Once upon a time, children, rock ‘n’ roll had grown so stagnant, and so predictable, that dramatic shifts were inevitable. They were in the wind; they were necessary.
It was the late 1970s, and radio – the king of everything at the time – was bloated with the cookie–cutter, pseudo–symphonic bombast of Styx, Kansas, Journey and their ilk.
Slowly at first, bands began to emerge playing simpler, more straightforward guitar–bass–drums songs. Punk, particularly the English variety, was hatched like the eggs of a blowfly in the rotting corpses of Rod Stewart and Electric Light Orchestra. Punk was the anti–ELO.
America gave birth to the Ramones, Blondie, Television, Talking Heads, Devo and a thousand other bands that used the punk aesthetic ... some added to it, perhaps a keyboard, or cartoony stage shtick, or retro–rock vocal harmonies cadged from their prehistoric forefathers. This went back across the pond, and Great Britain produced Elvis Costello & the Attractions, Joe Jackson and the Police.
Nobody knows for sure who started calling this music “new wave,” but a wave it certainly was, and eventually it washed the Styxes and ELOs right off the landscape and into the bargain bin.
Guitarist and songwriter Jeff Calder started the Swimming Pool Q’s in Atlanta during the early days of this seismic shift. A song–crafter of the first order, Calder gave the universe “Rat Bait,” “Big Fat Tractor,” “Little Misfit,” “Celestion” and other gold–medal, bite–sized nuggets of quirky, fun rock ‘n’ roll goodness. The Q’s had great and uber–cool vocalists in Calder and Anne Richmond Boston, a wonderful lead player in Bob Elsey, and a stage show that was one of the most fun in the world.
The Q’s signed to almighty A&M Records in 1982, and put out two well-received albums, The Deep End and The Swimming Pool Q’s, both jammed groove–to–groove with catchy, funny, intensely musical rock ‘n’ roll, with power pop choruses and lyrics that often championed a dark, literate southern way of looking at things.
Sadly, inexplicably, the Q’s never hit the Big Time, the way their Georgia pals like R.E.M. did; high–profile American tours alongside the Police and Lou Reed didn’t raise their profile by much.
Despite the band’s absence from the history books, The Swimming Pool Q’s never went away – a deluxe reissue of The Deep End several years ago brought the critical spotlight around again, and 2003’s Royal Academy of Reality – partially recorded in Savannah with producer Phil Hadaway – was praised all over the musical world (Wire U.K. called it “flat–out astonishing”).
The Swimming Pool Q’s – Calder, Boston, Elsey, bassist Robert Schmid and drummer Bill Burton – are playing the Jinx Saturday, Aug. 20.
Calder took time out from mixing a brand–new Q’s single, “The System of Love,” to talk about the band, and history, and the myriad glories of Georgia rock ‘n’ roll.
When you began the band in Atlanta in the mid 1970s, after moving here from Florida, what effect did the Hampton Grease Band have on you?
Jeff Calder: I had originally seen the Hampton Grease Band in early 1970. Here was a group that was dealing, in a completely different way, this world of Atlanta, Georgia, the South – dealing with it in a way that was completely unique. And with a great deal of confidence. And a sense of humor. To me, that was a really powerful statement. And to somebody who was trying to figure out how to be a writer, or to do something creative, those were both good influences.
I really didn’t know Bruce very well, but I later met Glenn Phillips he and I formed a musical bond, and he was instrumental in helping me get the Swimming Pool Q’s together. It was through Glenn that I met Bob Elsey, our guitar player, and Anne Boston, our singer. So they were a very important part of my life.
The Q’s came up at a time when Skynyrd was king in the South, disco was all the rage and punk hadn’t really exploded yet. What made you persevere with your music through all that?
Jeff Calder: I guess I just didn’t know enough about the music business to discourage me. In the years since then, I’ve had a lot of extreme and diverse experiences in the music business – if I had known then the things I know now, I don’t really know whether I would’ve done this or not. The Swimming Pool Q’s were part of a pioneering generation of southern art bands. The whole world that we were in, not just in Atlanta and Athens but in New York City, Cleveland, London – on a certain level, all of these bands were art projects. They weren’t conventional rock bands, who didn’t come from this egghead world that we came from.
The B–52’s, R.E.M., Pylon, the Brains, all these bands had a real intellectual component. So that really drove things. And the fact that it was a quixotic venture really was just fine, I think.
At that time, there was very little interest, regionally, in what we were doing. In fact the first really new wave bands, like the B–52’s, they had to go and play in New York. The notion of going out and attacking the region was something that they – wisely – realized wasn’t in their best interests.
But for a number of different reasons, the Swimming Pool Q’s really thrived on playing regionally. As an early new wave, punk–type band, we were able to confront those things first–hand and try to win people over.
After the B–52’s happened in ’79, did all the label A&R guys start sniffing around Georgia looking for the next thing?
Jeff Calder: I think they just saw the B–52’s as an anomaly. I’d gone to meet with major label people as early as 1980, before our first album came out. So they were receptive to us, but it took quite a long time – for us, Atlanta and Athens were very busy, and it was a very active time. You felt like you were on the crest of a wave or something, because it was such a unique and original scene. But the rest of the world – New York, or L.A. – they really weren’t totally aware of that until maybe 1982 or so, when a more regional picture begins to emerge. The dbs, Mitch Easter, R.E.M., the Swimming Pool Q’s, industry interest doesn’t really light up until then. Maybe four years into our existence.
Great Southern records – Let’s Active, early R.E.M., and the Q’s too. So the 800–pound gorilla in the room is this – why didn’t it happen for the Q’s? A lot of lesser acts got real big!
Jeff Calder: I guess it depends on what that means. We had deals with A&M and with Capitol, and that was really quite an achievement at that time. In Atlanta, just getting a record deal was a great deal of success.
But as far as breaking through to a mass audience ... the Swimming Pool Q’s are a complicated band. You have a male singer, a female singer, material that’s funny, material that’s satirical and material that’s serious. That’s all tall order to ask a record company to promote. America’s a big place, and to ask America to accept something that’s that complex would have to rest on some kind of luck.
Take R.E.M. Very singular focus to what they did at the time. That’s much easier to promote than something that’s as conceptually complex as the Swimming Pool Q’s.
Memories of Savannah?
Jeff Calder: I grew up in Charleston, and Savannah is very similar to Charleston. So I’ve always had an emotional connection to Savannah.
There was no “new wave circuit” in the late ‘70s, and through tenacity, somehow we got booked all over the south, wherever we could get booked.
Savannah had the Night Flight Cafe. Terrific guys, and for whatever reason they were very open to us. It was one of the few established venues in the region that was open to some kind of creative music. We were really well–received there.
We had toured with the Police in the South, so we had a bit of a growing reputation. We began playing there really early on, and we have great memories of doing that.
The audience there was more sophisticated, and we could stretch out and be more improvisational – and get away with it!
Swimming Pool Q’s
Where: The Jinx, 127 W. Congress St.
When: At 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 20
Artist’s website: swimmingpoolqs.com