System of Love EP by The Swimming Pool Q's- MP3 Album
Jeff Calder's Personal Archive > Clock Bombs of Brain Pop (1)
During my sojourn in Macon in 1969, I stumbled onto the ROTC parade field at Mercer University and saw the underground rock group from Atlanta, Hampton Grease Band. Later in the 1970s, as a Florida-based free-lance writer, I became a friend with one of their guitarists, Glenn Phillips. Through Phillips, I met Bob Elsey, a 19-year old Atlanta guitar virtuoso with whom I started the band, The Swimming Pool Q's. Our first engagement was June 6, 1978, at The Underwear Invitational, a fashion show/benefit for the Atlanta Art Collective, Nexus; the artist and singer Anne Richmond Boston joined us for this event. During the next two years, The Q’s toured the Southeast at a time when there was no New Wave-and-Punk circuit: it was the woodshed of all wooden sheds. Our range extended as far north as Boston and New York City, where a network of grass roots clubs had already begun to emerge. In May, 1981, we released our first album, The Deep End, on Atlanta's pioneer indie label, DB Recs. The author’s account of this period can be found in the booklet accompanying the current CD reissue of The Deep End. The following is an incidental observation on the Atlanta/Athens music scene of that time and, to some extent, its relation to the present era.
CLOCK BOMBS OF BRAIN POP
by Jeff Calder
Metropolitan Atlanta in 1978 had a population of 1, 850,000, a figure that had doubled by the end of the century. Impressive in its civic attractions before World War II, the downtown area had since become a professional No Man's Land; white commuters popped in-and-out of the city like square yo-yos, quickly expanding the suburban territories north of the I-285 Perimeter. At the close of the 1990s, The New Professionals would begin charging back to the inner city, fleeing "the nightmare of suburban sprawl" their parents' generation had created and heisting the old hard-pine homes of poor whites and blacks, a displacement which today acts as a kind of Manifest-Destiny-In-Reverse.
Following the inevitable pattern of inflating real-estate values and skyrocketing property taxes, Atlanta's intra-urban migration has become a threat to the city's struggling artists and musicians long accustomed to life on the margin. The usual resourcefulness of the creative class is being tested as decaying industrial zones are absorbed into the Go-Go protoplasm of fading Good Times at a faster and faster rate. Still, Georgia's kooks manage hang on in 2001, digging-in at places with names like East Lake, Oakhurst and Cabbagetown. If Atlanta can be said to have a rock music scene today, it is to be found in these old working class freight-train districts which, until recently, counted among The Pariah States of the city's 300 neighborhoods.
But all of this was a long way off as the bellows of The Carter Years was about to give one last whoosh. Placing the domains of rhythm & blues (Memphis) and country & western (Nashville) to the side, Atlanta was the only city in the Southeast, as far as I knew, to support anything like an original music scene. Its roots were snarled deep within the previous decade. In the middle Sixties, several pop artists and songwriters associated with the Lowery Publishing Group achieved impressive chart success (Billy Joe Royal, Joe South, The Tams, Classics IV). Later, The Allman Brothers’ breakout triggered The Atlanta Rhythm Section’s access to champagne and gold. But none of these artists, despite their national renown, could qualify as "scene-oriented,” that is to say, not the way The Grateful Dead had been closely identified with San Francisco, or The Velvet Underground connected with the Pop Art world of Manhattan.
In fact, the creative musical scene in Atlanta was to be defined by the late 1960s group, Hampton Grease Band, with their homemade neo-Dada aesthetic. Additionally, their allies at the radical weekly, The Great Speckled Bird, provided extensive coverage of the emerging musical happenings at Piedmont Park and in folk clubs like The Twelfth Gate. The Bird successfully created the impression that a hippie music scene like San Francisco's also existed in Atlanta, and it threw its weight behind the relatively apolitical, but challenging Hampton Grease Band. [For a more detailed discussion of the city's music history during these years, see Glenn Phillips' historical notes to Music To Eat and his solo compilation, Echoes].
Hampton Grease Band promo photo
Hampton Grease Band established the tradition of lunatic pop subversion in Atlanta. In 1971, they recorded Music To Eat [Shotput/Columbia/ Legacy C2K 67483], the first truly avant-garde record ever made by a Southern rock band (and, some contend, "the second-lowest selling double-album in the history of Columbia Records”). After their demise in 1974, a number of eccentric acts appeared that bridged the city into the later 1970's era: Thermos Greenwood and The Colored People; Daryll Rhoades and HaHavishnu Orchestra; The Nasty Bucks. Existing outside of this sphere were the more serious Para Band (who cut a well-received indie single called "Nazi Hunter") and a dense Anglophilic pop group called The Fans, which, in 1977, released an EP collection of original songs. Like the earlier Hampton Grease Band--which they resembled in no respect musically--The Fans would come to play a role beyond the extent of their national recognition (and commercial non-success).
