WE left Nick Lowe last week gazing into the mirror, not liking what he saw, and vowing to quit the booze and clean up his act. Sure enough, it was three years before he had another drink. Whether sobriety improved his records, however, is open to debate.
May 1984 saw the release of Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit, which left the public underwhelmed. The first single from the album, Half a Boy and Half a Man, reached a UK high of No 53 although it topped the charts in the Netherlands. ‘The week it went to No 1,’ Lowe told his biographer Will Birch, ‘we showed up in a grey industrial town on the Dutch border and there were, um, six people to see us! So I was starting to feel ridiculous and irrelevant.’
Tensions had grown between Nick and wife Carlene, and in spring 1985 they decided to divorce, with him moving to a bachelor pad a mile away from the home they had shared in Chiswick, West London. By August he had made another album, The Rose of England, which was an improvement on its predecessors. The title track, about a woman weeping over the departure of a son off to war, was covered by Graham Parker.
I Knew The Bride (When She Used to Rock ’n’ Roll) was produced by the successful US musician Huey Lewis and featured his backing band The News. There is also a version of Elvis Costello’s superb song Indoor Fireworks.
In early 1987 Lowe found himself seated in a restaurant next to the US movie actress Margot Kidder, who played Lois Lane to Christopher Reeve’s Superman and was in town for post-production work. ‘I can’t remember what I said to her but I must have cracked a couple of jokes,’ he told Birch. ‘We exchanged phone numbers. Then, a couple of nights after that, her secretary invited me on a date on Margot’s behalf. I thought it was a peculiar way of doing things but I accepted the invitation. Of course I was really pleased because I hadn’t had a girlfriend or a date for ages but I was starting to get my mojo back and I thought, “Man, this is really cool – blimmin’ Superman’s bird? Yes!”
‘Come the big day, I received an unexpected phone call from John Hiatt (the American singer/songwriter). I hadn’t heard from him in ages. He had been through a hideous period but he had survived. He said, “I’m back and I want to make this record. I’ve managed to get Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner, and I’ve got Ocean Way studio (in Hollywood) booked, and I want you to play bass.” It was the dream call but my immediate thought was, “I can’t do that.” I was getting better on the old bass, but Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner? They were real heroes of mine and it would have been the last straw if I’d got out there and all my chops had completely gone. But my initial reaction was, “Fantastic, let me get my diary”, which was of course totally empty. “Let me see now, when are we looking at?”, thinking Hiatt would say, “In a month’s time.” But he said, “Well, actually, there’s a plane leaving in three hours.”
‘He explained that it had come together quickly, all on favours and hardly any money. Ry was available for one day, and “if he doesn’t like it he’s not going to come back”. I thought, “I’m not going to swim in those waters. I’m not capable of it. Plus I’ve got a date tonight with Margot Kidder and it’s gonna do me a lot of good.” So I said, “I’m really sorry, John, what a shame, but I’m . . .” I made some pitiful excuse and he said, “Oh well, never mind, I’ll have to get somebody else”.’
An hour later, Nick received a call from his manager Jake Riviera, who had been informed of his refusing Hiatt and told him in no uncertain terms to get his finger out. ‘You pack a bag, there’s another flight in two hours, and when you get to LA you hire a bass and go straight to the studio and start f***ing recording.’
‘I knew I had to go,’ said Nick. ‘Of course I had to phone Margot.’ What he had failed to realise, however, was that she might be impressed by the fact that he had to fly to LA to record with John Hiatt and Ry Cooder. ‘It turned the gas up somewhat, because I think up to that point she thought I was a bit of a loser. But now she was excited. I told her, “It’s only four days of recording, I’ll be back in less than a week.” She said, “OK, I’ll still be here. See you then.” I thought, “Excellent!”
The recording sessions produced the successful album Bring The Family, which proved a turning point for Hiatt and for Lowe too. He returned from LA ‘absolutely twanging’, best mates with Ry Cooder and ready to rejuvenate his career. And the lovely Margot was waiting for him. Sadly the relationship was short-lived. A troubled soul, she went on to date the Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau before suffering a series of personal crises. She died last year aged 69 after taking a deliberate overdose of drink and drugs.
In 1988 Nick released his next album, Pinker and Prouder Than Previous, a lo-fi effort apart from the Dave Edmunds-produced Lovers’ Jamboree.
Edmunds would also produce his 1990 album Party of One, for which he returned to Ocean Way to work again with Cooder and drummer Keltner. ‘It was very difficult because Ry and Jim didn’t dig Edmunds at all,’ Nick told Will Birch. ‘I was rather frustrated by this because I was completely on their side. Ry is a great guy but to use an overworked phrase, he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He always reminds me of Mr Wilson in Just Dennis, and appears to be quite grumpy. But he is a kind and lovely man, and extremely funny, and it takes a while to get to know him.’
Despite the personality clashes, Party of One was probably Nick’s best album so far. ‘We cut some good tracks,’ he said. ‘I thought Shting Shtang was great – a one-chord item, it’s hard to do live.’ What’s Shaking on the Hill features jazz legend Ray Brown on string bass, You Got the Look I Like and I Don’t Know Why You Keep Me On are retro rockers while the standout cut is All Men Are Liars, including the classic couplet: ‘Well do you remember Rick Astley? He had a big fat hit, it was ghastly.’
According to Nick, the song was inspired by an early Oprah Winfrey show. ‘An outraged woman in the audience was shouting, “I tell you Oprah, all men are liar!” She kept repeating the phrase. “Are liar!” I knew it had to be a song.’ The track ends with the punchline: ‘All men are liars. And that’s the truth.’
In March 1990 Lowe appeared on BBC 2’s The Late Show, singing What’s Shaking on the Hill, and made a hit with presenter Tracey MacLeod. They soon became an item and I saw them together in the audience at an Alison Krauss concert in the Royal Festival Hall. MacLeod, who at 29 was 11 years his junior, recalled the first time they went away together for a weekend, to a hotel in the New Forest. ‘I was with this person that I’d known about since I was a teenager, and really admired. There we were, in the hotel room, and he was sitting at a desk, furrowed brow over a piece of paper, and he was writing, writing, writing. I thought, “God, he’s writing a song! Maybe he’s writing a song about me!” When he went to the bathroom I crept over to the desk and found he’d been doing the Daily Mail easy crossword.’
Inspired by the success of the Traveling Wilburys, a band consisting of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, Warner Brothers A & R chief Lenny Waronker resolved to create another supergroup. Little Village, comprising the Bring the Family line-up of Hiatt, Cooder, Lowe and Keltner, was it. They released an eponymous album in 1992 and went on tour to promote it. I have mentioned in a previous column about Cooder how they played the Crystal Palace Bowl, walking distance from our home in Beckenham, while we were unavoidably away at Butlin’s in Minehead, chiz chiz. Among the songs I missed them performing was Lowe’s brilliant Fool Who Knows, one of the few highlights of a strangely disappointing LP.
Lowe later said: ‘Little Village was really good fun. Unfortunately, the record we did was no good. I suppose on some level it worked, but Warner Brothers kind of gave us too much time to do it.’
The band split up soon afterwards but left behind some stellar live recordings, mainly bootlegs but including The Action in Frisco which is well worth a listen.
Life was about to become unexpectedly kind to Nick Lowe, but I’ll deal with that in a future column. In the meantime have a tuneful Christmas, washed down with plenty of quality grog.