CRIKEY! It’s getting on for a year since we left the Nick Lowe story with him at a loose end, his band Little Village having broken up at the end of 1992. While always a favourite with the critics, Nick had never made a great deal of money from his records, but all that was about to change.
What turned him into a wealthy chap was the song What’s So Funny ’Bout Peace, Love and Understanding? Written in 1974, it was originally recorded by Lowe’s then band Brinsley Schwarz and was the first track on their final album, The New Favourites Of . . .
In 1979 it was covered by Elvis Costello but it really kicked off when a version by Curtis Stigers appeared in the background of the 1992 movie The Bodyguard, starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston. The soundtrack album went on to become the most successful of all time, shifting a reported 45million copies worldwide. Thanks to that, a hefty royalties cheque, said then to be for £650,000, arrived on Nick’s doormat and there have been several instalments since.
In a typically self-deprecating recent interview with the website AARP, Lowe vouchsafed: ‘One day I woke up and the idea for that song came to me, the title came to me. I thought, Well, it’s a bit of a mouthful; it doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. But I thought, Well, this is a really good idea. It’s the first actual real idea I’ve had, that I haven’t sort of stolen from somebody else.
‘And I wrote the song, and I was a pretty stupid youth, really, in many ways, but I did one clever thing. The one clever thing I did with that song was to not mess it up in the verses by making it too complicated. I thought to myself, This is a great title. Let the title do all the work for you. I had a pretty good tune for it going on, but the clever thing I did was to keep it fairly bland, almost, you know, in the verses and just let the title do the work.
‘And it worked pretty well. But, of course, it wasn’t until Elvis Costello – it was Elvis who brought it in front of the public, and it caught people’s imagination.’
Asked how he felt about the track, he replied: ‘Well, it is amazing. I’ve written quite a lot of songs, and most of them are, frankly, forgettable. But if you do it for long enough and you write enough of them, you’re going to hit the jackpot on a few occasions. And I’ve written a few good ones that have been successful — actual hits and ones that other people have recorded and made them hits. But that song, Peace, Love and Understanding, it’s almost I feel like I had nothing to do with it. I’ve heard so many covers, when I hear somebody doing it, I’m not immediately struck by the fact that, Oh, they’re doing my song. It’s really odd. It really does feel like it’s like, uh, Auld Lang Syne or Happy Birthday to You.’
The money from Peace, Love etc came at a propitious time for Nick, whose career was ripe for a relaunch. He was now able to fund his own recordings and work at a leisurely pace. Matters were helped when an old friend, drummer Bobby Irwin, arrived back in England from the US and the pair began to collaborate musically.
The result was the 1994 album The Impossible Bird, for which Lowe prepared by hiring the function room at the Turk’s Head, a pub in Twickenham, West London, not too far from his Brentford home. The acoustics were much to his liking but, he said, ‘the kitchen staff thought I was a bit mad, singing on my own and I felt embarrassed to start with because they would stand and watch me on their cigarette breaks. “Who’s this loser who rents this place to come and sing his own songs? He obviously can’t get anyone to come and see him”.’
One of the album’s most successful tracks, Shelley My Love, was written with his partner Tracey MacLeod in mind. She told Nick’s biographer Will Birch that he had originally used her moniker in the title. ‘But Tracey is not the most musical or the most singable name so he changed it to Shelley, which is slightly less ludicrous-sounding.’
Another memorable song, Where’s My Everything?, arose from what Tracey described as ‘a little in-joke we used to have’. She added: ‘He’d be all grumpy and go, “Where’s my cup of tea? Where’s my newspaper? Where’s my this? Where’s my that? One time he couldn’t think what he wanted, and he went, “Where’s my EVERYTHING?”. A light came on and he wrote this rather sad, heartbroken song about not having everything but it came out of what was actually a lovely, harmonious time.’
Harmonious or not, Tracey, who had her own career in the BBC Arts department, walked out on Nick after concluding that he was too self-centred for them to have a family-based future together. He was heartbroken. ‘I was in love with Tracey MacLeod,’ Nick told Birch. ‘I’m much thicker than her but we were totally devoted to one another, and we still are, in a way.
‘The break-up was awful but I found that this fantastic, clear view came to me. I thought, “Man, I can write some seriously soulful stuff here.” I didn’t want to sing about being on the road again, or “here I am in a bar”. I wanted to sing some grown-up sh*t about being extremely p*ssed off. And I needed to put this across and really tell a story like a proper geezer, like all the people I admire.’
Aiding and abetting his renaissance were Bobby Irwin, a Welsh guitarist and keyboard player named Geraint Watkins, and an engineer/producer, Neil Brockbank. ‘Every so often we would record something and we couldn’t believe we’d done it,’ said Lowe. ‘It was so cool and we’d listen back to it endlessly and be so pleased. A good example would be Trail of Tears and some of the very slow stuff we did like Drive-Thru Man, Withered on the Vine and Lover Don’t Go.
