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Peace, Love, and Rock ’n’ Roll: The Legacy of Nick Lowe

Talking to the legendary singer, songwriter, producer, and quintessential courtly English gentleman

Elias Stein/Getty Images

“People who know how to play rock ’n’ roll—this is going to sound a bit po-faced, but it’s quite hard to find people who know how to do it properly,” says Nick Lowe, the god-level singer, songwriter, producer, and quintessential courtly English gentleman. “I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but the roll part of the rock ’n’ roll, that’s the intriguing bit to me. Otherwise, it’s just rock, and rock isn’t very interesting to me.”

Here in the broiling doldrums of 2018, when the world too often seems utterly devoid of peace, love, and understanding, it is high time to seek the counsel of the guy who wrote the song “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” Let’s all agree to do what he says and do what he does.

One thing you need, then, is a keen sense of swing. “Which is out of favor at the moment,” Lowe concedes. “People are sort of embarrassed by it, or they don’t want to do it.” He is sitting in a fancy hotel suite in downtown Cleveland in late June with a lovely second-story street view marred only, he notes, by the fact that everyone on the street could tell if he didn’t have trousers on. He is currently finishing a tour backed by Los Straitjackets, the long-running Nashville rockabilly-and-beyond instrumental band who can swing like wild and who are best known for their insistence on wearing wrestling masks at all times; unlikely bedfellows as they might seem, this gang just put out the cheerful and expert Tokyo Bay/Crying Inside EP together. Lowe is 69 years old; his hair is celestial-cloud white, and his thick glasses enlarge his eyes and further warm his gaze. Any sweater he is wearing becomes, by default, the most comfortable sweater ever worn. No wrestling mask for him, thanks: “I wouldn’t care for that at all.”

Learn to roll with this man. You need force, but you can’t be too loud. You need a firm grasp of country, blues, and R&B, of course, but also jazz, and Broadway flash, and Brill Building craft, and a hint of TV-jingle crassness. Also: “I really like there being a doubt of whether it’s cool or not,” he says. “I really like walking that fine line, between something that’s really hip, and the next minute you do something that seems so unhip. It’s just: What, is this guy any good? I’ve always liked people like that.”

Nick Lowe has been a person like that since the 1970s. Early in his career, he helped invent a whole genre—his early bands Brinsley Schwarz and Rockpile were avatars of a rootsy and roughshod style known as pub rock—and shepherded others into being. (He produced the Damned’s 1977 debut full-length, Damned Damned Damned, an early highlight of U.K. punk, with a scruffy and deliberately imperfect knock-it-out style that earned him the nickname Basher.) His solo career began with 1978’s Jesus of Cool, a deliriously rad New Wave bacchanal whose so-unhip-it’s-hip cover hinted at both Lowe’s fearsome stylistic range and biting goofiness. There are slick and enormously bright songs called “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” and “Little Hitler”; there is a song called “Nutted by Reality” that starts with the line, “Well, I heard they castrated Castro.”

And then, on his next album, 1979’s Labour of Lust, Lowe scored himself a modest hit with the amiable power-pop jam “Cruel to Be Kind,” which does indeed both rock and roll in a distinctly genial and English way. That’s how Nick Lowe’s career as a pop idol began; that’s also how it ended. Lowe put out six more records between 1982 and 1990, none of them terrible, some of them awfully winsome in their adventurousness. (See 1984’s loping Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit with its gloriously cheeky Tex-Mex anthem “Half a Boy and Half a Man.”) But the hits didn’t come, and his personal life (including an 11-year marriage to Carlene Carter that ended in a 1990 divorce) got rockier, and his status as a cult figure was confirmed, a curse that slowly morphed into a gift.

“I sort of shuffle down the street largely unknown,” he jokes now, with sincere relief. “Gangs of small children throwing stones at me.”

It’s true that after my chat with Lowe, when I swung by Cleveland’s nearby Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I was relieved to not see his name in a “One-Hit Wonders” exhibit. Better yet, I found him elsewhere in the building, honored in, fittingly enough, the tiniest physically possible way. In an exhibit devoted to DIY labels, his old imprint Stiff Records is commemorated via three little buttons. The first is a label logo. (Not this one, unfortunately.) The second one says, “I made an American squirm,” a quote from one of Lowe’s more vivid early solo tunes. The third says, “What’s So Funny ’Bout Peace, Love and Understanding.” The song that would ensure Lowe’s legacy, and also his fortune, was hiding in plain sight all along.

Lowe has described “Peace, Love and Understanding” as “the first original idea I ever had,” not just a warm tribute or cheeky rip-off of something or someone else. The notion of an aging hippie having an existential crisis was funny, sure, but it was also serious, or it could be, depending on how much peace, love, and understanding the world was doling out at the moment. And lyrically, Lowe managed to stop himself from throwing in any puns, or distractingly witty rhymes, or other chicanery. For the first time, he got out of his own way, to the point where he escapes himself entirely.

