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As a young singer-songwriter, Nick Lowe was preoccupied with looking cool and getting famous. But, as Tori Marchiony reports, he didn’t really find his groove until he dropped the act.

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Nick Lowe
Nick Lowe

Nick Lowe is a world-famous musician and music producer. He had hits in the 1970s with songs “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” and “ Cruel to be Kind” and wrote the well-known Elvis Costello song “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.”

Born in 1949 near London, England, Lowe joined his first band at age 18. In the early 1970s this group, Brinsley Schwarz, became popular on the London pub rock circuit, recording six albums and playing on tour with Paul McCartney’s Wings. Lowe wrote several of his biggest songs with the band, but it was his first two solo albums, Jesus of Cool (1978) and Labour of Lust (1979) that gave him his greatest success. The song “Cruel to be Kind” from Jesus of Cool reached number 12 in both the US and UK singles charts.

Although Lowe continues to release albums and tour, he has found increasing fame as a producer and songwriter. He worked on records with the Damned, Elvis Costello, and the Pretenders, and his songs were recorded by Johnny Cash (his former stepfather-in-law) and Wilco, among others.


(Nick Lowe singing “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding”) 

As I walk 

This wicked world 

Searching for light in the dark 

For the past half century, Nick Lowe has been a perennial presence in rock music, and he’s still living the life of a thriving touring musician, these days fronting a Mexican wrestling mask-wearing Tennessee rockabilly band called Los Straitjackets, fitting for a musician who’s managed to keep his sense of humor in tact after all these years. 

Nick Lowe: I take what I do very seriously, but I don’t take myself seriously at all. I think it’s a fairly strange way for a grown man to earn a living, you know.  

(Nick Lowe singing “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding”) 

What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding 

Nick Lowe is a master of juxtaposition, known for combining dismal, and often sarcastic, lyrics with catchy pop melodies. Take for instance his upbeat but disconcerting 1979 hit, “Cruel To Be Kind.”  

(Nick Lowe singing “Cruel To Be Kind”) 

You gotta be cruel to be kind 

In the right measure 

Cruel to be kind, it’s a very good sign 

Cruel to be kind, means that I love you baby 

Gotta be cruel, you’ve gotta be cruel to be kind 

Lowe: There’s something very wistful about if you put a sad song with a cheerful, or whistle-y melody. It sort of sounds like the person singing is sort of doing their best, somehow. You know, they’re really all broken down, but they’re getting on their feet and doing their best to get through it. It has that kind of effect. I’m rather interested in that. 

Despite Lowe’s tongue-in-cheek style, he’s long approached his craft with great intensity, but when he was first starting out, he didn’t have particularly studied ambitions. 

Lowe: I was quite empty headed really about it. And I had no thoughts of being an artist, I just wanted to be famous, really, when I went into it. I was a fairly stupid and callow youth. Shallow and callow. 

By 1967, Lowe was playing bass in his friend’s band best known as Brinsley Schwarz. In 1970, the group had a label eager to make them the next big thing. It devised a scheme to gain media attention. The band would open for Van Morrison at a highly publicized event at the legendary New York City rock venue, Fillmore East. British journalists were flown in just to cover the concert, but one mishap after another led to unhappy, unimpressed critics, and vicious reviews, forcing the members of Brinsley Schwarz to withdraw from the public eye

Lowe: We were so freaked out, and we’d all been through this experience and we’d realized we’d been so taken in that we, instead of breaking up and going our separate ways, we got a house together. And we wouldn’t have thought it was a hippie commune, but that’s basically what it was, and we couldn’t get any work or anything like that, but we had a rehearsal room, so we just started practicing and getting as good as we could, but all the time it wasn’t happening. We were learning how to be good and work a room and talk to an audience and all that stuff. 

By the mid-70s, Lowe had left Brinsley Schwarz and joined the new wave group Rockpile. He was also an in-house producer for the iconic label, Stiff Records, where he earned the nickname The Basher for his ability to churn out hits quickly. “Stop Your Sobbing,” the breakout track for The Pretenders, “New Rose,” by The Damned, arguably the first punk record in the UK, and many more for Elvis Costello, including the notable post-hippie anthem “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” But Lowe didn’t completely give up the limelight and had a number of his own hits throughout the ’70s and ’80s. At the height of his powers, Lowe fell in love with the country singer Carlene Carter. She was country music royalty, the daughter of June Carter and Carl Smith, and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash. The pair married in 1979, but it was doomed from the start. 

Lowe: We loved the idea of each other, you know. We made a great couple. We used to play and sing together and everything. We had a ball, we really had a ball. It was great. But we were always touring, we were both ambitious and getting somewhere with our careers, and it never, ever, ever could survive that. And we were both as bad as each other, really in the area of straying from our vows, I’m sorry to say.  

After the divorce in 1990, Nick Lowe found himself in his 40s, running on empty, lacking direction. But it was advice from his former father-in-law, Johnny Cash, that realigned his priorities. The message was maddeningly simple. Drop the facade. 

Lowe: It makes things a whole lot easier, because you’ll never mess up, really. And people, they’re much more interested in that than they are in your pathetic little act that you’ve concocted, that stands a chance of falling flat every time you open your mouth. 

Nick Lowe’s new perspective led to fulfillment on and off stage. In 2005, he and Peta Waddington welcomed their son, Roy. Today, Lowe enjoys a casual level of fame and a quiet personal life. And August 2019 brought a new biography about his life penned by his longtime friend, the British music journalist Will Birch. Many enthusiastically anticipated the book, but Lowe wasn’t one of them. 

Lowe: It’s impossible for me to read it. I absolutely, I’d rather eat my own knees than read the thing. I think all my indiscretions and many romantic liaisons and all that I think, from what I’ve been told, that the sky isn’t gonna fall in, frankly.  

Now 70 years old, Nick Lowe is, at last, it seems at peace with who he is. And his latest chapter with Los Straitjackets, a welcome new beginning.  

(Nick Lowe singing “Blue on Blue”) 

I long each waking hour for you 

Blue on blue 

I’ve got a message in a song for you 

You’re like a mill, you run me through 

I call you blue on blue 

I call you blue on blue 

I call you blue on blue 

I call you, call you, blue on blue 

Blue, blue, blue 

On blue, blue, blue, blue 

Blue, blue