It was thrilling to play so slowly and keep a groove going.’
Lowe describes his albums as ‘glorified demos for my songs, recorded in such a way that people might say, “That’s a good song, but I can do it so much better than that guy.” Hopefully they’ll cut my tunes but I don’t crave celebrity any more’.
Nick went on tour with a band, The Impossible Birds, but the cost of subsidising its operations put paid to a great deal of the Peace Love and Understanding bounty and he took to appearing as a solo act. In 1996, with a new album in mind, he considered returning to the Turk’s Head. ‘I thought I would save money by recording there but I hadn’t taken into account that in the evening the hall was used for various activities like the aerobics club, Wolf Cubs, origami, so we had to take all the gear down each night and set it up again the next day. It was very time-consuming. It would have ended up costing about the same as if we’d gone to Montserrat.’
After recording transferred to major London studios, the album Dig My Mood was released in January 1998. It is a much more low-key effort than its predecessors with Lowe adopting a world-weary persona on such delights as Lonesome Reverie, What Lack of Love Has Done and Man That I’ve Become.
The ballad You Inspire Me was mooted to be covered by k d lang and Bette Midler, but according to Nick ‘the only well-known person to have recorded it is Engelbert Humperdinck’.
Completing a trilogy of soul-searching LPs, The Convincer came out in September 2001. I am very fond of the song Indian Queens with its brass band arrangement but the undoubted highlight is Lately I’ve Let Things Slide, here played on Top of the Pops.
The artwork for The Convincer was created by designer Peta Waddington, who would become Nick’s girlfriend and eventual wife. In 2004, the same year he released a live album, Untouched Takeaway, she found she was pregnant.
The couple’s son, Roy, was in his mother’s arms in 2005 at London’s Barbican Theatre when Nick premiered one of the seediest and creepiest songs of all time, I Trained Her To Love Me.
Do you see the way she lights up when I walk in the room?
And the skip in her step when we’re both out walking in the neighbourhood?
This one’s almost done, now to watch her fall apart.
I trained her to love me so I can go ahead and break her heart.
This was the third track on Lowe’s 2007 album At My Age, with other highlights including People Change, with Chrissie Hynde on backing vocals, and the lovely Hope For Us All reflecting on how Peta has transformed his life.
People are remarking on the change that’s come over me.
It can be explained very easily.
Out of the blue, someone’s come into my lonely world and now I’m walking tall,
And if even I can find someone, there’s hope for us all.
Nick and Peta married at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, in September 2010. Peta told Will Birch: ‘I didn’t really get a proper proposal. If anyone asked us, he’d say, “Well I guess it’s an inevitability”. It was Roy, really. He wondered why we weren’t married. We thought we should get on with it and stop fannying around.’
The Old Magic was released in 2011. It opens with Stoplight Roses, a warning to any guilty bloke who tries to appease his other half with a cheap bouquet from a petrol station. I Read a Lot and House For Sale are other favourites. In Birch’s book, writer David Hepworth is quoted as saying: ‘Nick Lowe is alone among rock stars in being better in his sixties than his twenties. With the records he’s made in this century he’s arrived at a musical persona which resonates with a lot of people . . . of a man in late middle-age belatedly coming to terms with what the rest of us would call real life.’
During 2012, Nick was persuaded by his team to record a Christmas album. ‘It was always seen as sort of tacky and vulgar,’ he told a US DJ. ‘When the idea was suggested to me my initial reaction was of horror – that my record company could have thought an artist of my stature could possibly wish to have his hands soiled by this terrible, commercial nonsense. That feeling lasted for about a minute and ten seconds – as long as an early B-side.’
Quality Street – A Seasonal Selection For All The Family includes as its highlight I Was Born In Bethlehem, in which the Nativity is told from the viewpoint of the baby Jesus. Christmas At The Airport was conceived while Nick was waiting for a plane in Geneva while afflicted by the mother of all hangovers.
For live work, Nick linked up with a US band called Los Straitjackets, who tended to show up on stage wearing Mexican wrestling masks. But his musical world was torn apart with the death from cancer in 2015 of his beloved friend and collaborator Bobby Irwin. Two years later Neil Brockbank went the same way.
Picking himself up off the floor, Nick carried on working with Los Straitjackets and, at the age of 71, is determined to keep busy. As he told Will Birch: ‘This thing, music, is totally in charge of me. I sort of am it in a way, so if it wasn’t there now – if it was suddenly surgically removed – there wouldn’t be anything to me at all. I would be hollow. Everything I know comes from the music.’
Last word goes to the American musician Huey Lewis, who says of Nick: ‘I hope he lives and writes songs for ever. He’s a genius. He’s brilliant and funny, wonderful, generous and a sweet guy. They don’t come any better than Nick Lowe, period. Britain ought to be proud of him.’