(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Acting Your Age?
Nick Lowe Figures Out How to Use It to His Advantage
Years ago, when Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham were opening an Atlanta show for Nick Lowe, Penn looked out into the audience and said, “In case you’re wondering why these two old white guys are covering all these great soul songs, it’s because we wrote ‘em.”
Of course, the Penn and Oldham canon includes the likes of “I’m Your Puppet,” “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” and “Dark End of the Street.”
Much like Penn and Oldham, it’s often been pointed out that the songs Lowe has written are better known than he is – songs like “Cruel To Be Kind” and “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” That goes for the recordings he produced, too, including the first five Elvis Costello albums, and albums for Graham Parker, the Pretenders and the Damned.
Lowe’s 40-year-plus career has spanned pub rock, punk and new wave, stints in legendary bands such as Brinsley Schwarz and Rockpile, and as house producer at the iconic label, Stiff Records. From his earliest solo record, Jesus of Cool, to his latest CD, The Old Magic, he’s managed to go from sardonic young rocker to debonair elder statesman. Two tribute albums, Lowe Profile and Labour of Love, have put an exclamation point on his enduring influence.
On one track on The Old Magic, titled “Checkout Time,” Lowe sings, “I’m 61-years-old now. Lord, I never thought I’d see 30.”
During a recent phone call, Lowe, who turned 63 in March, talked about how he’s navigated the vagaries of the music business for so long, and what it means to still be writing, recording and performing after all these years.
As a guy in his 50s with grey hair and glasses, I think you are a pretty good example of a grown-up who’s found his own kind of grace and style and substance. Are you OK with being a role model for aging punks?
“I’m very flattered by that. It’s nice of you to say so. I hope the old punk isn’t too far away. But you have to sort of act your age at some point.”
It seems like you’ve had two very different but successful careers, which is no mean feat in this business. How did you work that out – luck or smarts or both?
“I suppose I worked it out. You never really know what’s going to happen. The way I saw it was that after I stopped being a pop star in the 1970s, I had to do something. I mean I knew it was coming, because I’d been a record producer. I made my own records, of course. I had one foot in the artists camp and the other foot with the suits on the top floor. I knew how the suits talked about the artists, in a rather disparaging way. I’d joined in the general merriment and laughter myself.”
That is funny.
“Yes. But when the public has had enough of you, that’s it, unless you’re a very unusual person, like Elton John or Neil Diamond, whose careers just seem to roll on. They’re very unusual, those people. And I knew I wasn’t one of them. So when it came, I had very mixed feelings. It was disappointing not to be able to get a table in a restaurant, as one did when one was in the paper all the time. And the armies of exotic women didn’t want to go out with me anymore. That was rather disappointing, too. On the other hand, I was ill, really. I was exhausted mentally and physically and drinking too heavily. So I was quite relived that it was all over. I could just lie down in a dark room, so to speak, and recover.”
How did you recover?
“I just started to take stock, you know. Here I am, barely in my mid-30s and over the hill. I’ve done quite well but I don’t I feel that I’ve actually done much at all. I’ve had a couple of hits and I’ve written a couple of good songs and I’ve produced a few records. What do I do now? I think this is just the beginning of it. Not the end of it. Back then, though, that wasn’t the way it was. Once you had your go, get out of the way granddad. But I thought, well no. I’m going to figure out a way that I can use the fact that I’m getting older as a distinct advantage. See if I can figure out a way of presenting myself and writing and recording myself that will sort of embrace who I am and I won’t be compelled to just preach to the same fans I had when I was a pop star. That’s what many of my contemporaries have to do.”
You didn’t want to squeeze into the high-tops and tight trousers anymore?
“I didn’t want to have to do that. No. And so I knew I had to spend a certain amount of time in the wilderness, until I figured out how to do this. Back then, it was sort of unheard of for anyone to be doing this into their 40s, let alone their 50s and 60s and 70s. Now you can’t move for them. And they’re churning out good work, too. Bob Dylan and Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. I don’t want to be arrogant in citing myself as being amongst their number.”
We’ll do it for you then. You’ve had more hit songs than some of those guys.
“[laughs] But you know what I mean. Those gents are different. Some of the great rock and roll bands, people don’t take much notice anymore, even if they do make a record. But with the people I just mentioned, our records are critically considered. That is a brand new phenomenon.”
Why do you suppose that is?
“There are definite perks to doing it when you get older. You can put something across in a different way. Something that’s got some real bottom to it. You’re not in such a hurry.”
What were your thoughts about having a music career in the early days? You probably didn’t say to yourself, “Well, let’s help invent pub rock and punk and new wave” did you?
“No. I became an outsider pretty early on. I was 18 when I left home to join a band. I thought I knew it all, you know. I’d been a Mod, so I’d heard a couple of R&B records, and I figured that I absolutely had the knowledge. I knew absolutely nothing. I wanted to be famous and cool. I didn’t want to be just famous. I wanted to be cool, as well. And plainly, I was not cool. [With Brinsley Schwarz] I had an experience, which is well documented, when a completely misconceived publicity stunt went horribly wrong. It was so embarrassing at the time. But I’ve had cause to fall to my knees and give thanks for that experience. It gave me a sense of being an outsider and learning how to do it, to walk a very fine line between being known but not very well known.”