Much of Atlanta's music scene in the late 1970s, which included remnants of Hampton Grease Band and their proteges, could be found on a line drawn due north of the central city, winding up the prehistoric Indian trail known as Peachtree Road. A mile or so past the Moorish hokum of The Fox Theatre and the old Hippie/Dope Strip, the parallel affluents of Spring and West Peachtree Streets threatened to tangle near some now-demolished apartment buildings at Pershing Point. Here one would unknowingly enter the shadowy domain of more Punk Rock elements, e.g. the rabblerousing Restraints, whose bald and devious potentate, Chris Wood (d. 1989), had been sent down from the nearby Atlanta College of Art for producing a class-project film in which a rabbit had been slain.
A few miles north of this juncture lay the dual purpose of Buckhead and Brookhaven, vague designations for adjunct precincts connected by the Lenox/Phipps shopping district. In 1978, Buckhead had yet to approach the magnitude of conspicuous consumption that propels its play-zone for parvenus today. One of these little Buckhead neighborhoods, Garden Hills, had as its Peachtree portal a street called Rumson Road. Here lived the sometime singer, paste-up artist and occasional puppeteer, Anne Richmond Boston, surrounded by shelves of fantastic toys and postmodern gewgaws in an apartment where the rent was $110-a-month.
Anne Richmond Boston
Anne's presence was well known in the musical community that whirled about the Buckhead/Brookhaven axis. She knew former members of Hampton Grease Band and Thermos Greenwood, with whom she had performed in some small capacity in concert. Thermos Greenwood and The Colored People drew attention to themselves originally by painting their faces different colors for live dates. Under their complete name, fully painted, Thermos had once opened a show for B.B. King near Statesboro, provoking discomfort, not to say uncertainty among the predominantly rural black audience. Racing between clubs in a pickup truck, Thermos set what must stand as the unofficial record for Number-of-Gigs-Played-by-an-Atlanta-Band-in-One-Night (five). They hired two midgets as “managers” to harry the group during a stand at The Great Southeast Music Hall. One of their more prescient songs, “The Anti-Destination League,” should have particular resonance for Atlanta motorists today. Thermos may have based themselves in Buckhead (because the rent was still low), and they may have boasted a scion or two of Buckhead nobility, but with songs like “Yard Man,” they fell more within what might be called a Brookhaven sensibility.
Thermos Greenwood and The Colored People
To an aspiring pop musician from the concealed desert of Florida, Atlanta seemed like Utopia. It was a newcomer’s assessment that has since been qualified by Tommy Dean, lead singer for Thermos Greenwood and, beginning in the 1980s, The League of Decency. "You could still get your ass kicked in Atlanta in the Seventies, if you had long hair and were in the wrong place," says Dean. In 1975, during an outing one afternoon along the Chattahoochie River, Dean and three of his musical colleagues were assaulted by a half-dozen residents of Cumming, who accused them “liking niggers.” In the melee that followed, an assailant chopped up a flute and saxophone with a machete. As his friends fled in panic, Dean, too, was forced into retreat, paddling in his heavy hippie overalls across the wide swift stream.
Nevertheless, Buckhead remained a haven for the Middle Class reprobates in Thermos Greenwood. The group jammed in the basement of a health food store called Energy Sources, Ltd., a few hundred yards from where Roswell Road, as if relieved, splits away from the old Cherokee path. Anne's hobby combo, Black Dick, featured members of Thermos, as well as Harold Kelling, formerly of Hampton Grease Band. She was thus able to utilize the lower level of Energy Sources as a rehearsal space, if the need arose (The Swimming Pool Q’s encamped there until 1985, long after the health food store had become Hedgens, the notorious bar that served as launch pad for The Georgia Satellites). Thermos Greenwood was distinguished by the outstanding musicians it contributed to Atlanta’s New Wave world in the late Seventies. Charles Woolf became the drummer for The Brains; guitarist Bruce Baxter produced the first B-52’s and Brains singles, as well as the entire early DB Recs catalog. The group itself released a full length LP in 1978 (Pin Head Teddy, Browntown 39527), and, finally, a single (“Who Gave The Monkey A Gun”) for Estelle Axton’s Memphis label, Freetone, before retiring.
And so, it was in the attached environs to Peachtree's four-mile corridor between Buckhead and Brookhaven, today nearly walled with medium-range skyscrapers, that the first chapter of The Swimming Pool Q's began to unfold. You'll know when you're at Brookhaven when you reach the Solomon Goodwin house. In actuality, you will not know this because the Goodwin place is tucked between a Steak Out and a U-Haul franchise on Peachtree Road, and, as a consequence, is almost completely hidden from view. The house was built with the cooperation of Cherokees in 1831, shortly before President Jackson had every one of them beaten out of the state with a bumpy stick. During this pre-Civil War era, the Goodwin cabin served as a traveler's rest and, it has been recorded, a servant named "Old Mitch" kept the booze flowing and the boots up. The building was spared by General Sherman's firebugs who, nonetheless, left a melon-sized saber whack on the mantelpiece, just to let everyone know who was boss that day in 1864.
