Nick Lowe – His aim is true
My vision is to tease people. I never make a stand, you know, never put my feet down. If I write a love song, I’ll always make fun of it to my friends. As a matter of fact, I’m sickeningly smug.
— Nick Lowe in Newsweek, 1978
I liked being in a band, and I liked people patting me on the back telling me I was great and having lots of great looking girlfriends and everything like that. But I kind of knew I was getting away with it. I was only operating on two or three cylinders, and if I tried to get serious, then I didn’t like it. The thing is that the older I get, there doesn’t seem to be anything remotely more interesting than talking about love and the lack of it and what happens when it’s taken away from someone who’s had it.
— Nick Lowe in Esquire, 1998
Ironic, isn’t it? In the mid-to-late 1970s, much of the rock world was bloated with pretension. Art rockers such as Genesis and Yes were determined to “improve” rock ‘n’ roll by infusing it with classical music and jazz. Meanwhile, Rush proclaimed unrest in the forest, the Eagles stabbed beasts with their steely knives, and that guy in Jethro Tull played his flute while perched upon one leg. Styx actually had a hit single in which, with straight faces, they sang: “We thought that they were angels but much to our surprise, we climbed aboard their starship and headed for the skies.” And just when all this self-important foolishness seemed unbearable, Nick Lowe showed up to puncture these fatuous poses with a wink and a nudge and some pop hooks that just made you feel glad all over.
Twenty years later, the artistic pretension most in need of puncturing is a pervasive and emotionally stunted irony, where job one seems to be that you should make fun of everything while holding it as a point of honor that you stand for nothing. And it is in this climate that our cynical old friend Nick the Knife has gone and got sincere on our asses.
His last two albums, 1994’s The Impossible Bird and 1998’s Dig My Mood, found Lowe placing his winks and put-ons aside in favor of pure pop for mature people. The Convincer, his eleventh and latest album, may be his best yet. Delivered with uncommon craft, unexpected sincerity and, of course, an unrivaled sense of humor, it’s exactly the sort of heartbreakingly beautiful pop record you figured Lowe had in him all along. More than ever, its songs live up to the rock and pop traditions Lowe has admired since he was a boy.
Nick Lowe was born in 1949 in Walton-on-Thames, England, but because his father was a pilot in the Royal Air Force, he mostly grew up in Cyprus and Jordan, political hot spots that in the 1950s signaled the final days of the British Empire. Given his father’s vocation, Nick spent most of his time with his mother.
“She came from a sort of showbiz family,” Lowe explains over the phone from his home in west London. “She was very interested in music and got me interested. But she had very curious musical tastes. For instance, she had, rather unbelievably, quite a lot of albums by Tennessee Ernie Ford — he sounded to me like a kind of Disney cartoon character — and she also had a lot of show tunes, of course. That’s what middle-class people were really into then, show music and music from soundtracks. I got a real love for that kind of music, which endures today.”
Lowe’s early devotion to his mother’s favorites — unabashed pop music that was playful, clever and catchy, yet often quite in earnest — was evident when, at age 8 or 9, he purchased his first record: Perry Como’s Magic Moments, a U.K. chart-topper in 1958 and an early success by songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Its nostalgic collegiality aside, Magic Moments features the sort of waggish rhymes (“The way that we cheered whenever our team was scoring a touchdown/The time that the floor fell out of my car when I put the clutch down”) that Lowe would deploy one day in his own songs.
Around the same time, Lowe began learning guitar. “My mother taught me my first chords,” he remembers, “and we’d sit around playing Lonnie [“The King of Skiffle”] Donegan tunes. I learned his entire songbook. He was fantastic. He had this wild, sort of snarly voice, which was very unsettling. He was the nearest thing we had to a homegrown wildman.”
By this time, Lowe was slowly becoming aware of American rock ‘n’ roll, an import that would change his life forever. “We only used to get the [Armed] Forces radio and they didn’t usually play any real wild stuff. But I remember that the first time I heard Little Richard, my mother leapt three feet into the air and went racing to the radio to turn it off. I definitely remember thinking that this was American music and that I liked it a great deal.
“I remember Conway Twitty’s ‘It’s Only Make Believe’ and the Everlys, of course, and ‘Battle Of New Orleans’ by Johnny Horton, that sort of stuff, and later on Eddie Cochran. I had an older sister who liked Elvis, but she also liked Pat Boone, who I thought was really lame even then. She preferred his version of ‘Rip It Up’ [to Little Richard’s original], which I could not understand at all.
“See, in those days, and of course it’s been said many times, America seemed like this impossibly, fantastically groovy place. England in the ’50s really did look like those old movies. It was absolutely gray — shades of black, shades of white, shades of gray. And this American music was so far ahead of our homegrown stuff that we thought it was hopeless, really, until the Beatles.”