Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Basher Gets Cruel To Be Kind

In February 1978 Nick Lowe released the single ‘I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass’, which broke through on the British charts soon after, where it peaked at #7. The track featured on Lowe’s album ‘The Jesus Of Cool’ (UK#22/ OZ#77), released as ‘Pure Pop For Now People’ in the U.S. (#127). The album was co-produced by Dave Edmunds, and featured the backing of Lowe’s side project Rockpile. It proved to be a tour de force for a pop-rock chameleon, clearly capable of traversing a myriad of musical styles, and subversively infusing each combination with a burgeoning lacing of sardonic humour (a trademark of Lowe’s lyrics). Nick Lowe had done the hard yards as a rock and roll journeyman, and though technically a debut set, ‘The Jesus Of Cool’ reflected the work of an artist who was clearly a master of his craft, with an uncompromising commitment to roots-rock authenticity.

Later in 1978 Nick Lowe played bass on Carlene Carter’s self titled album, and a year later he married the daughter of country legend Johnny Cash. After producing the Pretenders’ debut single ‘Stop Your Sobbing’, Lowe continued touring with Rockpile into 1979, and he produced fellow ‘Rockpillian’ Dave Edmunds’ album ‘Repeat When Necessary’. Together with Lowe’s next album ‘Labour Of Lust’ (UK#43/OZ#53/ US#31), they were essentially Rockpile projects, on which the quartet assumed all playing and production duties. ‘Labour Of Lust’ benefited from the then powerful musical chemistry of Rockpile, and Lowe’s hook laden pop melodies are super-charged by the quartet’s potent roots rock energy. The lead out single ‘Cracking Up’, crackled up the British charts to #34, but it was the follow up that would deliver Nick Lowe the biggest hit single of his performance career.

From the opening burst of ‘Cruel To Be Kind’, the song hooks you and simply doesn’t release you from its sublime pop-rock charms, even beyond its final fade-out. ‘Cruel To Be Kind’ had actually been gathering dust for several years, as a never released Brinsley Schwarz track, co-written by Lowe and Ian Gomm. With its pristinely produced Rockpile brand makeover, the song scored an even dozen on the charts all round, peaking at #12 in the U.S., Britain, and Australia during 1979. The follow up single ‘Switchboard Susan’ was a cover of the Mickey Jupp song (which Lowe had previously produced), and the album was brimming with a five star assortment of edgy, pop-rock masterpieces. Over the course of the next eighteen months Lowe devoted most of his time and energies to Rockpile, which had evolved into a fully fledged rock entity - see recent Rockpile post for more details of this period - though Lowe did find the time to produce (and play on) two more Elvis Costello (& The Attractions) albums.

By early 1981 Rockpile had experienced and acrimonious split, and Nick Lowe turned his attention toward re-establishing his solo career. For most of 1981 Lowe was chained to the producer’s chair, overseeing albums by his wife Carlene Carter (‘Blue Nun’), Elvis Costello & The Attractions (‘Trust’), Ducks Deluxe, and The Pretenders. Lowe resumed recording his own material late in the year, and his first post-Rockpile album ‘Nick The Knife’ (UK#99/OZ#50) was released in early ‘82. The more light hearted album was Lowe’s first for the Columbia label, but still featured the services of Rockpile alumnus Billy Bremner and Terry Williams, hinting that the main reason for Rockpile’s demise was a splintering of musical direction between Lowe and Edmunds. Soon after Lowe had established a new backing band, dubbed The Chaps, who included ex-Ace/Squeeze vocalist/keyboardist, and all round music journeyman, Paul Carrack (see future post), ex-Rumour guitarist Martin Belmont, and drummer Bobby Irwin. The Chaps were renamed Noise To Go during 1982, and they toured extensively during that period, with Lowe exchanging bass duties for rhythm guitar, when bassist James Eller was added to the line-up. Lowe remained active in the production booth, and worked with Texan roots-rock and blues powerhouse The Fabulous Thunderbirds on their fourth album ‘T-Bird Rhythm’ (The Fabulous Thunderbirds had opened for Rockpile on their 1980 U.S. tour). Lowe’s 1983 album ‘The Abominable Showman’ (US#129) was a distinctly more countrified album, hinting a return to his early country-rock roots. Stylistically, the album found Lowe caught uncomfortably between new wave and country rock camps, and the result was an inconsistent, and on the whole, poorly received set. The album did feature the track ‘Time Wounds All Heels’, co-written by Lowe, his wife Carlene Carter, and a young staff writer by the name of Simon Climie (see recent Climie Fisher post), and the lead out single ‘Ragin’ Eyes’ illustrated Lowe could still produce a wryly witted, yet infectiously catchy pop-rock. Lowe also produced John Hiatt’s 1983 album ‘Riding With The King’, and the two would later hook up in a ‘supergroup’ that would aid in reviving Lowe’s fortunes.

