Nick Lowe – His aim is true
Just 14 years old when the Fab Four’s second single, “Please Please Me”, cracked the British Top Ten, Lowe and his schoolmates were the audience for Beatlemania. Lowe was inspired to learn bass guitar, a la Paul McCartney, and soon enough he’d quit school to work a long string of odd jobs (“There was zero unemployment then, and we just didn’t think about the future at all”), while he tracked down the Beatles’ American influences and dreamed of pop stardom.
“I heard some great records in school, especially from Chuck Berry and Motown and Leiber & Stoller,” he laughs, “but I didn’t really do very well academically….I think I knew all along I was going to be in the music business somehow. Although initially I just wanted to be kind of famous. There wasn’t any real artistic drive; I just wanted to meet girls.”
In 1968, Lowe received a phone call from guitarist Brinsley Schwarz, an old school friend who had landed a record deal with EMI. “At that point, if you weren’t actually hideously deformed, and you could string a few chords together, you could get a deal, and they put a single out on you,” Lowe explains in his typically self-deprecating manner. Schwarz’s group was a fairly generic British Invasion pop-rock outfit called Kippington Lodge, and Lowe signed on as a singer and bassist. At the end of 1969, five singles later, the band hadn’t scored so much as a minor hit.
“We didn’t write our own songs, of course; we did what we were told,” Lowe says. “Back then, the music business was just a branch of show business, really. In fact, our first agent — I’m exaggerating this story to make a point, but only just exaggerating — when we got our first proper London agent, we’d sit in a waiting room to see him with these other acts: plate spinners, comedians, strongmen who blew up hot water bottles, things like that.
“But it didn’t take too long before we realized you had a choice. You could be a dimwit who did what these old blokes told you to do…you smiled and sang these wet songs. Or you could learn how to write your own songs.”
In 1969, having decided to do the latter, and now referring to themselves collectively by the name of their lead guitarist, Lowe and the other members of Brinsley Schwarz answered a small Melody Maker ad that led them to their next manager, Dave Robinson. After working with the band for a few months to no tangible result, Robinson had a brainstorm: In order to create what’s now termed “buzz” for the debut album they had already recorded with their own funds, Robinson’s company, Famepushers, would fly 150 British journalists to New York’s Fillmore East to see the band open a bill that included Van Morrison and Quicksilver Messenger Service.
This idea alone persuaded United Artists to sign them to a recording contract, but the concert itself was a disaster before the group even left England. The band’s departure for the States was delayed by days because of visa difficulties, and the plane carrying the music writers arrived in New York hours behind schedule.
The result was a lackluster band performance offered up for review to a weary and irritated press contingent that was only too ready to disbelieve the hype. The critics panned Brinsley Schwarz’s self-titled debut when it was released just a few weeks later (“They cut another record, it never was a hit,” Lowe sang in 1978, “’cause someone in the newspaper said it was shit”), and the fiasco haunted the group throughout its existence.
“I suspect few people knew the ramifications of that trip,” Robinson wrote in the liner notes to the band’s posthumously released 1978 album, Fifteen Thoughts Of Brinsley Schwarz. “Apart from the financial pressures, which crippled the band for years afterwards, the mental strain was extreme. The Brinsleys rolled on for a full five years after the Fillmore episode, but it was only after they split up that they escaped its shadow.”
By this time, though, Lowe and his mates in Brinsley Schwarz weren’t just escaping a shadow. They were casting a bit of one as well. Brinsley Schwarz cut a lot of tunes in the first half of the ’70s, most of which Lowe wrote and sang but none of which were hits. Nevertheless, when the Brinsleys disbanded in the spring of ’75, they were at the forefront of an influential London-based musical style called pub rock.
“We used to copy other bands that we admired,” Lowe admits. “As with any artistic endeavor — pop songwriting being absolutely the lowest head on the totem pole — you’re just a product of everything you’ve ever admired, really. Obviously, when you start off writing songs, your heart and your influences are very much on your sleeve. You just rewrite another group’s material that you like.
“And then you sort of get fed up with that and move on to another group and rewrite all their stuff. And so on and so on, until the day comes when you’re doing one artist’s stuff and then you decide to add some other earlier influence you had in with that as well. As this starts to happen more and more often, you’ve got so many influences in there that you’ve got your own style.”
This creative learning curve is easy to spot on Original Golden Greats, a sampler of the band’s early-’70s output originally released in 1974. Almost without exception, each track is a mimeograph of another band: track one, Crosby, Stills & Nash; tracks two and three, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo-era Byrds; track four, the Van Morrison of Tupelo Honey; track six, the Grateful Dead; track seven, The Band; and so on and so on. This roots-rock-based approach placed the Brinsleys at the British vanguard of what’s now termed country rock, but it also means the group’s earliest recordings are largely indistinctive.
Quickly, though, Lowe and the Brinsleys began to spike their country-rock and folk-rock licks with the rhythms of R&B, reggae, and first generation rock ‘n’ roll. The result was pub rock — soulful, eager party music, ideal for a night of dancing and lifting a few pints with friends at London nightspots such as the Tally Ho and the Hope And Anchor.