April 15th is always a taxing day, but I always try to remember that it’s also the birthday of one of my all-time favorite music people, Welsh guitarist Dave Edmunds. Dave turns 66 today, so I’ve decided to update and re-tool my original blog post from three years ago about this guy, who is one very underrated musician. He certainly belongs in the (C)Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame a whole lot more than the likes of the Sex Pistols, Leonard Cohen (Rock on, Leo!) or Gaspasser Flash and the Furious Five.
You may not even know his name, but you probably know of Dave’s work if you listen to Rock ‘N’ Roll at all. Dave hit the Top 40 a couple times himself (“I Hear You Knockin’” in ’71 and “Slipping Away” in ’83), and was 1/4 of the band Rockpile, which he formed with ex-Brinsley Schwartz bassist/singer Nick Lowe. Edmunds also produced albums for a number of major acts over years like the Stray Cats, Foghat and The Fabulous Thunderbirds. I first got into DE during the summer of ’79 when the old KY-102 here in K.C. started playing his new song “Crawling From The Wreckage”. Even though I was heavily into hard Rock at the time, I was like, “Who is THIS guy?” because I really grooved to the stripped-down Old School vibe of the song, plus the lyrics were a hoot—“Bits of me are scattered in the trees and on the hedges…”/“You’d think by now at least half my brain would get the message…”. Edmunds has your basic cult following, but it’s a pretty big cult as I discovered years later whenever I’d wear my Dave Edmunds concert t-shirt while out and about and strangers would come up to me and say, “Man, where’d you get the shirt? I love Dave Edmunds!”
Dave’s career dates all the way back to the mid-‘60s in merry olde England with a band called The Raiders (not to be confused with Paul Revere's bunch) and later the Human Beans (not the “Nobody But Me” Human Beinz), which he formed with late guitarist Mickey Gee. They scored a minor hit with a cover of Tim Rose’s classic “Morning Dew” in 1967, but didn't last long. Soon after, Edmunds formed the trio Love Sculpture, which was sort of a cross between Cream and Z.Z. Top, and they covered numerous Blues and Rockabilly classics. They even did a beyond-belief manic version of a Classical classic in 1968, Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance”, featuring DE playing at breakneck speed throughout. Edmunds went solo a few years after that, and his cover of Smiley Lewis’ “I Hear You Knockin’” was a fluke #5 hit in the States in early '71. DE’s first official solo album, 1972’s Rockpile, also featured another classic cut, “Down, Down, Down”. He didn’t make another album until 1975’s Subtle As A Flying Mallet, which was a bit tamer and almost Phil Spector-ish in places.
Dave’s career really took off when he joined forces with Mr. Lowe in ’77, as the pair alternately recorded solo albums under their own names for the next three years, but it was in fact the Rockpile quartet that backed Edmunds’ Get It, Tracks On Wax 4 and Repeat When Necessary, as well as Lowe’s Jesus Of Cool (aka Pure Pop For Now People in the U.S.) and Labour Of Lust—ALL outstanding records. Rockpile was rounded out by guitarist Billy Bremner (that’s his lead guitar you hear on The Pretenders’ “Back On The Chain Gang” from ‘83) and drummer Terry Williams, who later toured with Dire Straits), and they were your classic old-school pub band. Irony of ironies, when the band finally did an album under the actual Rockpile name—1980’s Seconds Of Pleasure—it wound up paling in comparison with those previous Edmunds and Lowe platters. And in spite of a successful concert tour opening for Bad Company (and blowing the then-weakening Bad Co. off the stage, by most accounts) the band broke up somewhat acrimoniously. Edmunds and Lowe subsequently moved on in their solo careers without each other, though they did reconnect when Edmunds produced and played on Lowe’s underrated and underappreciated Party Of One CD in 1990.
Dave stumbled a bit in his first post-Rockpile release with Twangin'… in 1981, but rebounded nicely the following year with the excellent D.E. 7th. Now I normally don’t condone artists who make a career out of doing cover songs (Linda Ronstadt, White Courtesy Phone!), but I make an exception for someone who takes other people’s music and adds their own touches to and/or improves upon the original songs, something which Dave Edmunds excels at. DE doesn’t just play the hits, either—he mines a little deeper for hidden gems and slightly more obscure tracks like Elvis Presley’s “Paralyzed” and Chuck Berry’s “Dear Dad”. Edmunds also outdid the other Elvis (Costello) on his own “Girls’ Talk”, blowing the doors off the original, and Dave’s rendition of Seger’s classic “Get Out Of Denver” is even faster than Bob’s, if you can believe that. He also recorded a far superior version of “Queen Of Hearts” before Juice Newton came along and had the big hit with it in 1981.
