Lowlife \ Biography
Band biography by Brian Guthrie
It's October 2005, and I'm sitting in a hotel bar in Grangemouth, Scotland, with four guys who are meeting in the same room for the first time since 1989. They are Will Heggie, Craig Lorentson, Stuart Everest and Grant McDowall, together known as the original - and many say the best - line up of Lowlife.
The waistlines, with the exception of Craig, are somewhat larger, and some hairlines have receded altogether, but undeniably there is an instant buzz as they click with ease into past roles. There's also a lot of emotion, air is cleared, and what has remained unspoken for many years is now said - it's all quite cathartic, but also very exciting. Before I go on, however, may I first take you back a little further?
Grangemouth is hardly a pretty place. Dominated by a huge petro-chemical complex and vast docklands, it's not the sort of place you'd think of as a natural home to those who are creative, but from this town have sprung artists, actors, authors and many musicians. Back in the early 1980s two well known bands would emerge. One of these was the Cocteau Twins, formed by my brother Robin and his long time pal Will Heggie, along with Liz Fraser, who they first met dancing at the infamous International Hotel punk club, which I'd been running for some years. The other was Dead Neighbours, once described by Sounds as "Scotland's answer to The Cramps".
Dead Neighbours were fronted by the tall and imposing figure of vocalist Craig Lorentson. With his white leather jacket, dark quiff and deep booming voice, he was part Elvis and part Lux Interior, with a dash of Nick Cave thrown in for good measure. Along with bassist David Steel, guitarist Ronnie Buchanan and drummer Grant McDowall (and me at the helm as manager), the band quickly built up a solid following around the country, mainly via an endless run of support and guest slots on tours with The Alarm, King Kurt, The Meteors, The Cult, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, The Damned and Johnny Thunders.
Their debut album Harmony in Hell hit the indie charts for a couple of weeks in 1982, and live work kept coming in, the band by now headlining quite large venues. However on the eve of the recording of their second album, Strangedays/ Strangeways, David Steel left the band after getting married, and suddenly they found themselves with no bass player. At that point I called Will Heggie, who had recently departed the Cocteau Twins after an arduous European tour supporting OMD early in 1983, and had turned down the chance to team up with Dead Can Dance. Since he'd headed back home to Scotland, I asked if he'd help out on the recording and some forthcoming shows - fully expecting him to tell me where to stick it. Thankfully he said yes, and a day later he was bashing through a rough set in our rehearsal hall in the local high school. More than that, though, the foundations and chemistry that would become Lowlife were now in place. Through happy accident I had brought together a set of very different people, and something magical began to happen.
Within weeks it was obvious that Dead Neighbours were no longer ploughing the psychobilly furrow, and a new songwriting team had begun to emerge with material that broke new boundaries for them. Indeed the finished album even included the original version of Coward's Way, a song that would later become a Lowlife classic. With the Johnny Thunders tour on the horizon, in came guitarist Stuart Everest, another old school chum of Will and my brother, adding yet another new dimension. All the component parts for what would become Lowlife were now in place, and it was no surprise when Ronnie Buchanan left the band after the tour, leaving the other four to move on and develop. The name was borrowed from a song by Public Image Limited.
Thus in the Fall of 1985 Lowlife entered Palladium Studios in Edinburgh to record Rain, their debut mini-album, six songs of blistering intensity and a rare statement of intent. The band had no label, so along with a lot of my faith, hope and charity (ie a bank loan) I set up a label, Nightshift, to release the record. It didn't take long for the press and radio to pick up on it, especially after a glowing review from Ian Gittins in Melody Maker:
"A charming swirl merely hinting at its designs. Lowlife are infant and suggestive and, with care, could nurture a rare beauty"
Rain made the independent and airplay charts in the UK, USA and France, and it was soon clear that there was demand for a full album. Labels, publishers and booking agents began to track the band (Jim Robertson at ITB was quick to offer an agency deal) and Lowlife's reputation began to grow and grow.
August 1986 saw the release of the album Permanent Sleep, again on Nightshift. Once more the response was instant and positive:
"Lowlife practice a mystical form of musical alchemy, with crystalline perfection, transcending descriptive narrative to achieve the perfect cohesion between words and music. This is true holistic music and far greater, far more splendid, than the sum of its parts" (Helen Fitzgerald / Melody Maker)
"Lowlife construct their deep atmospheres through hypnotically mysterious songs. The album glides gracefully from beginning to end with tantalizing intensity, like the lingering glow of autumn" (Ron Rom / Sounds - 4 stars)
"Lowlife meander like a slow and beautiful dream, slipping into gear from time to time to hammer home the killer punch" (Dave Henderson / Q - 4 stars)
At this point I was spending every other week flying down to London to discuss possible deals. Arista were interested, as were Virgin, Cherry Red and WEA, but none were really offering a solid album-based deal, or the money to develop the band and spend the amount of time in the studio Lowlife needed to perfect their craft. After I noticed a small ad in Music Week about a new publishing company called Working Music, I took a flyer and sent them a promo package. A couple of days later I got a call from Jeff Chegwin - yes, of that Chegwin family. Jeff was the twin brother of broadcaster Keith, with the added bonus of a sister, Janice Long, who at the time was in a top position at BBC Radio 1.
