Can traditional rock’n’roll survive in the modern world? As long as Dave Edmunds is around, the answer will be yes. A rousing singer, superlative guitarist and wizard producer, the Welsh native has preserved the simplicity and directness of ’50s rock without ever sounding like a slavish revivalist. Along the way, he’s also performed tricks with country music and even Phil Spector’s elaborate constructions. Edmunds has had his ups and downs on record, but the one thing he’s never been is pretentious.
Edmunds is less a hidebound purist than a knowledgeable stylist — with impeccable taste in classic American rock’n’roll, pop and country styles — who happens to do his best work in these traditional idioms. As a singer, guitarist and producer, he has generally invested even his most derivative output with a good deal of his own energy, and has never fallen back on mere genre-mongering. While his recording career has had its share of artistic ups and downs, Edmunds has consistently demonstrated a solid grasp of the fundamental emotional appeal of the styles he emulates.
Dave prefaced his solo career with two LPs as the leader of manic blues-psychedelic trio Love Sculpture. The Early Edmunds compiles both Love Sculpture albums (including long and short versions of the band’s freak UK hit with Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance”) and the subsequent solo album Rockpile, plus a rare single by the pre-Love Sculpture Human Beans, in a convenient two-CD package. The same period is also covered by Dave Edmunds, Rocker: Early Works 1968-1972 and Dave Edmunds & Love Sculpture Singles A’s & B’s.
Edmunds made his first solo album, Rockpile, to capitalize on his worldwide smash single, a one-man remake of “I Hear You Knockin’,” the classic Dave Bartholomew number from the mid-’50s. This LP established the boundaries of the first phase of his solo career: a Chuck Berry tune, a Willie Dixon blues, a country stomp (by Neil Young, no less) and so on. Rockpile is a mishmash in terms of recording dates — one track was cut in 1966 — and creation, with Edmunds playing almost all the instruments himself; no matter — it rocks like crazy.
Edmunds also recorded several oldies covers for the 1974 rock movie Stardust; ironically, the fictional band in the film, to which six of his seven tracks on the soundtrack album are credited, is named the Stray Cats — an odd coincidence since Edmunds would produce the unrelated American trio in the ’80s.
By 1975, the unprolific Edmunds had a few more UK hits and enough other odds and ends to assemble another LP; unfortunately Subtle as a Flying Mallet doesn’t hold together. The Everly Brothers’ “Leave My Woman Alone” and a few other individual tracks work, but this is otherwise a largely lifeless record. The intricate one-man Spector homages (“Maybe,” “Baby I Love You,” etc.) are pretty but strained. Two tracks recorded live with Brinsley Schwarz point to the end of Edmunds’ hibernation in the studio.
Between 1977 and 1981, Edmunds worked productively with formet Brinsleys bassist/singer Nick Lowe, guitarist Billy Bremner and drummer Terry Williams in the multi-purpose live/studio outfit Rockpile. The arrangement was ideal, giving Edmunds access to a sympathetic and witty writing partner (Lowe) as well as a crack band. That period yielded three of Edmunds’ best albums, Get It, Tracks on Wax 4 and Repeat When Necessary.
Although Dave still laid down a lot of the tracks unaided, Get It lets air into the musty old room of Edmunds’ musical mind. Highlights of this bright-sounding LP include Lowe’s Chuck Berry rewrite, “I Knew the Bride,” and the Lowe/Edmunds sprightly salute to the Everly Brothers, “Here Comes the Weekend.”
Tracks on Wax 4 hardens and intensifies the attack, fully freeing Edmunds from the negative aspects of his nostalgic leanings. On Tracks on Wax 4, Rockpile drives Dave to new heights of rock’n’roll glory.
Perhaps his best effort, Repeat When Necessary follows the course set by Tracks on Wax, with a bit of country sweetening. Standouts: Elvis Costello’s “Girls Talk,” “Queen of Hearts” (later a hit for Juice Newton) and the sultry “Black Lagoon.”
Following the acrimonious breakup of Rockpile, Edmunds rushed out Twangin…, a resounding disappointment. Despite the presence of a few pearls, this is clearly an inferior patchwork. Outtakes deserve to remain outtakes. The return to the claustrophobic one-man-band sound of his early days is particularly disheartening.
The Best of Dave Edmunds, thirteen tracks from the four Swan Song LPs, makes no chronological sense, but offers an impressive musical overview.
In the years since Rockpile’s dissolution, Edmunds has cast about fitfully, trying out various directions with mixed results. D.E. 7th finds him bouncing back handily with a new band and a snappy set of rollicking rockers (none of which he had a hand in writing), including a custom-fitted Bruce Springsteen composition, “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come),” an energetic cover of NRBQ’s “Me and the Boys” and the well-chosen Chuck Berry obscurity “Dear Dad.”
After that encouraging effort, Edmunds inexplicably put himself in the hands of machine-pop mastermind Jeff Lynne, whose wholly inappropriate production and songwriting contributions make for baffling listening on Information and Riff Raff. Though neither album is as dreadful as Edmunds devotees would have you believe (each actually contains a couple of memorable tracks), they’re symptomatic of the malaise that dogged Edmunds’ recording career for much of the ’80s.
Oddly enough, Edmunds did some of his best post-Rockpile work on the soundtrack for an obnoxious teen-flick sequel, Porky’s Revenge: he contributed three new tunes and produced and played on tracks by George Harrison, Jeff Beck, Clarence Clemons and former Swan Song mentor Robert Plant. A semi-greatest-hits concert rundown drawn from several different shows, I Hear You Rockin’ is a spirited live effort featuring Edmunds’ estimable post-Rockpile ’80s band with ex-Love Sculpture bassist John David (Williams), drummer/engineer Dave Charles and pub-rock vets Mickey Gee (guitar) and Geraint Watkins (keyboards), a company whose talents were rather ill-served on the Lynne albums. Edmunds touches all the obvious bases with little fanfare (save some intrusive synthesizer), reprising the better half of his Swan Song compilation while adding “I Hear You Knocking,” “Information,” “Paralyzed,” “Slipping Away” and a fine reading of Dion’s “The Wanderer.”
Edmunds’ artistic productivity may have dipped in the mid-’80s, but his career as a producer stayed hot all decade. He guided the latter-day Stray Cats to the top of the charts and fulfilled a longstanding ambition of working with the Everly Brothers by producing their 1984 comeback album. He produced k.d. lang’s debut and a new Dion album, and even reunited with his old bandmate to producer Lowe’s Party of One.
Closer to the Flame, Edmunds’ first solo studio effort in six years, isn’t quite the resounding comeback that one would hope for, but’s it a big improvement over the Lynne-influenced discs, with convincing stops at rockabilly (“King of Love,” “Sincerely”) and R&B (the title song, “Test of Love”), plus a pair of songs each by pub- rock legend Micky Jupp and NRBQ’s Al Anderson.
Edmunds took another extended hiatus from record-making before re-emerging four years later with the surprisingly spry Plugged In, a return to his claustrophobic but cost-effective one-man-studio-band approach. This time, Edmunds manages to get engaging music out of the mechanical rhythms that weighed down his Lynne collaborations. The self-penned “I Love Music” sets the tone for an amiable set encompassing chirpy pop (“Chutes & Ladders”), Cajun- flavored rock’n’roll (“It Doesn’t Really Matter”), swoony balladry (Al Anderson’s “Better Word for Love”), a well- executed Brian Wilson pastiche (“Beach Boy Blood”), a cleverly reworked Otis Redding cover (“I Got the Will”), a flashy showcase for Edmunds’ nimble guitar picking (Jerry Reed’s “The Claw”) and even a souped-up remake of “Sabre Dance.”
Except for the odd foible of including a UK (not US) discography in the booklet, Rhino’s two-CD, 41-track Dave Edmunds Anthology does an exemplary job of encapsulating Edmunds’ career, from Love Sculpture through Closer to the Flame.