In 1984 Nick Lowe unveiled his new backing group, with Paul Carrack still on board, and released his next two albums under the moniker ‘Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit’. The new ensemble’s 1984 album was a self titled effort (US#113), and featured the snappy, party fuelling pop-rock number ‘Half A Boy And Half A Man’ (UK#53/OZ#66). On the 1985 follow up album ‘The Rose Of England’ (US#119/ OZ#100), Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit pumped out a good time mix of roots rock variations, with numbers such as the rockabilly standard ‘7 Nights To Rock’ a highlight. Lowe re-recorded the track ‘I Knew The Bride (When She Used To Rock & Roll)’ (previously a hit for Dave Edmunds in 1977), with former Clover singer Huey Lewis (and The News) providing back-up, and Lewis co-producing. ‘I Knew The Bride’ was Lowe’s last foray into the U.S. charts (#77) and enjoyed a short honeymoon period on the Australian charts (#26) in early 1986.

Lowe then experience a difficult couple of years battling depression and alcoholism, and at one point, demoralised by the apparent lack of interest in his brand of music from the mainstream pop industry, he seriously considered retiring from the business altogether. Old mates Jake Riviera and Elvis Costello encouraged Lowe to head back to the studio and do what he did best. Lowe worked as producer on John Hiatt’s ‘Bring The Family’, The Damned’s ‘Light At The End Of The Tunnel’ (aptly titled given Lowe’s circumstances), and Costello’s ‘Out Of Out Idiot’, before beginning work on his own solo album. Lowe co-produced 1988’s ‘Pinker And Prouder Than Previous’ with Colin Fairley, and welcomed back a swag of old friends to help out on the record, including Terry Williams, Bobby Irwin, Martin Belmont, and Paul Carrack. It wasn’t one of Lowe’s best albums, but it helped him regain his footing after a difficult period. During the same period Lowe began working with Elvis Costello’s touring band (as bass player), undertook a solo acoustic tour of England, and produced two albums for then up and coming British folk-rock outfit The Katydids.

By 1990 Nick Lowe had sorted out his differences with former Rockpile comrade, and roots rock kindred spirit, Dave Edmunds, and Edmunds helped produce Lowe’s album ‘Party Of One’ (OZ#88/US#182), which spawned Lowe’s last incursion into the Australian charts with the single ‘All Men Are Liars’ (OZ#76). The title of the album had a tinge of irony to it, given Lowe’s 1990 divorce from Carlene Carter, and it was the first release by Lowe to feature all original material from the artist himself. Over 1991 Lowe stuck mainly to his first love of playing bass, and contributed to Elvis Costello’s brilliant ‘Mighty Like A Rose’ set, and blues legend John Lee Hooker’s ‘Mr. Lucky’. Two of the guest players on the, admittedly at times stilted, ‘Party Of One’ album, were guitarist Ry Cooder and drummer Jim Keltner. With Lowe, and John Hiatt, they continued their collaboration to form the ‘supergroup’ Little Village - actually the quartet had all played together on Hiatt’s 1987 album ‘Bring The Family’, but it took another five years for them to manage to reconvene. Little Village released a single self-titled album in 1992 (UK#23/OZ#56), with Hiatt, Cooder and Lowe sharing vocal, and song-writing duties, and they undertook an extensive tour thereafter, before the predictable tensions of the supergroup environment surfaced, and the quartet returned to their respective individual career paths.

After performing bass duties on Elvis Costello’s ‘Brutal Youth’ album, Nick Lowe released the critically acclaimed country-rock album ‘The Impossible Bird’ in late 1994, though yet again mainstream pop fans remained largely oblivious to the albums charms, which is a pity as ‘The Impossible Bird’ offered up some of Lowe’s most heartfelt, and personal songs. The album did find an audience amongst fans of the burgeoning Americana movement, prompting Lowe to undertake his first solo tour of the U.S. in more than five years, with former Commander Cody guitarist Bill Kirchen included in Lowe’s backing group. As with Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe’s prolific level of creative output was somewhat tempered during the latter half of the 90s, but he returned in 1998 with the album ‘Dig My Mood’. After signing with the independent Yep Roc label, Nick Lowe has released three more well received albums over the last decade; ‘The Convincer’ (2001), ‘Untouched Takeaway - Live’ (2004), and ‘At My Age’ (2007), all of which show traces of Lowe’s pop-rock roots and inherently wry humour, but imbued with a strong sense of a more mellow artist, comfortable in his advancing years.

Given a bountiful, and consistently high quality, output as a producer, and artist, in partnership with his influential and pioneering integration of roots rock influences into cutting edge fare, Nick Lowe rightly deserves acknowledgement as one of the great, unsung heroes that has graced popular music over the last forty years.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Schwarz Is Strong With This One

One of the best value ‘best of’ CD compilations I have purchased, in terms of bang for your buck, has to be Nick Lowe’s ‘Basher: The Best Of’, released on Demon Records back in 1989. From memory, I picked up my copy a few years after that, for the most part to obtain a CD copy of one of my all-time favourite pop-rock tracks ‘Cruel To Be Kind’. I was also familiar with a number of other Nick Lowe songs at that point, but I found the 25 track album to be a non-stop rollicking ride of old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll and melodic power pop.