A deal was quickly concluded, and with a decent advance in the bank the band quickly knuckled down to recording a new EP, Vain Delights, with a video for the lead track Hollow Gut. Again the reviews were amazing. John Peel, who had aired a couple of tracks early on, was now joined by Janice and several others at the BBC in giving Hollow Gut airplay, while the video found its way onto DEF 2 and Snub TV. Most surprising of all, some of the more teen-orientated music mags like Smash Hits and Record Mirror also began to lavish praise on Lowlife:
"Profound, melancholic and reaches the parts other ephemeral pieces of plastic cannot reach. Who needs a middle eight when the sum total is this evocative" (Lesley O'Toole / Record Mirror)
1987 was to prove a hugely important year for the band. Over the course of six months a second full album, Diminuendo, was slowly, carefully and joyously constructed. As with previous records, these sessions were produced by Keith Mitchell. It was assumed by many that Lowlife would end up on 4AD, but in truth Ivo Watts Russell was never interested in the band. Meanwhile the major labels maintained interest, but no one seemed willing to make a move. In truth, it wasn't totally about the music, and as John Tobler remarked in the trade paper Music Week:
"Lowlife are a band whose virtuosity comes close to excellence, but whose image is fearsome"
The strange dichotomy which always existed was this. As people, the band lived the rock n' roll dream to excess. You may have read about the extremes experienced by the likes of Motley Crue or Aerosmith, but - believe me - those guys had nothing on Lowlife. The band created music of the greatest beauty, style and passion, yet as people they were a strange and bizarre mixture of beer and whiskey drinking hell-raisers, and dedicated crazy pranksters. I know, since I was their main victim. Oh yes, there was the time they decided to wire up the door handle at the rehearsal room to the mains. And the whole packet of Hubbly Bubbly gum squashed into my hair as I slept. And the barrage of fireworks launched at me across a car park. At times I felt like the hapless crooks in those 'Home Alone' movies - I didn't know what to expect next.
Through all of that we were a team, but it was becoming apparent that most people in the business judged the guys next to impossible to deal with. In fact I think many A&R men were simply scared. Certainly the one Grant chased around a dressing room with a chair was. More than once I was asked: "how do you manage the unmanageable?"
That said, we were spending as much money in the studio as any major label signing, and our success on our own independent label meant that in fact there was little another label could offer. On Nightshift, Lowlife had complete control of their music and artwork, they liked it that way, and on its release in May 1987 Diminuendo marked another massive step forward. Dreams of what could be possible were now being realised:
"Lowlife emerge from a distant eerie grace, out of an echo or pause with unworldly drama. The isolation, resonance of this music can bring to mind the notion of music of the spheres" (Ian Gittins / Melody Maker)
"A further phase in Lowlife's refinement. evocative and dramatic, but never overbearing" (Dave Fudger / Q - 4 stars)
"Dreamy and bittersweet, this album is mellow and even more than complete" (Alex Kadis / Underground)
"Diminuendo is a landmark album, bustling with feeling, dripping with emotion and soft to the touch. Don't miss!!" (Music Week)
The album appeared just as the band got underway on a lengthy UK tour with Australian band The Go-Betweens in May. Night after night Lowlife gave the headliners a run for their money, but both bands got on really well - too well, in fact, according to the GB's management. After a few nights partying I was told in no uncertain terms that Lowlife could no longer lead the all-too willing Aussies astray, this following a gig when Lindy toppled off her drum stool mid-set. For Lowlife the tour was a great success, finishing with a triumphant show at the Town & Country Club in London on the 10th, playing possibly the best set of their career so far and earning a resounding ovation.
Further headline shows followed, including a prestigious ICA Rock Week gig in June 1987, attended by most of the press and many major label players. This should have been the night when things really took off, but it was not to be. Lowlife played a great show, but unfortunately Jeff Chegwin ending up having an altercation with his wife, which in turn resulted in Craig and Grant dragging their publisher outside onto The Mall. The finale wasn't pretty. To say things changed from that evening onwards would be an understatement. Many a jaw hit the deck, and record company chequebooks remained closed for Lowlife thereafter.
