Songs We Love: Nick Lowe, 'Walk On By'
Nick Lowe has always been something of a prankster. The guy who called his first album Jesus Of Cool and once notoriously rhymed "Rick Astley" with "ghastly" always loved to give people's expectations a bit of a tweak. So in retrospect it's not surprising that his 1984 album Nick Lowe And His Cowboy Outfit featured only one actual country tune, a cover of the Faron Young hit "Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young," buried at the end of the LP's second side. But Lowe's previously unreleased take on Leroy Van Dyke's 1961 classic "Walk On By," appended to the album on the occasion of its reissue, proves there was more country that got left on the studio floor.
All six of the albums Lowe cut between 1982 and 1990, from Nick The Knife through Party Of One, are getting the deluxe reissue treatment from Yep Roc Records in July, representing the meaty middle of Lowe's career. The man who helped give birth to pub rock (by fronting Brinsley Schwarz), U.K. punk (by producing The Damned's first recordings) and new wave (by helming Elvis Costello's early albums) began his solo career as an arch power-pop/new-wave wonder in the late '70s and eventually reinvented himself as a mature, mellowed crooner in the '90s. But a lot happened in between — on these long out-of-print albums — that's been in danger of falling through the cracks.
Lowe had been influenced by country ever since his early-'70s outings with the Americana-influenced Brinsley Schwarz. "Without Love," from his second solo album, was eventually covered by his future stepfather-in-law, Johnny Cash, as was his 1994 tune "The Beast In Me." So it makes perfect sense that he had a store of old-school Nashville nuggets kicking around in his head, ready to pop out at any given time — especially during the period when he was married to the promising young country voice Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter and country star Carl Smith (thus stepdaughter of The Man in Black).
The original "Walk On By" was the kind of boundary-crossing country smash that could easily have made its way across the Atlantic and into a young Lowe's ears in the '60s. A record-breaking phenomenon, it crossed over into the top tier of the pop charts and was the No. 1 country song for 19 weeks, a record that wasn't broken until 2013.
Van Dyke's first hit was 1956's semi-novelty "The Auctioneer," but "Walk On By" (not to be confused with the Dionne Warwick song of the same title) is an entirely different affair. In fact, an affair is at its center — the singer advises the object of his adulterous desires to pass him by if they cross paths on the street, in order to keep their illicit connection clandestine.
It's the kind of distinctly adult-oriented drama that was commonplace among country tunes at the time. And Lowe's lived-in baritone is an ideal vehicle for it. Too savvy to tamper with perfection, he doesn't try to reinvent the song's arrangement. He sticks close to the original recording's template: loping shuffle groove, ultra-twangy electric guitar riffs, sympathetic vocal harmonies and barroom-piano tinkling. Leaning lovingly into the simple-but-elegant melody and the melodramatic setting, he taps into all the fear, lust, regret and sorrow inherent in the song and lets all those shadowy feelings come out into the cold, harsh light of day to have their say.
Lowe wasn't alone among his peers in covering country tunes, but his passion and natural knack for them gave him a leg up (and then some) in tackling this kind of material, not to mention filtering its influence into his own songs all through his career. And with the surfacing of this unheard cut 33 years after the fact, Lowe's roots-music resume finally gets filled in a little bit further.
All six albums be reissued digitally July 14 via Yep Roc Records. Nick the Knife and The Abominable Showman will be available on CD and LP on July 14. Nick Lowe And His Cowboy Outfit and The Rose of England will be released on CD and LP on Aug. 25, with Pinker And Prouder Than Previous and Party Of One arriving on CD and LP on October 20.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.