This is not to say there’s a dearth of good original material in the Edmunds catalog, either. There’s plenty to go around, much of it written by Lowe, and much of it very witty, like “Television”, “Readers Wives”, “What Did I Do Last Night?” and “I Knew The Bride” (which Lowe himself scored a hit with in 1985). One young Bruce Springsteen contributed “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)” to D.E. 7th, and “Slipping Away” was written with future Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne of ELO. Edmunds and Lynne’s collaboration on two of Dave’s albums—Information (1983) and Riff Raff (1984)—was derisively dubbed “Edmunds Light Orchestra” by douche-bag music critics. Even with all the electronic drums (ewww!) and ‘80s overkill, Dave still managed to sound cool during that period. He contributed “High School Nights” and a few other songs to the soundtrack of Porky’s Revenge in ’85, then took a few years off, returning in 1990 with the semi-decent Closer To The Flame. Another four years passed before Dave’s next opus, a little do-it-yourself project he called Plugged In, the title being a nice little dig at the ever-growing (and wimpy) “Unplugged” fad that engulfed the mid-‘90s music world. Plugged In was a splendid affair, with DE playing all the instruments and doing all the singing himself, and it included a streamlined update of “Sabre Dance” that really kicks.
Oh, did I mention that Dave Edmunds could put on a pretty good live show, too? I saw him and his band nearly blow the roof off the old Uptown Theater here twice back in ’82 and ’83. Nothing flashy, nothing fake—just good ol’ straight ahead no-bullshit Rock ‘N’ Roll. See folks? It doesn’t always have to be spectacle and bombast (à la Kiss, The Who, Van Halen, Motörhead, et al) to please me. Dave hasn’t been as active the last 15 years or so, having semi-retired because of some health issues (he’s had heart problems in the past), but he did go against his Plugged In protocol by doing a solo acoustic album back in 2000 that featured covers of Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas” and Jerry Reed’s “The Claw”, among others. Not only must I thank Dave for his own body of work, but for broadening my musical horizons considerably as well by introducing me to the work of Nick Lowe, who in turn (via the short-lived Little Village “supergroup”) opened my ears to the exploits of John Hiatt. Both of these gentlemen are extremely witty and inventive songwriters, and Hiatt in particular has become one of my all-time favorites.
[NOTE: In my original tribute, I was in a hurry and took the wussy way out by simply ranking my Top 5 Dave Edmunds albums. Time to be a little more thorough…]
My All-Time Dave Edmunds Top 30:
30) High School Nights (1985) From the Porky’s Revenge soundtrack, Dave croons about high school being the best years of our lives. I beg to differ—I fucking HATED high school. Cool song, all the same…
29) Singin’ The Blues (1981) Black Oak Arkansas probably had the best (and certainly the funniest) cover version of this song, but Dave’s is pretty good too.
28) Halfway Down (1994) This one was written by country singer/songwriter Jim Lauderdale. Has a nice galloping pace to it.
27) Have A Heart (1983) The closing track off Information, “HAH” somehow managed to cut through the electronic synthesizer haze that permeated the rest of the album and it sizzled.
26) Busted Loose (1984) Another from the “Edmunds Light Orchestra” era with Jeff Lynne, all about a guy on the lam after a jailbreak. I have trouble picturing Dave as the hardened criminal he claims to be in the lyrics, but it’s a fun song to listen to, even with all the synths and drum machines.
25) Slipping Away (1983) Dave’s second (and probably final) sniff of the Top 40 in America. This song always pops up in my head when I realize the Chiefs (or whichever team I’m rooting for) have no chance to win the game I’m watching. “I can feel you (it) slipping away…
24) Not A Woman, Not A Child (1978) Little ditty about an adolescent girl grown up too soon. Seems to be a lot of those these days…
23) Other Guys Girls (1982) Nifty song from D.E. 7th that has Dave’s vocals double-tracked to sound like his idols, the Everly Brothers.
22) Steel Claw (1984) Edmunds usually remains apolitical, but this was a nice sideswipe at phony politicians everywhere. Curiously enough, Tina Turner came out with her own version of the song at roughly the same time on Private Dancer.
21) I Hear You Knockin’ (1971) I have no doubt lots of people were going “Dave who?” in 1971, but somehow this thing got all the way to #5. Still gets played on Oldies stations today, believe it or not. Fats Domino (who gets a verbal mention in Dave’s version) also took a shot at the song in the early ‘60s, with slightly different lyrics.
20) Bad Is Bad (1979) Youse Huey Lewis fans will know this one, but you might not recognize it because Dave’s version is so radically different (i.e., it’s much faster and punchier). Brother Huey himself honks out his harmonica here, but his name was misspelled in the album credits (“Hughie”). Love the line, “All you can eat for a dollar-99…This ol’ stew is the baddest in the land…One dollar’s worth was all I could stand.”
