Nick Lowe in Covent Garden
Nick Lowe liked the “mischief and mayhem” of the punk-rock era, into which he was drawn through his budding talents as a producer of things like the Damned, Wreckless Eric and Elvis Costello. But he also remembered a collateral phenomenon: there were musicians, he said last night, “who’d been playing Stephen Stills songs the week before and were suddenly pretending they couldn’t play.”
His dry wit was in evidence at an event organised to tie in with the paperback edition of Will Birch’s biography, Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe. A large audience had assembled at the Seven Dials Club in Covent Garden to hear the two of them in conversation — or perhaps I should say reassembled, since we looked very much like the people that would have turned up to hear his band at Dingwalls or the Hope & Anchor, now 40 years further down the line.
Talking about his career, he said he’d changed his approach to recording in the mid-’80s when he realised that his days as a pop star were over and a new direction was required. He wanted other people to cover his songs, and he figured that if he recorded his own versions like demos, other artists would hear them and conclude they could do better.
If they simply followed what he’d done, he said, he felt disappointed. What he really liked was when someone approached one of his songs in a complete different and surprising way. Asked for examples, he mentioned Johnny Cash’s “The Beast in Me”, from the first volume of the American Recordings series, produced by Rick Rubin. Cash, his former stepfather-in-law, had been the most charismatic man he’d ever met, rivalled only by Solomon Burke. Oh, and there was a version of “I Live on a Battlefield”, which he’d written with Paul Carrack, given the full treatment by Diana Ross — “Turn that kitchen sink up a little louder!”
He talked about moving to Nashville to write songs with people he’d never met. How they’d start a conversation by asking how you’d got there, which airline, which hotel you were at, whether you’d had a good first night’s sleep, and you’d say, well, the people in the next room seemed to be having a party all night, and they’d say, oh, what room were they in? And you’d say, um, 706, I think… and they’d start writing straight away and there was the song: “There’s party in room 706…”
My favourite moment came after he was asked whether he’d like to produce a record with Cliff Richard. No, he said. Maybe once. Not now. Then he mentioned one project that never came off. “I had the idea to take Peters and Lee,” he said, “and get them to do ‘At the Dark End of the Street’. Can you imagine that? It would be heartbreaking, wouldn’t it?”
Then he made everybody happy by picking up an acoustic guitar and singing “Cruel to Be Kind”, not just the title number from the biography of the same name but a truly great pop song.
* Will Birch’s Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Work of Nick Lowe is published by Constable.