Nick Lowe grew up the son of a Royal Air Force officer, and spent much of his childhood shifting between England and parts of the Middle East. As a sixteen year old Lowe was a founding member of the beat/psychedelic rock combo Kippington Lodge, which formed during 1965, and featured Lowe (vocals/bass), Barry Landerman (organ), Pete Whale (drums), and Brinsley Schwarz (guitar sax). Lowe had already played with school friend Schwarz in a little outfit called Sound 4 Plus 1 back in 1963. Between 1967 and 1969, Kippington Lodge released five singles on the Parlophone label, beginning with ‘Shy Boy’ (not the Bananarama song) in 1967, through to a cover of The Beatles’ ‘In My Life’ in May 1969. None of the band’s singles managed to find board and lodgings on the charts, and by early 1970 Schwarz, Lowe, ‘68 recruit Bob Andrews (organ), and new drummer Billy Rankin, were at the collective crossroads of their music careers.

Like so many before, and since, the quartet found themselves under the spell of an ambitious talent agent, who saw great things ahead for the band. David Robinson was a former tour manager for Jimi Hendrix (not sure if he was the one who ensured ample supplies of lighter fluid for live shows), and now headed the subtly named Famepushers Agency. He came up with the grandiose scheme of flying a plane load of music journos to New York to see the newly dubbed quartet Brinsley Schwarz play a show at the Fillmore East club in April 1970, in support of Van Morrison. Robinson hyped up the band’s credentials in slightly overzealous fashion, akin to the arrival of the new Beatles, and outlaid over $100,000 on the exercise. Predictably, reality failed to ascend to the anticipatory heights of the hype, and a plane load of well miffed journos returned to Britain feeling as if they’d been duped. The concurrent released of Brinsley Schwarz’s eponymous debut album on the United Artists label suffered as a result. The music press largely turned their collective noses in the air, which is a pity given the album was a very agreeable blend of country-rock, with playful touches of southern-style boogie and R&B thrown in, echoing influences from The Band, The Byrds and Grateful Dead.

Brinsley Schwarz bounced back late in 1970 with the album ‘Despite It All’, which featured the country-rock classic ‘Country Girl’, and despite the charts remaining elusive, the band quickly established a strong following on the live scene as skilled, and unpretentious purveyors of no-nonsense, back-to-basics roots music. Guitarist/vocalist Ian Gomm joined soon after, but it was Nick Lowe who had clearly taken on a lead role, as both lead singer, and chief songwriter. Over the course of 1971 Brinsley Schwarz (the band) continued to hone their straight up recipe of country, folk, R&B, and rock & roll, which was served up on their next album ‘Silver Pistol’, with an American bar band called Eggs Over Easy, a strong influence during this period. Despite achieving an almost cult-like status on the live circuit, making the popular Tally Ho venue their own and scoring a support slot for Paul McCartney & Wings, Brinsley Schwarz’s army of ardent followers didn’t manage to conquer the charts on the band’s behalf. Over the next couple of years the band continued to release solid albums, ‘Nervous On The Road’ (1972), and ‘Please Don’t Ever Change’ (1973), and Nick Lowe’s melodic vocal style, and skewed sense of humour strongly informed the band’s sound. Brinsley Schwarz were largely free of the excesses and pretentiousness that plagued popular music at that time, and their back to basics spirit played a key role in laying the foundations for the explosion of pub-rock, and punk/new wave to follow, with the likes of Elvis Costello and The Clash clearly influenced by them.

Brinsley Schwarz’s final album came in 1974 with ‘The New Favourites Of Brinsley Scwarz’, produced of course by Dave Edmunds (see previous post), at Edmunds’ Rockfield Studio. The album featured some of Nick Lowe’s best work to date, including ‘Peace, Love And Understanding’, later recorded by Elvis Costello & The Attractions on their 1979 ‘Armed Forces’ album (produced by Nick Lowe). That same year the band appeared (uncredited) as electricians, alongside Dave Edmunds, in the film ‘Stardust’. They released a handful of singles during 1975, including a cover of The Beatles’ ‘I Should Have Known Better’, which was credited to Limelight, but soon enough Brinsley Schwarz decided that it just wasn’t going to happen, and amicably went their separate ways later that year. Ian Gomm went on to record solo material, and scored a US#18 hit in 1979 titled ‘Hold On’. Bob Andrews and Brinsley Schwarz (the guitarist) went on to become key members of Graham Parker’s backing band The Rumour (see earlier post), whilst Billy Rankin played with Terraplane, before retiring from the music business.

As mentioned in the previous Dave Edmunds’ post, prior to disbanding, Brinsley Schwarz served as the backing band on Edmunds’ 1975 album ‘Subtle As a Flying Mallet’, for which Nick Lowe wrote and co-produced a number of songs, establishing a lucrative creative partnership between the two, which would weave its way through both their respective careers over the next six years. Lowe’s time in the producer’s booth with Edmunds, led him along the natural pathway toward producing other artist’s work. Over the course of 1976 Lowe produced two albums for Graham Parker (& The Rumour), ‘Heat Treatment’ and ‘Howlin’ Wind’, and released a couple of tongue in cheek pseudonymous singles ‘Bay City Rollers We Love You’ (as Tartan Horde), and ‘Let’s Go To The Disco’ (as Disco Brothers), as an exercise in trying to break free of his United Artists recording contract (the bizarre antics on record eventually did the trick). Lowe also became one quarter of Rockpile, alongside Edmunds, Billy Bremner (guitar) and Terry Williams (drums) - see three posts previous for more extended coverage of Rockpile’s activities during this period.

