Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Lowe-Fi: The Production Genius of Nick Lowe

(Picture property of Getty Images)

"As a producer, my biggest break came during working on "Watching the Detectives" and I discovered where the echo button was on the tape machine."
Nick Lowe

Despite being a fabulous song-writer, a smart quipper and passably handsome, Nick Lowe never hit stardom. Part of the reason might be that Nick, a long-time bass player, never loved the spotlight quite enough. From Kippington Lodge to Brinsley Scwharz, to Rockpile to Noise-to-Go and Little Village (and those are just the more famous ones) Nick always seemed to want to be part of, not just a band, but a team of equals. He used to seem a bit like a McCartney in search of his Lennon.

Further proof of his knack for team-work is the number of classics for which he's sat in the producers chair. Despite a catalog stacked with witty pop songs, more people probably own a song that Nick Lowe (more here) produced than one he performed. In interviews he often expresses amazement about this, as he believes he's no whiz at the mixing board. And certainly he's no sonic architect like Phil Spector or (shudder) Mutt Lange. After all, he earned his nick-name, Basher, for his recording philosophy of "bash it out now - tart it up later". But that gut-level style fit the times so perfectly and even when times changed and things got electronic ("Any barnyard horse can kick a synth" he once said) Nick always kept the songs and the people who played them right up front.

1. Graham Parker Back to Schooldays
Nick's first gig at the controls was this album, where much of his former band, Brinsley Schwarz, were now backing up this fiery little British soul-punk under the name the Rumour.

2. The Damned New Rose
Nick also produced what is commonly called the first punk rock single (which contained a love song and a Beatles cover - hmmm).

3. Snuff Rock Gobbing on Life
C.P. Lee (of Albertos Y Lost Trios Paranoias who deserve a post of their own) strikes again with first punk piss-take, which mocks the Pistols, the Damned and the Clash in a few short minutes.

4. Wreckless Eric Whole Wide World
Lowe's only production for Eric was this single, but it's a monster that will never die.

5. Elvis Costello Watching the Detectives
Lowe and Costello's partnership is another example of his ability to draw out the best in others, I mean how else can you explain how Nick produced Elvis Costello doing what many consider the definitive version of Nick's own "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding"?

6. Dr. Feelgood She's a Wind-Up
The Feelgoods may be the very embodiment of pub-rock and they certainly cranked up the tempo and the volume of what began a a bit of a laid-back movement.

7. Carlene Carter Baby Ride Easy
Johnny Cash's step-daughter (and child of country legends, June Carter and Carl Smith) married Nick Lowe who produced some hit-an-miss albums for her. Strangely, her move to Nashville, thankfully accompanied by her husband (and Tom Petty sideman), the late Howie Epstein, began her prime period.

Video here.

8. Mickey Jupp Old Rock n' Roller
Jupp is another lesser pub rock vet (he did write "Switchboard Susan", which got covered by both Nick himself and the Searchers when they recorded at Dave Edmunds' Rockfield studios).

9. The Pretenders Stop Your Sobbing
I suppose there are more popular nominees for the absolute zenith of Chrissie Hynde's catalog but I'd say she's made a fine, storied career out of never quite topping this one.

10. Richard Hell Kid With the Replaceable Head
Nick produced Hell? Yup, again just the once. (The 'video' is for the Destiny Street version produced by Alan Betrock and Hell.)

11. John Hiatt Love That Harms
Nick's would have a strong hand in bringing Hiatt's taut song-writing to a broader audience but not just yet.

12. Johnny Cash Without Love
When Johnny Cash is your step-father-in-law you better write him a damn good song, you better play on it and produce it in your basement. Much later, Nick's "The Beast in Me" became the linchpin in both his and Johnny's mid-nineties comebacks.

13. Fabulous Thuderbirds Diddy
The fun-loving, crowd-pleasing retro-minded music the Brit's cheerfully call "pub rock", North Americans derisively refer to as "bar rock". This is probably because while the back-to-basics movement Nick and his contemporaries built was vital and alive, sometimes the North American equivalent sounded like paint-by-numbers boogie even when, in the Fabulous Thunderbirds case, they have Stevie Ray Vaughn's brother in the band and had some middling eighties hits.

