Wedged between the primal heavy metal thunder of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Iron Butterfly and the introspective Laurel Canyon singer/songwriter fare ala Carole King, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, Dave Edmunds’ 1970 solo smash single, I Hear You Knocking, a cover of Smiley Lewis chestnut, sounded like a lost musical missive plucked from the Eisenhower generation.
It was a single championed at the time by none other than John Lennon as a favorite who undoubtedly connected with how the track mainlined the earthy atmosphere and grit and grime (dig that echo!) of the classic Sun Records recordings emanating out of Memphis in the mid to late ‘50s.
In many ways, Dave Edmunds has been a musician out of time; it’s almost as if God played the ultimate cosmic joke and stuck him in the wrong decade. Yet over the course of a five decade career, he’s stayed true to his ideals, upholding the sound, spirit and tradition of classic ‘50s rock and roll birthed by the likes of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino, and the Everly Brothers.
His musical CV as a solo artist and member of Rockpile, in-demand guitarist (he’s played with ¾ of the Beatles–Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr–and Robert Plant among countless others) and consummate producer (The Everly Brothers, The Stray Cats, George Harrison, Jeff Beck and Flamin’ Groovies) is impressive and resonates with the studied authenticity of a musical auteur.
And while he’s penned his share of quality homegrown rock and roll nuggets through the years, it’s his facility as a masterful song stylist and fine interpreter of other people’s material where he’s really shined. Case in point: Edmunds’ new CD, On Guitar…Dave Edmunds: Rags & Classics. An all instrumental platter, the album finds Edmunds back in classic one-man band mode tackling a wide-range of musical terrain, from time honored classics like Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale, Green Onions by Booker T & the MG’s and Elton John’s Your Song to the surprising R. Kelly’s I Believe I Can Fly.
Join us for a career-spanning conversation with rock and roll royalty…on guitar…Dave Edmunds.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Dave, you scored your first success in 1968 with the instrumental Sabre Dance with your band Love Sculpture, what prompted you to tackle that song and render it with that kind of frenetic interpretation?
Dave Edmunds: Remember the Nice with Keith Emerson?
Rock Cellar Magazine: Yes.
Dave Edmunds: Well, I loved that band when they were coming up; they were just fantastic. I opened for them a few times locally in Cardiff and I’d watch Keith Emerson. It seemed he was trying to do on Hammond organ what Jimi Hendrix was doing with a guitar. He’d be moving the organ band and forth and rockin’ it and making the reverb sound come over on the P.A.
He was diggin’ knives into the keyboard. Just the way he was transposing some of these Dave Brubeck songs was really good. I thought, I wonder if I can find some instrumental where I can do a similar thing he’s done on organ only on guitar. Sabre Dance was a pure accident. I was doodling around on the guitar one day and the strings are tuned in fifths; the E and the B and the D and the A are in fifths and that’s how Sabre Dance is composed. (imitates sound) It’s the one note and the fifth underneath it and then it repeats it an octave lower.
I found it worked with the standard tuning of a guitar. I don’t now other than that where it came from. But I thought if I just do the top and tail of it with Sabre Dance and in the middle I can just fill in and ad lib doing the same sort of thing Keith Emerson used to do. So that’s where I got the idea.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Dave, how did you come to be signed to Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song label as a solo artist?
Dave Edmunds: I was in Rockfield Studios recording and had just come to the end of doing Get It and Robert Plant just showed up. I thought he was checking the studio out just to see what was going on but years later he told me he’d come down to see me. My deal with RCA through the studio had just run out and I was waiting or them to renew it and that never happened for reasons unknown to me.
So within a week of Robert showing up at the studio I was signed to Swan Song for four albums and had a big fat check in my hand. They picked up all the options; I recouped all the options. It was the best record deal I’ve ever had. It was just a sweetheart deal.
Rock Cellar Magazine: With your work as a solo artist or with Rockpile on songs like Chuck Berry’s Oh What A Thrill or Joe Tex’s If Sugar Was As Sweet As You, when covering outside material, what’s the key to inhabiting the essence and giving it a fresh spin?