In August 1976 Nick Lowe’s debut solo single (under his own name) ‘So It Goes’ was released on the newly formed Stiff Records label, which Lowe played a key role in establishing with Jake Riviera. During 1977 he released the EP ‘Bowi’, followed by the single ‘Halfway To Paradise’, but principally Lowe honed his craft as a producer for other artists signed to the Stiff Records roster, quickly earning the nickname ‘Basher’ in reference to his raw energy, take no prisoners production style. During the next year Lowe produced albums for artists including, Dr. Feelgood (‘Be Seeing You’), another rootsy pub-rock act, punk-goth rockers The Damned (‘Damned Damned Damned’), and Elvis Costello’s debut set ‘My Aim Is True’. At that time Costello hadn’t put together the Attractions, and was backed in studio by a country-rock outfit called Clover, whose usual lead singer was one Huey Lewis (later of The News), and someone who would work with Nick Lowe a decade later. Lowe became Costello’s principle producer over the next decade, sitting at the controls for seminal Costello albums such as ‘This Year’s Model’ (1978), ‘Armed Forces’ (1979), and ‘Blood And Chocolate’ (1986), and Lowe’s pop-rock production sensibilities proved a perfect foil for Costello’s sharp edged, cynical approach.

In late ‘77 Nick Lowe followed Jake Riviera across to his new label Radar Records (with Costello also making the leap), and it was there that Nick Lowe would finally start chalking up the chart hits, as a performer, that he so richly deserved.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Dave Edmunds Overhears A Little Girls Talk

Prior to disbanding themselves, the Brinsley Schwarz crew hung around to provide backing on Edmunds’ next solo set, 1975’s ‘Subtle As a Flying Mallet’, and Nick Lowe wrote a number of tracks, with his innately catchy pop rock hooks quickly becoming a complimentary element to Edmunds’ intuitively rhythmic touch. Incidentally the album featured drumming from two future Dire Straits’ drummers, Pick Withers and Terry Williams. Dave Edmunds then signed to Led Zeppelin’s own Swan Song label, and released a couple of low key singles during 1976 as his first outing with his new label stable. During the same period the recording and performing activities between Edmunds, Nick Lowe, Terry Williams and guitarist Billy Bremner, solidified and formalised into the fully fledged roots rock/blues outfit Rockpile - see immediately preceding post for more detail. The quartet made their studio debut together on Edmunds’ 1977 album ‘Get It’ (OZ#31), which spawned the hit ‘I Knew The Bride (When She Used To Rock ‘N’ Roll)’ (UK#26/OZ#32), the song subsequently a hit for Lowe in 1986 (see next post). Over the next three or four years Dave Edmunds’ diary must have been brimming to the limit with commitments, as he juggled recording, touring and production duties. He handled production on albums from pop-rock veterans The Flamin’ Groovies, pub rockers Ducks Deluxe and Dr. Feelgood (see future post), and helmed two Nick Lowe albums; ‘Pure Pop For Now People’ (1978) and ‘Labour Of Lust’ (1979).

In 1978 Edmunds released his ‘Tracks On Wax’ set (OZ#93), which further refined the chemistry within Rockpile, but it was his 1979 album ‘Repeat When Necessary’ (UK#39/US#54/OZ#37) that proved a commercial breakthrough. The critically lauded set yielded several hit singles; the Graham Parker (see earlier post) penned ‘Crawling From The Wreckage’ (UK#59), ‘Queen Of Hearts’ (UK#11/OZ#59) - later a 1981 U.S. and Australian hit for Juice Newton (see previous post), and the aforementioned pop-rock gem ‘Girls Talk’ (UK#4/OZ#9/US#65), which had been written by Elvis Costello, who had also become a frequent collaborator (along with Graham Parker) with the ‘roots rock firm’ of Edmunds and Lowe. Edmunds’ ‘Repeat When Necessary’ album was recorded during the same extended sessions, which delivered up Nick Lowe’s ‘Labour Of Lust’ set, and the Rockpile-linked projects were featured on the BBC television documentary ‘Born Fighter’. A cover of the old Guy Mitchell standard ‘Singin’ The Blues’ (UK#28/OZ#67) was Edmunds only foray into the charts during 1980 as a solo artist, but for most of the year he devoted time in studio (and on the road) to duties with Rockpile (see last post).

After a rather acrimonious split with Rockpile, and in particular Nick Lowe, in early 1981, Edmunds resumed focus on his solo career, primarily relying on session players and old friends to provide the support cast in studio for his next album ‘Twangin’ (UK#37/US#48). The album spawned two minor hits, the John Fogerty penned ‘Almost Saturday Night’ (US#54/UK#58), and a song originally recorded by country star George Jones titled ‘The Race Is On’ (UK#34), the latter marking the first collaboration on record between Dave Edmunds and young rockabilly-revivalist powerhouse Stray Cats (see future post), for whom Edmunds would produce several hit albums. Over the course of 1982 Edmunds toured (with old Love Sculpture guitarist Mickey Gee hooking up), and released the album ‘D.E. 7th’ (UK#60/US#46), which was Edmunds first album for the Arista label, and his, yes you guessed it, seventh album overall. The album included the rockin-ravin’ track ‘From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)’, penned for Edmunds by friend Bruce Springsteen.

