It is to Nick Lowe’s everlasting credit that in May 1977, a few months after David Bowie released the album Low, Lowe issued an EP entitled Bowi. Appearing on Stiff Records at the height of punk, the record contained ‘Marie Provost’ (sic), an account in two and a half minutes of the unhappy life and bizarre death of the silent movie star Marie Prevost: ‘She was a winner/ Who became the doggie’s dinner,’ chorused a heavenly choir of multi-tracked Lowes. Surfing on the New Wave, as Stiff Records’ slogan had it, Lowe followed Bowi with an LP called Jesus of Cool in the UK and Pure Pop for Now People in the US: tracks included ‘Nutted by Reality’, ‘Little Hitler’ and ‘I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass’, a top-ten hit in 1978 which saw Lowe appear on Top of the Pops dressed as the Riddler from Batman.
It is further to Lowe’s credit that he has spent the decades since his brush with pop-punk stardom attempting to live those various notorieties down, in the process becoming one of the UK’s most distinguished singer-songwriters and performers. As the writer David Hepworth has observed, Lowe is almost unique among veteran rock musicians in that he has steadily improved with age.
His songs have been covered by Johnny Cash, Rod Stewart, Solomon Burke and Diana Ross. As a record producer — including seven albums with Elvis Costello, plus classic singles for the Damned and the Pretenders — Lowe’s nickname was ‘Basher’, reputedly because of his ‘bash it down and tart it up’ modus operandi, though Lowe disputes this. In his current guise, however, he has more in common with Nelson Riddle than the Riddler. He is an old-fashioned craftsman who practises a blend of vintage pop, soul, country and rock ’n’ roll, crooning lyrics of wry self-deprecation and heartbreak: ‘Lately I’ve Let Things Slide’, ‘12-Step Program (To Quit You Babe)’, ‘I Read a Lot’ (‘Not just magazines / But other more serious things / To get me through the day / Night-time too…’).
Titled after Lowe’s greatest chart hit, Will Birch’s new biography is neither especially cruel nor kind. Written with its subject’s full cooperation, it is scrupulously fair to a man who, by his own admission, did not always behave as well as he could have. Birch, a former member of the Kursaal Flyers and the Records, has known Lowe since the 1970s and saw him pass through depression, alcoholism and a stormy marriage to the singer Carlene Carter. ‘Nick’s shtick — his ironic self-deprecation — is inherently a lie, but it knows it’s a lie,’ notes one acquaintance. ‘It’s a way of moving through life as if nothing really matters… but it requires a lot of drive, and low cunning.’ As the biographer of Ian Dury and a chronicler of the 1970s pub rock scene from which Lowe emerged, Birch also knows a good, Spinal-Tappish anecdote when he hears one and, drawing on Lowe’s formidable skill as a raconteur, this book is stuffed with them. (Connoisseurs of such yarns will be delighted to learn that Lowe’s hilarious account of Keith Richards’s guest appearance with Rockpile on stage in New York is transcribed in full.)
Cruel to be Kind is unlikely to appeal to anyone who isn’t acquainted with at least a few of the hits and misses of Lowe’s 50-year career. This book can also be read as a survival guide, however — not just to the music business but how to grow older, stay creative, dress sharp and keep your friends. ‘It’s all smoke and mirrors,’ insists the author of ‘All Men Are Liars’, a sparkling miss from the early 1990s; but who cares? May we all be such excellent company in the years ahead.