Songwriter Interviews

Dave Edmunds

by Carl Wiser

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It took Dave Edmunds about four months to deconstruct 10 famous songs - "God Only Knows," "A Whiter Shade of Pale" and "Your Song" among them - and rework them as instrumentals with his trusty Stratocaster up front in the mix. The result is the 2015 album Rags & Classics, which also includes his take on songs by R. Kelly, Kate Bush and Mozart. Edmunds is both a scholar with a keen interest in rock history and a savant who can play pretty much any instrument with startling proficiency, a skill set that is handy for, say, reworking a Brian Wilson arrangement as a one-man-band.

Edmunds' musical journey began in Wales, where he spent much of his youth studying American rock guitarists like Buddy Holly, Chet Atkins and Carl Perkins. His first single was a 1970 cover of "I Hear You Knocking," originally recorded by the New Orleans blues rocker Smiley Lewis in 1955. Edmunds took the song to #1 in the UK and #4 in America, earning him a rep as one of the finest song interpreters and guitar players of his time. The late '70s found him teaming with Nick Lowe in Rockpile while also recording as a solo artist. "Queen of Hearts" and "Girls Talk" (the latter written and later recorded by Elvis Costello), were UK hits that his label, Led Zeppelin's Swan Song Records, deemed unsuitable for US release, thwarting his American prospects while his star was rising in Britain.

Edmunds kept working as a solo artist post-Rockpile and became a top producer, with kd lang (Angel with a Lariat), Stray Cats (Built for Speed) and Status Quo (In the Army Now) amongst his clients. Here, he talks about his top productions and explains how he dissects a song.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Rags & Classics, I really enjoyed this. You picked some incredibly intricate songs, and I'm wondering which one was the most challenging arrangement to recreate.

Dave Edmunds: Wow. Well, let's start with "God Only Knows." I'm pretty familiar with that, because I'm a huge Brian Wilson, Beach Boys fan, and that was one of my favorite records. I have dissected it in the past to find out just who's doing what, and I got some surprises. Like at the end, the fade-out where there's a cascade of vocals on the Beach Boys record, it's only three singing parts. It sounds like it's five or six, but there's only three people singing on that.

So I was able to get the grasp of the whole thing musically, how it went. I started these things not knowing I was going to make an album, but just doing it for fun in my home studio. And then when enough tracks started coming together, I said, "Oh, it's looking like I can have an album out of this."

But I just wanted to keep it to 10 tracks, because I don't think anyone really wants to listen to 15 instrumental tracks in a row. I don't think I would, and I'm a guitar player.

And the Kate Bush one, "Wuthering Heights" was a bit of a handful to learn. I had to get it just right on the arrangement of Kate Bush, otherwise it just wouldn't be as good. It had to stick pretty much to the original arrangement. I had so much fun making this record.

Songfacts: When you're dissecting "God Only Knows," do you have the split tracks to work with?

Edmunds: No, I just do it by listening over and over again.

Songfacts: Huh. So at some point you were able to figure out that it was three voices just because your ear is trained to that?

Edmunds: Yeah. I know the story of that. It was Carl singing the lead, and he got to the end and his voice started to fade a bit. He wanted to go home, he was tired, so Brian took over and sang the lead. And then he sang the high harmony, and Bruce Johnson did the other part. So after Carl left, it was just Brian and Bruce that finished off the ending bit. Between them, they did the three parts with just the two of them.

That's how much of a fan I am of this stuff. I know this stuff.

Songfacts: Well, it's incredible to be able to break it down to that kind of granular level and find out how it works. It's like taking apart a machine.

Edmunds: I've always been pretty good at that. I love doing that: taking things apart and seeing how they work musically.

Songfacts: When you do the guitar lead, which essentially replaces the vocals on a song like that, how do you go about it?

Edmunds: Trial and error. I've got to pick a song that's going to work in the right key. Like with "Whiter Shade of Pale," I started off in a lower octave and then was able to go up to the higher, which gives it an extra boost. And that's the same key as it was written.

Usually, songs work out better in the key they were written even when you're doing guitar instrumentals. I don't understand quite how that is, but it always works if you stick to the right key.