E.L.O. impresario Jeff Lynne was brought in to co-produce Dave Edmunds next two albums, 1983’s ‘Information’ (UK#92/US#51), which spawned the minor hit ‘Slipping Away’ (US#39/UK#60), and 1984’s ‘Riff Raff’ (US#140). Both albums (which featured contributions from former Rockpile band-mate Billy Bremner) were imbued with Lynne’s trademark use of synthesizers and electronically processed vocals, which provided an intriguing counter balance to Edmunds’ more traditional approach, and marked the first significant departure from his usual straight up roots rock formula. As a performer Edmunds only returned to the singles charts twice more, in 1985 with ‘High School Nights’ (US#91), from the ‘Porky’s Revenge!’ soundtrack, and ‘King Of Love’ (UK#68) in 1990, which reunited Edmunds once more with Stray Cats’ Brian Setzer and Lee Rocker on Edmunds’ album ’Closer To The Flame’ (US#146). The remainder of the 80s saw Edmunds resume his purists love affair with roots rock, and he worked with some of the very legends that had inspired him thirty years previous. He served as producer with rock and roll legends like the Everly Brothers, Chet Atkins and Carl Perkins, as well as playing guitar on several tracks from Paul McCartney’s 1984 film soundtrack ‘Give My Regards To Broadstreet’. In 1986 he scored his second association with a U.K. #1, this time as producer for retro-rocker Shakin’ Stevens’ ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’ (Edmunds had actually produced for Shakin’ Stevens back in 1970, when Stevens was with the Sunsets - see future post). Reflective of Edmunds adaptability as a producer and musical stylist, was his involvement as a producer/guitarist with artists as diverse in approach as Fabulous Thunderbirds (‘Tuff Enuff’ - see future post), k.d. Lang, Dion, Mason Ruffner and Status Quo, and he also resumed civilities with old cohort Nick Lowe on Lowe’s 1990 album ‘Party Of One’. Over the course of the late 80s/early 90s Edmunds acted as bandleader for several ‘supergroup’ and tribute shows, including ‘Guitar Greats’ and ‘Legends of Rock and Roll’.

In 1994 Edmunds joined the MTV ‘Unplugged’ bandwagon, and released the album ‘Plugged In’, which featured a dedication to another of his early influences on the track ‘Beach Boy Blood (In My Veins)’, and once more he hit the road to tour. The remainder of the 90s saw limited output from Edmunds as a performer, with 1999’s ‘Musical Fantasies’ re-exploring old ground. He worked on occasion with Ringo Starr’s All Star Band, but his production and touring duties had wound back substantially. With the phrase ‘semi-retirement’ attached to his name, Edmunds dusted off the rock and roll kitbag in 2007 to embark on an extensive U.K. tour with fellow rock ‘n’ roller Joe Brown. Rejuvenated by the experience, Edmunds once again hooked up with his old Stray Cats mates for an onstage appearance in September 2008, belting out the numbers ‘Tear It Up’ and ‘The Race Is On’, and soon after a fresh ‘best of’ collection was released titled ‘The Many Sides Of Dave Edmunds’.

Former Love Sculptor Reshapes Roots Rock For The Modern Era

1979 marked my final year in primary school, and though the year contained its share of good and bad experiences (as do most), music remained a comforting constant throughout. In the thirty years since passed, I’ve returned to the songs of that era time and again, sometimes for solace, sometimes to bask in the warm glow of fond memories, but perhaps most of all, because 1979 produced some of the best songs in popular music history, second only to 1982. Chic were shouting ‘Le Freak’, the mysterious M gave us ‘Pop Muzik’, E.L.O. delivered the sublime ‘Discovery’ album, Wings hatched their final offering ‘Back To The Egg’, Night heated up the charts with ‘Hot Summer Nights’, Art Garfunkel shone with ‘Bright Eyes’, Racey raced up the charts with ‘Some Girls’ - and if I were to continue listing every single song and artist from that year that etched a permanent place in my museum of recollections, I’d prattle on for hours. Suffice to say a good percentage of those artists, and their songs, have, and will, get their moment in the spotlight here at Retro Universe.

Today’s post shines the light on Dave Edmunds, whose pop-rock classic ‘Girls Talk’ was one of many stand out selections on 1979’s ‘Best Of’ jukebox. Born in 1944, Welshman Dave Edmunds grew up listening to the same rock and roll heroes of the 50s and 60s, that influenced so many of his generation, and inspired subsequent waves of popular music icons. As a teenager Edmunds taught himself guitar parts offered up by the best rock & roll/rockabilly guitarists of the era, including James Burton (from Rick Nelson’s band), Elvis Presley guitarist Scotty Moore, and the legendary Chet Atkins (who played on many of the Everly Brothers songs). By the early 60s he was trying his hand on the professional circuit, honing his craft in British based blues-rock outfits including The Raiders, and The 99’ers (sounds like a football league grand final). In 1966 Edmunds joined The Image, and the following year he and drummer Tommy Riley evolved into the group The Human Beans, alongside bassist John Williams, releasing the single ‘Morning Dew’ in July ‘67. A change of name in 1968 saw Love Sculpture shaped from the collective musical building blocks of Edmunds (vocals/guitar), John Williams (bass), and new drummer Bob (drums). Love Sculpture struck upon the idea of taking light classical pieces, by the likes of composers Bizet and Khachaturian, and rock-a-fying them with a psychedelic edge, which resulted in their 1968 UK#5 hit ‘Sabre Dance’, featuring the brilliantly breakneck guitar work of Edmunds. Love Sculpture recorded two albums, ‘Blues Helping’ (1968) and ‘Forms And Feelings’ (1970), and undertook a six week tour of the U.S. during their two year tenure as a band. The band’s final line-up featured Edmunds, ex-Dream drummer Terry Williams, and ex-Joe Cocker guitarist Mickey Gee, with both Williams and Gee then going on to play for a period in the group Man.

