In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers (and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two) in the process.
The musician: Nick Lowe has been a working singer-songwriter since the late ’60s, when he and the band Brinsley Schwarz (named for its guitar player) brought American-style country-rock to the UK pub scene. Lowe went on to a successful solo and producing career, and is responsible for some of the best-loved songs of the New Wave era, including “Cruel To Be Kind” and “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding.” Over the past couple of decades, Lowe has returned to his folk and country roots, turning up every few years with elegant, understated LPs full of twangy songs about growing old and trying to make relationships work. His latest in that vein is The Old Magic, out September 13 on Yep Roc.
“Checkout Time” (from 2011’s The Old Magic)
Nick Lowe: It’s funny how that song seems to interest people, judging so far from the people I’ve spoken to. I try to avoid writing autobiographical songs. I write about what I know, but I’m one of those people, like Randy Newman, who make up a character and then make them say stuff. It’s not really me; it’s just a character I’ve made up. But this thing does actually say, “I’m 61, and I thought I’d never make 30.” And the reason for that is, I was sitting at home watching the television and fiddling around with the guitar, and I came up with a tune. And I’d just heard Johnny Cash singing, “I’m 61 years old, I never thought I’d see 30.” I can’t remember if those were the actual words, but that was the idea. I just heard Johnny Cash sing that, and it just went from there. I can’t honestly say whether it’s morbid, in that, “Here I am, considering the Grim Reaper tapping me on the shoulder. It’s time for me to get my thoughts out.” It’s much more joking for me, really.
AVC: People tend to take these kinds of songs as an artist in his last years, looking back.
NL: That’s right, he’s declining. “As the light dims.” I quite understand it, but it’s not really as serious a rumination as that.
Brinsley Schwarz, “Surrender To The Rhythm” (from 1972’s Nervous On The Road)
NL: I think that’s probably the product of the Van Morrison obsession we had at the time. We were great fans of his first few records. Up to Tupelo Honey, I suppose. We loved those records. Moondance. I still sort of think of my time with Brinsley Schwarz as like going to college, because we all lived in a house together, we all listened to the same records, and it was like going to school or something like that. We were all trying to write songs. And, of course, we were kids, and when you’re trying to start out, you wear your influences on your sleeve. That’s the way it goes. You write your heroes’ song catalogues, until one day, if you’re lucky, you write something original, which will probably be an amalgamation of all your heroes’ song catalogues that you’ve absorbed up ’til then. Suddenly, you’ll come up with an idea on your own, but based on something you’ve heard before. Because it’s all been done. There’s nothing original under the sun; it’s just the combination of influences that make it original.
Brinsley Schwarz, “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding” (from 1974’s The New Favourites Of Brinsley Schwarz)
NL: Well, that leads neatly on from what I just saying, because I always think of that song as being the first original idea I had. I can remember writing it quite clearly. I remember actually being really kind of shocked by the title. I came up with the title, and I couldn’t believe I’d actually made it up myself. I’d never heard it before. It wasn’t something I’d heard off another record and changed the words slightly to suit me, which was how I’d written songs up until then, while I was sort of learning. And then one day this title popped into my head: “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding” and I thought, “Great, great title, and I can’t believe you would come up with it.” [Laughs.] I always would ’fess up that there is one lick in the tune I did steal from Judee Sill. She had a song called “Jesus Was A Cross Maker” at about that time that I really thought was a super song. I haven’t heard that song for many years, but I always think I took a little lick in “Peace, Love, And Understanding” from Judy’s song. But apart from that, yes, that was my first original song.
AVC: Once you had the title, how long did it take you to write the rest?
