Britain’s pub-rock movement, the unpretentious early-’70s scene that played such a crucial role in the run- up to do-it-yourself punk, was based on English admiration for earthy Americana: country, R&B, rockabilly, western swing. Which provides an easy (if incomplete) explanation for how Nick Lowe could emerge from the mild-mannered Brinsley Schwarz to become the co-founder, house producer and debut artist of the viciously independent Stiff Records (home to Elvis Costello, the Damned, Wreckless Eric and Madness, among many others), rock his way through a decade of geezer wave rock and wind up, in the mid-’90s, highlighting an eloquently understated and surprisingly sober album with a stark country ballad he wrote for Johnny Cash.
A one-time teen dream with London-area pop group Kippington Lodge, bassist-singer-producer-guitarist Nick Lowe burst into new wave as a pop mastermind who could give you anything you wanted, and to heck with social significance. The cover of his first solo album graphically displays his kaleidoscopic versatility in six different poses/personae, all fairly sleazy. Lowe’s tunes, though, are invariably well-crafted, charming and offbeat enough to hold attention.
For its US release, the wildly diverse Jesus of Cool was retitled Pure Pop for Now People by corporate wimps (a cop-out preserved on the 1990 Columbia CD). Besides a scrambled track order, Pure Pop substitutes the smooth “They Called It Rock” for Jesus‘ stompy “Shake and Pop” (in fact, the same song with a different arrangement) and adds “Rollers Show,” a parodic tribute to the Bay City Rollers. The US album also inserts Lowe’s studio recording of “Heart of the City” (the B-side of Stiff’s first-ever release) in place of the searing live version on the British record. (Typical of Stiff’s sense of complexity as fun, the same live recording, but with a Dave Edmunds vocal replacing Lowe’s, appears on Edmunds’ Tracks on Wax 4.)
Labour of Lust is a calmer collection, sticking mostly to medium-tempo rockers played by the dependable Rockpile (Lowe, Edmunds, drummer Terry Williams and guitarist Billy Bremner). Instead of stylistic variety here, Lowe concentrates on love songs, both silly (“Switch Board Susan,” “American Squirm”) and sincere (“Without Love,” “You Make Me”). The album also contains his first (and only) US hit single, “Cruel to Be Kind,” a song rescued from a peppy disco arrangement on the B-side of “Little Hitler.”
Following Labour of Lust, Lowe put down his cutting sword and moved into a rootsier room of rock’s house. Starting with Rockpile, the rocky but exhilarating quartet he led with guitarist Dave Edmunds, Lowe added a short-lived marriage to Carlene Carter (which made Johnny Cash his step-father-in-law), countless exemplary production jobs, a series of good-going-on-great solo records (The Rose of England and Pinker and Prouder Than Previous being the high points), John Hiatt’s Bring the Family and Little Village to his résumé. He resumed his solo career with Nick the Knife, not surprisingly filled with more toe-tappy love songs. His emotional palette had broadened to include unhappy (“My Heart Hurts,” “Too Many Teardrops,” “Raining Raining”) as well as happy (“Queen of Sheba,” “Couldn’t Love You (Any More Than I Do)”) subject matter. And of course there are the obvious musical/lyrical borrowings Lowe-watchers enjoy getting incensed about.
The Abominable Showman is fast out of the starting gate with “We Want Action” and “Raging Eyes.” After that, Lowe turns surprisingly serious on tracks like “Time Wounds All Heels” and “Wish You Were Here.” The album closes on a curious (for Lowe) note: “How Do You Talk to an Angel” even has strings.
He returned to form on Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit (which actually features almost the same band as on the preceding album: Paul Carrack, ex-Ducks Deluxe guitarist Martin Belmont and drummer Bobby Irwin, plus some guests). Nick characteristically tries on a variety of pop disguises, from Tex-Mex (“Half a Boy and Half a Man”) to ’50s instrumental (“Awesome”). Don’t take the LP title at face value; on a good day, Lowe takes nothing seriously.
Applying the same lineup to a far better set of tunes, Lowe made The Rose of England with a lot more evident effort. While the variety is impressive, the lack of consistent quality mainly comes down to specific songs. Winners: Costello’s “Indoor Fireworks” (predating its appearance on King of America), John Hiatt’s “She Don’t Love Nobody” and Lowe’s own “Lucky Dog,” “The Rose of England” and “(Hope to God) I’m Right.” A new treatment of “I Knew the Bride,” produced by and performed with Huey Lewis and band, is unsettlingly anxious but reasonably entertaining; a few other items are throwaways or sappy ballads. Overall, however, The Rose of England offers some of the deepest, most reassuring music of Lowe’s career.