If Buckhead is still divided between Atlanta's hereditary rich and The Codfish Aristocracy (as one 19th Century journalist put it), the part of Brookhaven east of the Goodwin house was more defiantly Hayseed in its dominant character, i.e. until its bourgeois corruption began in the middle 1990s. No one seems to remember exactly when or why Brookhaven received its name but, by 1917, it had become the north end of the old Peachtree trolley whose linemen may have settled in little homes built there by Georgia Power Company. Whatever the case, the first phase in the suburbanization of this country village had begun.
Small, unfinished "summer homes" were built on tiny lots as getaways for Atlanta's downtowners. Camp Gordan was nearby and may have contributed some temporary G.I. housing. Indoor plumbing was unavailable until the 1940s, a time when pigs and chickens freely roamed the fields in which rose splendid shafts of corn and cotton. At least one deed, for an $800 home, contained a stipulation that prohibited Blacks from building on the property. Racial segregation of this sort hardly made Brookhaven unique among Southern neighborhoods, though it certainly served to heighten the weird internal strain of Caucasian purity still found among Brookhaven's dwindling longtime residents whose family lines often appeared to violate ancient taboo.
Whereas Brookhaven had been merely one more rural outpost around Atlanta before Pearl Harbor, a second stage of suburbanization following the war now completely surrounded the neighborhood's peculiar spread of shotgun shacks; overnight, Snuffy Smith found himself trapped in a kind of Appalachia-In-Amber. (It was said that excavation here during rapid transit construction in the 1980s once uncovered a completely buried automobile.) It was this in-town isolation that set the stage for the late 1960s when cheap rent led to an influx of Atlanta's long-haired young, making Brookhaven an ideal musician's colony relatively safe from the grandstanding intrusions of local law enforcement. The folks were friendly, even if they favored the stark features of John C. Calhoun. With skeletons of their own in the closet--possibly literally--Brookhavenites tended to let people be and well enough alone. Upon matriculation from his secondary schooling in 1968, Glenn Phillips purchased a small duplex in an area known as "Indian Village" because the roads had names like Conasuaga and Cannoochie, the street where Phillips lived and, in his hot youth, loved.
Other members of Hampton Grease Band and, later, The Nasty Bucks, maintained residences nearby. There can hardly be doubt that the Tobacco Road ambiance of Brookhaven influenced the aesthetic sensibility of these avant-garde rock groups, as is evidenced by many of The Nasty Bucks titles: "Shag Burn," "Kinky Shovel," "I Saw God On Ponce de Leon.” The Bucks lewd antics fell under the baton of singer, Phillip “Fly” Stone. Stone occasionally dressed himself in an assemblage of plastic trash bags. In 1977, he leapt naked into an outdoor audience of 2,000 scholars at West Georgia College, prompting one amazed student to remark, “Man, you guys really are nasty—too nasty!” Stone was forced to loll around sheepishly through the remainder of the proceedings--enduring various technical difficulties--male member omnipresent.)
The Nasty Bucks
The Nasty Bucks first dates were in the summer of 1976, taking place in the Northeast Atlanta quadrant with which they were associated. In the insular world of Brookhaven, they were unaware of The Sex Pistols or, for that matter, anything Wave-ish that may have been happening in other parts of Atlanta, like, for instance, The Fans, who organized themselves several class zones to the east in Little Five Points. Kevin Dunn and Alfredo Villar, The Fan’s leadership, were highly intelligent. Despite their fluency in several languages, they often they had problems communicating amongst themselves. Their compositions rested upon an intrinsic tension that was by no means uncertain.
David Michaelson, The Nasty Bucks’ drummer, vividly recalls the situation:
"I think it was Kevin [Dunn] from The Fans who came to see us. It was like he said, “Oh, My God!” He went back and gave us the stamp of approval for the Little Five Points crowd, and our (audience) doubled. Overnight it happened. It was a critical turning point. The Fans had been playing around for while, and we’d never even heard of them. They’d been to New York and seen all those bands. They thought we had the New York edge. "
Michaelson remembers Villar and Dunn being impressed that Phillip “Fly” Stone had some awareness of Kafka. The Nasty Bucks never released a recording and disbanded just as the late 70s began to offer new opportunities for creative pop in Atlanta. Their second guitarist, Dan Baird, would eventually write and perform the definitive hick anthem, “Keep Your Hands To Yourself” for his band, The Georgia Satellites. In 1987, a version of The Nasty Bucks reunited for an album co-produced by Peter Buck of R.E.M.; it has never been issued.
Anne Richmond Boston in Brookhaven
Located behind Solomon Goodwin's house was “The Old Schoolhouse,” the Lowery Publishing Group’s original office and studio, where many 1950s/60s artists like Tommy Roe had recorded. The Old Schoolhouse, since demolished for the MARTA rapid rail, was a short walk from The Standard Club. Dating back to the 1860s, The Standard was originally a Jewish social group that relocated to Brookhaven in 1946, where they had constructed a golf course. Soon to be divorced, Bill Rea, the fretless bassist for Glenn Phillips Band, lived on a street that bordered a long stretch of fairway. The sides of Rea’s bungalow were shingled with white asbestos plates that had begun to slowly--if not symbolically--crumble away. The ramshackle garage in his backyard still had a dirt floor, and this is where headquarters for The Swimming Pool Q's was hastily arranged on a plywood pallet in the very cold month of March, 1978.