NL: Oh, not very long at all. I think it really came very quickly. Because the original idea of it was that everything was changing. The old hippie thing was changing. I wrote the song in 1973, and the hippie thing was going out, and everyone was starting to take harder drugs and rediscover drink. Alcohol was coming back, and everyone sort of slipped out of the hippie dream and into a more cynical and more unpleasant frame of mind. And this song was supposed to be an old hippie, laughed at by the new thinking, saying to these new smarty-pants types, “Look, you think you got it all going on. You can laugh at me, but all I’m saying is ‘What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?’” And that was the idea of the song. But I think as I started writing it, something told me it was too good idea to make it into a joke. It was originally supposed to be a joke song, but something told me there was a little grain of wisdom in this thing, and not to mess it up. Just to keep it real simple, and don’t be too clever with it. Because I thought I was hot stuff back then, when I really, really wasn’t. I had a lot to learn. As I said, this was my first decent, proper, original idea I’d had, and something told me just to take it easy. And I’m glad I did, because otherwise that song would have died when Brinsley Schwarz died. Not the guy, the group. [Laughs.] Had it not been for Elvis Costello, who used to come and see us when he was a kid and really liked that song… well, he brought it to the world, so to speak. Because when he recorded it, he gave it that anthemic quality which everyone reacted really well to.
“I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass” (from 1978’s Jesus Of Cool)
NL: That was a song which was sort of made up in the studio. I had the vague idea of the tune, and that’s why in the writing credits, I cut the bass player and the drummer in on the song, because they made it, really. The drums and bass are really great on that song. Steve Goulding and Andy Bodnar used to play with Graham Parker And The Rumour, whose records I produced, and they played bass and drums on “I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass.” Their contribution was so great, I gave them a third each. In fact, I should have actually given Bob Andrews, who played piano on it, a taste of the record. The piano is so great. But that was much later. We’d sort of divided up the songwriting. But there we are.
“Big Kick, Plain Scrap!” (from 1979’s Labour Of Lust)
NL: I used to share a flat with my manager, Jake Riviera, who actually is still my manager. Back then we had this really squalid apartment in London, and he had all this junk. This little flat was filled with junk. And one of the things in the flat was this old-fashioned advertisement for a brand of tobacco, which was called Big Kick. The tobacco was called Big Kick, and it was rolling tobacco, which they used to call “plain scrap.” And so he had this little cardboard advert that you propped up on the counter, I suppose. I’d never seen it before or since. I think it’s American, actually. But actually, he had this thing in the flat that said, “Big kick, plain scrap,” and it was the sort of nonsensical combination of words that appealed to me back then. So I came up with something.
AVC: What’s interesting about both “Breaking Glass” and “Big Kick” is that if you played them for somebody who wasn’t familiar with those songs but was familiar with your work in general, they wouldn’t necessarily know it was you. “Big Kick, Plain Scrap!” almost sounds like something off of an early ’80s Prince album, even though it was recorded a couple of years earlier. Those early solo albums of yours were so eclectic. Were you were trying to show that you could do anything, or were you just in the mood to try anything?
NL: It’s very hard to remember back then. It seems that anything went in those days. I’d been waiting for a chance to make a noise, and along it came. And sometimes I didn’t really have anything to say, I just wanted to make a noise and say, “Here I am.” And sometimes I got lucky and did something that was actually quite good. A lot of the time it was real old nonsense that nowadays would get you laughed out of the place. But back then everything was changing in pop music, and a lot of the underdogs suddenly got a chance, and swept away a lot of the mainstream stuff. At the time it was very exciting. Now I’m older and I hear a lot of the stuff that we thought was no good back then. I kind of think we were wrong; it was good. Some of the stuff we thought we were replacing with our wonderful stuff, we were mistaken. But no, I don’t remember thinking about it too much. That was the whole point of it really. You just went ahead with an idea, and bang, out it would come. And if it didn’t work, then there’d be another good idea along in a minute. I think probably quite a lot of good ideas were lost in the hurry. Everyone was in a hurry back then.
“Cruel To Be Kind” (from 1979’s Labour Of Lust)
NL: That was another Brinsley Schwarz song, which I wrote with “The Love I Lost,” by Harold Melvin And The Blue Notes in mind. Originally it sounded like Harold Melvin And The Blue Notes—the same groove, anyway. When I do that song nowadays with my band, we do it much more like the Brinsley version, which means we do it much more like Harold Melvin And The Blue Notes, and it works really great. But when I signed to Columbia, when Mr. Geller signed me to Columbia records, me and Elvis, he asked me to record “Cruel To Be Kind.” I was very happy to do that for him.
AVC: Why do you think that one became such a big hit?