Edmunds returned to his native Wales and set up the eight-track Rockfield Studio in Monmouthshire. Over the next few months Edmunds taught himself the production ropes, and worked at methodically recreating some of the sounds that first hooked him as a teenager, from the slap echo made famous by Sam Phillip’s Sun Records, through the Chess Records style, to Phil Spector’s signature ‘Wall of Sound’. Edmunds also returned to some of the songs of that era, for his earliest solo recordings. In late 1970 he released an updated version of the 1955 Smiley Lewis classic ‘I Hear You Knockin’ (US#2-R&B), which featured Edmunds’ delivering his vocals via a telephone line. The song didn’t just politely knock on the door of the British charts, but kicked the damn door in, when it debuted at #16 first week in. Within a month it had moved lock, stock and barrel to the #1 position, where it took out a six week lease from late November ‘70 to January ‘71. During the same period ‘I Hear You Knockin’ climbed rapidly up both U.S. and Australian charts, and peaked at #4 in both territories. It was formerly credited to Dave Edmunds’ Rockpile, the first time the ‘Rockpile’ brand appeared, and former Love Sculpture bassist John Williams was still in tow at that point.

‘I Hear You Knockin’ was later included on Edmunds’ 1972 album titled ‘Rockpile’ (OZ#22), the set featuring the drumming of Terry Williams, who had just come fresh from the Man album ‘Be Good To Yourself At Least Once A Day’, produced by Edmunds at his Rockfield Studio. Soon after Edmunds scored his second Australian top five hit with a cover of the Chuck Berry song ‘The Promised Land’. Edmunds then assumed sole responsibility for his output, literally, over the next couple of years, by producing and providing all the instrumentation himself. His one man band managed to recreate the Spector brand ‘Wall of Sound’ on the 1973 British top 10 hits ‘Baby, I Love You’ (UK#8/OZ#43 - originally recorded by The Ronettes), and ‘Born To Be With You’ (UK#5/OZ#96 - originally recorded by The Chordettes), while Edmunds the producer continued to garner a growing reputation, overseeing albums from Kingdom Come and Foghat (see future post). In 1974 Dave Edmunds appeared alongside David Essex and The Who’s Keith Moon in the rock music film vehicle ‘Stardust’, with Edmunds scoring, and playing on, a large part of the film’s soundtrack album. The same year he produced the final album for rock quintet Brinsley Schwarz (‘New Favourites Of Brinsley Schwarz’), a project that proved the catalyst for a fruitful working partnership between Edmunds and Brinsley bassist Nick Lowe.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

This Is No Ordinary Rockpile

In late 1979 I recall seeing an episode of everyone’s favourite pop music program ‘Countdown’. Two of the featured ‘live’ acts on the show were Nick Lowe, performing his then current hit ‘Cruel To Be Kind’ (OZ#12), and Dave Edmunds, performing his then current hit ‘Girls Talk’ (OZ#9). Both songs were brilliant pop-rock numbers, and personal favourites, but what struck me was that both Lowe and Edmunds performed support for one another’s songs, with the same backing band. What I didn’t realise at the time, was that both Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds were members of a pop-rock collective, a virtual ‘supergroup’ called Rockpile. Lowe (bass) and Edmunds (guitar) shared vocal duties in Rockpile, and were joined in the band by guitarist Billy Bremner, and drummer Terry Williams. With such a roster, Rockpile were a roots rock band to be reckoned with.

Rockpile’s origins stretched back as far as the early 70s. Edmunds’ backing band from 1970 to 1972 generally went under the ‘Rockpile’ tag, and the title for the ex-Love Sculpture guitarist’s debut solo set in 1972 was also ‘Rockpile’. During that period Terry Williams (who had played briefly with Edmunds in the final Love Sculpture line-up) filled in on drum duties during a U.S. tour, and maintained links with the band, whilst also playing with Deke Leonard and Martin Ace, the latter having also played with Williams in the band Man. Rockpile circa mid 70s were a seminal driving force in the burgeoning British pub rock scene, that spawned the likes of Dr. Feelgood (see future post), Squeeze, Graham Parker (see previous post), Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Ducks Deluxe and Brinsley Schwarz. Nick Lowe was a key member of Brinsley Schwarz, and soon struck up a collaborative connection with Edmunds and Williams. Dave Edmunds actually produced the final Brinsley Schwarz album in 1974 at his Rockfield studios. In kind Lowe played and wrote several songs for Edmunds next solo set, 1975’s ‘Subtle As a Flying Mallet’.

