By Alan Brostoff
For more than four decades, Nick Lowe has been recording songs and producing music. Calling from his London home, Lowe spent more than a few minutes on the phone with Goldmine, sharing stories about pub rock, punk music and his all-time favorite collaborators.
GM: For more than 40 years you have been producing and recording. What keeps you doing this still?
NICK LOWE: That’s a good question. I sometimes wonder. It’s just something... I mean, it’s like a hobby that I sometimes get fed up with, you know, and sometimes I can’t get enough. Being like a hobby you just can’t get enough of it. You just can’t stop doing it. There is that show business cliché that says, “You don’t give it up, it gives you up.” As long as you can do it and not embarrass yourself, and people still turn up and get a kick out of hearing you — and they’re not just giving you a mercy clap, you know they really do like it — you would be mad not to keep doing it. You know, it’s a real privilege and it keeps you young and you get to hang out with some nice people. What I don’t like is flying, especially international flights. That is the worst part of it. Hanging around airports and things and there really is no escape, even if you go to the shops it’s marginally better. But I’m not really sure why I am telling you this because it’s not some great secret. Everyone knows it’s like being f**king tortured, but it’s a small price to pay and that’s that.
GM: Your latest release is with the Los Straitjackets. How did that collaboration come to be?
NL: Well, I’ve known the Straightjackets for quite a long time. Just from the circuit, and I have always thought they were a great band and we also share a manager. As you probably know, a few years ago I put out a Christmas record and much to everyone’s delight and surprise it did really pretty well, especially in the United States. Shortly after it came out, unfortunately I lost two of my dearest friends and collaborators: Bobby Irwin, who played drums with me for years and years and on my records, and Neil Brockbank, who was my producer— he managed me and all sorts of things. They died one after the other unfortunately from cancer and it rather took the wind out of my sails. I didn’t really fancy touring this record very much; I didn’t really feel that festive. After a year or two went by… you know life goes on, and it was suggested, “Why don’t you do some Christmas shows with the Straightjackets?” Which we did and that was our foot in the door. We did it for about three years, a couple of tours in the U. S. and one tour over here and in Europe. Then we thought we’d sort of had enough of it. It was fine but we thought that was probably it. Then we started getting offers to do what you might describe as “out of season work” and that’s when it really started to get into gear. We started to get really good and I started actually writing songs for this collaboration in mind. So it’s not just a troll through my back catalog, even though it is to a certain extent of course, but they play my stuff in a really great way. I love doing these tours with them.
GM: You might be considered one of the busiest people in the music industry and you’ve produced some of the greatest music on lots of different record labels such as Stiff and others. You even produced what is considered the first punk single with The Damned. What was that experience like?
NL: Well, we just started Stiff Records. Jake Riviera, who was my manager at the time and my flat mate, you know we shared an apartment, and another fellow called Dave Robinson. We started this label. Well, Jake and Dave really started it. I came along with the package, because I was made the house producer. That’s what I became because I just spent more time in the studios then the other two. So that meant that I knew more about it, but I didn’t really know anything about it. I’ve done a few things, including Elvis Costello’s first album and Graham Parker’s first album and one or two other things, and then we met The Damned just as the first punk stuff was starting over here. And I thought they were great. I thought they were a really good band. They were kind of a garage rock and roll band. That’s what they sounded like to me. They were more like the Stooges or something like the MC5 but with a distinctly European sort of twist. I never liked punk music, per se. I was too into... pop music, R&B and country and western. I was a bit too old for it, really. I think I was 26 or something like that. And that it’s kind of real primitive flailing away on guitars and bad guitar playing and horrible singing. I thought it was real unlistenable. But garage rock and roll is something else. I love garage rock and roll. The Damned were totally great and that’s what they seemed like to me. I thought they were a terrific group and when we cut “New Rose,” well, the thing is, I don’t think anyone could quite believe it because it sounded so great. We made this in this funny little studio we used to use in North London. That’s the same studio I recorded Elvis’ first album and “Watching the Detectives” and quite a lot of my stuff as well. Quite a lot of things were recorded at this funny little studio. It had this fantastic sound so everyone came to record there and they had to cram in really tight. There wasn’t any room and everything was done live so everything bled into the microphones. You couldn’t really get any separation between the instruments and there is a lot of leakage and usually that does kind of mess things up but occasionally it’s just what the doctor ordered. That’s what happened when we recorded The Damned. The only thing we did again was put on the little bit at the beginning which was from another take, when Dave Vanian said, “Is she really going out with him?” You know, the little thing at the beginning of the song, the spoken thing. It was from a different take. Dave just made that up on his own, with the echo. I mean, it sounded so great that we just spliced it on to the other take. So other than that it was an absolutely live take.
GM: For those living in the U.S. who never got to truly experience the whole “Pub Rock” scene. Can you share what that scene was like?
NL: Let me see. Well, I suppose it was our band (Brinsley Schwarz) that was partly responsible for its coming about. We met this American band back over here called Eggs Over Easy. They came over to England to make a record with Chas Chandler, the original bass player for The Animals, who had moved into management after he discovered Jimi Hendrix and brought Hendrix over here. He became a very successful record producer and manager. He managed Slade as well and produced their records. For some reason he had heard about the band Eggs Over Easy and wanted to make a record with them and he brought them to London. He put them up in a house in Kentish Town, which in those days was quite a scary part of London. Nowadays it’s very nice. It’s all been gentrified, but back then it was quite a scary part of town and he put them out in this house and told them that they had to wait until he finished the project he was on.