16 All-Time Lowes is a compilation of his early solo work, from “So It Goes” and “Heart of the City” through “When I Write the Book.” Of special interest: precise musician credits for each track. Statisticians (and those who feel Lowe’s quality level has been steadily waning) should note that almost half of these songs appeared on his first album. Nicks Knack is a complementary collection of another 16 tracks, including Rockpile’s “Now and Always,” a rare B-side (“Basing Street”) and a balanced selection of mostly second-string material from Lowe’s pre-Cowboy Outfit albums. While the American release of the 25- (or 27-) song Basher is understandable since the first two never came out in the States, its British issue (with track differences in all three formats) is utterly inexplicable. Nitpickers’ treat: the American sleeve inadvertently refers to the first album as Jesus of Cool.
Pinker and Prouder Than Previous was recorded in pieces during 1986 and ’87 in London and Texas, with a host of friends, including Paul Carrack, Terry Williams, Martin Belmont and John Hiatt. (Lowe was instrumental in Hiatt’s 1987 “comeback” album, Bring the Family.) He even ended his post-Rockpile estrangement from Edmunds, who produced one song. Reclaiming the straightforward one-take-sound R&B/pop magic he has imparted to many protégés, Lowe comes out pub-rocking here, positively glowing with casual aplomb. Besides the familiar helpings of spicy rock’n’roll and smooth pop, he dishes out a bit of greasy roadhouse R&B, some maudlin but touching balladeering, even spots of cajun and demi-reggae, without a hint of selfconsciousness or effort. (Echoes of Rockpile are everywhere.) Minor criticisms: the sequencing doesn’t really work, the abrupt fades are disconcerting and a few of the tunes (like Graham Parker’s “Black Lincoln Continental”) don’t rate.
After a solo tour with Elvis Costello, Lowe followed his friend to a new label, and got Edmunds to produce Party of One, a likable but shallow return to simple songs and flash-free presentation. Carrack, Edmunds, Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner give standard-issue Lowe-isms like “You Got the Look I Like” and “Who Was That Man” their easygoing all, picking up more or less where Rockpile left off. Had Basher expended a bit more effort in the songwriting stage, the conducive atmosphere provided here would have made Party of One as good as fans wanted it to be. Instead, there’s only the brilliant “(I Want to Build a) Jumbo Ark,” the quietly soulful “What’s Shakin’ on the Hill” and the lyrically clever “All Men Are Liars” to demonstrate Lowe’s ability to find new pearls in such old oysters.
The Impossible Bird brings Lowe to a new stage in his stylistic progress, a restrained run at rock from a country angle rather than the other way ’round. The quiet grace of this handsome, affecting, lovelorn record is outside Lowe’s familiar realm, but he seems to have reached it naturally, ready to make the most of a little understatement. With American guitarist Bill Kirchen (of Commander Cody fame) providing the authentic twang and British pub vet Geraint Watkins laying down a carpet of soulful organ, Lowe stashes his comedy outside and gets down to the serious business of sharing tender thoughts like “Lover Don’t Go,” the sweetly amorous “Shelley My Love,” the gospelly “I Live on a Battlefield,” the acoustic “Withered on the Vine” and “The Beast in Me,” which Lowe gave Johnny Cash for American Recordings. Compared to the Man in Black’s rendition, the author takes the menace out of the song, crooning it quietly over simple acoustic guitar. Covers of Buck Owens’ “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road” and Ray Price’s “I’ll Be There” add resonance to Lowe’s sensitive originals, which form his single best batch in ages.
An American tour in support of The Impossible Bird provided the basis of Live! On the Battlefield, an EP of three nifty concert recordings (Pure Pop‘s “36 Inches High,” Labour of Lust‘s “Without Love” and “Dream Girl”); the other tracks on it are an LP cut and Lowe’s tribute-album rendition of Arthur Alexander’s “In the Middle of It All.” In the middle of all this Lowe life, Upstart reissued Party of One with two uneventful outtakes from the sessions as bonus tracks.