In mid ‘76 Rockpile’s line-up stabilised with the addition of guitarist Billy Bremner, a well respected session player, who had lent his considerable talents to work by a whole slew of artists, from Duane Eddy to Lulu. The quartet undertook a U.S. tour in support of Bad Company, and the chemistry was good. Over the next couple of years Rockpile continued to tour as an autonomous unit, and as an in studio backing band for Lowe’s and Edmund’s solo work, including Edmunds’ albums ‘Tracks On Wax 4’ (1978) and ‘Get It’ (1977), the latter featuring the UK#26 hit ‘I Knew The Bride (When She Used To Rock ‘N’ Roll)’ - the song was also later a hit for Nick Lowe. During 1979 Rockpile recorded the hits ‘Girls Talk’ (credited to Dave Edmunds), and ‘Cruel To Be Kind’ (credited to Nick Lowe). As a joint venture, Rockpile gained a reputation for playing a furious brand of high energy roots rock. Lowe’s bass and Williams’ drums served as the band’s powerful engine room, whilst Edmunds and Bremner took endless delight in trading guitar licks across a stylistic gamut from traditional rock& roll, blues, rockabilly and country. Lowe and Edmunds each offered up a strong mix of original songs, with Lowe’s ironic brand of melodic pop-rock complimented by Edmunds edgier rockabilly-blues blend.

In 1980 both Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds found themselves signed to the Columbia label, and a window of opportunity presented for Rockpile to record an album - officially. ‘Seconds Of Pleasure’ was a power packed collection of twelve tracks, recorded at Eden Studios and co-produced by Nick Lowe and the band. The album’s initial run included a bonus 7” EP of Lowe and Edmunds performing four Everly Brothers’ songs. Sales were solid all round (US#27/UK#34), and the album spawned a minor hit single in ‘Teacher Teacher’ (US#51/OZ#83). The band embarked on their fourth U.S. tour in five years over the winter of 80/81. Now the headline act, Rockpile continued to play to packed houses, and their rebel rousing rollicking brand of rock and roll, laid some of the framework for the emerging ‘new wave’ movement, and provided inspiration to a new generation of genuine roots rockers, including a young Atlanta outfit called Georgia Satellites (see recent post), and the likes of Stray Cats (see future post).

At the end of the U.S. campaign, Rockpile imploded, in part due to poor management, but at the core was a bitter dispute between Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds. By February 1981, Rockpile had crumbled, with Lowe and Edmunds resuming their respective solo careers. Billy Bremner initially returned to session work before taking up a post in 1982 with Pretenders as replacement guitarist for the late James Honeyman-Scott. He later rejoined Edmunds in his new backing band, before setting up base in Nashville as a much sought after session player. Bremner has also recorded a couple of solo albums, and worked with a European based rock & roll combo called the Refreshments. In 1983 drummer Terry Williams became Pick Withers replacement with stadium filling rock giants Dire Straits, a post he held for the rest of the 80s. Lowe and Edmunds continued to take the occasional pot shot at one another of the next few years, and in 1982 Nick Lowe took a none too subtle jab at Edmunds on his song ‘Stick It Where The Sun Don’t Shine’, from his ‘Nick The Knife’ set. But just as Lennon and McCartney eventually let bygones be bygones, Lowe and Edmunds eventually set aside past difference and reconciled their creative partnership in the late 80s, with Edmunds producing Nick Lowe’s 1990 album ‘Party Of One’.

For an overview of the individual career paths of both Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe, pre and post Rockpile, stay tuned for the next few posts.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Let's Toast Sailor With A Glass Of Champagne

Sailor auditioned for a recording deal with CBS, and their quirky, theatrical nature worked a charm on the label suits. The band recorded their eponymous debut album (OZ#91) during 1974, which spawned the single ‘Traffic Jam’ that broke the band in several European territories, including Holland and Germany (the song later charted in Australia in 1976-#47). The album featured some very complex musical arrangements, which for all intents and purposes were going to be a daunting challenge for just four musicians to recreate live on stage. Rather than supplementing the quartet for their live shows, Kajanus designed and built a unique instrument called the Nickelodeon (that should score me some search engine hits). The radically inventive concept, mechanically linked two upright pianos, two synthesizers, mini organs and glockenspiels, within a single wooden frame. It enabled bassist Phil Pickett, and keyboardist Henry Marsh a workable means to play a wide range of instrumental sounds on stage, bringing the band’s album sound to life. To further add to the theatrical element of their live shows, the band played in the traditional seafaring attire on a set that resembled a virtual harbour town, replete with street lamps, palm trees, cafĂ© signage, and numerous and sundry nautical paraphernalia, immersing the audience in an exotic world of nostalgia, with echoes of great music hall tradition.

