2019 marked the 40th anniversary of what may be Nick Lowe’s signature song, ‘Cruel to Be Kind’.
The evergreen pop song was an international success, and its legacy has survived through several covers and a seemingly evergreen position on Lowe’s tour setlist. Much like any of his hits however – be they written for himself or for others – the man himself had no idea what he was getting himself into at the time.
“It was a song I wrestled with for about two weeks when I was writing it,” Lowe recalls from his London home. “I never thought it would have the kind of impact that it did – not least because I had to be talked into recording it properly in the first place.
“I was in a band called Brinsley Schwarz that recorded it, but we broke up before it was released. When I signed to Colombia a few years later, their A&R man – a wonderful man called Gregg Geller – heard the demo and told me it was going to be a hit song. I didn’t want anything to do with it – I could see punk coming over the hill, and that song was squaresville.”
Lowe, now 70, laughs to himself as he reflects on his twenty-something self. “No matter what other songs I was writing and trying to push, Gregg would put his foot down and insist on ‘Cruel to Be Kind’,” he continues. “I was with a new band, Rockpile, at the time. I came into the studio one day, basically apologising that we had to record it. Still, we did – and that’s the version that became the hit.
“It’s not my favourite song I’ve ever written, but it turns people on. They get such a kick out of it. It’s sort of fascinating. Whenever it’s time to rehearse with the band, we have to go through all of the tunes just the once. I always groan a little when it comes up in the cold light of the rehearsal room or an empty hall. When there’s people there, though, they just go ape. I never get tired of that.”
The band Lowe alludes to is Los Straitjackets, the mysterious instrumental Nashville outfit who don luchador masks and have forged a career in their own right across some 25 years and over a dozen albums. Lowe first came across the members of the band back in the ‘80s, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that the two camps began to collaborate in earnest.
“I had put out a Christmas album (2013’s Quality Street), and it was suggested that we do a Christmas show together,” Lowe recalls.
“I thought it was a good idea, and they were amenable enough. It was a lot of fun, and we returned the next year and even expanded out to Europe the year after that. We thought that was enough, but soon we started getting offers for what can only be described as out-of-season work. That’s when it really started to get in gear.
“What’s great about them is that they’re not a backing band – we threw that idea out the window in an afternoon. I said, ‘Forget about learning my records – play these songs as if you were performing them yourselves instrumentally’. Once they did, things really started to sound good.”
Lowe will return to Australia for the first time since 2012, with Straitjackets in tow – who themselves haven’t been here since 2013. The veteran songwriter promises a different feel and a distinct energy to these shows, which will carry much more of a rock-gig vibe than his usual solo acoustic affairs.
“I think you’ll like this show,” he says. “When we toured in the States, we were playing to a much younger audience than you might think. It’s really great to see them connecting with what we’re doing.”
Nick Lowe performs at The Forum on Tuesday February 18. Grab your tickets via pottsentertainment.com.au.