How did that work itself into your music?
“Musically, I always sort of wanted to be an old bloke. I always liked music made by older people, even though I liked the way younger people did it. And in the same way, I loved American music – always have loved all kinds of American popular music, even sort of Broadway music, as well as country and gospel and blues and jazz. At the same time, I love what happens to it when it crosses the Atlantic.”
Why do you think the British have been so good at interpreting American music? Now it’s almost your music, too, right?
“In a strange way, I suppose it is. I think it’s because we can sort of sit back from the other side of the Atlantic and condense all these regional types of music. We had no idea of the size of the United States. Living in some little god-awful town in England, it was inconceivable. We didn’t know what was coming from New Orleans or Texas. From the other side of the Atlantic, it’s just American music. I’ve gotten pretty good, now, hearing an older record and being able to say where it comes from, and maybe even who played on it.”
With the recent reissues and tributes, there’s been another generation discovering your music. Has that given you any new or different perspectives on your catalog? Anything you’ve brought to the latest tour?
“Yeah. It has. It’s quite astonishing, really. I’m not particularly prolific. But I’ve been doing it for so long, that I’ve written quite a lot of songs. You start to realize that a good song is something that will never go out of fashion. Some of the tunes that I do that people really like to hear, like ‘Cruel To Be Kind’ and ‘Peace, Love and Understanding’ and ‘I Knew The Bride,’ even, they are good songs. I don’t know how it came to be that I came up with these things when I was a kid. But I did. I wrote loads of old rubbish at that time, as well. The amazing thing about the good ones, though, is that they almost adjust themselves. A good song will do that. It will take any kind of punishment. You can speed it up or slow it down, you can change the chorus around, and it will still be the same song.”
Do you ever hear some of the music being made by young bands now, and laugh, and say, “I know where that came from?” Can you hear your influence?
“Well, I suppose so. Sometimes, I do. But, then, you know, I was pinching it from somewhere else, and just putting it together the best I could. And really, I’m always flattered whenever I hear it.”
You’ve talked a bit about vintage production values in your recordings vs. the kind of computer-generated stuff that’s happening now.
“As I was saying earlier, when I took stock back in the ’80s, things really started changing with the post-punk thing at the time. That’s when my time as a pop star was over. Record-making became more of an exact science. And then people started making records with computers. I was never technically-minded as a producer. I used to mix and touch the desk, but I was never interested in getting a soldering iron out and mending stuff. I learned quite a lot from watching Dave Edmunds make records. He had a fantastic style in the studio. I copped a lot of his act. But come the ’80s, my sort of shtick, even my producing shtick, where you were sort of a cross between a counselor and a cheerleader, nobody wanted any more. They wanted hits. I have to be really careful here that I don’t sound like a raving old goat.”
When you were producing other people’s records, who was really fun to work with? Elvis?
“Oh. Yeah. He was great. But our relationship changed over the years. I knew him for quite a long time before I became his record producer. He was a fan of Brinsley Schwarz. And that’s really why ‘Peace, Love And Understanding’ got recorded. He saw us doing it and liked the song. If it hadn’t been for him, that song would have gone into the garbage with the rest of our repertoire. I was in charge when Elvis first came to Stiff records. The first records I did, like My Aim Is True, I was sort of telling him, ‘OK kid, do as you’re told.'”
And then later on, he was in charge, and you just ended up spinning the big songbook wheel.
“[laughs] Yes. ‘How can I help, sir?’ But he’s a great guy. I don’t like everything he does. But he’s a real artist, and he doesn’t let a little thing like people not getting what he does get it the way of that.”
Who else was fun? The first Pretenders record is brilliant, I think.
“I rather blew the Pretenders. I knew Chrissie before that. We’d been friends for quite a long time. I used to hear her writing these songs. I never thought they were much good [laughs]. And when she asked me to produce some of her early records, I never thought she was going to get anywhere. But she had this brilliant idea of doing this obscure Kinks song, ‘Stop Your Sobbing.’ I thought that was a fantastic idea.”
When you played with Wilco last year in Atlanta, you seemed to be having a lot of fun. How was it touring with Tweedy and those guys?
“That was fun, that tour. I loved being out with those guys. Really good fun.”
Now you’re back with your own band. What can the audience expect to hear?
“The band is guys that I’ve played with for years and years and they play on my records. They’re great musicians and very good traveling companions. We all get on very well. And they’re eccentric players, you know. We don’t play very loud and that means we can swing pretty good. They understand what I’m trying to achieve. We run the gamut of old and new songs. I find that the new tunes seem to fit very well with the old. It doesn’t seem like a giant leap at all.”
Photo by Dan Bern Forti