Bob Elsey and I had sneaked into the Great Southeast Music Hall to see The Sex Pistols' American debut on January 5--a signal event for the Atlanta New Wave-and-Punk scenes. The Sex Pistols was the largest media rodeo since the last chopper lifted off the roof of the Saigon Embassy; tickets were only $3.50. Jack Perkins of The Today Show was hanging around in the Music Hall lobby with his camera crew, eyeballing a handful of Georgia’s Dracula punks with disdain. Perkins did not like The Sex Pistols. “I just don’t get it,” he told me. Earlier in the day, he’d attempted to interview The Pistols at their hotel room. The Pistols agreed to speak with Perkins, if he would pay them five dollars.
“Did you give it to them?” I asked.
“Hell, no!” he snorted, indignant a journalist of Perkins’ stature could somehow be on the take.
Johnny Rotten was exceptionally pallid, and during The Sex Pistols’ set, his protuberant head was surrounded by what appeared to be a nimbus of talc. Having endured the cultural equivalent of medieval warfare in the preceding months, The Sex Pistols seemed taken aback the mechanical hurling of debris by their supporters in front of the stage and by the gawking of the curious in the rear of the club.
The Sex Pistols opening act was an Atlanta band called Cruise-O-Matic. Though by no means a Punk outfit, Cruis-O-Matic had become a popular Atlanta group, specializing in updated Sixties covers, something of a novelty for the period. In his account of The Sex Pistols event (Village Voice, January 16, 1978), writer Robert Christgau referred to Cruis-O-Matic as "The Shitheads," which was not necessarily meant to be a drubbing. (In the same article, Christgau also noted that the average age of those in attendance was 24, citing an academic sociological study conducted at the event.)
Atlanta’s punk factions were livid that a goodtime act like Cruis-O-Matic had been chosen to open for The Sex Pistols. During their set, on a song called “Boot In Your Face,” Daryll Rhoades of HaHaVishnu Orchestra made a guest appearance with a yard-long safety pin attached to his head. “Boot” was a lampoon designed as a provocation for the punks, who merely seemed befuddled.
Daryll Rhoades looked something like Rasputin, had the Czarist holy man consumed Coca-Cola by the case. Rhoades spent his high school years in the south Atlanta arrondissement of Forest Park. An accomplished rock drummer, his loud copy band, The Celestial Voluptuous Banana, had begun performing in 1969 at The Catacombs, a subterranean midtown haunt for Hampton Grease Band and other psychedelic renegades.
In 1975, Rhoades emerged with a batch of musically elaborate social satires, fronting the freaky-shock showmanship of HaHaVishnu Orchestra. They quickly became one of the hottest unsigned bands in America, piling up a pyramid of press clips. In a recent recollection, Rhoades observed, “Rolling Stone wrote, ‘There’s no way they can miss.’ Well, I fooled them and found a way.” It is true that some HaHaVishnu stunts misfired or were poorly timed. During their showcase at Alex Cooley’s Electric Ballroom, a promotion for their single, “Burgers From Heaven,” the group dropped 40 dozen hamburger buns on visiting A&R executives, knocking over their cocktails. At a showcase for Capricorn Records, Rhoades parody of The Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post,” climaxed with the line, “Good Lord, my whole band is dying!” Today, Rhoades, who travels widely as a stand-up comedian, remains active as a musician. “I’m putting out a box-set,” he says. “There’s no music, just a lot of little boxes.”
When HaHaVishnu Orchestra split in 1977, some members joined Cruis-O-Matic, like their lead vocalist, Johnny Hibbert. (In 1980, Hibbert would start his own label, Hibtone, known best for the release of R.E.M.'s debut single, "Radio Free Europe.") All of Cruis-O-Matic had definite physical characteristics, like Hibbert, with his clean-cut cubist head. But the most radical looking character was their frantic blonde drummer, Robert Schmid. Schmid would soon become The Swimming Pool Q's first drummer, staying so until the completion of The Deep End in 1981.
The B-52’s rang down oscillating globes of silver from the fullness of clouds, solids which strike together still in the velvet funnels of historical time. Like Athena, they seemed to spring forth fully formed from the head of Zeus. The group originated during the spring of 1977 as little more than a party-hat gag, or so the legend goes. By December, Danny Beard, an owner of the Little Five Points record shop, Wax N Facts, saw the group playing at a house party behind Poss's Barbque joint in Athens. A week later, thanks to a recommendation from The Fans (Georgia trailblazers in the Manhattan club world), The B-52’s were squeezed on a bill at Max's Kansas City. They drew considerable attention from the Downtown cognoscenti who had been primed well in advance. At the 1st Atlanta Punk Festival (ten days after the Sex Pistols' show on January 5, 1978), everything was conceptually in place for The B52s, less than one year after their formation.