Dave Edmunds: Yeah, usually you can hear it in your head. You hear a song and think, Oh, I can do that. That will suit me down to the ground. It’s difficult to write the songs of the quality that you want in the amount that you need them so sometimes you do covers. For instance, as for the tracks you just mentioned by Rockpile, with that group we had a manager (Jake Rivera) who was a bit of a hot head and he suddenly gave us three weeks to make an album.
He just said, “You’ve got three weeks and then you’re going on tour!” We had no material so I just started flicking through my record collection of 45 singles. I had a big collection of 45 RPM’s and I came across the Joe Tex one If Sugar Was As Sweet As You and Oh What A Thrill by Chuck Berry. We did them really because we had nothing else to do and no time to find anything different.
We did that Seconds of Pleasure album with Rockpile and I’ve never heard it since. I am not happy with it at all; I wasn’t happy with it when we were recording it but sometimes you just go to your record collection and see what’s there.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Your dynamic cover of Smiley Lewis’s I Hear You Knocking is the song that put you on the map in America and around the world. Your version sounds like a lost classic done for the Sun Records label, what are your recollections of its recording?
Dave Edmunds: I tried it with some musicians like Terry Williams who I’ve known for a long long time. I was in the studio and got Terry to play on it and I had John David on bass and I tried a bit with Mickey Gee on guitar and I had acoustics on it and had piano going all the way through and it just sounded too ordinary.
There was nothing magic about it so I put it on the shelf and left it for months. I’d go back to it now and again and strip it back down and start again and eventually after about the third or fourth attempt at that I came up with what you hear now. It’s just four tracks of ’59 Gibson 335 guitar, a bass, a hi-hat and a small tom and that’s it; that’s all that’s on the record. No amplifiers; I was just plugged straight into the desk. John played bass, Mickey Gee put in a few licks on the intro while I was getting the levels and then I finished it off.
Rock Cellar Magazine: What was the thinking behind Rags & Classics, your first all instrumental record?
Dave Edmunds: Well, I wanted to sort of show the whole spectrum of how I play guitar. See, I love really good classic singles. I just love the 45 RPM classic single. Regardless of all the other genres of music that I like, I do appreciate a well-crafted single.
So I picked out my favorites and thought I’ll keep them pretty close to the original backing tracks, which I will recreate and then instead of the vocals coming in it’s a Stratocaster coming screaming in. Then I’d segway into an Elton John thing (Your Song) into the more acoustic stuff that reflect my interest in guitar music and guitar playing.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Were there any songs that were more challenging to capture in the studio?
Dave Edmunds: I Believe I Can Fly maybe. I love that record so much and I’d seen him (R. Kelly) do it live but I’d just plod through it. I’d be sometimes thinking, how am I ever gonna get to the end of this because it’s so complex? (laughs) But I’d just plod through it. I’m pretty single-minded; if I start on something I rarely give up on it so I’ll just keep going. But looking back at the making of this album, there was nothing that really gave me any trouble.
Rock Cellar Magazine: The landscape of recording has changed dramatically since you first threw your hat in the ring. Now you can work on a lap top using the Garage Band program. Did you tap into any of this new technology for Rags & Classics?
Dave Edmunds: Oh yeah, it was all done on Logic Pro 9. It’s the big brother of garage band. If you’ve got garage band you can only do static mixes; you can’t change the level. It’s not automated. But it’s only about two hundred dollars and in about 30 seconds you can download Logic Pro 9. It’s all Apple so it’s brilliant.
I would never go back to analog tape recording again; it’s just so great working with Logic Pro 9.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Do you wish you had that technology when you were doing records back in the ‘70s?
Dave Edmunds: Oh boy yeah, that would have made life easier but then I wouldn’t have known how to use it because I’m using whatever I learned on analog and tape recording, I’m using that knowledge to work the digital recording. So I’m not doing a lot of the things you can do like sequencing and looping and all that; I don’t do that. I just use it as a recording device. For instance, I will play everything all the way through instead of copying and pasting. I won’t do that.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Decades since the band disbanded, Rockpile is hailed fondly as one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time. The band recorded four albums, Tracks on Wax 4, Repeat When Necessary and Labour of Lust, but only one under its own name. What was the thinking behind that?
