Reader’s Choice: Song #1/250: Cruel To Be Kind by Nick Lowe.

In this series, I will be telling the stories behind some of your favourite songs. Today’s song comes to us from my pal, Linda Spoelstra. She nominated Nick Lowe’s Cruel To Be Kind.

In the annals of modern music, Nick Lowe is exactly the type of under-the-radar yet very influential and interesting character who is deserving of a spotlight such as this. He is best known for singing today’s song, Cruel To Be Kind, which was his biggest selling single and a Top Ten chart topper in many countries around the world in 1979. But nothing is ever straightforward with Nick Lowe. This one song was just one aspect of a career that is just as noteworthy for being a songwriter for others, for producing some of the most innovative music of its day and for his own personal life and the many family connections he has with some of the biggest names in the history of modern music. So, pull up a chair and make yourself at home because today we meet one of Rock’s most interesting figures…Mr. Nick Lowe. Here we go!

In his younger days, Nick Lowe met a boy named Brinsley Schwarz. Together with some other friends, they formed a pop-rock band in the 1970s named Brinsley Schwarz. This band signed with a record company called Famepusher Records. Famepusher Records decided to help launch the band by concocting a publicity scheme on their behalf. The band was signed to open for Van Morrison in New York City. There was much publicity given to the band prior to their trip to America. In addition, the record label agreed to pay for UK music reporters to attend the concert in return for full and prominent reviews of the show. However, the band members ran into visa problems and were diverted to Canada. From there, they were secretly flown into the US in a small cargo plane. They arrived in New York City without their instruments (which were held up at US Customs). When it came time for the show, they had to borrow second hand equipment. The reporters who showed up were given access to an open bar and were thoroughly soused by the time Brinsley Schwarz took the stage. In the end, the concert was a bust, the reviews were vicious and Brinsley Schwarz were finished as a band almost before they ever began.

However, as part of the process of putting together their first album, Nick Lowe wrote a song for the band called Cruel To Be Kind. The song never made it on to a Brinsley Schwarz album so Lowe filed it away and forgot about it. To him, the song was not really the type of music he was into. It was too neat and tidy and pop oriented to suit his personal taste which was why he wrote it for his band, instead. It had been Lowe’s hope that a radio-friendly song such as Cruel To Be Kind would open the door for Brinsley Schwarz to the US and UK radio market. So, when the band dissolved, Lowe was left holding on to a song that he felt was not representative of who he was as a musician. As sometimes happens, a different record executive heard a recording that Lowe had done on his own and saw potential for the song to be a hit. He convinced Nick Lowe to release it in return for signing him as a solo artist. And, just like that, Nick Lowe the singer was born.

But, the story of Cruel To Be Kind doesn’t end there. As much as Nick Lowe may not have really liked the song himself, it entered into the fabric of his life in a very unique and personal way. Around this time, Lowe was dating a lady named Carlene Cash. She was the daughter of June Carter Cash of the famous American music family, The Carter Family Singers. Carlene Cash’s biological father was June Carter’s first husband, Carl Smith. However, after June Carter married Johnny Cash, he adopted Carlene as his own daughter and became her step-father. So, when Nick Lowe hung out with his in-laws, he was hanging out with Johnny and June Carter Cash. As a result, Lowe got the chance to record with both singers as the 1980s progressed. But, the real connection he has here with Cruel To Be Kind is that he shot the music video for this song on their wedding day. So, when you get a chance to watch this video, you will see the wedding of Nick Lowe and Carlene Cash unfold in all its glory before your very eyes.

But, if you were to ask Nick Lowe about music and about his proudest accomplishments, he would reply in terms of his producing and his songwriting. The influence of his singing career is dwarfed by the giant shadow cast by his work on behalf of others. First of all, let’s talk about songwriting. In the late 1970s, Nick Lowe became involved in a new record company called Stiff Records *(You can read an earlier post about Stiff Records here). At the time, Stiff Records was on the leading edge of a music trend that dealt with Punk, New Wave and Ska music. As such, artists and bands such as Elvis Costello and the Attractions, The Pretenders, The Pogues, The Damned and others like them, all found a home under the Stiff Records umbrella. In this environment, Lowe wrote many hit songs for others such as What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding for Elvis Costello, as well as, Stop Your Sobbing for Chrissy Hynde and The Pretenders. He also wrote I Knew The Bride (When She Used To Rock n’ Roll) with partner, Dave Edmunds, as part of a band they started together called Rockpile.

But, while Nick Lowe was singing and writing, he was working just as diligently behind the scenes on behalf of other Stiff Record label bands as a producer. He was behind the console for songs such as New Rose by The Damned…which many people consider to be the UK’s first true Punk song. Lowe produced all of Elvis Costello’s early albums, as well as some of Johnny Cash’s work during the 1980s, along with The Pretenders, Paul Carrack, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and one of my favourite bands, The Men They Couldn’t Hang…who are name-checked by The Tragically Hip in their hit song, Bobcaygeon. When it comes right down to it, Nick Lowe’s fingerprints are all over much of the music that came out of the UK in the late 1970s/early 1980s that formed the foundation of Punk and New Wave. Lowe’s work is considered to be essential and foundational when viewing all of the music that has evolved out of those times such as Grunge in the 1990s, Post Punk Revival in the early 2000s and much of the Trip Hop and Electronica that has been growing steadily in influence in the past decade or so.

However, if you were to ask most casual music lovers about Nick Lowe, they would start with a song called Cruel To Be Kind. So, why don’t we do the same and play the song for you all. Here is Nick Lowe’s biggest hit, Cruel To Be Kind. Enjoy.

PS: The Reader’s Choice series lives and breathes as a result of the music you request. So, please feel free to send me your requests in the comment box below and I will happily help share your favourite songs with the world via this blog series. Thanks.

The link to the video for the song Cruel To Be Kind by Nick Lowe can be found here.

The link to the official website for Nick Lowe can be found here.

The link to the official website for Stiff Records can be found here.

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