In February, while Bob Elsey and I were arranging the first Swimming Pool Q's material in Florida, Danny Beard had already booked The B-52’s into a budget Atlanta studio (Stone Mountain Music), which had at one time been a dog kennel. With The Fans’ Kevin Dunn and engineer Bruce Baxter, who was a guitarist for Thermos Greenwood, they cut "Rock Lobster" b/w "52 Girls" in 11 hours for less than $500. Released in April, 1978, The B-52’s popularity spread like a field of fire fed by wind, at least on the three preserves in which they roamed: Atlanta, Athens, New York City. With little promotional expertise, Danny Beard managed to move 17,000 copies of "Rock Lobster" so quickly that he could barely keep pace with the back orders. That same month, he arranged a showcase in Atlanta for Seymour Stein of Sire Records (which included on its roster Talking Heads, The Ramones, The Pretenders and Richard Hell). Though Stein's offer was rejected, The B-52’s eventually signed with Warner Brothers Records in the winter of 1979. The speed of their success had been breathtaking.
As inexperienced as Danny Beard may have been, The B-52’s had even less of a professional portfolio, making them one of the few successful embodiments of the New Wave/Punk ideal. An absence of musical training did little to prohibit Keith Strickland from inventing the punk/disco hybridization of American Dance Rock. With Fred Schneider as commentator, The B-52's wound together the camp strands of Popular Culture arising in the post-Hippie era. In particular, Schneider embodied the fascination with 1940s style not uncommon in the mid-70s, when vintage clothing stores first began springing up in the Southeast. Today, when bands with record deals come to Atlanta today to make albums, many of them occupy their spare time in the city's strip joints: The Gold Club, Cheetah III, The Pink Pony, etc. When confronted with this trend, Jefferson Holt, who managed R.E.M. for almost 20 years, shrewdly observed, "That's interesting. All we wanted to do was go to thrift stores."
Fred Schneider’s suave demeanor was offset by the science-fiction sisterhood of Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, whose otherworldly chirping implied, at the very least, a theoretical familiarity with carnal knowledge. (When The B-52’s had flown to New York for their first show, 18 year old Cindy Wilson was still a small-town girl excited about seeing the Eiffel Tower.) The sensibility reflected in The B-52’s’ masterful thrift shop attire extended to their instruments, as well, primarily a Farfisa organ and double-neck Mosrite Guitars, long out-of-fashion in the 1970s Southern Rock climate. Of course, enough can never be said about the late Ricky Wilson, one of the great innovators, whose surf-influenced guitar style separated The B-52s' first albums from the work of their peers.
Athens and New York had influential Art Pop/Pop Art scenes, which had become interconnected socially in a fashion so mysterious as to be beyond the understanding of outside observers in Atlanta. For several years, this was a source of professional jealousy, leading to a mutual derision, at least in private, between Georgia's two rock capitols. As an actual sprawling metropolis with real-world survival concerns, a certain incoherence of image characterized the Atlanta pop scene when taken as a whole. With its unnatural mix of farmers and spoiled students Athens was, by contrast, typical of any Southern college town. But as its exotic music scene developed in abandoned seed stores, it rapidly became vulnerable to charges of snobbism.
Indeed, Athens typified the best and the worst of America's neighborhood music scenes (in this respect, it was probably no different from the Brookhaven of the early 1970s). Like any small town, Athens had its share of backbiting and distrust of outsiders, exacerbated by a surrounding culture of academic rivalry; but it also had a reputation for mutual support. Naturally, as far as Atlanta was concerned, it didn't help that Athens got all the publicity and was, without question, undergoing a Pop supernova, one pulsation following the next. By 1982, however, the leveling-experience of touring would generate a more substantial camaraderie between the towns' musicians, one that outflanked the meanness of their insider contingents. And, from the beginning, outright hostility was mollified by the more ecumenical, and, hence, mediating presence of Danny Beard and his independent record concern, DB Recs.
After the success of “Lobster,” Beard would formalize his Atlanta-based company and, in his capacity as Executive Producer, deliver a string of small-budget records by Southern bands which have been artistically unmatched by any Georgia record company in the state's history. A short list of artists who released their first discs on DB would include The B52s, Anne Richmond Boston, The Coolies, Fetchin' Bones, Guadacanal Diary, Jody Grind, Love Tractor, The Method Actors, Oh OK, Pylon, The Rievers/Zietgeist, Matthew Sweet's Buzz of Delight, Supreme Court and The Swimming Pool Q's.
As the native son of a celebrated Georgia Tech football star in the 1930s, Beard attended Westminster, one of Atlanta's better known private academies. The social aspect of this elite training never completely took hold, and it cannot be said that, when he reached his majority, Beard rushed to make the scene on the city's cocktail circuit of bigmouth power brokers. He had other concerns; namely, old records. In the mid-Seventies, after his graduation from The University of Georgia, he worked at Atlanta's WQAK, "The Big Quack," a low-wattage AM station known for its Big Band playlist and the squawking parrot that perched next to microphone inside the broadcasting booth.