But it's just through trial and error, until I've worked out the way the runs go, and the fingering is the most important thing, getting the fingering right. Otherwise, you can make it a lot more difficult for yourself. Any violin player or piano player would know all about this: It's not just playing the right notes, you've got to get the right fingers playing the right notes.

It was just searching it out until I got it, and then I'd press the "record" button.

Songfacts: Do you have to approach a Kate Bush song differently because of her voice?

Edmunds: No. Although I tried to follow her phrasing as close as I could get it, because she's got very creative phrasing, really cute stuff. I could hear "da da, de da da, de da da", which sounded like a guitar thing to me, just the chorus. And I thought, Well, I'll just work on the verses and the chorus will take care of itself.

So each verse was slightly different, because she sings it slightly different. And I wanted to keep it to how she delivered the melody of it.

Songfacts: Tell me about the song "Classical Gas," and what it is about that arrangement that makes it so incredible.

Edmunds: Well, I've recorded it before. I don't think I've released it on a commercial album. I had recorded this once, and I did a pretty faithful copy of the Mason Williams version, but I never released that. A lot of these things I do in my studio for fun, because I have the studio and it doesn't cost anything and it's just a privilege to be able to do that. I was just messing around in my studio in LA when I was living over there. I had an acoustic guitar and I ran through it, but instead of in strict tempo, I put a swing beat to it. A kind of shuffle going along. I did it all the way through in one take, and I was having such fun. Then I put a bass on it with that really raw kind of feel to it, more like a slapping, funky bass type of thing.

And once I had that done, I thought, Well, I'll put drums on it. Now, it's really difficult to put drums on something last. That should be first. And it wasn't even a full drum kit - it was just an electronic pad, something called a drum KAT, when you just have to tap on the pads with drumsticks.

So I'm playing with sticks and with a foot pedal on an electronic bass drum, and I put the drums on last, which was incredibly difficult. I had to be playing slightly ahead to keep it in time, and that's difficult. I just about scraped through that.

I did that some years ago, dug it up, and I thought, This will be perfect for the guitar album.

Songfacts: Is "Classical Gas" a difficult song to play?

Edmunds: Very difficult to get it right, yeah.

Songfacts: What is it about that song that makes it so hard to play?

Edmunds: Well, it's some picking. On Mason Williams' version he's got the whole orchestra and the drums, and it's going from 5/4 to 3/4 to 4/4 - it's all over the place. And it's done with a thumb pick and fingers. So it's not a flat pick just playing the melody.

You can play the whole thing in its entirety without any backing at all and it stands up because there's something going on all the time. There are bass parts going and the melody part. It's Chet Atkins/Merle Travis/Jerry Reed type guitar playing.

Now, currently, there's Tommy Emmanuel out there doing the same sort of thing. It's all thumb picking, so you have access to more notes at the same time than just playing with a flat pick.

Songfacts: One song on Rags & Classics that's a bit out of your ambit as far as the stuff you've done before is "I Believe I Can Fly." What drew you to that one?

Edmunds: I just love the R. Kelly version of it, the arrangement. I think it's a great record: well written, well performed. The arrangement is just spot on. Records don't get to #1 for no good reason, you know, and that was #1 here [#2 in America].

I saw him do it live on Jules Holland in London, and I was on Jules Holland a few times - I've worked with Jules quite a bit. R. Kelly was on and he did a shortened version of it on the show, and it just blew me away. I thought his singing was so unique and the song is so good.

So I thought, Why not? This is a hobby album, I don't have any commercial goal in mind. It was just purely to get some of this guitar playing down on record.

Songfacts: You certainly have a knack for taking these songs, putting them in a new light and getting them tremendous exposure. And one that comes to mind is your first single as a solo artist, which was "I Hear You Knocking." Can you talk about that a little bit?

Edmunds: The song I was going to do originally was "Let's Work Together," which was by a guy called Wilbert Harrison who did it as sort of a one-man band. When I first came to America in 1969, I heard it on the car radio, and I thought, Oh, this is great. When I get back home I'm going to do a cover of this.