NL: Well, I couldn’t hear it, really. It was Gregg Geller. He really sort of insisted. He heard a demo of this song. We never actually recorded… well, strike that, we did do a serious recording of it, but we broke up before the record came out. But Gregg Geller heard the demo of us doing it, and he said, “Look, I really want you to do ‘Cruel To Be Kind.’” And I didn’t think he was serious, but he insisted. So I recorded it with Rockpile. We did a lot of records together in those days, but we couldn’t call ourselves Rockpile. Both me and Dave Edmunds. Dave Edmunds was doing solo records too, but it was all Rockpile. It was always the same four people. Anyway, we recorded it, and it was a really good version of the song. The harmonies sounded fantastic on the radio. I remember coming to Los Angeles when it was a hit, and did that thing where you change the radio station, and it was on about two or three at the same time. You could hear it starting on one station and finishing on another. Amazing.
“All Men Are Liars” (from 1990’s Party Of One)
NL: When I was over here once I was watching an edition of The Oprah Winfrey Show, a very early edition of The Oprah Winfrey Show. They had some poor sap sitting there who’d run off with a maid or something like that, and the audience was extremely upset with this guy. I remember this large black lady standing up and shouting at the top of her voice, “All men are liars! All men are liars! All men are liars!” She just was chanting it. And I thought, “Yeah, you know what? You’ve got a point there, darling.” And along came that song.
It’s got that line about Rick Astley in it. [“Do you remember Rick Astley / He had a big fat hit that was ghastly / He said ‘I’m never gonna give you up or let you down’ / Well I’m here to tell you that Dick’s a clown.”] At the time, he was everywhere. “Never Gonna Give You Up” was just on all the time. It drove me mad. [Impersonates Astley.] That constricted voice. And so I put that rather barbed line in, which I regret now. I hardly ever do the song. I went through a phase of doing it fairly recently, but it sort of went off the boil and I stopped doing it. But when I used to do the Rick Astley line, people used to fall about, rolling in the aisles, clutching their sides laughing, and I thought, “This is rather a shame to do this. Poor old Rick. He’s not exactly in the public eye much anymore. It seems a little unfair to kick him when he’s down.” So I think that’s part of the reason why I stopped doing it.
AVC: Have you ever spoken to him or heard from him?
NL: No, I haven’t.
“The Beast In Me” (from 1994’s The Impossible Bird)
NL: Oh, yes. There’s quite a well-documented story about that one, in a book called The Resurrection Of Johnny Cash, written by a British guy named Graeme Thompson. It’s specifically about Cash’s American Recordings, and the fact that his career was on the floor before he did that record. It was a very interesting time. People don’t really realize that, that John was really having a bad time before Rick Rubin came along and sorted him out. Anyway, I tell the story in depth in that book, and if you really want the details, it’s all in there. But in a nutshell, I had the idea for that song one night when John was in London to do shows. I had the idea one night, and stayed up all night writing that song. The first verse was great, but the rest of it was not very good, and I finished it rather in a hurry. And the next day, he came around to hear it. I tried to play him this song, and it was a disaster. It was so traumatic, playing him this song, because Carlene had told him how great it was. I was married to Carlene Carter at the time. He sort of liked the idea of it, and for about the next 12 years, whenever I’d see him, he’d always ask me how the song was coming, if I’d finished it, and I had sort of forgotten about it. I was so embarrassed by it I never wanted to hear it again. But he’d keep asking me about it, and every time he did, I’d have another look at it. Mentally, I’d have another look at this song. I couldn’t get anywhere with it.
And then after about 12 years, he was in London and I went to see him play. I was talking to him, and he asked me how his song was, and on this occasion I went home and I finished it, straight away. Sent it off to him. As I say, I wrote this song for him, with him specifically in mind. I wrote the song, sent it off to him on a demo, and didn’t hear anything back until my stepdaughter had been to visit him in Jamaica. She said, “Oh, he’s playing this song of yours all the time. Every time anyone comes to the house he plays the beast song.” And next thing I know, he recorded it on the American Recordings record, and I was extremely pleased about it. He was a fabulous bloke, and I miss him still—lovely, lovely guy. A handful, sure. Like all the best people are, he could be a handful. But he was a super bloke.