Dave Edmunds: Nick had signed to Columbia and I was signed to Atlantic through Swan Song, Led Zeppelin’s label so we couldn’t release records together. See, we didn’t put Rockpile together with any career goal. It was simply that all of the people involved had finished with their bands; Nick had finished with Brinsley Schwarz, Terry (Williams) had finished with Man and Billy (Bremner) with whatever band he was in and we were at a loose end.
We got together to just do a few pub gigs in London. Then Peter Grant, Zep’s manager, offered me a tour of America opening for Bad Company. So next thing we were doing stadiums and arenas. It was only a stop gap while Nick got on his feet and figured out what he was gonna do ‘case he’d been in Brinsley Schwarz for years and years and they never really got anywhere in terms of record sales.
So Rockpile was a stop gap thing that went on longer than any of us expected. It was never destined to last because Nick is not a sideman. Nick is not really a rock and roller. He’s more of a songwriter and a brilliant wordsmith and songwriter and I think he’s better as a solo performer.
Rock Cellar Magazine: What set Rockpile apart from other bands you’d been in?
Dave Edmunds: We didn’t care really. As I say, we had nothing to prove. We were a party band and it was mainly alcohol. There was some cocaine going around but I never got that interested in it. But it was alcohol and we were partying all of the time. If we had to go on tour, we’d have one rehearsal in a rehearsal room and just run through whatever songs we had and then off we’d go. It was just a fun thing to do.
I’m amazed; we attracted so much good will from the American audiences and the record company and radio. They all loved us because we brought a certain irreverence to it. We weren’t that bothered.
Rock Cellar Magazine: You had the distinction of recording Bruce Springsteen’s From Small Things (Big Thing One Day Come), which sounds like it was written for you.
Dave Edmunds: He wrote it and gave it to me before he had recorded it or anyone else. I was at one of his gigs at Wembley Stadium and I was in the backstage area where there were about 200 people after the gig. His tour manager tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Bruce wants to see you.” I don’t know how he knew I was there. I came with a DJ friend of mine and was sitting in the audience for the whole thing.
Anyway, I went back to see him in the dressing room and we chatted for a bit and then he said, “I’ve got a song for you” and he picked up his guitar and he sang it all the way through to me. He said, “When are you coming to New York?” And I said, “Actually I’m, going over in about a week or so.” He said, “Well, come to my manager’s office and I’ll have the cassette of it.” It was a cassette of Bruce on guitar and singing that song. That’s one cassette along with the cassette from Paul McCartney of him doing On the Wings Of A Nightengale and I’ve lost both of them! (laughs)
Rock Cellar Magazine: Dave, you produced the Stray Cats’ successful debut and Rant ‘N Rave, what impressed you the most about them?
Dave Edmunds: My boys, my boys! Brian’s (Setzer) guitar playing really impressed me. See, as soon as I got successful I stopped learning to play guitar and Brian didn’t; he just keeps on learning and learning and gets better and better ‘til it’s frightening. But they were great to work with. Once they trusted me we were great. They were a bit wary of me to begin with but it worked out great.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Were you surprised when they took off so quickly?
Dave Edmunds: No. I thought their image was so fantastic and over the top at the time and they looked just great. I mean, they were good looking guys wearing all these fantastic clothes and their attitude was just unbeatable. I realized whoever produced them would have to do it very carefully because if you just record an electric guitar, half a drum kit and a stand up bass it’s gonna sound like a demo unless there was some careful production and use of compressors, tape delay and reverb used very subtly.
So they had to trust and have patience with me to get that right. I think they thought they could just knock it out and it would sound like Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps straight off. Well, no, it takes a bit more work than that. When I heard Runaway Boys I said, “That’s the single!” because it’s not just a straight forward 12-bar. A lot of rockabilly stuff is just straight forward 12-bar like blues is and that can get a bit repetitive. But Runaways Boys had a descending bass line on it and I thought, that is the one, that is the single! And they took my advice as did the record company and they had a big hit straight out with their first release.