19) Television (1978) Another Lowe original about a working man addicted to the tube. “Just so long as it’s on, I’m glad…”
18) From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come) (1982) Written specifically for Edmunds by The Boss, this one’s so good that I’m surprised Brucie didn’t keep it for himself. Might’ve fit in nicely on Born In The USA.
17) It Doesn’t Really Matter (1994) “When it all comes down to a hole in the ground, it doesn’t really matter at all.” I try to remind myself of this during stressful times, with varying degrees of success.
16) Rules Of The Game (1984) Quirky and almost mechanical-sounding song written by Edmunds’ bassist at the time, John David. I’ve always been partial to it, for some reason.
15) What Have I Got To Do To Win? (1983) An Edmunds original, and the story of my love-life to a tee. “I’ve got the rules of the game down, but what have I got do to win? I’d like to play the game, but I don’t wanna have to lose again…” An anthem for those of us who struggle to score with women.
14) Standing At The Crossroads (1994) Another dandy track from Plugged In, a very under-the-radar album. Points off for Dave singing the line “I’m 6-foot-6, I weigh 200 pounds…” Uhhh, Dave ain’t quite that tall!
13) Trouble Boys (1978) Lead-off number from the excellent Tracks On Wax 4—what a nice respite from all the disco folderol during that period! This one tells the story of a poor guy who takes his girl on a date and they encounter a gang of thugs who steal her away from him, but he has the balls to not only stand up to them and get her back, but win their respect as well. Or something like that…
12) You Ain’t Nothin’ But Fine [Rockpile] (1980) Arguably the best track off the disappointing Seconds Of Pleasure LP. For some reason, they just didn’t nail the same vibe as they had on those previous Edmunds and Lowe albums. When Dave did this one in concert in the ‘80s, he gave it a Cajun flavor by adding Geraint Watkins on the accordian.
11) Bail You Out (1982) Speaking of Cajun, this song’s loaded with it. Makes you think you're in Nawleans when you hear it.
10) The Race Is On [w/The Stray Cats] (1981) Easily the best song off Twangin’... and a great cover of George Jones’ Country classic, just before the Stray Cats hit the big-time.
9) King Of Love (1990) Speaking of the Stray Cats, Brian Setzer provides nifty call-and-response vocals and Slim Jim Phantom plays the stand-up bass on this ‘50s-sounding tune.
8) Readers Wives (1978) If I’m interpreting my Queen’s English correctly, a “Readers Wife” would be a prostitute, since this song is all about getting laid at this veritable buffet line of concubines. Apparently, they come in all shapes and sizes (“The little ones stand 4-foot-3, while the big ones start at 44D…”), and I’d love to meet Little Maria (“who’d do it for a beer”). Imagine what she’d do for a 12-pack!
7) Get Out Of Denver (1977) Even speedier and tighter than Bob Seger’s original.
6) I Knew The Bride (1977) Lowe’s ’85 version (produced by Huey Lewis) has become a staple at wedding receptions the world over, but I’ve always preferred Dave’s version, which is edgier and faster.
5) Girls' Talk (1979) Seems that the great Declan McManus (aka Elvis Costello) was none too pleased with Edmunds’ rendition of his song. Sour grapes. Can Dave help it if he’s a far better singer? Sorry kids, but I still think Costello’s grossly overrated—how he makes the HOF but Edmunds and Lowe don't is pure heresy.
4) Dear Dad (1982) One of the best Chuck Berry covers ever. It’s a short (1:51) but sweet letter from a son begging his father for a Cadillac to replace his current P.O.S. vehicle in the pre-"Cash For Clunkers" era. Love the punchline where da boy signs it “Sincerely, your beloved son, Henry Junior Ford…”
3) What Did I Do Last Night? (1977) Another quickie (1:47) written by Lowe and played at breakneck speed, all about overdoing things the night before. “Opened my eyes and took a look because I didn’t have a clue about where I was/Turned my head and it cut me like a knife, ‘cus the woman lyin’ there surely wasn’t my wife!”
2) Sabre Dance [Love Sculpture] (1968)/Sabre Dance ‘94 (1994) Take your pick here—EITHER version rocks! The Love Sculpture original is more frenetic and raw, while the ’94 rendition is slicker and more fluid. And even though the latter utilizes a drum machine, it’s still full-tilt boogie at its finest.
1) Crawling From The Wreckage (1979) It was so hard to choose a favorite here because Dave’s got so many cool songs, so I figured the one where it all started for me might as well be #1. “When I’m disconnect from the driving wheel, I’m only half the man I should be…” Brilliant line.