Happy Birthday, Dave Edmunds

I *still* hear you rockin'...

I *still* hear you rockin'...

How can one be famous and critically underrated at the same time? Although Dave Edmunds has had hits with his band Love Sculpture, as a member of super-group (to the smart ones among us, anyway) Rockpile and as a solo artist, he rarely gets mentioned on lists of the greatest guitar players ever to sling an axe over their shoulder. If you doubt me, may I suggest a run through his catalogue?

I was first floored by his manic playing on “Sabre Dance” and the template for drunken sing-alongs, “I Hear You Knockin“, but the magic ran much deeper on his albums. Always a great cover artist (his take on “Girls Talk” trumps Elvis Costello,  hands down), he breathed new life into songs from both influences and contemporaries. A skilled writer, producer and multi-instrumentalist, Edmunds combined his love of Phil Spector’s production techniques, classic pop song structure, doo-wop harmonies, rockabilly and country twang to forge infectious and irresistible music. His version of “Let It Be Me” was so heartfelt and beautiful that I asked a pair of Flashcubes to perform it at my wedding (thanks Gary and Artie), their equally powerful version had people openly weeping. (At least I think that’s why the attendees were crying…). Check out “Baby I Love You” and “Born To Be With You” , two tracks that recall the positive side of the Phil Spector story.

Axe Murderer

Axe Murderer

Later in the 70s, he and Nick Lowe eventually formed Rockpile with Billy Bremner and Terry Williams, but before, during and after they alternated backing each other on solo albums. Although Seconds of Pleasure is the only official Rockpile release, there’s really an entire catalogue of albums featuring most of the same musicians. Nick and Dave brought the best out in each other, and although they supposedly fought like cats and dogs, the sum of the parts was as good as the individual pieces. If you’re not familiar with that era, correct that mistake soon.

Rockpile plays “Sweet Little Lisa“.

Dave’s solo records were strong and featured the occasional hit, but he still wasn’t on that A-list in sales of popularity (although critically, he was doing just fine). When he signed a management contract with a powerful East Coast promoter in the mid-80s, I thought he would finally get the huge push he needed to become the household name he deserved to be. Instead, it was as if he went on a sabbatical, as his live appearances and recorded output slowed to a crawl. Thankfully he shared his talents with others behind the scenes.

Edmunds found a kindred spirit in Brian Setzer and produced The Stray Cats, who instantly became a phenomenon. Once again he leaned upon his early organic influences and was able to showcase the band in their best light – crisp and clear. A similar effort led to great success for The Fabulous Thunderbirds. It still mystifies me why he later leaned upon Jeff Lynne to produce his own work (well, not completely mystified – I’m sure the label told him they needed a hit record) since tracks from that era sound as dated as…well…as Jeff Lynne. (If Lynne really wanted to do Edmunds a favor, he would have declined the spot in the Traveling Wilburys and let Dave play like James Burton and Scotty Moore.)

Almost invisibly, Edmunds released a couple of great albums late in his career. In the mid-90s, Plugged In returned him to his all-by-myself early days and proved he had lost nothing, even showcasing one of the best Beach Boy homages ever recorded. Then in 2001, he hooked up with The Refreshments – the Swedish band, not the Arizona guys who want to “divvy up there“) – and released A Pile of Rock Live. Word to the curious –  The Refreshments are the closest thing you will find to vintage Rockpile and in this incarnation featured Billy Bremner and Geraint Watkins. The album is stunning, and any Edmunds/Bremner/Rockpile fan should check out their entire catalogue. (And pick up those Billy Bremner albums while you’re at it…speaking of underrated artists!).

Lately Dave has only been making spot appearances, and his newest album is another collection rather than new material. Hopefully he will get the itch again soon and grace us with more magic. But even if he never recorded another note, his musical legacy is firmly established as one of the greats.

Dave and The Refreshments play “I Knew The Bride“.

Dave and Graham Parker go “Crawling Through The Wreckage

Visit the official Dave Edmunds website.

Happy Birthday, Dave!!!


Filed under Features and Interviews, Music

6 responses to “Happy Birthday, Dave Edmunds

  1. Paul Sikorski

    And a tip of the hat to the Dr who turned me on to Dave Edmunds, with that very same “Subtle as a Flying Mallet” album.

    Two small quibbles in an otherwise outstanding overview:

    1. That’s actually Albert Lee playing the sizzling guitar on Sweet Little Lisa. Edmunds always pointed out how lucky he was to catch lightning in a bottle that day–Lee played it all the way through in one take, which is part of why it’s so mesmerizingly contiguous. Lee, to this day, points to it as his best piece of recorded guitar playing, trumping even his “Luxury Liner” performance with Emmylou Harris.

    2. According to Edmunds, he was going for Sun/Memphis minimalism with the Stray Cats. At their request, he was to stay away from tape-saturated overdubs and walls of sound. In an interview he once acknowledged that after he saw them on British TV, he actually subtly campaigned to produce their first album, personally letting them know he’d make himself available. “I’d have been rather embarrased if they didn’t extend the invitation,” he sheepishly admitted to the interviewer.

    Bravo, Dave. Well done, Dr., and great caption under the album graphic, BTW.

  2. drbristol

    Bravo backatcha, Paul…I was hoping you would see this one as I thought of you when writing it. I see your quibbles and raise you a fact and a clarification:

    1. That’s Albert Lee on the album. That’s Edmunds and Bremner on the clip I included. But for you, here’s Albert Lee playing Sweet Little Lisa

    Heck, how about Albert Lee with The Refreshments? Go Albert!

    2. Badly stated on my part; meant to say he went back to his own organic roots and influences. I will fix that.

  3. Paul Sikorski

    Mea culpa for laziness on my part. Just a second or two after I clicked “submit comment,” I thought to myself, “maybe I should have clicked the link, instead of assuming that it’s the album cut.” Visual evidence is, as always, indisputable! 🙂

    Albert isn’t the only great guitarist in the ironic position of pointing to someone else’s album for his best performance. A while back the Brit magazine “Sound on Sound,” which focuses on the recording process, did a small documentary piece on the details of recording “Back to the Chain Gang.” It took several days to get it right. As they told the story, when Bremner came in to overdub his lead (a la Albert on “Lisa”), they were all so stunned that they called it a day then and there and went to the pub next door to celebrate. Now, that’s how a r n’ r band makes a record!

  4. Bill Baldwin

    Bill, you have a homemade (my home) dvd in your collection that has a UK documentary on Rockpile working in hte studio in 1978. It’s called Born Fighters. In the doc, Albert Lee is shown coming into the studio to do a guitar overdub on ‘Sweet Little Lisa”. He plugs in and proceeds to blow everyone’s mind right there in plain sight. If your friend Paul has not seen it, you should get it out to him. The dvd also includes the 1977 Stiffs Live Tour UK documentary.
    ps: thanks for reminding me about dave’s birthday.

  5. Bill Baldwin

    I mentioned the dvd because the link to Albert in the studio was disabled. In case you disremembered, Albert did make his own recording of “Sweet Little Lisa” on his self-titled album.

  6. Steve VanderMolen

    Happy Birthday Mr. Edmunds!! I’ve enjoyed your wonderful music since the early 1980’s. I first heard your music with the single “I Hear You Knockin'”, I REALLY got into your music after seeing the video for “Slippiing Away” on MTV. So MTV was good for something! I hope you’re healthy and keep on rockin’!!

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