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In 1963, in Cardiff, Wales, there was a music store named Barrett's of Manchester, located just down the road from the Capitol Theatre. One day in late May, the biggest band in Britain stopped there to play, and the afternoon before the show, the manager of Barrett's--no fool he--sent one of his clerks over to foist a few musical supplies on the group.
"Go sell the Beatles some stuff" was the direct order to a 19-year-old employee named Dave Edmunds. Later on, Edmunds' singing, songwriting and virtuoso, Chet Atkins-meets-Chuck Berry guitar playing would kick-start England's pub-rock movement; he would co-found the legendary group Rockpile with Nick Lowe, and produce monster albums for the Stray Cats, k.d. lang, the Everly Brothers and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. But in May 63, he was just another bloke taking orders from the boss at Barrett's.
"I went round with a selection of strings and picks and drum heads and things--of course, I just gave it all away!" says Edmunds from his home in Los Angeles, 31 years and about 5,000 miles away from that afternoon.
"It was just me and the Beatles in the dressing room of the Capitol Theatre, and I was talking to them and telling them that I had a group and we played the same sort of music. They were great! Just me and four Beatles in a room!" Edmunds tells this story as if he hasn't even thought about it since the day it happened, as if an incredible memory--from a careerload of incredible memories--has just bubbled happily to the surface. He's a passionate guy--a Welshman, remember--and nowhere is it more evident than in his music. He's never been one to follow trends over the years; Edmunds works from the true backbone of rock n' roll. The roots of rockabilly, country and pop are his influences, still as strong now at age 50 as they were back in that cramped dressing room in Cardiff.
"I was slightly snobbish at the time," he admits. "I only liked American music. All the other bands in England were doing Shadows stuff, and I wouldn't have anything to do with that at all. I mean, I knew that Richie Barret did 'Some Other Guy' before the Big Three and the Beatles! I'm still the same, I think. But, of course, they won me over, and I knew I was in the room with something special."
It's been four years since the recording world heard from Edmunds (1990's not-so-hot Closer to the Flame). Plugged In--his 11th solo album--is a strong return. But what's it like? Has the guitarist sacrificed his traditional, straightahead style for the Now Sounds of Today?
Nope. Edmunds chooses covers and offers originals from across the genre board--Otis Redding's "I Got the Will"; "One Step Back," penned by pal Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top; and Edmunds' self-explanatory "I Love Music"--but it all still sounds like, well, a Dave Edmunds recording. "I've been in a bit of a dilemma through my career as to what sort of records I should be making," he says. "It's a variety of stuff, and that used to worry me, because it seemed like a lack of focus. When you consider someone like ZZ Top, they do one thing, but it's their best. It's great. I'm sort of spread out a bit, and that used to worry me, but then I thought, 'To hell with it.' I like stacking vocal harmonies like the Beach Boys, and I like playing guitar like Jerry Reed or trying to do Albert Lee, and I like a bit of country, and I want to incorporate it into one album."
And that Edmunds did, throwing conventional hipness to the wind as he has since his first international Top 10 hit in 1971, a cover of Smiley Lewis' "I Hear You Knockin'." If you're wondering how the veteran rocker could possibly fit into the current musical climate, you might have wondered the same thing 23 years ago, when the then-aberrant "Knockin'" came out.
"I had no band, no manager, no record company, really. I gave it to Gordon Mills--Tom Jones' manager--and he put it out and it just took off," Edmunds says. "There were no rock n' roll records at the time; apart from what the Stones and Creedence were doing, it was all these pop records in England. It wasn't hyped; it had an energy of its own, so maybe that keeps alive this seed of optimism." (One early fan of the record was an acquaintance from 1963; John Lennon called it "the best fuckin' thing on the radio." "I didn't sleep for a week," says Edmunds.)
As he did on that early single, Edmunds plays all the instruments on Plugged In himself. Of that, he only says, "It's something I've always dabbled with, right from the beginning of my recording career, and I don't know why. I just like the idea."
And though he's quite at home behind an actual drum kit, you'll hear plenty of computer-programmed drum parts--something most roots-oriented musicians view as sacrilege. "I didn't want to be one of those guys that just sort of fell behind out of some sort of weird objections to technology," Edmunds scoffs. "Although there are some things--when you hear a drum machine on, like, L.A. Law, it's sort of, 'Oh, dear--that's a bit wooden!' My idea is to make it sound like a drummer. It's a challenge."