Stephen Taylor / Special to The Daily Yomiuri
|Nick Lowe (promo pic)|
"If I'm wrestling with a problem, I'll sit back mentally and say, 'Well, what would John have done here?' and it would always have been, take something out," the 62-year-old Lowe, on the phone from his west London home, said in an interview with The Daily Yomiuri last month.
"You look at what you've done and you'll say, 'Well, those two things can go for a kickoff,' and then suddenly you think, 'Oh, this is much better now.'"
Not that the man responsible for penning such tunes as "Cruel To Be Kind" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" ever struggles for ideas, but the muse can visit him in the strangest places.
"The great thing about being a songwriter is that you can take your office with you, [so] when you're pushing your trolley round Tesco's [supermarket], you can be mulling something over," he said.
In a career spanning six decades, Lowe's career took off commercially in the mid-1970s, when he found himself in the position of in-house producer at Stiff Records, the pioneering British independent record label of the punk era, where his production credits included "New Rose," the first single by The Damned, and My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello's debut album.
In 1978, Lowe released his first solo album, Jesus of Cool, and followed it up a year later with Labour of Lust, which contained "Cruel To Be Kind," the catchy pop tune that would become a global hit--spawning a Japanese-language version by Sanyutei Endoh in 1981, and a Greek translation of the tune just last year. Lowe is level-headed about the song's enduring appeal.
"I think it's the tune. I wrote it in the 1970s and it's a real 1970s pop tune. At the time, it was bang up-to-date, the absolute last word. I still do that song, I love to do it, actually, 'cause it makes people laugh--they think it's so corny," he said.
Yet one of Lowe's older compositions has become even more widely known. Written when he was a member of the pub rock band Brinsley Schwarz, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" was the opening track on the group's final studio album, The New Favourites of Brinsley Schwarz, released in 1974.
The song would likely have sunk without trace had it not been for the intervention a few years later of a geeky, bespectacled singer in an ill-fitting suit, who recorded a cover version in 1979.
"It's Elvis [Costello] that I owe for bringing it to the public's notice...and to this day, quite a lot of people still think that he wrote it," Lowe said.
The lyrics were a clarion call at a time when the ideals of the hippie movement were being replaced by the cynicism synonymous with a period author Tom Wolfe termed "The Me Decade."
"The song was supposed to be an old hippie, superseded by the new thinking, saying to an imaginary, coke-sniffing hipster, 'Oh, you might think I've had my day, mate, I'm a joke now, but what's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding?'" Lowe explained. He said he had been careful not to treat the lyrics too lightly: "Something must have stopped me making it too facetious--'Wait a minute, this is actually quite good so don't be too smart-arsed about this and mess it all up.' So I left it all oblique and it was Elvis who made it anthemic, and put the bulging eyes and veins into it."
Thirteen years after Costello's version, Curtis Stigers recorded the song for the Grammy-award winning soundtrack of the movie The Bodyguard. The royalties from that multimillion-selling album made Lowe an overnight millionaire.
"Holy moly, it was incredible. You can't really comprehend it, but it couldn't have come at a better time, because I'd just developed a new way of recording and presenting myself, and the one thing I needed was an injection of cash so I could start to reinvent myself, and that came along just in the nick of time," he said, without a hint of irony.
Lowe's self-reinvention produced four critically acclaimed albums, from The Impossible Bird in 1994 to 2007's At My Age. His new album, The Old Magic, is due for release in September and it seems this particular sexagenarian is enjoying the sort of musical freedom that perhaps only maturity can bring.
"One of the advantages [of getting older] is that you lose a lot of your snobbery about musical styles and things. When you get older, you just jumble it all up and suddenly you think, 'Well, hey, I'll just make up my own thing.' There's a wonderful release to it, you're just thinking, 'Sod all the rest of you, I'm going to do it this way.'"
Nick Lowe will play at Billboard Live in Tokyo (03-3405-1133) at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on Aug. 10-11 and Billboard Live in Osaka (06-6342-7722) at 6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on Aug. 12.
(Jul. 29, 2011)