When The Q’s first met Danny Beard at The B52’s’ show in Athens in 1978, we thought he was part of the group. His pant bottoms were six-inches higher than the Jonestown Flood. He was the last man in America with a Fridgedaire full of Wink. Naturally, the New Wave women loved him, until they got to know him--then they loved him even more. Eventually, Danny endorsed The Swimming Pool Q's when the rest of the jury was still out--where it still is--and he was pleased to help us manufacture and promote our first single, "Rat Bait," which was released in February, 1980, on our own label, Chlorinated Records. Perhaps he thought we balanced the occasional preciosity of his Athens stable. "I remember when my epiphany came about The Swimming Pool Q's,” Beard comments today. “It was when I saw you open for Robert Gordan, and Anne played the flute."
The Swimming Pool Q's
In 1976, with $700, Danny and his associate, Harry DeMille, opened Wax N Facts Records in Atlanta's Little Five Points area, an elderly blue-collar shopping district, long in decline. A natural foods co-op (Sevananda) and feminist bookstore (Charis) had already been heralds of change. In short order, Wax N Facts, became a storehouse of used records, offering the latest imported and domestic releases as a supplement. A typically eccentric ad for Wax N Facts appeared in a local alternative weekly in 1978, publicizing the store's "first ever special...to last a fortnight, wherein all Eagle Scouts will receive a ten percent discount from our two dollar prices."
Wax N Facts
Throughout the quasi-Bohemian trajectory of Little Five Points over the last quarter-century, the wooden storefront of Wax N Facts and the shop's used vinyl prices have changed very little. That's the way Danny Beard and his partner seem to like it: out-of-step. Beard's character could have been shaped by his family's Unitarian background. With that sect's admirable tradition of free thinking and dissent, he may have felt compelled to support Georgia's avant-rock mavericks at a time when few people in the South, let alone anyone in the region's "Music Industry," offered any acknowledgment of New Wave-and-Punk, and the change it was about to bring.
To one local observer, The Sex Pistols, with their "relatively sedate demeanor," had been a disappointment during their visit in January, 1978. However, his comments were tempered by this optimistic appraisal:Atlanta, with its long traditions of outrageous musical groups, was probably the wrong city from which to launch the [The Sex Pistols] in this country...Atlanta gained a wealth of publicity that should enhance the wonderfully bizarre music scene in this city and bring it to wider attention for the first time." [Joe Roman, Creative Loafing]But it would be two more years before the new movement turned the international spotlight on Atlanta and Athens as a Fertile Crescent teeming with intellectual prophets of hip.
The Atlanta Journal/Constitution chose to ignore the home front in those days. Beyond that, their "music critic" categorized The Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bullocks as one of the worst albums he had heard all year, "possibly one of the worst ever." In the later months of 1977, an Elvis Costello and Talking Heads co-bill at The Capri (later The Roxy) sold several hundred tickets. (Since the Fans had recently played a date with Talking Heads in New York, their Little Five Points pad on Seminole Ave. became a post-gig jam for the visiting New Wave avatars.) But after The Ramones bombed at an oversize venue, Atlanta's most enduring promoter, Alex Cooley, complained, "I don't know what Punk is, but it sure cost me a lot of money."
To find out what Punk was all about, Cooley might have attended The 1st Atlanta Punk Festival ("Two for one with a Sex Pistols' ticket stubb"). The event featured The Fans and The B-52’s, but it would have been hard to find a better, or more expensive gesture of genuine Punk than the astounding moment when the lead singer for The Knobs, revving a chainsaw, amputated his own prosthetic leg. If the larger promoter's venues found things financially risky, a small club like Rose's Cantina on Spring Street was happy to interrupt its regular schedule of fusion-jazz and country-rock to present New Wave acts like The Fans. The Fans recorded a live show at Rose's with a mobile unit for A & M Records on February 12, 1978 (sadly, a major label contract never materialized for The Fans, and the group had difficulty sustaining its early momentum into the next decade).
In a determining moment at Georgia State University, WRAS opened its format to local and international artists of the New Wave & Punk persuasion. Danny Beard remembers, "WRAS was around in the late Sixties and early Seventies. It had a Freak mentality. Then the Gestapo got involved, and there was some quashing, and the frequency went blank. When it reemerged, it was a much straighter situation…teachers in charge.” But public service programs wouldn’t last. By 1978, through the prodding of knowledgeable deejays and free spirits, WRAS had begun its progressive transformation from a student broadcasting laboratory into the college radio powerhouse that became known as Album 88 in 1980s.
