I've got it, Dave." Billy Bremner ambles over to Dave Edmunds and puts his arm around his shoulders. "You ogle Debbie Harry, and we'll all stand here and ogle you ogling."
Edmunds and Bremner are both guitarists in Rockpile — a British band whose parts are probably better known than the whole — and they're loitering backstage at the Merriweather Post Pavilion with Rockpile bassist Nick Lowe and drummer Terry Williams. The four have just finished their opening set in front of a fanatic crowd at the Pavilion, an outdoor summer theatre in Columbia, Maryland, and now they are, in fact, ogling Blondie's lead singer.
"You should have seen it last night," Lowe says, pulling me aside. "We were partying with Blondie, and Edmunds here — you could hardly pull him away from her," Lowe turns and points to the stage, where Harry is warbling away.
"Not only that," Edmunds gushes, "but she actually kissed me!"
But before either can get to the real meat of the story, they are distracted by a buxom brunette in hot pants and boots. As she parades past, Edmunds and Lowe simultaneously break into mock orgasmic frenzies. "A goddess," Lowe proclaims, his hands shaking so hard he nearly spills his screwdriver. "A creature simply too lovely to be allowed to walk the face of the earth on her hind legs."
The patter continues throughout most of Blondie's set, with Lowe punctuating the end of song by maniacally clapping his hands and saying, "I thoroughly enjoyed that one! I thoroughly enjoyed it!"
Though this is the band's fourth US tour in three years, the name Rockpile is still largely unknown here. That's mainly because the group has never recorded an album under its moniker. Instead, Edmunds and Lowe each have solo contracts: Edmunds recently released his fifth LP, Repeat When Necessary, on Swan Song and Lowe just put out his second, Labour Of Lust, on Columbia.
Both albums were recorded with the members of Rockpile and have been garnering the high critical acclaim the pair is used to, plus some solid commercial success.
"It's ass-backward with us," Edmunds says as Blondie's set nears its end. "Most groups get together, sign a record deal, then split up to do solo albums. We made the solo albums first, and now we want to make a Rockpile album."
A few days after the Merriweather show, Edmunds, Lowe and I are sitting in a bar in Virginia Beach dissecting Rockpile's past. The pair had first discussed forming a band in 1975 and 1976 ("We would tell each other how we were definitely not going to get a group together," Lowe jokes, "but if we were to…"). Lowe had just left Brinsley Schwarz, that he helped form seven years earlier, and Edmunds had moved to London from his country home in Wales.
Edmunds, now 36, initially gained attention in 1967 as the leader of Love Sculpture, a Welsh group that had a Number One British hit with an instrumental version of Khatchaturian's "Sabre Dance."
"I recorded it because it was a very 'catchy-turian,' " Edmunds says, taking a sip from his Jack Daniel's and ginger ale.
"Ha. Ha. Ha. Dave's very funny, don't you think?" Lowe says dryly.
"Anyway," Edmunds continues, "all of a sudden we (Love Sculpture) were doing gigs in places like the Lyceum with Joe Cocker supporting, and my bottle…"
"His nerves," Lowe explains.
"My bottle went. It went quite completely. So I just thought I'd bury my head in a recording studio and do it that way, which worked."
His first LP, released in 1971 and prophetically titled Rockpile, yielded him another hit single — a remake of Smiley Lewis' "I Hear You Knocking" that went to Number One in both Britain and America. Another album, Subtle As A Flying Mallet, followed, so did a divorce and life in rural Monmouth began to lose its appeal.
"I was just sitting around watching the cows eat grass," Edmunds recalls.
A few months later, in February 1975, Lowe found himself to be similarly disenchanted. I just realised that the Brinsleys weren't getting anywhere."
Lowe, 30, pushes his chair a little closer to the table, lights a Senior Service and takes a sip from one of the two screwdrivers in front of him. "Everyone said how fantastic we were, but no one was buying the records. It was time to quit."
Edmunds had relocated to London by this time, and Lowe was one of the few people he knew there. Though the two spent most of their waking hours in pubs talking about forming a group the actual impetus came from Jake Riviera, Rockpile's current manager, who was then running the fledgling Stiff Records with Dave Robinson.