By the time I got home, Canned Heat had done a cover of it. Then an album of Smiley Lewis was released on United Artists in Britain, and they played "I Hear You Knocking" on the radio in Britain while I was driving along. I thought, Hang on, the two songs have identical format. You could use the same backing track for both songs. It's just a simple 12-bar thing. So I thought, I'll do that.

Smiley Lewis's version was in 6/8 time, so I brought it into 4/4 time to make it a bit more modern for the time. I played around with it and tried several different versions, but it was sounding too ordinary. I just had drums, piano, and acoustic guitar and electric guitar going all the way through, and it didn't jump out at all.

I put it on the shelf, then I went back to it after a few weeks. I stripped it right down and came up with what it is now.

Songfacts: How do you feel about lyrics?

Edmunds: Very importantly. I don't write that much myself, although I have done recently. On the album before, which was released just under two years ago, the Again album, I was writing on that and I got a few songs where I was really proud of the lyrics.

Sometimes you can get away with a pretty simple, catchy lyric, and other times you get deeper lyrics, something like "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted," or "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," which tell a whole story. They're the lyrics I like, where something very complicated is said in as brief a way as possible, and with musical hooks in it. That's it, really. That's the recipe.

Dave was the first to record the Elvis Costello song "Girls Talk," taking it to #4 UK in June, 1979 (it made #65 US). Costello included the song on his 1980 compilation album Taking Liberties, and Linda Ronstadt also released it that year.
Songfacts: One of the more complex lyrics that you recorded was on the Elvis Costello song "Girls Talk." Can you talk about coming up with that one and how you felt about doing a song that Elvis wrote?

Edmunds: Well, we were in sort of the same circle with Rockpile - Nick Lowe, Costello and the Attractions, even Squeeze were all hanging around in West London. Elvis came to the studio one day, and he said, "I've got a song for you." And he gave me a cassette.

Now, it wasn't very good - it was just him on a guitar, and he was rushing through it at a furious pace. At first I couldn't see it.

And also there was some lines needed, because the verses weren't symmetrical. He had a verse with four lines in and then a verse with three lines in, so Nick and I made up some lyrics and popped them in. Then I threw the whole thing right down, got a groove going on it, and put the record together with some acoustic guitar punctuation like Don Everly used to do on the Everly Brothers early records.

The record came together and I was quite proud of that, although I don't like doing it on stage - it's not a fun song to sing, it's all over the place. It's up and down and it's never settled into a groove live.

But I really liked the complete new arrangement and feel that I put to it. I'm not sure Elvis liked it, mind you. He's quite an intense person and he's quick to point out things that he doesn't like. [Laughs] I remember playing it to him on the tour bus in America, and he didn't say much. It sounded great to me, and it got him a Top 5 record, so I'm sure he's not that upset about it, but I would have been delighted if someone had done a turnaround on a song I'd quickly jotted out and came up with a hit single. I'd have been delighted.

Songfacts: Yes, but Elvis Costello, when he writes songs, he writes very personal lyrics. And here you are singing what's in his heart, essentially, which I can see could be a little tricky, especially now that you've explained that you and Nick tweaked the lyrics a bit.

Edmunds: Yeah. What I did like about it, I've always thought that a really good song has a really great first line. And that one does. "There are some things you can't cover up with lipstick and powder." I went, "Wow." Now there's an opening line for you.

Songfacts: When you're talking about songs that maybe aren't so personal so anybody can sing them, that brings to mind the song Bruce Springsteen gave you, which is "From Small Things." Now, that one is more of a story type song with a universal kind of lyric.

Edmunds: It's not the content of the lyric that will draw me to a song, it's just the whole thing and what I feel I can do with it, whether it's locked into who I am as a musician and artist.

That's not an easy question to answer, because I jump and hop and skip all over the place in different musical genres. I'm not that unified, like say ZZ Top or Status Quo. You know what you're going to get with an album or a concert by ZZ Top. But I'm all over: I do a bit of trying to sound like The Beach Boys, and then doing guitar stuff, and then doing rockabilly, and then doing a bit of soul type, Otis Redding stuff. I'm all over the place.

