How we made: Nick Lowe on Cruel to Be Kind

‘When the record company liked it, I was embarrassed – I was a hip new wave producer by then. I said I had a better song about a woman who was eaten by her dog’

Nick Lowe, singer/songwriter

I wrote this song when I was still in the group Brinsley Schwarz. As a 70s pub-rock band, it was kind of taboo for us to admit to liking disco, but we were fans, and I was in love with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ The Love I Lost. So the original version of Cruel to Be Kind was my attempt at a floor-filler for when we played clubs and freshers’ balls.

We cut the song in 1974 for an album that didn’t come out until years after we split. But when I signed with Columbia’s Gregg Geller, all my Brinsley demos and unreleased material passed to him. Gregg was the sort of A&R man you dreamed of getting. Instead of the flash Harry “Yeah baby, love you” type I was used to, he looked like a Harvard professor – quietly spoken and modest, yet extremely knowledgeable about all kinds of music.

Each time he rang me, he’d mention Cruel to Be Kind. But by 1979, I was this hip new wave producer who’d worked with Elvis Costello, Graham Parker and the Damned, and the song sounded embarrassingly pre-new wave to me. So I’d respond unenthusiastically. “Oh yeah, you like that, Gregg? Great. But I’ve got a better song here about a woman who was eaten by her dog.”

Watch the video for Cruel to Be Kind

This carried on for months. Eventually, I realised I was being leaned on in the gentlest way. Rockpile, the band I’d formed with Dave Edmunds, Billy Bremner and Terry Williams, backed me on my Columbia albums, and I remember going into a session and saying apologetically: “Sorry guys, I’ve got this wet song I did with the Brinsleys that Gregg Geller is insisting we cut.” I played it back to them and they weren’t impressed. But, God bless ’em, they all got down to it.

Dave came up with the brilliant harmony arrangement, Billy cooked up that fantastic electric guitar solo, and suddenly we were going: “This isn’t bloomin’ bad!” Ian Gomm, from the Brinsley days, had taught me the triumphal chord at the top of the song, where I sing “B-a-a-ab-y, you gotta be cruel to be kind”, so he has a co-writing credit. It’s a common disco chord, but back then I didn’t know how to play it.

Gregg bet me $200 it would be a Top 10 record. It only got to No 12, both in the UK and the US, and I never picked up the money. But it was a hit all round the world. A few years back, Wilco got me up to perform it with them, and it brought me a new generation of fans. I still do it in my solo show, just me and an acoustic guitar. A good tune always stands the test of time.

Gregg Geller, Columbia Records A&R

Columbia was in the process of signing Elvis Costello and, on a trip to Paris, I detoured to London to meet Jake Riviera, his manager. Jake took me into the studio while Nick was mixing I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass, with that killer line: “I need the noises of destruction.” I’d already loved Nick’s So It Goes, the first ever Stiff single, so I signed him, too.

Nick Lowe’s solo debut album.
Nick Lowe’s solo debut album. Photograph: PR Handout

His debut Columbia album Pure Pop for Now People, released in the UK as Jesus of Cool, got good reviews, but hadn’t come close to yielding a hit stateside, which was the surefire route to major success. There was no thought of not making a second album with him, but he needed a hit. When he toured the US, we had put out a promotional EP featuring the original version of Cruel to Be Kind. It was such an earworm: it insinuated itself into my brain and I’d wake up singing it. But, in order to make it radio-friendly, I thought it needed rerecording, slowed down a tad, with strong backing vocals added.

I left it entirely to Nick to work on it in the studio and the result was wonderful. Columbia’s promotion guys were always sceptical of everything – partly to cover their backs so that if something wasn’t a hit, they could say, “I told you so” – but even they were enthused. It was a classic pop song with a catchy lyric, deeply appealing.

I have one regret. Nick’s song When I Write the Book, from the Seconds of Pleasure album, was the logical follow-up to Cruel to Be Kind. I still can’t fathom why we didn’t put it out as a single. Nick and I have stayed friends. I always see his show when he comes to the States. And every time he sings When I Write the Book, I kick myself, because it still sounds like a hit to me.

• Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe by Will Birch is out in paperback in March.


Interviews by Jack Watkins

The GuardianTramp

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