They got pretty fed up waiting. The joy of being in London wore off pretty quick and they looked around for something to do. There was a great big pub on the end of that road called The Tally Ho. It was a big Irish pub and they used to have jazz and Irish traditional music in there. The Eggs used to go drinking in there and one night they decided to ask the landlord if he’d let them play and he said, ”Oh no, we don’t have any rock groups here and we’re not interested in that,” and they said, “Well, we know we can play anything. We don’t play loud so give us your worst night; you know, Tuesday night or Monday night. Just give us your worst night, we won’t charge you anything, just let us play and if you like it then maybe give us a residency because we need to practice.” He agreed and they just kept playing and having a bit of fun and it really caught on.
When we got to know them, they’ve been doing this residency for about three months and the place was packed. It was a big pub but it was packed with this really great cross-section of audience; all different kinds of people of different races. You know, different types of people—old people, young funky girls, from mods and rockers to bus drivers. Everybody really digging this group and they liked their own tunes that they wrote, and the covers. They had this great thing about the way they covered songs as well. It was a really brilliant and unfancied pop, and a very funky scene.
We got friendly with these guys and they played in a way that we wanted to figure out. They were much better musicians than us and we wanted to try and figure out how they played in this great sort of loose style. We did not want to copy them but we wanted to learn from them and they were great guys, really great. They showed us lots of stuff and when they went back to the States, we took their spot.
At this time there was a number of groups that were playing in that style all congregated round this pub, and this scene started off there and soon moved to all other pubs in North London. The first couple of years was really fantastic because the groups were really unusual. We (Brinsley Schwarz) were probably the most sort of normal of the bands. Some of the others were really quite unusual groups but they couldn’t get a record deal. Yeah, they were too left field to get a record deal, but they were really good. Like Ian Dury, for instance, you know his band. They were terrific. They tried to do it in other U.K. towns but it never took off. It just was a London big thing.
Then one of the pub groups, Dr. Feelgood, hit it big. They really took off and because they were a blues bands, they were really unusual. Then you started to get loads of pub bands playing lousy blues music because they were not good like Dr. Feelgood. There is nothing worse, really, than a bad blues band. That’s when pub rock became a big thing. For some reason it all seemed to be male groups, women just could not stand it and they were absolutely right. Then it died a short life and we went on to better things. Dire Straits came out of the pub bands and everyone knows what happened to them; they went stratospheric. That whole period of time was like my going to college.
GM: Do you still have copies of original records you recorded and produced?
NL: No, I don’t. I’ve never been very sentimental about all of that sort of thing. I probably got some in the cellar or something but I haven’t got them filed or anything like that. I’ve got a few copies on the shelf but, no, I’ve never been particularly sentimental about all that kind of stuff.
GM: Who is your most favorite collaboration with?
NL: I’d have to say Elvis Costello because we did so much stuff together and we’re very fond of each other still. You know we are still very good friends. I don’t see that much of him but we check in with each other on a pretty regular basis. We did so much stuff together. We were both sort of learning this out and it was a very exciting time because I was intent on pushing him to go further and further. I would learn stuff, too, by encouraging him to pull out all the stops. I had to keep up with him. It was mutually very exciting, especially when some of the things we tried in the studio really worked. I remember how excited we were when we did “Pump it Up.” We loved it. When we finished it we just spent the whole night listening to it. We played it over and over and over again. That was not the only one we did that for. We would play each of them over and over again and tell each other how great we each were.
GM: What are you listening to now?
NL: I’ve got a 14-year-old boy who is very keen on music and loves the sort of stuff I really like, you know, a lot more old-fashioned stuff. But of course he’s 14 so he likes a lot of stuff from his generation as well. I like quite a lot of it as well. He loves this sort of “grime music.” Stormzy is one of the bigger stars here in London. It’s a sort of London version of rap. Everything is done on computers, you know, there’s no instruments being involved in it except in from the computer department. I like quite a lot of that but the other night I went to see the Cactus Blossoms and I’m saying there is really, really something that is a force to those boys.
GM: Is there somebody out there that you’d still like to record or work with?
NL: Well, I really like the records that Jack White makes but I have not met him. I think I would really like to meet him. That would be a start.
GM: So my last question is: what is the big difference for you touring now as it was back in 1969 when you were out touring with Brinsley Schwarz?
NL: Well, as you know I travel in a lot more comfort nowadays. I like to make sure that I’m not roughing it too much. There was nothing like the cheap hotels that we have nowadays. If you went on tour you really could not afford really that much; there would be three of us sleeping in the same bed and a couple on the floor. We were kids and we really did not mind. It was good fun. That’s the main difference now. I like to get paid and like to stay in comfort. Making sure I’m staying somewhere where I’m not going to get all my stuff stolen. Apart from that, it’s a lot the same as I still play a lot of the same music. As a matter of fact, now I’m just a little better playing it. The irony is that by the time you get really good at it, your time is up.