The first time I saw Billy Bremner in action was on a stage in upstate New York, and it remains an unforgettable moment.
It was a dank spring evening in April 1978. I piled into a car with some friends from my college radio station and drove about an hour to Syracuse in search of the newly restored Landmark Theatre, a decades-old iconic building with a high ceiling, magnificent flourishes and good acoustics.
To say we were psyched was an understatement. We were amateur but highly enthusiastic DJs who were devoted to what was a new and revitalized rock ‘n’ roll movement. And this show typified the trend. It was a triple bill headlined by Elvis Costello & the Attractions, whose edgy attitude was getting notice. Appearing before them was Mink DeVille, a band soaked in mostly older R&B sounds.
But as far as we were concerned, the real treat that night was Rockpile, one of a growing number of bands that was bringing rock ‘n’ roll back to its roots after years in which psychedelic rock, progressive rock and singer-songwriter confessionals dominated the airwaves. And Bremner — who will appear at Live at Drew’s in Ringwood on Nov. 13, with a band of his own — played guitar in this hot, new, quintessential group.
Although not widely known to the average U.S. listener, Rockpile was nearing legendary status in some circles, mostly in the U.K., but also among ear-to-the-ground music fans around the U.S. And there we were, witnessing a rebirth of catchy, fast-paced, guitar-driven sounds that made us jump out of our nicely cushioned theater seats.
Rockpile was formed only a year earlier by two talented U.K. musicians. One was Nick Lowe, a prodigious, bass-playing songwriter and founding member of the trailblazing pub rock group, Brinsley Schwarz. The other was guitarist Dave Edmunds, who possessed an unusual knack for production wizardry and an ability to easily mimic various early rock ‘n’ roll sounds. Multi-talented, he played nearly every instrument on his first solo album, 1972’s Rockpile.
The group began when Lowe — probably best known for writing “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” — and Edmunds agreed to work together in 1976. They had teamed up for an Edmunds solo album, with Terry Williams on drums. After the album was released, they recruited Bremner, a roving session player for many years. And just like that, Rockpile was a full-blown band.
But they faced an odd situation. Lowe and Edmunds were signed to different record labels, so the band appeared on solo albums that each of them released over the next couple of years. Rockpile, meanwhile, couldn’t release a record of its own. The solo records gained critical notice — especially those released by Lowe, who had a cheeky wit. But Rockpile gained notoriety thanks to its live shows.
And Bremner was their secret weapon.
To a degree, he could be overlooked. Lowe and Edmunds took turns as forceful frontmen, singing songs they had written. By comparison, Bremner was a low-key presence. But he provided some of the necessary glue that held the band together. He tossed off riffs, played stinging guitar solos and sang spot-on harmonies. It also helped that he has an affable personality.
“Me and Terry were labeled the engine room of this band. And we were,” Bremner told me from his home in Sweden. “Dave had his songs and followers and so did Nick. But when it came down to playing with Rockpile, it was a different kettle of fish. We had a lot more influence than what a lot people may have known. Dave and Nick were the two main guys, but we had a lot input into what Rockpile was doing.”
Indeed, Bremner was not merely a sideman. He penned a couple of songs that Edmunds recorded on his solo albums. One of them, a fast-paced rocker called “Trouble Boys,” typified the slashing 1950s-style rock for which the band became known. Nonetheless, solo singles — Lowe hit it big with “Cruel to Be Kind,” while Edmunds charted with “Girls Talk” — continued to overshadow the band.
That changed, though, in 1980, when Rockpile signed a deal with Columbia Records and released Seconds of Pleasure, a pastiche of catchy songs that spelled breakthrough. “Teacher, Teacher,” sung by Lowe, became a minor hit. Bremner sang lead on an equally catchy number called “Heart,” which also got some airplay. For the first time, Rockpile was seen as a real band.
Most important, Rockpile was gaining mainstream notice, with write-ups in magazines and more radio stations including the album on their playlists. But the long-awaited album was aptly named. Within a year, the band broke up. At the time, managerial differences were reported as the reason, although Bremner claims the unexpected breakup was as mysterious to him as everyone else.
“The four years we were together was the best,” he said. “And I’ve been in some bands for a long time. I’m very proud of that band and we did some fantastic gigs. It was a privilege. It’s the truth. It was an absolute honor to play with the band. Every time we would go to a rehearsal, it was straight into each song and everyone would put their input into it and it turned out to be something great.
“But that album was made right at the end of the whole thing. We started in ‘76 and for the next few years, it was absolutely fantastic. It was great to travel and record with these guys. But when we finally did an album, it was too late. The time for the band was up. I can’t give you answers: I don’t know why. All of a sudden it was over. No argumentative reasons, no differences of opinion.”
So Bremner released a pair of solo singles and resumed session work. He also briefly played with The Pretenders and, in the process, dashed off one of the most memorable riffs in rock history. It was in 1982 and the band, led by Chrissie Hynde, was at a low point. Founding guitarist James Honeyman-Scott had recently died of a drug overdose and Hynde was trying to regroup.
Bremner was brought in and contributed the chiming guitar solo to what became one of the band’s best-loved songs, “Back on the Chain Gang.” His mix of wonderfully timed notes and stylish, swooning melody helped catapult the song into an oft-played hit. And though the listening public was largely unaware, the moment solidified his credibility as one of the premier rock guitarists of his generation.
“The producer just asked me to try some ideas,” he said. “You know, things like, ‘What can you do here?’ It was trial and error, really. The riff wasn’t the first idea, but it turned out to be the ‘goodie.’ And it makes me very proud still to talk about that recording. I’m honored, to be honest.”
Although he continued to do session work, Bremner attempted to capitalize on his track record and released a solo album of his own in 1984 titled Bash, but it went nowhere. He later relocated to the U.S., where he did session work in Los Angeles and, later, Nashville. But eventually, he moved to Sweden after being recruited to work with a band called The Refreshments.
And there he has remained. Bremner subsequently released three more solo albums filled with catchy pop-rock songs that are characterized by his trademark rhythmic guitar work. Remarkably, he never lost the ability to craft memorable songs, such as “I See It in Your Eyes,” from his 1998 album A Good Week’s Work.
But while his records maintained consistent quality, his profile has dimmed. Unlike some other bands, Rockpile never regrouped, even briefly. Lowe achieved a degree of fame with a succession of well-received albums and regular touring. Williams joined Dire Straits for a time. Edmunds also released some albums but, by the 2000s, he retreated from the music business merry-go-round.
“I’ve not been working with any kind of agency or booking people who asked me to come over (to the U.S.), or else I would have done this before,” said Bremner. “I don’t have a manager or agent or people talking for me. So it’s difficult.
“There had always been talk of a (Rockpile) reunion. There was a time when we were offered a lot of money to go to Japan and we never played there. But the other guys were busy and so we couldn’t do it. And now, we can’t do it anymore. Terry’s age affected his arms. Nick’s got a career. Dave has retired. He’s just not interested in the music business anymore.”
As a result, Bremner is at once both reaching back and moving forward. When he plays Drew’s next month, not surprisingly, he plans to play a mix of songs from Rockpile and his own solo work, including a forthcoming album he has been working on that pulls together tracks recorded over the past few years. Nonetheless, the tour — billed as Billy Bremner’s Rockfiles: A Tribute to Rockpile — is also a farewell.
“We had our time. It was great, but it’s over,” he said. “But here I am, playing again.”
And he’s still playing the sort of roots rock that charmed a generation, decades ago.
For more on Bremner, visit facebook.com/bremner.b.
For more on the Live at Drew’s series, visit facebook.com/liveatdrews.
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