"One day I woke up with my usual hangover," Edmunds begins to explain, "and I went into Stiff."
"He was sleeving Lew Lewis records," Lowe interjects.
"Yeah, Nick, me, Elvis (Costello), Graham Parker all used to hang around Stiff. So one day Jake calls me into his office and says, 'There's a benefit for the Hope & Anchor. The Feelgoods are doing it, Wilko Johnson's doing it. You've been talking about getting back onstage every night when you get pissed up, so you do it!' That was my first taste of Jake 'May the Force Be with You' Riviera."
Edmunds and Lowe put together a pickup band for the show, which, much to Edmunds' surprise, went smoothly. A short time later, says Edmunds, "I got a phone call from Terry, who said his band (Man) had split up and did I want to do something. Then, two days after that, Billy, who I'd only met once before, phoned and said he was leaving his group (Fatso)."
That was in mid-1976, by which time Edmunds had signed his solo contract with Led Zeppelin's Swan Song label and recorded his third LP, Get It. Shortly after the album's release, Edmunds was offered a gig opening for label-mate Bad Company in the US. He assembled Lowe, Bremner and Williams as his backup band, but the tour turned out to be a disaster, and Rockpile was sent back to Britain after only a few weeks. The musicians' future as a group looked bleak until early last year, when Lowe, who had just released his first solo album, Pure Pop For Now People was offered an American tour supporting Elvis Costello, whom he'd been producing.
"So I thought, 'who am I going to get for a touring group?' "Lowe says. "And there wasn't any question."
"There were 3000 other people out there, you know. You could have focused just a little of your attention on them."
It's a Friday night in Philadelphia, and Jake Riviera is chiding the members of Rockpile, who have just finished a set at the Tower Theatre. Under normal circumstances, Rockpile is one of the most energetic live bands around. On this tour, the group has been hammering out 14 songs in a quick 45 minutes (the time limit imposed by headliner Blondie). Tonight, however, the circumstances were anything but normal. About 10 rows from the stage, smack-dab in the centre section, a member of the audience kept opening a khaki shirt and baring a humongous pair of breasts.
"Is that what it was?" drummer Terry Williams asks almost innocently. "I could tell something was going on by the way the other three were standing up there grinning at each other."
"Of course, you know it was a guy?" a roadie interjects.
"What do you mean, a guy?" Lowe asks incredulously.
"It was a transvestite," the roadie says.
"Oh, come on," Edmunds says.
The argument comes to a sudden halt as a middle-aged bespectacled man is led into the dressing room.
"Nick," the stranger says. "I'm Kal Rudman. I don't know if you know who I am, but I run the most influential tip sheet in the country. Friday Morning Quarterback it's called, and I have some important news for you."
Rudman, dressed in matching baby-blue polyester shirt and pants, pulls a chair and squeezes in toward Lowe like a coach about to give his star player some valuable tips.
"This is the most important news of your life," Rudman continues, inching ever closer to Lowe. "By next Tuesday, 'Cruel To Be Kind' will be on every major AM station in the country, and by Thursday you'll be rolling in money."
Lowe, who has already downed a couple of screwdrivers, lights up a Senior Service and stares intently at this bearer of good tidings. "I have made the judgement to put your new single on the top of the front page of my next issue," Rudman says.
"By doing that I have virtually guaranteed that it will be a Top 40 smash. Your career will begin to grow geometrically and you personally will be responsible for helping CBS recover from its current slump."
Lowe clearly does not know what to make of the situation. "I don't mean to be cynical," he begins, "but I've put out so many records that have bombed…."
"I know," Rudman interrupts. "I know you don't believe it and it's not an accomplished fact yet. But if Columbia Records does its job, you'll be in line for some elephant dollars."
"Elephant Dollars?" Lowe asks.
The conversation comes to a close as Andy Cheeseman, Rockpile's tour manager, announced that it's time to head back to the hotel.
"I just want to tell you one thing Jim."