That said, press and radio support continued, and our audience carried on increasing. A live-for-television set was broadcast on BBC Scotland on a show called FSD, and was later networked. Ramafied (a brand new song) was recorded for a cassette given free with Underground magazine, and to this day it remains one of Lowlife's most popular songs. The single Eternity Road and EP Swirl It Swings soon followed, and we even survived being ejected from REL studios after another of 'those' nights where the owner, seemingly in fear of his life, could take no more. More utter madness, but more mighty and magnificent music:
"To ignore this would be a mortal sin - for Lowlife to slip away a greater one. Another way to heaven" (Melody Maker)
"Another giant step for Lowlife. sharp and subtle - a confusing coupling as ever" (Underground)
"Another hauntingly atmospheric release - confident, strong and effective" (Music Week)
During 1988 plans were laid for the next album, and in the summer the band started to record assorted demos at Stuart's house on an old Portastudio and even more ancient two-track Revox. These songs were to form the basis of Godhead more than a year later - as well as what has become known as The Black Album, something of a holy grail amongst Lowlife devotees.
What happened was this. The demos were presented to Jeff at Working Music, who in turn was tied to Chappell Music, where one Charlie Gladstone was based. He also ran an in-house label - Idea Records - and it was intended that the album would be financed and released by them. Chappell then pressed up around 250 copies of the 1988 demos in a plain black sleeve and circulated these around the business, mainly at the Midem trade festival in Cannes in January 1989.
Stephen Fellows of the Comsat Angels heard the demos, and agreed to produce the next album at Axis in Sheffield. I personally was a huge fan of The Comsats since interviewing them during my time writing for Sounds. However, all was dependent upon our next option with Working Music and Chappell being exercised to fund the sessions. However US giant Warner Bros Music took over the Chappell operation, and the new regime didn't like what they'd heard about Lowlife, or our reputation, or the ICA incident, or the cost of taking up the option. So we were dropped, and gloom and dependency set in.
I knew I had to get the new album together somehow, but the situation was complicated further by the fact that problems were developing between Stuart and the rest of the band. I was left to do the deed. No-one ever really told Stuart why he was out - he just was and that was that. From that day until their reunion in 2005 the original line-up didn't meet up again. I felt bad about it all, but I had to move on and get the album recorded.
The rest of the band had no idea who to draft in on guitar, so I suggested a guy from Dundee called Hamish McIntosh, who'd released a cult album for Nightshift under the name Fuel. Elliot Davies, at that time the manager of Wet Wet Wet, had heard of our problems with Warner/Chappell, so he offered me the chance to use their Pet Sounds Studio in Glasgow, and work with Ted Blakeway, the Wet's main in-house engineer. Amazingly, with Hamish having only a few rehearsals, the Godhead album turned out to be an absolute treat in 1989. Fears that the two year delay between albums would result in a loss of momentum were soon dispelled:
"Lowlife cast aside past references and perceptions with the most evocatively impressive music. It would be unforgivable if this album remains totally unnoticed" (The Catalogue - 4 stars)
"Lowlife's Godhead takes us back to that classic case of a band who never reap enough acclaim because they won't play the game, but they deserve serious attention" (Martin Aston / Music Week)
"Jesus complexes notwithstanding, Godhead is motivated by desolate rows of plangent guitars, a hollowed out sepulchral bass and the cold botherangst of a singer. If not exactly the head of god, this is about halfway up his midriff - buy it!!" (Paul Lester / Melody Maker)
After Godhead appeared Grant was involved in a football accident and lost a finger. He was a bloody good amateur player, and a regular scorer for Falkirk AFC in the Sunday leagues, but with family commitments now coming to the fore he decided to retire from drumming. Hamish also decided to concentrate on his own Fuel project, so once again I was obliged to perform another 'band-graft' to keep the Lowlife operation alive and kicking. In came guitarist Hugh Duggie and drummer Martin Fleming, who were already established with their own band The Mutiny Strings. I knew them quite well and rated them highly. The idea to merge into Lowlife took quite a hard sell, but I was delighted that the new line-up was refreshed and charged with new enthusiasm. Moreover the chemistry and song writing clicked right away, and I knew then that the band still had a future.
In the short term a compilation album, From a Scream To a Whisper was issued in 1990 to satisfy fans who had recently discovered the band, and missed out on the early releases. Meanwhile the new line up played a few select live shows, and slowly began to write material for the next album. Will also decided (after some persuasion from me) to get involved more on the label side, also doing some low key distribution for other small labels, some highlights of which were introducing UK audiences to the likes of Slint, Blake Babies, Julianna Hatfield and the U-Men via some direct import export.