And I don't know whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. It confuses people, and I think they find it difficult to pigeonhole me for that reason. So I'm a bit of a mystery, because you don't quite know what's coming next and neither do I.

Songfacts: You said that "Girls Talk" is one you don't enjoy doing live. What are some of the ones you do enjoy doing live?

Edmunds: Some songs you look forward to in the setlist more than others. It's just the way it flows and if you can sing it without having to worry about the lyrics. Simplicity is always a good guide.

Now, what I often do, like on "Girls Talk," I do key changes. I start off in a different key to what the song is, and when it comes to the solo, I'll change key again. That works great on records sometimes, but you've got to be careful on getting it right live to get the effect to work.

I don't know which songs are easier to sing. Chuck Berry songs are always very good. You can't do too many of them, because they're Chuck's. But it's just that some songs lyrically and melodically flow better than others, and "Girls Talk" doesn't flow as well as I'd like it to for live performance.

Edmunds is a man of many sounds, but until 1983, synthesizer wasn't one of them. That changed in 1983 when Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra fame produced two singles for Edmunds: "Information" and "Slipping Away," the latter also written by Lynne. "Slipping Away," got Edmunds back on the American Top 40 for the first time since "I Hear You Knocking" in 1970, and it also got him on MTV, with an accompanying video that got a lot of spins on the two-year-old network.
Songfacts: When MTV came around, by then you had already been making videos, because in the UK that was fairly common. But I remember the one that really hit in America was "Slipping Away," which turned out to be a little out of character for you. Can you talk about that experience?

Edmunds: Yeah. For some reason, I became quite enamoured with Jeff Lynne and the way he works in the studio. It was at a point in time in the '80s where I'd never worked with a producer and I wondered what it would be like. I'm kind of a one-man band myself, and I like to, if I can, play the instruments myself. Whatever I can't play, I like to get the best people in to do it.

But with that one, I decided I wanted to work with a producer. I thought of Phil Collins, because mind you, everyone had the same idea at the time and he was producing a lot of different people. He was interested, but he didn't have time. And I think that's just as well, because I can't see that would have worked out. Maybe it would.

And then I thought of Jeff Lynne, because he was Mr. Techno back then and he used to make great-sounding records. Although now I listen to them and they sound a bit dated. I'm a bit puzzled why I was so enamored with Jeff, but he is very creative in the studio. He can go in with nothing and right on the spot make a record. I was taken with that.

I got a lot of stick, though. Maybe because of the confusion in style, people thought I should stick to being rockabilly or something. And once they heard a synthesizer, it was like, "Oh, Dave, what have you done? You've sold out!"

I thought the record was great, myself. The two I did on the first album, there was "Information" and "Slipping Away," and I thought it was fine. But I did other stuff with him for the next album which I think I pursued too far - that didn't work so well.

But I often look back and wonder why I was so enamoured with that. It worked for then, but I did get some criticism for it and I can see why now looking back. I didn't then, but I do now. It's still a good-sounding record.

Songfacts: Did you have anything to do with conceiving the videos for those songs?

Edmunds: Not really. The record company hires a director and you go in. I don't know quite what you're getting at, but I could have done them better. Perhaps I didn't look right, wasn't wearing the right clothes or something. I don't know. I'm not quite sure where you're going with that.

Songfacts: I was just trying to find out if that's something you took an interest in, the music videos.

Edmunds: I should have a bit more. Back then you had to have a video. That was it. The record companies do this. Right now it's got to be Auto-Tuning. Everything's got to be Auto-Tuned. Well, back then everyone had to have a video at great cost and a lot of work, so I just went along with it, really. I never had any interest in making videos to express the music, I was just going along with the trend.

Along with guitarist Billy Bremner and drummer Terry Williams, Dave formed the band Rockpile in the late '70s with Nick Lowe. One of rock's great side projects, they opened for Elvis Costello on his North American tour in 1978, and squeezed out an album in 1980 called Seconds of Pleasure.

In 1979, after Rockpile toured with Blondie, Lowe married Carlene Carter. Lowe also needed a video for his single "Cruel To Be Kind," so he had the camera crew shoot it the day before - and the day of - his wedding.

