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Nick Lowe Tries to Recapture That Old Magic

Nick Lowe produced five early Elvis Costello albums, among many others.
Dan Burn Forti

Nick Lowe sounds energized on the phone and laughs heartily when the Houston Press suggests that lately he hasn't been letting things slide, a reference to his classic ballad "Lately I've Let Things Slide."

"No, we've been pretty busy since the last album dropped," says the London-based writer of the Elvis Costello classic "What's So Funny (About Peace, Love and Understanding)," New Wave pop gem "Cruel to Be Kind" and the full-speed-ahead rocker "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)."

Lowe's new album, That Old Magic (Yep Roc), has been described as Sinatra-like and has found Lowe characterized as a "post-rock crooner," but the quiet-natured songs like the single "Sensitive Guy" didn't keep Lowe from accepting a solo opening slot on Wilco's tour last year.

"I was so surprised when they approached me," says Lowe. "It was their idea, and I thought it was a very bold idea. Would their audience go for it? Would my audience come to a Wilco show? I really have to give them credit for taking me out with them.

"I'm certainly anxious to attract younger people, and I don't want to be some sad dinosaur recycling the old hits," he adds. "And I don't want to preach or any of that stuff some guys do when they get a bit long in the tooth."

Noting that the crowds were "very accepting of me," Lowe professes nothing but "utter respect" for Wilco.

"They were nothing but first-class with me," he says.

Respect from the current generation of bands should certainly be Lowe's due. He played bass in Rockpile and his producer credits read like a history of late 20th-century rock: John Hiatt's Riding with the King, the Damned's Damned Damned Damned and the Pretenders' Pretenders, just to name a few. (More to come.)

Lowe's history is fairy-tale material already. From rural Sussex in far east England, he discovered when high school ended that "I really just wanted to do something in music."

Joining his classmate Brinsley Schwarz in that man's groundbreaking, eponymous pub-rock band, Lowe learned success — and failure — very quickly. Patterning their sound to some extent on the American country-rock of The Band, Brinsley Schwarz became a popular act around London and shortly lined up record deals and tours.

Radio liked them, the hip people liked them and they thought they were on their way. Instead, they became the butt of one of the great public-relations disasters in rock and roll before or since.

Top-shelf UK management combine Famepushers booked Brinsley Schwarz into New York City for its American debut in 1970, opening for Van Morrison at the Fillmore East. A planeload of critics from the UK were flown in, but after a series of logistical nightmares caused the band to arrive in the U.S. only hours before the gig, the unsophisticated youngsters tanked up at the open bar and the show was a disaster.

Critics mauled the show and the debut album. The group would record two more albums of country-rock but was basically finished. The incident is still known as the Brinsley Schwarz Hype.

"An early lesson in the danger of just going out to be famous," admits Lowe philosophically. "It made quite the impression on me.

"We were young and we couldn't believe how stupid we were," he continues. "I've had occasion to fall to my knees and thank God that happened when it did, because it was very humbling to all of us."

After the New York debacle, Lowe eventually left Brinsley Schwarz in 1974 and channeled many of his experiences into his solo debut, 1978's Jesus of Cool (released in the U.S. as Pure Pop for Now People). He also began hanging around legendary Rockfield Studios, where he met Dave Edmunds, the legendary Welsh rocker and producer.

"It was one of those residential studios that we used quite a lot," Lowe recalls. "Dave is very much a loner, and I'd see him showing up after we'd done our day's work. I made up my mind to make this man my friend, so I started hanging around late, watching him work."

Lowe says Edmunds, the ultimate studio rat, eventually "warmed up a bit" and started letting Lowe set up a microphone or join in on a chorus or handclaps.

"And then I left Brinsley Schwarz and the idea for Rockpile just dawned on us," Lowe recalls.

One of the most revered rock and roll bands ever to come out of the UK, Rockpile was like the British equivalent of Texas rockers the Fabulous Thunderbirds; following Rockpile's breakup after 1980's classic album Seconds of Pleasure was released, Lowe in fact produced the T-Birds' 1982 album T-Bird Rhythm, and Edmunds produced the band's most popular album, 1986's Tuff Enuff.

"We knew the T-Birds very early on," Lowe recalls. "They turned us on to all this deep blues that was very influential on us, very eye-opening. And they had that Texas thing."

Lowe describes the instrumental "Awesome" from his 1984 album Nick Lowe's Cowboy Outfit as "my attempt to do something like [T-Birds guitarist] Jimmie Vaughan."

At the same time that Lowe and Edmunds were forming Rockpile, Lowe came into the role of producer for seminal punk/New Wave label Stiff Records, started on a £400 loan from Dr. Feelgood front man Lee Brilleaux.

Lowe's single "So It Goes" b/w "Heart of the City" was the label's first release and sold 10,000 copies, not great but not a flop. Almost simultaneously, Lowe produced what is generally acknowledged as the first punk single, "New Rose" by The Damned, which became the label's first true hit.

Within a year, Lowe brought a young London hipster into the Stiff family. Five Elvis Costello albums later as producer, Lowe's place in music history was forever secured. Stiff's management decided to sign Costello as a staff writer, but Lowe says Costello was so talented that he "convinced them we should sign him as an artist, not just a writer."

Stiff also signed Ian Dury and Wreckless Eric, and in 1977 the label sent all its artists out on the road in one bus with Lowe as musical director and bandleader. Live Stiffs, the resulting album featuring Costello and the Attractions, Dury, Lowe, Edmunds, Wreckless Eric and Larry Wallis, remains a milestone of the punk/New Wave era. It ends with Dury's song "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll," with the entire busload, crew and all, singing onstage.

Lowe describes the Stiff phenomenon as something that was a natural progression.

"We were young and cheeky, yes," he laughs, "but we also knew the times were changing. Suddenly the British bands who'd come to America and done well seemed redundant and self-indulgent. There was this feeling that our time had come, like it was almost inevitable. Those were some heady days indeed."

While introspective wrist-slitters like 1998's "Man That I've Become" suggest that Lowe, now 62, is fed up with music and life, he says nothing could be further from the truth.

"We've been on the road since January and I'm actually having a ball," says the Jesus of Cool in his professorial voice. "I'm thankful for the work and, of course, one is always thankful for the acceptance."

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