Following his return from England to promote the release of his second solo album, Swim In The Wind, on Virgin, Glenn Phillips hosted a show at WRAS and asked Bob Elsey and I to be his guests. We played the demo tape of early Swimming Pool Q's songs we had made in Florida. A few weeks later, Phillips again interviewed us on a local TV show during which we performed our song "Rat Bait" as a duo, since we didn't have a band. After this, our first critical notice appeared, written by an Atlanta journalist, in the national trade journal, Performance: "Just Plain Awful."
It would be six months before the The Swimming Pool Q’s name would be spelled correctly in the city's press. In front of Devo at The Agora Ballroom in Atlanta on December 27, we were forced by management to play two one-hour sets; during the second hour we developed a stratagem to blunt the hooting of displeased customers: Never Stop Playing Between Songs. Later in February 1979, we returned to the Agora where we were double-billed with The Thirsty Dudes, our bibulous friends who played songs by The Beatles and The Stones. The following week, a writer for Creative Loafing, commenting on the show, wrote, "Pitting the classics of rock and roll against the songs of a newly emerging band's studied esoterica was like Haystacks [Calhoun] wrestling a midget."The Swimming Pool Q's and "Steve"Whatever tribulations The Swimming Pool Q's may have experienced during 1979, the Atlanta music scene had reached a point of departure. No better citation exists for this claim than the case of The Brains, who first surfaced as part of The Fans faction. Like The B-52's, with whom they were often paired in concert, The Brains was an idea totalized from its inception early in 1978. And like their drummer, Charles Woolf, who had been in Thermos Greenwood, The Brains were veteran musicians. They instantaneously mounted confident presentations of the brooding mind-songs of their primary writer, Tom Gray. Gray's chilling masterpiece, "Money Changes Everything," was an urgent procession that The Brains transmuted into an anthem of Promethean struggle.
As with The B-52's' "Rock Lobster," "Money Changes Everything" was recorded by Bruce Baxter at Stone Mountain Studios. Released early in 1979, "Money" slowly became a sensation with rock critics across America, who voted it "Single of The Year" in the 1979 Village Voice Pazz & Jop Poll, a time when The Voice was at its peak of national influence. Just as it approached its climax, "Money" collapsed in the kind of resignation and defiance found only in true nobility. Perfectly, the song achieved its maximum impact as the Reagan Administration began to assume its skeletal shapes from the leftover dragon's teeth of the 1960s.
To be sure, The Brains, too, had their share of problems. Drummer Charles Woolf remembers that, after a performance, “We were jumped by sailors in Virginia Beach. Brian [Smithwick, The Brains’ bassist] held them off with a penknife. They followed us back to the motel and wrote on our windows with soap, ‘Lame Brains.’ I guess the name turned around and bit us on the ass a couple of times.” The Brains released their debut album on Mercury Records in May, 1980, the same month that the 688 club opened its doors in the former location of Rose’s Cantina.
An alternative network of clubs had taken shape in the Northeast, though not quite yet in The South. It was the beginning of a grass roots circuit, which, like Vaudeville, seems to be almost gone now. The Eastern U.S. Roadmap was gradually checked-off with populist word-of-mouth dives, as well as flagships of exclusivity like The Mudd Club in Manhattan. Quite often, even during mid-week, a hundred or more fans would show up no matter who was playing, as long as it was vaguely New Wave-and-Punk. When 688 finally opened, it became an important stop for artists like The Bongos, Richard Hell and acts on I.R.S. Records who were booked by The Police’s agency, F.B.I.
Indeed, partners Steve May and Tony Evans modeled 688 on hip New York venues like The Danceteria and The Mudd Club. 688's early days were rambunctious, reflecting the undercurrent of tension ever present in the alternative pop world. In July, 1980, the drummer for The Restraints, the Atlanta punk group, was involved in a guitar-slinging fracas with a member of a British act called The Jags; The Restraint required 25 stitches in his head, and the club had to be “evacuated.” During the week of September 15-20, Iggy Pop launched a weeklong crusade that served as a belated Grand Opening. Iggy spent most of his time in the 688 Ladies Room each night, when he wasn't hurling abuse in the direction of whomever happened to be standing nearby or brandishing his penis for anatomical inspection. Midway through his weeklong siege of self, Iggy demanded that Steve May and I locate a saxophonist for him in order to satisfy another moment of musical fancy. "Find me the horn player," barked Iggy, "or I won't remember you!"
By fall, 1980, the Atlanta/Athens scene had begun to catalyze. The Panic Records compilation, STANDARDEVIATION, hit the stores, and a release party was scheduled at Atlanta’s The Agora Ballroom that featured the acts which had taken part in the album: Kao4s, Operator, No Exit, The Basics, The Swimming Pool Q’s and The Restraints whose song, "I Cannot Be A Nun," contained the memorable line, "I can't be a nun, cause I'm too damn fond of fun." Very few Atlanta artists in the New Wave/Punk camp had released records of any kind, so the sampler received positive notices as far away as The New York Rocker. Creative Loafing, prognosticated:
...All in all, STANDARDEVIATION is a collection representative of what was happening with music in Atlanta in 1980. It will make a nice nostalgia piece in later years, and it makes entertaining listening now.