“Unbelievably, because I was, in so many other ways, an incredibly stupid youth—I behaved in a sort of idiotic way, most of the time—I had the incredible foresight not to mess it up with any clever, stupid, clever lines,” he tells me. “Just let the slightly clunky title do the work, was the idea. The idea was all in the title. I had a good tune for it. And I let the title do the work. And that was amazing—I’m amazed nowadays, looking back, that I did that.”

Brinsley Schwarz first released the song in 1974, and it’s all there: the iconic guitar riff, the yearning doomed-road-trip velocity, the way that slightly clunky title somehow works perfectly as a chorus. But “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” only truly ascended to greatness when Elvis Costello and the Attractions covered it on 1979’s Armed Forces, the third of many Elvis Costello records Lowe produced and the artistic pinnacle for them both. It’s Costello’s version that has endured and that likely inspired ’90s soft-rocker Curtis Stigers to cover the song again for the 1992 Whitney Houston drama The Bodyguard, whose soundtrack sold more than 17 million copies in the U.S. alone and remains the best-selling movie soundtrack of all time.

Financially, Lowe was set for life. Artistically, too. “Oh, I don’t think anything I’ve done is on that level,” he says of the song now. “It moves so many people, so many different kinds of people. People who’ve never heard of me. Because so many different artists have done it. And most people think Elvis Costello wrote it. And indeed, it’s he who’s made it famous, made the song famous. But I haven’t written anything that’s as notable, is the best word I can come up with. The others are toe-tappers.”

He is selling himself short. Partly due to the freedom The Bodyguard’s windfall granted him, Lowe’s solo albums soon took on a far more relaxed and shrewd and adult demeanor, a Coolest Possible Grandpa aspect with low stakes but shockingly enormous upside. “The Beast in Me,” an eerily intimate acoustic tune from 1994’s The Impossible Bird, was originally written for his former father-in-law, Johnny Cash, but it’s Lowe’s version that came to soundtrack the pilot episode of The Sopranos, inaugurating the Pop Music in Prestige TV arms race in understatedly grand style.

My favorite of Lowe’s later records is 2001’s The Convincer, with its amazingly dapper album cover and its hushed countrypolitan lushness, from its opening line (“You look like butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth / But I know it will”) to its lovelorn sad-sack anthems (shout-out “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide”) and its graceful, only slightly risque closing slow-dance, “Let’s Stay in and Make Love.” The last of these records, That Old Magic, came out in 2011 (shout-out the sad-sack anthem “I Read a Lot”); a 2013 Christmas album and a live record aside, the new Los Straitjackets–backed EP is the first we’ve heard from Lowe for a while, and emblematic of a new, slightly peppier style he has described as “rocking hard whilst hardly rocking.”

What Lowe has noticed, to his delight, is that younger people seem to be into his newer stuff, no matter how adult he gets, no matter how many of his 69 years the listener is made to feel vividly. (Lowe is remarried now, with a teenage son who likes soccer, making music, and also Fortnite.) “I’m trying to do stuff which younger people will be interested by, and intrigued by,” he says. “The fact that I’ve got all this experience, I can try and wear it lightly so it doesn’t seem like I’m doing some old-fogey’s act. I suppose, using the fact that I did start out playing the fleshpots of Germany. Like the Beatles, just as they were—that era was finishing. And I’m still sort of at it now. Some might say I’ve never moved on, but ... I liked the fleshpots of Germany, actually.”

The night of our conversation, Lowe played a gracefully raucous show with Los Straitjackets at Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom to a tightly packed crowd consisting of, it’s true, people far closer to his own age than to his teenage son’s. He played old songs: “Cruel to be Kind,” the Rockpile rave-up “When I Write the Book,” the rockabilly goof “Shting-Shtang.” And he plays much newer songs, from “Tokyo Bay” to an unannounced and as yet unreleased little shuffle called “Blue on Blue,” which allows Lowe a nice, quiet, unaccompanied moment to flaunt a rough croon that has never been flashy and is all the better for it: “In my mind I’m on the end of a ball of twine / That she jerks from time to time.” Plenty of die-hard fans in the crowd probably figured it was a vintage B-side, another great toe-tapper they’d overlooked. The goal now is to collapse time, to make the future sound just as bright as the past, and to remove Lowe himself from the equation entirely.

“I’m always trying to do something that feels like I’ve written a cover,” Lowe told me. “A cover song, that I’ve had nothing to do with. And that’s when I think it’s finished.” Indeed, late in the set came “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” which the amped-up crowd received with a reverent hush. It’s a hymn now, and a certifiable classic. Lowe is no longer even trying to top it; no one can. It no longer belongs to him, but only because now it belongs to everybody.