Paperback Riders: Will Birch – “Cruel To Be Kind – The Life & Music Of Nick Lowe”

Constable, 2019 – review of 2021 paperback edition

When it came out in 2019, our books editor, Rick Bayles, reviewed ‘Cruel to be Kind’ . So why talk about it again? Mostly because it is a very good book about an important figure in British music who despite it all sits slightly below the radar for many people who haven’t thought of him since ‘Jesus of Cool.’ But also, because the experience of a book can change over time and how I see it after 4 years may well be different to Rick’s view. Will Birch is a fine writer and if we are documenting the written world of Americana, he is one of the people who have covered the British outpost most effectively.

Will Birch has produced one of the key texts on the 1970s British music scene in ‘No Sleep Til Canvey Island – The Great Pub Rock Revolution’, which chronicled the birth and development of a scene that was to be influential far beyond its record sales over decades. Nick Lowe was a mover and shaker in that world mainly through his band of the time, Brinsley Schwarz, and Birch has now produced an extensive biography of a man described by many, including in these pages, as ‘Britain’s greatest living songwriter’. Lowe has also been called ‘one of the world’s great interviews’, and this book is built around some wide-ranging interviews with Lowe conducted for the book.

One of the many reasons to read ‘No Sleep Til Canvey Island’ is the detailed description of the infamous Brinsley Schwarz trip to New York to play at The Fillmore Trip in 1970, which became known as ‘The Hype’ by the journalists who accompanied them. That isn’t recounted in as much detail here, but the analysis of Brinsley Schwarz’ career produces some interesting nuggets. One of the best for me is that his song ‘What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love And Understanding’, pinched some tune elements from Judee Sill’s ‘Jesus Was A Crossmaker’.

Disposing of his early life and 60s band, Kippington Lodge, fairly quickly, Birch moves to the 70s and Brinsley Schwarz’ involvement with Dave Robinson and Famepushers. Having encountered Robinson in the 60s when we looked at Joe Boyd’s ‘White Bicycles’ a few months back we now find him a few years later, still hustling. One of the best anecdotes in the chapter on the band is their meeting with their idols in The Band. Having been besotted with the Americans’ music and having them on the same stage was clearly such a pivotal moment that Ian Gomm kept the liquor bottle that Richard Manuel had been drinking from, and Schwarz himself hung on to Robbie Robertson’s guitar lead, in the hope that some of the magic of his sound would rub off.

But Brinsley Schwarz was only the opening act of Lowe’s career. The “wilderness year” of 1975 proves to have been a pivotal one, with relationships that would push the direction of his career being formed with Jake Riviera and Andrew Lauder, both of whom would be crucial to Lowe’s and others’ careers. As someone who was becoming aware of music around this time and found the work of Lowe, Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, and similar artists at least as interesting as full-on punk, I found this one of the best bits of the book. It filled in gaps in the business of music which wasn’t being documented in Sounds or NME at the time. Birch covers Lowe’s relationship with Carlene Carter and his various excursions into drugs honestly, helped no doubt by knowing Lowe for over 40 years.

He is good at documenting the periods of limbo in Lowe’s career, the next one being around 1985-86. Elvis Costello’s reflection on Lowe’s role in his ‘Blood and Chocolate’ album highlights his bass and rhythm guitar which doesn’t get mentioned often enough. Lowe is in fact a fine player and could have made a decent career as a session musician. Another great anecdote from this period comes from Johnny Cash about the song ‘The Beast In Me’, which he pushed Lowe to finish, and which they both recorded to great effect.  From here on the book charts Lowe’s “second coming” and the series of albums that included ‘The Convincer’ AUK’s number 10 best album of the 21st century. The point of this book seems to be to place Lowe in context, whether that’s his early bands, Rockpile, or his part in the rise of the New Wave. I’m with Rick’s comment in his original review, reading ‘Cruel to Be Kind’ has sent me back to Lowe’s music and, hopefully, it will do the same for you.

Can you hear the Judee Sill influence here?


Compare and contrast Lowe and Cash’s versions of ‘The Beast In Me’

About Tim Martin 247 Articles
Sat in my shed listening to music, and writing about some of it. Occasionally allowed out to attend gigs.
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Tris Robinson

I read this book earlier this year (or was it last year…?), really enjoyed it. We also went to see Nick Lowe at Nells in London in November, also thoroughly enjoyable. As stated it reminded me what a talent he is, and I revisited the albums, well worth it.