman-Scott, was a fan of mine. He liked Rockpile, which I was in by that time. Anyway, it shows what I knew – I didn’t really think Chrissie’s songs were very good. But she kept going on with me about making a record with her, with her new group. And she sent me a tape. The one song that jumped out at me was this Kinks song, the one cover song that she wanted to do, ‘Stop Your Sobbing.’ I thought it was so fantastic. So I said, ‘I’ll definitely do that one.’ So that’s what I did.
SC: Speaking of Rockpile, one of the songs I love off Seconds of Pleasure (1980, the only official Rockpile studio album) is “Play That Fast Thing (One More Time).”
NL: I heard a busker playing that in the street the other day. He was pretty good, he had a bass drum attached to his back, he was playing it with a dog lead attached. But I don’t really do that sort of stuff any more. I really enjoyed it when I was doing it with Rockpile, that fast and loud rock ‘n’ roll stuff. But the older I got, the less I’m interested in doing that. But it is a good tune, I’d forgotten about that one. Quite a lot of that has fallen by the wayside. I still love rock ‘n’ roll. But you can play rock ‘n’ roll much better if you play it quieter. That song hasn’t carried on through the years.
SC: 1979 seemed like a particularly busy year for you, what with releasing Labour of Lust (which featured the hit single “Cruel to Be Kind”), you married Carlene Carter, you were working as a producer, and working with Rockpile. What do you remember from that time? Was it a blur?
NL: It was very good fun. I think Rockpile was on tour with Blondie in ‘79. Yes, very very good fun. I wouldn’t want to repeat it, but it was an excellent time.”
SC: You married into American music royalty when you married Carlene Carter. Did you ever live in the U.S.?
NL: I’ve always lived in London. I did consider moving over there at one point but she wasn’t keen, she preferred London. So I never went. But I got on very well with her mom and dad, with Johnny and June. They were lovely people. I still miss them, even now.
SC: When I told a friend I was interviewing you, she said that your song “The Beast in Me” is one of her favourites.
NL: I wrote the song for him (Johnny Cash). He really popularized it. It’s been covered by a few people now. They used my version for the end credits of the very first episode of The Sopranos. (chuckles). I’m quite proud of it.
SC: Elvis Costello had such an abrasive image around the time of his first three albums. Was it your idea that he record your song “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace Love and Understanding,” perhaps as a counterpoint to that?
NL: It was his idea. I produced his records back then. But apart from the very first record (My Aim is True, 1977), after that time, he never really did what I told him to do anymore, not that I laid down the law. With his first record he didn’t have much experience so I kind of called the shots. After that, I did another five or six albums with him, and he was very definitely in charge. And that’s the way it worked best. There was no way I would make him record one of my songs (chuckles). He was a fan of a band I was in before Rockpile, called Brinsley Schwarz. He used to come see us play. ‘Peace Love and Understanding’ was a Brinsley Schwarz song. When the Brinsleys broke up, like all groups, most of the songs sort of go into the dustbin, metaphorically speaking. And that was kind of one of them. But it was he who really popularized that song. It’s been covered by loads of people, and it would’ve disappeared if it wasn’t for him.”
SC: You’re playing with Los Straitjackets these days. How did that come about?
NL: They’re managed by my manager, so I met them on several occasions. It just seemed like a fun thing to do, for us to hook up, and do some of these tunes. We do a lot of other things besides. It’s not just holiday music. It’s mainly that. But it’s quite like a sort of a hop, or dance concert. People seem to really get into it. We do some a lot of pretty good little dance tunes and things. It’s a lot of fun. That’s why we’re doing it again.”
SC: How do you pick songs to cover for your records? You always seem to cover these obscure little gems.
NL: I prefer covering songs that people haven’t heard thousands of times. I’m quite keen on doing little gems that you run up against. They’re getting harder and harder to find. There are lots and lots of great records out there, but a great record isn’t necessarily a good song. I’m always looking out for really good songs. It’s a song that, if I can start learning it, and I start to feel, in a funny way, the more I learn it that I start to feel more as if I’d written it, I feel like it’s one of my songs, then that to me is a successful cover. In the same way that the songs I write, I work at them until they seem to me like I’ve written a cover. That’s when I start getting interest and excited. I feel like I’m doing somebody else’s song. It’s a sort of liberating feeling. With a cover song, it’s the same process, in reverse.”
SC: One thing I hear songwriters who have been at it for a long time say is that you have to write a lot of bad songs before you get a good one. Some songs you have to work. But every once in awhile you get a gift, a song you write in five minutes. Does this happen to you?
NL: Absolutely. You have to sweat away through about ten duffers to get a good one. But I’ve got all sorts of theories about the process. My latest is that – it’s as if you imagine you’re in an apartment with very thin walls, and in the apartment that’s next to yours, the radio is tuned into this really cool station. It’s on all day., you get used to it, it’s, humming away in the apartment next door, and one day they program on this station a new tune and you’re doing the washing up or something and you hear this great new tune, and you go, what’s that one, I haven’t heard that one before? And you rush to get a glass or something to hold up against the wall So that you can hear the song. But it’s over. So you carry on with your daily work and they suddenly play it again. And this time you have the glass handy and you get up against the wall and you get just a little bit of the first verse and a little bit of the hook. And so it goes on. You don’t know when they’re going to play the song but every time you get a little bit more of it. You really want to learn this song. And that’s how the best songs are. It’s almost like they’ve been done and you just have to listen for it. I don’t sit around listening to my old records. But occasionally they come on the radio or I run into some of my old stuff and it’s so frustrating when I hear, some of the songs I wrote when I was a kid, and I think this was a really good idea but you just rushed it. That’s what you do when you’re young, you’re so anxious to get the thing done that you rush it. That’s when they start to sound kind of clunky and it doesn’t really flow. but if you just take your time and let it develop naturally – that comes with experience I think. They’re the better songs.”
SC: Is there an album where you feel you finally figured all that out?
NL: Unfortunately, you can’t get them all like that. Well, it’s all in the ear of the beholder. Some people like that clunky thing, on those first records people they’ve got a youthful exuberance and there’s something a little gauche and rather sweet about their innocence and enthusiasm, and some people really like that. And I like that too. If you can keep that the older you get – the trouble is, the older you get you get much more critical about your own stuff. That’s another thing you have to watch out for. But I can’t point to an album and go, “Oh look at that, they’re all masterful.”
SC: Have you ever dreamed a song?
NL: Sort of, yeah. There’s a song actually on the Christmas record, which I wrote called “I Was Born in Bethlehem.” I wouldn’t say I dreamt it but in that period just before you wake up, when you’re just coming around, and I sort of heard it, the idea presented itself in the tune, I got out of bed and grabbed a guitar. I thought I’d forget it like you forget a dream. But it did hang around long enough for me to get it down.
Nick Lowe, “I Was Born in Bethlehem”
SC: How much new music do you listen to?
: I listen to quite a lot because I have a little boy who is crazy about music. He plays me stuff all the time. He’s also musical. He’s a very good drummer, actually. For a 10-year-old. And he can sing, he’s got a really good voice. He plays me stuff which I wouldn’t normally hear. He played me something yesterday by an act called Paint*, which was extraordinary. I never would have run into that.