We finally have the result of what PopDiggers announced more than a year ago in the interview with Will Birch regarding his upcoming biography of Nick Lowe.
Will Birch’s seminal book on pub-rock No Sleep To Canvey Island  must have given a comfortable head start when he began writing this Nick Lowe biography, a fact reinforced by that – remarkably enough – no one else has given this artist a thorough examination before. Fans of Nick Lowe will nevertheless recognize big parts of the book’s content, but the benefit with Cruel to be Kind– The Life & Music of Nick Lowe, is that previously disjointed stories are merged into a chronological whole and enriched with new information.
Let me conclude right from the start that Cruel to be Kind – The Life & Music of Nick Lowe is indeed a labour of lust – to paraphrase one of Nick’s album titles. Will Birch should be commended for the tireless detective work that he must have put in to publish a top product as this. And its readers are to be congratulated.
Most of us know Will Birch as an unusually integrated drummer and composer in the British pop groups Kursaal Flyers and The Records, but it is not well-known to everyone that he also has a career as a proficient music writer – with mentioned No Sleep To Canvey Island and a biography on Ian Dury (from 2010) as his two major achievements. Cruel to be Kind – The Life & Music of Nick Lowe is indeed his third success in a row.
However, it is not entirely true that the book is structured strictly chronologically. Non-genealogists appreciate that Nick Lowe’s family history is put in a chapter at the end of the book for those who are specially interested, thus avoiding an initial longueur and a potential threshold for further reading for many.
Nick Lowe 1.0 folded down in the doldrums during the late 80’s/early 90’s after a peak in creativity and commercial success during the Rockpile period around 1980 – when the sky seemed to be the limit according to interviews at the time. Lowe’s self-confidence and ability to deliver and produce nearly über smart pop grew almost exponentially during his years with The Kippington Lodge and Brinsley Schwarz, and took a quantum leap in the mid-70s with top pop songs such as There’s A Cloud In My Heart and Heart Of The City parallel with his switch from United Artists to the independent Stiff label. He did not try to hide incorporation of occasional loans into his own compositions, as a piece from Steely Dan’s Reelin’ In The Years (1972) and a dash of Thin Lizzy’s The Boys Are Back In Town (1976) amalgamated into his first Stiff single, So It Goes.
Nick Lowe 2.0 rose as a phoenix in the early ‘90s, sponsored by the royalty revenues from Curtis Stigers’ cover of (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding, included in the soundtrack to The Bodyguard ; a hugely efficient money making machine. The Impossible Bird album  staked out the direction of this new phase in his career – which is still going strong, nowadays with Los Straightjackets as backup band. A mellow, gentle and relaxed artist emerged, compatible with his age and ageing with style, just like fine single malt whisky.
Will Birch’s close relationship with the main character could have blurred the presentation. But the balance between friendliness and sober description is controlled professionally. This challenge is also overcome by Nick Lowe’s high integrity, which is made apparent in the book. It is understandable that the author has to make many choices in order to tackle such a big task as writing a biography of an artist with a career that spans over six decades. Many selections are probably prompted by lack of space (we still get 400 + pages).
It would have been worthwhile, though, to mention that Brinsley Schwarz was back-up band on the debut albums by Ernie Graham [s/t, 1971] respectively Frankie Miller (Once In A Blue Moon, 1972; featuring Nick Lowe on double bass).
It would also have been worth elaborating a little bit on Blair Forward, preventing him for hanging in the text as a potential Kevin Costner alter ego who sent Nick a demo-tape. Furthermore, an omitted fact is that Los Straightjackets recorded a cover of the Bowi-instrumental Shake That Rat for their album Sing Along With Los Straightjackets  on Yep Roc Records, featuring Nick Lowe as guest lead bassist. This studio encounter may have been instrumental (sic!) for Nick Lowe’s deeper cooperation with Los Straightjackets and Yep Roc several years later.
You have to use a magnifying glass to notice that even the sun has its spots. An inaccurate reference is made once to (I’ve Been Taking) The Truth Drug regarding a 1977 Pathway session (probably where I Don’t Want The Night To End should have been mentioned), as Truth Drug was released as a B-side already in 1976 (as stated in the impeccable discography in the end of the book); but this typo discovery is nothing but a good excuse to link this early solo gem in this review.
These minor comments do not, of course, add up to something close to any major criticism; the last thing I want is to be cumbersome regarding an important and well-written biography like this one. As stated in the beginning of the review, Cruel to be Kind – The Life & Music of Nick Lowe get interested fans just what they long have been craving for – a comprehensive and informative Nick Lowe biography by an accomplished author, who also was a first-hand witness and musically active in the related London circuit.
This biography is – thankfully – not a tribute to Nick Lowe, but instead a vivid description filled with funny everyday life episodes that indirectly tell a lot about what makes Lowe ticking.
Moreover, we get photos never published before. The bibliography and endnotes reflects the substantial investigation that Will Birch has conducted.
Cruel to be Kind – The Life & Music of Nick Lowe is actually so exhaustive that I would be surprised if any other author even considers starting a similar project. We could not have been asking for more.
PS. Can someone please inform Nick Lowe (he seems hard to reach) that he ought to record a cover of Dean & Jean’s In My Way [Rust Records, 1964] – a Chip Taylor composition– preferably with Bob Andrews on organ. I had this title written down on a piece of paper to hand over to Nick after he finished his Christmas concert with Los Straightjackets in Malmö, Sweden, 2016, but somehow I forgot all about it. Nick Lowe and Chip Taylor does not seem unfamiliar to scratch each other’s backs, by the way.
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