Billy Bremner slides into the seat across from me on the bus as we head out of Philadelphia. "There'll be no drinking tonight — none at all. Just because it's a night off does not mean that we'll go directly to the bar. And I also want you to know that the first direct question out of my mouth will not be, 'How late are you open?' Nope, you won't hear me say that. So just remember — no drinking!"
Bremner and Terry Williams are the neglected half of Rockpile. Because of the band's recording situation, virtually all of Rockpile's press concentrates on Nick Lowe or Dave Edmunds, or on Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds.
"Billy and I have a laugh about it," says Williams. "We joke that we actually are Rockpile, featuring Nick Lowe or Dave Edmunds. It really doesn't bother me at all. I just want to play drums and have a good time."
Like Edmunds, Williams tends to be a bit reserved and not nearly as boisterous as Lowe and Bremner. "Terry and I don't have to worry about entertainment when we're on the road," Edmunds had told me the first night I was with Rockpile. 'Billy and Nick are like our own personal cabaret show. Billy's the only guy I know who can tell the same joke over and over again and it'll always be funny."
"To be honest with you," Bremner says, "when I joined Rockpile, I had no idea who Nick was. I'd never heard of him or Brinsley Schwarz. I don't think Nick and I were exactly big buddies at the start because I used to tell him, 'Uh, Nick, I'm sure things will go great with this band because of Dave's reputation.' Then one day he gave me some of his records. The first one I listened to was 'So It Goes,' and I thought, 'My God, this is a steal off of Steely Dan's 'Reeling In The Years.' What am I lettin' myself in for? I'm in a group with a thief.' "
It's that night off that Bremner was talking about on the bus, and sure enough, he and Williams are seated over at the hotel bar, while Edmunds, Lowe and I are nestled at a corner table talking about Lowe's reputation as a thief.
"It's my own fault, really," Lowe says. "It's gotten to be like a rock critics' sport: find out where Basher nicked this lick from. (Basher, Lowe's nickname, is derived from his studio motto: bash it out now, tart it up later.) I mean, everybody does it. The thing is, I'm the only one who admits it."
After we've been talking for a couple of hours, Edmunds excuses himself to go out and take a look at the new tour bus, which has just arrived. In Edmunds' absence, and after a number of drinks, Lowe begins to expound on the state of the art.
"You've probably noticed it in the past few days," he begins, "but we're a bit cynical. Maybe it's because we've been at it for quite a long time. I mean, we don't really work much. We don't hardly rehearse at all. That's almost an advantage, really, because the show never gets too slick or tight.
"I'm not really impressed by someone who can play a million miles an hour, 'cause it's all been done. The only thing left in the music business now is people with ideas. That's why when I listen to a Billy Joel album, or someone else who sells an elephant dollars' worth of albums, I realise that most of it is just shit. I want to continually agitate people. If I can't annoy people, then I'll just stop doing it."
How does Labour Of Lust fit into that philosophy?
"Well, I figured that people would be agitated by the fact that I'd done such a straight record, with no hidden meanings, or no songs about people getting eaten by their dog. But I think maybe I was overestimating the intelligence of the average. ... I mean, the bulk of the human race is so gigantically stupid."
So who do you make records for?
"For myself. Christ, who else? People say, 'But those people have put you where you are.' Christ, they haven't put me where I am, if in fact I'm actually anywhere. I've put me where I am. I've just put records out. Most of them have flopped dismally. I'm sure that will happen in the future as well. I'm continually thinking of ideas and things that I know aren't going to appeal to people."
By this time, Edmunds has returned from his inspection of the new bus. We sit in silence for a few minutes, then he looks over at Lowe. "Nick, was that really a sex-change job, that girl in the audience in Philadelphia?"
"I don't think it could have been," Lowe says.
"Magnificent pair of tits," Edmunds marvels.
"I think it was just jealousy on a few people's parts," Lowe says. "I think it was a bit of sour grapes."
"Who were they feeling jealous of?" "The fact that she was flashing them at us," Lowe explains. "She was flashing them at Blondie, as well."