Perhaps it was the first two eps of Fox’s Fast Eddie, both of which included a prime track from the glory days of post-pub Brit-pop (Ian Dury and Madness), but I was inspired into re-enjoying Dave Edmunds and Rockpile recently – their 1978 release Tracks on Wax 4 (Swan Song), especially.
Edmunds had long been a fave among the Trouser Press crowd, for his bravura guitar work as a member of the sixties group Love Sculpture and his do-it-all-myself solo elpees (from whence came his biggest hit, his remake of Smiley Lewis’ “I Hear You Knocking”). But it was when he hooked with bassist/songwriter Nick Lowe, guitarist Billy Bremner and take-charge drummer Terry Williams that he produced his most consistent work: rockabilly-drenched trad rock that kicked the crap out of any of the pretenders who would try and follow in the eighties (c.f. Brian Setzer and co.) The trio of Edmunds releases which resulted from this collaboration (Get It, Tracks and Repeat When Necessary) showed – punk loyalists to the contrary – it was still possible to make self-reliant old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll without just coming across purposelessly revivalist.
Befitting its roots rock idiom, most of the songs on Tracks deal with traditional lyrical concerns – pledges of could-be-love, unattainable teen queens, declarations of loneliness. Unlike cohort Nick Lowe (who would soon produce the more sublimely adult Labor of Lust with the same crew), Edmunds comes to the material as a fan first and a grown-up distant second. What keeps things from becoming excessively Peter Pan-ish is the band’s tautness and the commitment with which the Rockpilers approach their material: this kind of stuff may not change the world, but it could make you forget about it for a while.
The album kicks off with a Cochran-esque burst: Bremner’s “Trouble Boys,” a rockabilly song about standing up to bullies at a teen dance (you can practically visualize a scene out of some black-and-white AIP drive-in pic), then goes into the first of Nick Lowe’s witty compositions: Edmunds harmonizing with himself in a hyperactive blend of Everly Bros. with Sam & Dave. Bremner’s “Not A Woman, Not A Child” follows, with Edmunds starting with a growling lower register on verse then swooshing into higher range on the chorus: the song’s a slightly earthier lyrical update of “Sweet Little Sixteen” (“You’re gonna get ’em in a rage/When they get to know your age”) with a tone of amused detachment that keeps it from leering too much. These may be geezers playin’ teen-focused tunes, but they know their ages.
This comes across most succinctly in Lowe’s “Television,” a funny broken-heart song that describes the wonderful sedating power of extended tube-sucking: “I don’t care what’s on/If it’s happy or sad/I don’t give a damn if it’s good or bad/I sit and watch it ’til it drives me mad/Just so long as it’s on I’m glad.” Rant about the dangers of the electronic age all you want, but when it comes down to it, sometimes teevee is the only friend you’ve got – and these guys know it. Dave and co. follow this with the disc’s most countrified number, a pure bit of Everly crooning that anticipates the tribute EP Edmunds & Lowe would include with the only credited studio Rockpile album would release: Seconds of Pleasure. Next up – and the original elpee’s side one closer – is “Readers Wives,” a sardonic hard-rockin’ tribute to amateur pin-ups (“The little ones stand at four foot three/While the big ones stand at forty-four feet.”) with some great piercingly melodic rock guitar.
The album goes out on two covers that display the band at its most propulsively rock-‘n’-rolling, Chuck Berry’s “It’s My Own Business” and a live version of “Heart of the City.” That last is the most curious cut. Originally released in studio form by Lowe as the first single by period movers-and-shakers Stiff Records, it also showed up as a live track on Lowe’s Jesus of Cool release. Edmunds’ version appears to be an edited version of that live cut, only with his voice taking lead instead of Lowe’s. Why he decided to do this when most fans had already heard the Lowe rendition is a mystery to me. In concert, Rockpile’s vocalists (Bremner included) used to switch off on singing each other’s numbers, so perhaps the singer/producer wanted to capture that aspect of the group. Edmunds’ vocals are stronger than Lowe’s, but when it comes down to it, the original Stiff single cuts both live versions of this throbbing one-chord wonder.
The Rockpile configuration would go to produce an even better Edmunds’ release, Repeat, than the somewhat more slapdash group disc, Seconds of Pleasure. Following the band’s break-up, Edmunds and Lowe went their separate solo album ways, reuniting only for Lowe’s Party of One. Edmunds produced this Lowe highpoint and added some of his Berry-esque guitar, afterwards publicly stating that he would never work with Lowe again (clearly, these two guys have issues.) More recently, the Brit rocker has been appearing as a part of Ringo Starr’s traveling rock revue: kind of disappointing for a guy who has proven himself capable of doing more than merely backing a big-name headliner, but that’s rock ‘n’ roll biz, baby.
We’ve still got this record of the late seventies-era Edmund/Rockpile union: music that holds up better than much of the dated new wave sounds that’d soon take over nascent M-Tvland. Sometimes all it takes is a good vocalist, a road-tempered outfit and a modicum of cleverness in the words and music department to create rock ‘n’ roll that can stand tall for decades.
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