A live appearance on BBC, high profile showcase performances across Europe and the U.S., and support slots to Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel (see future post), provided new impetus to the band’s already growing reputation. The band enlisted the production services of Jeffrey Lesser and Rupert Holmes (see previous post) for their 1975 sophomore album ‘Trouble’, and the combination worked a treat. In late ‘75 the lead out single ‘A Glass Of Champagne’ bubbled up the British charts, and soon popped a cork in celebration at #2 in early 1976, also soaring to the top of the charts across most of Europe. The band’s wave of success soon reached Australian shores, where high tide for ‘A Glass Of Champagne’ was at #4. Sailor themselves underwent a mild re-jigging of their image at that time, dumping the matching sailor garb, in favour of a harder edged ‘down by the docks’ persona, and singer Kajanus sported a fake anchor tattoo on his cheek. Sailor soon found themselves vying with Bay City Rollers for Britain’s groupie girl population. Their next single no doubt would have garnered them even more ‘groupie girls’, as the playful ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ set sail on the British charts during March of ‘76. It quickly became a signature song for Sailor, and navigated its way to #7 on the U.K. charts (OZ#21), and into the top 10 across Europe, in the process helping push sales of the ‘Trouble’ album to gold status (UK#45/OZ#17).

‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ represented the high watermark of Sailor’s commercial fortunes, particularly in their home territory of Britain, but stormier waters lay ahead for the quartet. The band’s management charted a treacherous touring course across the, as yet, largely uncharted waters of the U.S. (well, the land mass in actuality). Rather than consolidating their success in Europe and Britain, Sailor found themselves high and dry in near empty club venues across the U.S., or playing in front of disinterested audiences as the opening act for country and western, and even soul artists. It was a demoralising and unsettling experience for Sailor, whose sea legs were suddenly very shaky, and the sooner they could return to safe European waters the better. Upon their return to port, Sailor recorded their third album, the appropriately titled ‘The Third Step’ in late ‘76, and found themselves once again riding high on the waves of huge popularity across Europe. The album failed to yield any major hit singles, but did feature another of the band’s fan favourites in ‘One Drink Too Many’, which docked with the charts in early ‘77 (UK#35).

In 1977 Sailor experienced the first change to their crew, when bassist Phil Pickett took indefinite shore leave to pursue his own song writing career. The remaining trio took up the slack for Sailor’s 1977 album ‘Checkpoint’, produced by Beach Boy Bruce Johnston and Curt Becher. The album featured the band’s first tilt at a disco hit (well everyone else was doing it so why not), but ‘Down By The Docks’ didn’t exactly deliver up a bounty of sales for Sailor, and overall proved a frustrating passage into some unfamiliar musical territory. Soon after Phil Pickett returned to the good ship Sailor, coinciding with the release of their first ‘greatest hits’ package in 1978, and resulting in an album of new material titled ‘Hideaway’. But the singles ‘Give Me Shakespeare’ and ‘Stranger In Paradise’ remained anchored outside the charts, and it was clear that Sailor had become somewhat becalmed. In June 1978, Sailor played a triumphant show at Trinity College, Oxford - a venue that had recently become a stomping ground for explosive punk/new wave acts - but despite once again wowing their audience, Sailor had decreed this to be their final gig before parting ways.

Two years later Sailor resurfaced, with a crew featuring original members Henry Marsh and Phil Pickett, with brother/sister combo Gavin and Virginia David. They recorded two albums, only one of which ‘Dressed For Drowning’ (1980), was officially released. But none of the singles ‘Runaway’, ‘Danger On The Titanic’ and ‘Don’t Send Flowers’, managed to float on the charts, and soon after the Sailor name was once more packed away in a locker. During the 80s the four former crew mates each pursued their own career paths. Georg Kajunus formed a new band called ‘DATA’, who recorded three albums; Henry Marsh turned to a successful vocation as a music writer for stage and screen in the U.S.; Grant Serpell reacted to the band’s demise by becoming a chemistry teacher; and Phil Pickett continued an increasingly fruitful career as a songwriter, co-penning two major hits for Culture Club - the global #1 ‘Karma Chameleon’, and ‘It’s A Miracle’.

After a near ten year absence, Sailor fans could have been forgiven for thinking that the band would never again return to port, but in 1989 the original quartet reunited to record an album of new material, eventually released in 1991 under the moniker of ‘Sailor’. Both album, and the singles ‘La Cumbia’ and ‘The Secretary’, worked to rejuvenate interest in one of the 70s more distinctive popular music acts, with regular TV appearances and a hectic touring schedule ensuing. Over the next five years the fun and adventure continued, with another album ‘Street Lamp’ released in 1992, especially well received in Germany, where the band were as popular as ever on the ‘rock-revival’ circuit. By late 1995 singer and principle songwriter Georg Kajunus had had enough of playing nostalgia festivals and the like, and made the decision to board a lifeboat and leave the band to sail on without him.

The following year singer/guitarist Peter Lincoln climbed aboard, and Sailor released their first live set ‘Live In Berlin’ in 1998. The year after that keyboardist Henry Marsh also jumped ship, and was replaced by new recruit Anthony England, who was in turn replaced by Rob Alderton in 2001. Over the next few years Sailor continued to enjoy fair weather and favourable currents across Europe, and in 2005 Henry Marsh returned to the fold, with his son Oliver taking on vocal duties the following year, coinciding with the release of a double CD anthology set ‘Buried Treasure’. Like all music artists, in fact like everyone, Sailor have experienced the ebb and flow of life’s voyage, but after 35 years as a pop-rock unit, and over 60 years as a virtual musical institution, Sailor have above all proven themselves to be seafaring survivors of rare distinction.

In researching material for this post I came across one of the most complete and informative ‘band dedicated’ websites out there. So to delve more into the waters that Sailor inhabit, I highly recommend you check out the following great site: