Friday, 21 August 2015

Diminutive Welsh guitarist, singer and producer Dave Edmunds is a giant of British rock music - I salute him

Yes, I've heard all the criticisms - he's derivative, predictable, stuck in a time-warp, hasn't written any classic songs, and, au fond, he's a heads-down-no-nonsense-mindless twelve-bar pub-rocker whose terrible twin, lanky Nick Lowe, was the truly creative force in their erstwhile partnership. Some of that's partly true, I think - but if it is, it's because Edmunds has always been a hugely obsessive music fan, in awe of the wonderful noise produced by his heroes and determined to discover how they managed it - and to recreate it using any means at hand, including his own considerable talents as a guitar-picker and a vastly under-rated singer.

As a muso, rather than a wannabe "star", he has never (as far as one can tell) wanted to express himself - instead, he has always sought to recreate what other performers have expressed. (As an obsessive music fan who, in their own silly, infinitely amateurish and untalented way, has tried to do the same thing, I salute a true master craftsman.)

Cardiffian Edmunds (now 71 and living back here after a lengthy stint in America - his spiritual home, musically) spent most of the '60s performing in various bands in Wales, before gaining his first UK hit in 1968 with the wankily-named Love Sculpture and his electrifying version of Khachaturian's frenetic "Sabre Dance":

Okay, it was a novelty hit - but what brio!

The band split up and Edmunds eventually started laying down an arrangement for a version of Wilbert Harrison's "Let's Work Together", Harrison's own 1969 reworking of his own 1962 hit, "Let's Stick Together". Edmunds' plans were scuppered by Canned Heat, who released their own (superb) version of "Let's Work Together" in 1970. No doubt irritated by a missed opportunity, Edmunds  went and produced fellow Welsh rock 'n' rollers Shakin' Stevens and the Sunsets' first LP, A Legend, at Rockfield Studios in Monmouth. That project had two major outcomes: first, it allowed Edmunds to practice  recording a genuine rockabilly sound, and, second, one of the tracks recorded by the band was Smiley Lewis's "I Hear You Knocking" - a song Edmunds had never heard before. He realised that he could adapt his aborted arrangement for "Let's Work Together" to create a less bluesy, harder-edged version of Lewis's 1955 classic:

Went to No.1, of course, and John Lennon described it as his favourite single of all time.

Although his first two hits were interpretations of existing works, Edmunds had come up with a highly original take on both, but instead of continuing down this creative route, he seems to have become slightly obsessed with tweedling away on his own in a remote Welsh studio, mainly recreating the sound of Chuck Berry recordings. Of the two Berry numbers on the LP Rockpile, "The Promised Land" was the best (it's certainly got bounce):

There were another couple of Berry covers on his next LP - the superb Subtle As A Flying Mallet, released in 1975 - but this time around, the emphasis was on Phil Spector. There are two direct covers of Spector originals, and two other songs given a Wall of Sound treatment. I loved the album, but I thought he might have overdone the Spectormania - only to change my mind when "Baby, I Love You" reached No. 8 on the charts and the follow-up, a Phillesified version of the old Chordettes' hit "Born to Be With You" got to No. 5. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the album is that Edmunds did all the singing and played almost all the instrumental parts as well (Nick Lowe said his recording tapes at that time were so heavily edited they looked like doilies):

His next album, 1977's Get It, was a masterpiece. There were some great Chuck Berry and Elvis covers, but contemporary songs imbued with an exuberant, rockabillyesque, souped-up country knees-up feel predominated - no doubt helped by the use of other musicians for a change.

After treading water with the follow up album, Trax on Wax 4, Edmunds released the well-nigh perfect Repeat When Necessary in 1979, which included my all-time favourite Edmunds number, "Queen of Hearts", a song written especially for him which skirted the border between uptempo country and rockabilly:

Perfect pop. Edmunds and the band featured in the video went on to record Seconds of Pleasure as Rockpile, which was slightly disappointing, but his next solo effort, Twangin', was better, despite a lumpy Status Quo-style rendering of "Singing the Blues". The highlight were probably a faithful version of John Fogerty's "Almost Saturday Night" and a collaboration with the Stray Cats (whose first LP he'd just produced), on George Jones's "The Race is On":

(When it comes to rockabilly, Edmunds - as a producer rather than performer - probably defined how revivalists would sound from the late '70s until the present day.)

Edmunds had several good LPs left in him, but his last truly great album - the one that I've listened to most over the years - was 1982's splendid D.E. 7th, for which he had to assemble an entirely new band following the break-up of Rockpile. There's a terrific cover of a late-era Chuck Berry number, "Dear Dad", but what really makes the album special are four tracks that fuse rock 'n' roll, rockabilly, Bruce Springsteen-style rock, Cajun and country in one gloriously blaring wallop of sound: "Warmed Over Kisses (Left Over Love)" -  an unrecognisably revved-up version of a lilting 1962 Bryan Hyland pop country number, complete with rocking banjo - is a particular favourite:

The best of Edmunds' later albums is probably Plugged In, from 1994, featuring the homage, "Beach Boy Blood in My Veins" - it's not a great number, but it demonstrates that our Dave remained an obsessive music fan eager to recapture the sound of his heroes, returning to his early one-man band approach to achieve it:

As I mentioned earlier, his voice is a much undervalued instrument. To underline the fact that he's also a superb guitarist, I'll leave you with another number from Plugged In - a version of Jerry Reed's hot country instrumental, "The Claw":

If you're an admirer of Coldplay, I doubt he'll mean much to you - but if you're a fan of rootsy American rock 'n' roll and country, you'll understand how special he is.


  1. Agreed.He is unquestionably a giant of British rock.Why don't more people know this?Maybe its because he has eschewed pop and so called glamour,apart from 'Girl Talk' that is,which is itself a good recording.
    Edmunds is right up there with the best.

    1. Nice to know I'm not alone in revering him, John Jones. A problem, I think, is that his music is very male-oriented but too varied, playful and rootsy to appeal to Heavy Metal or Status Quo fans - and too lacking in angst (In fact, too downright cheerful) to appeal to most educated, middle-class males. Loving the sort of music he loves - as I suspect we both do - no doubt helps.

    2. I blame John Peel. Though an engaging broadcaster and a decent man, he was allowed to become far too influential. He insisted bands had be authentic which essentially meant they had to be dreary, from Manchester and fans of football.

    3. You could well be right, Tomahawk: if he'd droned about being poor and alienated in Wales, he'd have been lionised. Unfortunately, he was just a bloke who loved rock and roll and had oodles of musical talent rather than some talentless, spotty adolescent whining about the evils of capitalism and how The Man was keeping him down.

  2. I once saw Dave Edmunds play a faultless solo version of Lady Madonna live and have been an admirer ever since. I hadn't heard Beach Boy Blood before. I love the very clever run through their greatest hits ending with Til I Die off Surf's Up.

    On a less positive note, I always thought John Peel was a pretentious arse whose taste changed to fit the prevailing trend.

    1. His "Lady Madonna" is indeed delightful. I also love his solo version of the old Merle Travis standard, "Blue Smoke":
      ...and his very Chet Atkins take on "Love Letters in the Sand":
      There's a lot of his solo stuff on a 2001 album, "Alive and Pickin'":

      My opinion of John Peel tended to fluctuate depending on who he was championing at the time - I fear that his desperation not to become attached to any particular form of music meant he became increasingly indiscrimate with age: there was some good stuff in there, but you didn't half have to wade through some truly awful crap to get to it!