Chris Wood of the Restraints and "Nun"
Also, in the fall, The Brains had already begun recording their second album, Electronic Eden, for Mercury Records; an Athens band named R.E.M. began appearing in Creative Loafing strip-ads for Atlanta clubs; The Swimming Pool Q’s began preparing to record The Deep End (released in May, 1981); The B-52’s second disc, Wild Planet, was stacked on shelves for sale; their Athens' proteges, Pylon, entered Stone Mountain Studios with their co-producers, Bruce Baxter and The Fans' guitarist, Kevin Dunn, to put together an album for DB Recs.
Kevin Dunn and the Regiment of Women
Like The B-52’s, Pylon was both a "Dance Rock" band and, from the beginning, a fully realized artistic concept, though more streamlined. Their debut single the prior spring, "Cool" b/w "Dub," authoritatively defined the philosophical idea of Pop Minimalism in American song, and so it would be with the Pylon catalog to come. When the time arrived later in the 1980s, Pylon must have been the only band in world history to "terminate" by issuing a tersely worded manifesto. Aesthetically, Pylon and The Swimming Pool Q's could hardly have been more different, so it should come as no surprise that members of The Q's were closer to them personally than we were to the other Athens' bands.
Pylon Termination Manifesto
When The Swimming Pool Q’s pulled-in for a soundcheck at The Milestone in Charlotte one afternoon in 1981, the owner crawled out from under the building, where he'd been asleep, and told us about a new band called “Ream.” The weekend before, they had a line of fans stretched around the block in The Milestone's working class neighborhood. Ream sounded like it might be metal, and it was with some relief when we finally translated this as a reference to the Athens quartet, R.E.M.
REM's first single, "Radio Free Europe," had already been released on Hibtone, an Atlanta indie label presided over by Johnny Hibbert, the former vocalist with Cruise-O-Matic. Between their fledgling manager, Jefferson Holt, (who, as a Tar Heel native, had ties to musicians in the Raleigh/Winston-Salem axis) and guitarist Peter Buck (who was most certainly aware of The DBs/Let's Active singles), R.E.M was about to make the fateful connection with Mitch Easter and Don Dixon. Easter would produce their first EP, Chronic Town (1983), and then, with Don Dixon, the full-length Murmer (1984) (Dixon had been a bassist with Raleigh group, Arrogance, which had begun in 1969). Soon, Danny Beard expanded his Atlanta production locus to include Easter's Drive-In Studio, the new Muscle Shoals of Beatle-Pop. The DBs' guitarist Chris Stamey, with Mitch Easter, produced the second Pylon lp, Chomp , which featured their masterpiece, "Crazy" (later covered by R.E.M.). The joining of the intellectual pop domains of Georgia and North Carolina in the early 1980s proved to be a major turning point in the history of Creative Southern Music. The pincer assault that followed, spearheaded by R.E.M., would send many of the Old Team Honchos into a world-class rout, at least for awhile; certainly geographical expectations were to be reconfigured for the rest of the Eighties' decade.
In March, 1982, Pylon had released their single, "Crazy," to great local acclaim. The Swimming Pool Q’s joined them May 8 on Jimmy Carter's Inaugural Stage at The Arts Festival of Atlanta, held then at Piedmont Park. The Q’s were bleary-eyed disciples of Orpheus, rising from a claustrophobic underworld of clubland into an afternoon of solar detonation that irradiated the park's grassy incline. Over a thousand fans were enthusiastic about both bands, and, no matter how differing the two may have been aesthetically, the onset of this new ecuminicalism was the finest Spirit of The Age.
Swimming Pool Q's Gig Poster
From the beginning, the audience for the Southern New Wave bands--The B-52’s, The Brains, Pylon, R.E.M., The Swimming Pool Q’s, and others to come--was comprised of very bright outsiders, particularly in our native region. Since the early 19th Century, when "The South" was first revealed to itself as an historical construct, it has had contradictory attitudes toward eccentricity and individual expression. The South that created George Wallace also produced Tennessee Williams, and it took a gang of New York theater critics to gun him down. In the Fifties and early Sixties, with its irrational Cold War fears and the bitter fight to sustain segregation, there had been within the South an undeniable hostility toward political alternative and cultural progress, from which the region is only now beginning to set itself free. Outside of The Civil Rights Movement (which, as a people's crusade, functioned beyond the sphere of conventional politics), pop musicians from Little Richard to the present, as much as any artistic or literary grouping, have advanced The South upon The Royal Road toward sectional liberation from demons past. It has been a long march, one that is now too far along to fail, despite the lapses of recent years. Further, as contemporaries, the bands mentioned above found themselves in transit to the creative pop diffusion of the first half of the 80s. From its epicenters in Georgia and North Carolina, a dispersal of creative energy soon penetrated every backwater in the region, creating for aspiring Southern musicians new identities and fresh possibilities, passing on plans for the Clock Bomb of Brain Pop that, as this story ends, was still bound to blast.