Behind the scenes, however, bigger business problems loomed. First our local Scottish distributor Fast Forward hit the wall, followed soon after by the spectacular collapse of Rough Trade Distribution in May 1991. The financial hole Nightshift dropped into was huge - we were not classed as preferential creditors, unlike like the taxman - and several original production masters simply disappeared from RTD. I tried to get compensation, to no avail, and soon some of the biggest sellers like Diminuendo and Godhead began turning up in bootleg form, slipping in from countries like Italy and Spain. It was a fraught time, and Nightshift struggled to avoid bankruptcy before a new distribution deal was secured with APT, which had itself risen from the ashes of Red Rhino after the RTD collapse. Again borrowing a substantial sum I got the business side of things back on track, and Lowlife could look forward to a long overdue return to the studio.
By now almost three years had passed since Godhead, yet the promise of what San Antorium would eventually bring had everyone fired up with renewed enthusiasm. This time around we decided to work with Calum McLean, a highly skilled and very ambitious new producer, and possibly the only person around at the time with the brass neck, ego and attitude to take on and work with Lowlife. The sessions went very well indeed, with the band stretching themselves in many new directions, and guest musicians (including Calum himself) adding extra layers to the sonic landscape.
While many fans argue the merit of exactly which Lowlife album is their best, most agree San Antorium in September 1991 was the most technically accomplished. Despite being out of the limelight for so long the reviews, as ever, were uniformly good:
"It's a fine record, but still distanced from the mainstream, still occupying a territory all of its own..they deserve to be recognised as something really special" (Tom Lappin / The Scotsman)
"Inevitably though, Lowlife are most profound when they are devastatingly desolate. They remain immaculate sonic tragedians, utterly peerless" (Ian Gittins / Melody Maker)
"Lowlife certainly have talent, the most of which is shown off here on this album. Worth listening to, perfect!" (M8 Magazine)
It seemed that nobody doubted Lowlife any more, and even Sky News came and filmed the band at work in the studio as San Antorium neared completion. A lot of people wanted the band to succeed and get the big break that they so richly deserved, but sadly it never came. As Lowlife moved further into 1990s the band played fewer live gigs, partly because there just weren't the right people to make it work onstage. The best dates were probably the short tour the band completed in December of 1991. Instead Hugh, Craig and Will continued writing and rehearsing in the back room of a pub every week, using drums machines for the very first time. New material continued to emerge, much of which was pretty experimental and never saw the light of day.
The business gremlins which had dogged so much of our career returned once more, this time when APT folded. Nevertheless, Lowlife rose again and pieced together Gush. It's the darkest of the five core albums, and I suppose the sense of endings, of final closure hung over the entire sessions, especially as family commitments meant that Will had to leave the studio before the album was completed. That said, it still contains some damn fine songs and some of Craig's most incisive and heartfelt lyrics. Again several outside musicians were brought in to augment the basic trio, not least Jason Taylor, then involved in Bay with Aiden Moffat (of Arab Strap), who released two albums on the Anoise Annoys label, which now took on Lowlife as well.
Gush was released in the UK late in 1995, and six months later in North America. As with San Antorium there were no live shows to support the album, and by 1997 it was all over, the band bowing out with a series of acclaimed unplugged shows that showed a freshness and zeal, and hinted at further greatness to come. Lowlife never actually broke up, they just drifted into the past, yet the music lives on. Every day college radio stations play the songs in the US, and thanks to the net there are websites and forums. And now, courtesy of LTM, the albums are available once again in the form of carefully remastered CDs with bonus tracks.
So here we are, back in that hotel bar in Grangemouth, back together again after far too long apart, like some dysfunctional family reunited. And, yes, I am still the brunt of the jokes and pranks as we drink ourselves into the wee small hours. Amongst all the mayhem there was serious talk, reflection and many truths exposed, while plans were even hatched to work together again on new material and maybe, just maybe, some reunion shows. I hope so, since Lowlife live on a good night are truly awesome, and for a band that were sometimes labeled as shoe-gazers, they actually created a sonic storm that really rocked. I kid you not, the power of their music came from a pure and passionate intensity that grabbed you in the gut and tossed you all about.
Meantime if you are new to what Lowlife are all about then suck in the delights of this compilation, Eternity Road. We're not saying it's a Best Of, rather it's an introduction and reflection of what the band were all about. For those of you who are die-hard fans, curl up with some old friends once again.
All this is just a flavour of my years with Lowlife. There are many other tales and adventures to be told. For all the heartache, stress and disasters along the way I still would not change a thing, because at the end of the day I don't think I've had so much fun, or laughed as much since. But above everything else it was the music, something unique and so different from my normal choice of sonic pleasures that filled me with joy and wonder. Hopefully we all might meet up somewhere to do it all again, down that mystical path we call Eternity Road.
It is with great regret that I report that Craig passed away on the evening of Friday 4 June 2010. He will be sorely missed.