14. Paul Carrack Don't Give My Heart a Break
It's Lowe's song-writing and production (alongside Carrack's warm vocals) that keeps this from descending into tinky eighties pop.

15. Moonlighters I Feel Like a Motor
Austin De Lone, from Eggs Over Easy, was the Yankee in pub rock's court and even in his next band, the Moonlighters, he kept a vigil for the sounds of '75.

16. The Redskins Keep on Keepin' On
Their goal was,"To sing like the Supremes and walk like the Clash" and Nick's job was to keep them from sounding like a Trotskyist version of the Commitments.

17. His Latest Flame Somebody's Gonna Get Hurt
A pretty, if lushly melodramatic, pop song that bears little evidence of Nick's tricks.

The Men They Couldn't Hang
Greenback Dollar
Sure TMTCH were Pouges-ian but what a ripping version of this Hoyt Axton-via-the Kingston Trio song.

18. Katydids Lights Out (Read My Lips)
An Anglo-American folk-pop band, to whom Nick gave a bright sound, to no commercial avail.

19. Rain A Taste of Rain
Liverpudlian jangle, probably owned a lot of the same records as the guys in R.E.M.

20. Mavericks Blue Moon
The Mavericks, not a name you'd want to be pallin' around with in these post-Sarah Palin times, played country with a keen sense of history, which made them a perfect choice to do one song (again) with Nick.

Nick hasn't produced much in recent years. Since the nineties, he's focused on his ideal micro-niche as a writer and performer of tightly focused soul-country-pop songs over a four album Brentford Trilogy.


"It's either this or the biscuit factory, really."
Nick Lowe on his career


  1. That is NOT the version of Richard Hell's "Kid With the Replaceable Head" (note: it's "kid," not "boy") that Nick Lowe produced. Richard recorded it at least three times. The one you include is the version produced by Alan Betrock and Hell that was on the 1982 DESTINY STREET album. The one Nick Lowe produced was a Radar single released in 1979 (also on the Hell retrospective SPURTS). The third is the version on the new album DESTINY STREET REPAIRED, produced by hell.

  2. I stand corrected, Hell, I may even stand over-corrected. I have made the necessary correction to the post and I do appreciate the additional information.

  3. Nick Lowe; under-appreciated in so many ways - even Labour of Lust, which seems to be considered an over-reaching attempt at pop success, is a great-sounding gem. He SHOULD produce rock bands again.

  4. On his latest tour he had a new song "I read alot". Subtle and stunning # I can't find anywhere yet.


  5. Fantastic overview of the Lowe-man's work behind the board. And that one liner about him having to keep The Redskins from becoming the "Trotskyist version of The Commitments" may be one of the funniest things you ever wrote!

  6. Chris y
    Yeah, he's underappreiacted perhaps because he's not a spotlight hog and because he's so good at a number of things. I guess he's too busy with his career renaissance too produce right now.

    One of my (many) favourite things abut Lowe is is knack for great song-titles. That song will probably be on the next album in 2012 or thereabouts!

    I knew you'd enjoy a gratuitous Commitments reference. Thanks for the good words.

  7. There are two albums that I'd like to mention that come as close to including a Nick Lowe production as it would get in the 2000s:

    One is an album called "Sentimental" by singer Tanita Tikaram, half of which was produced by Neil Brockbank who is Nick's co-producer on all albums of the "Trilogy" and features guest appearances by both Nick and his drummer Robert Treherne.

    The other is an album called "Hammer Of the Honky-Tonk Gods" by guitarist Bill Kirchen. Quasi by switching chairs, this album was produced by Paul Bassman and features Nick Lowe playing bass, with the rest of the band also consisting of well-known characters like the above mentioned Robert Treherne, Bobby Irwin, Austin DeLone.

  8. Great post for Nick Lowe, one of the true greats. Hall of fame now!

  9. General Electric
    Thanks for the excellent mini-post, I had no idea he played on a Tanita Tikaram album and I follow Nick reasonably closely. Good work!

    We need to start a HoF petition!

  10. Also look for "Word Of the Wise" by Bill Kirchen from 2010

  11. Thanks Gen Elec for the update - looks like a cool record.

  12. He didn't produce Keep On Keeping On - which explains the limpness of the sound. It was produced by Ted de Bono who also worked with Billy Bragg, etc.


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