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"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."
One track that stands out as a searing example of exactly what Edmunds' fingers are capable of doing to a guitar is "Sabre Dance 94." The same tune minus the "94"--written by some classical guy named Khachaturian, by the way--was a Top 5 hit in England in 1968 for Edmunds' band Love Sculpture. It's hard to imagine topping the sheer raw power of that version. Unless you're Dave Edmunds.
"We used to do it much better onstage [than in the single version], and [in 1968] it was the first time I'd been in a recording studio, and I didn't know the rules," says Edmunds of the one-take session that produced the hit. "It was kind of weird. There was an engineer with a suit, an old guy like my uncle or something, all very straight and proper, like a government recording studio. And I didn't know you could do it twice! I thought, however it came out, that's it! So I just thought, 'Why not record it again?'"
Edmunds has a 30-year-old career filled with highlights both in and out of the spotlight, but he is perhaps best known for his collaborations with the Jesus of Cool himself, Nick Lowe. Rockpile was born in 1976 (with guitarist Billy Bremner and drummer Terry Williams), and survived for four booze-drenched years that included a handful of notorious tours and one album of the most glorious, driving music ever, Seconds of Pleasure.
"You know we never rehearsed? We got together once, maybe twice, in a rehearsal studio in London and learned the endings and the intros to the songs and then wrote a running order," Edmunds admits. "Then we'd meet in the bar at the airport and go on tour. It was a good time, a great four years."
As with most great breakups--from bands to marriages--the coming apart is as big a deal as the union. The Edmunds-Lowe partnership has been up and down over the years; according to the guitarist, the forecast is bleak. "There were specific things we broke up over--and I've got to be careful I don't get a defamation suit against me or something. We had a record on the charts and no contract," he says. "And that worried me, and it didn't worry the others, and when I tried to do something about it, it all blew up in my face. But I left the door open for 12 years, and Billy Bremner brought it up; he said, 'Why not do it again?' And when I tried to go back in the door, it slammed in my face. We had the exact same problems that broke us up in the first place, so I decided to lock the door and throw away the key."
So much for analogies; what's the real dirt on Dave and Nick? Edmunds seems genuinely puzzled. "Well, I don't know now. He's a funny guy; he doesn't return calls. I produced his last album, and we had a great time doing that. Rockpile was never mentioned once, and it was good. He's a very engaging character--never a dull moment with Nick--but I don't know where it stands at the moment. He has certain loyalties that I don't. That's as far as I can go into it."
One thing that he will go into is his career. You might think that after so many years in the business, Edmunds would have excised any survival worries long ago. But you would be wrong. "I read an interview with Kirk Douglas once, and he was convinced that every film he made would be his last," offers Edmunds. "It's a bit like that, but what can you do?" And then he laughs, a frequent, pub-ready chuckle that punctuates his conversation. "I don't like to be one of those people saying, 'Oh, I just live for music!' But I have to admit that it is basic to my existence, you know?