Rockpile were real-life guests at the wedding, but also played roles in the video: Dave was the chauffeur, Williams the photographer, and Bremner served the cake. See if you can spot Carter's stepsister Rosanne Cash - a guest at the wedding - in the clip.
Songfacts: What was it like that day when Nick Lowe got married to Carlene Carter and you guys shot the "Cruel To Be Kind" video at the same time?

Edmunds: [Laughing] What was it like?

Songfacts: Yeah. I'm trying to get a gauge on what the guests thought, because they look completely incredulous.

Edmunds: Well, we were having great fun. In that band, the four of us, it was Terry, Billy, myself, and Nick. And the four years we were together, we never had any falling out - it was a little club of our own.

It was a party band. It was never set up with a view to becoming anything special. Nick had signed a record deal with one company, I'd signed a record deal with Swan Song, and otherwise, we had nothing to do - we were kind of unemployed.

I knew Terry and Billy from way back, and they just finished in their bands and were at a loose end, so we got together to do a few gigs around London just for fun. It was a heavy-drinking party band, but it caught on. And especially in America, we had such goodwill from all areas of the music business.

It's a shame it had to come to an end, but I'm surprised it lasted as long as it did, almost four years. But it started off with no big plans, one of those spontaneous things that works out. If it had been planned, it probably wouldn't have worked so well.

But I wish we could have spent more time on that album. We were forced into that very quickly by the management. They said, "You've got three weeks to make an album, then you're going on tour." So I'm scratching around for songs just for covers, looking through my record collection. It's not the way I would really like to do it. I was trying to say to Nick, "We've got such good feelings from everyone with this. We should take some time and work on this and write some good stuff."

But somehow as we were recording that album, Nick was off into something else. He was making other records with other musicians as well, and that was after three-and-a-half years of being together.

When we made each other's solo albums, it was no problem at all. When we came to make Seconds of Pleasure, the rockpile album... I haven't heard it since I walked out of the studio on the last day, because I didn't have any fond memories of the music or that whole era.

Songfacts: Which of the productions that you've done for another artist is your best work?

Edmunds: The Stray Cats is one, because it's very difficult, especially with the equipment we had then, to get a drummer who plays just a snare drum and a cymbal, and one guitar player, and then a string bass player. It very difficult to record that and make it sound like a record rather than a demo.

If you're trying to do that rockabilly stuff with just a couple of instruments, and you just record it, it'll have a demo feel to it. So the challenge was to record it in such a way that it did sound like a production, a record production, without putting all kinds of overdubs on it. It was purely studio techniques and careful use of echo and delays, and getting to know the guys and all that. We're still great friends to this day.

The other one I'm really proud of, but something awful happened. I did a record for Dion DiMucci, and the album is called Yo Frankie. I think it's a modern classic. A lot of the songs were written by Dion, and I produced it and played guitar and did vocal harmonies and some keyboards on it. We did it at Ocean Way in LA, and in New York at a studio there.

But right at the last minute when it was finished, Bryan Adams sent in a song ["Drive All Night"], and it wasn't right. It just wasn't right. It wasn't good enough and it stuck out like a sore thumb. But Dion couldn't let it go. He thought if Bryan has gone to the trouble of writing and sending this song, I should do it.

We tried it, and he kept saying, "No, it's not right for me." And I would say, "You shouldn't do it just because Bryan Adams wrote it." It's like, just because you get Eric Clapton to play on a track on your album, it's not going to make the album sell more. That's a myth. When you get big names coming in, it doesn't always work. People buy the record because they like it or they don't.

So we left it, but I think Clive Davis had a lot of influence over Dion, and he persuaded Dion that he should record it and they did it with other musicians in another studio and stuck it right in the middle of the album, and it's a real sore thumb. It just ruins the flow of the album, what I think was a modern classic record.

And so that was one of my proudest moments and one of my biggest disappointments.

June 24, 2015. Get more at his Facebook page.
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Comments: 2

  • Paul Metcalfe from Australia Loved every word of it.
  • Jerry from Hudson Valley, New YorkThat's a nice interview - good questions and follow up. He's too hard on his own work sometimes. Thanks for sharing this
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