Album of the Week, October 19: The Swimming Pool Q’s

Swimming-Pool-Qs-CDJeff Calder was born and raised in Lakeland, FL. He developed a fondness for southern literature and offbeat music, notably Captain Beefheart. When he discovered Georgia’s answer to the Captain, the Hampton Grease Band, he realized that it might be possible to merge the two. While working as a freelance music journalist, he was introduced to Atlanta guitarist Bob Elsey by HGB’s Glenn Phillips. Elsey’s fondness for off-kilter rock and Hendrix guitar pyrotechnics helped inspired Calder to form a band. The pair flirted with heading to New York, but decided that to pursue their distinctly southern lyrical vision, they should base the band in Atlanta. The Swimming Pool Q’s (named punningly after mishearing a warning of a “swinging pool cue” in a seedy bar) debuted in 1978 and built a solid following in the slowly emerging southern New Wave movement that included Pylon, the B-52’s, R.E.M., Let’s Active, and the dB’s. Determined to prove that southern music was more than what he called the “Boogie Establishment,” Calder wrote literate, often biting lyrics that both celebrated and dissected the complexities of the South. Wedding the words to music that owed little to the jangle-pop that defined most of southern alternative music, he and Elsey fronted a rotating cast for a few years. After a successful self-released single, they signed to DB records for a solid debut, The Deep End, featuring harmonies from Anne Richmond Boston. The disc sold well and caught the attention of the major labels. Eventually A&M signed the band, now a steady quintet with drummer Billy Burton and bassist J.E. Garnett.

Title The Swimming Pool Q’s
Act The Swimming Pool Q’s
Label A & M Release Date Fall 1984
Producer David Anderle
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
  1. The Bells Ring
  2. Pull Back My Spring
  3. Purple Rivers
  4. The Knave
  5. Some New Highway
  6. Just Property
  7. Silver Slippers
  8. She’s Bringing Down the Poison
  9. Celestion
  10. Sacrificial Altar

Deciding to make the most of the band’s talents, Boston was moved to co-lead vocalist, a smart move that finalized the Q’s distinctive sound. Calder’s distinctive southern vision and gruff but musical vocals, Boston’s enchanting clarion voice, Elsey’s stunning guitar work and Burton and Garnett’s steady underpinnings created a sound that should have made them stars.

The disc kicks off with a crisp drumbeat and launches into a powerful musical journey in The Bells Ring. With just a bit of jangle and a whole lot of muscle, the band propel Calder’s tale of escaping bad romance on a bus. Boston’s vocal is transcendent, wringing just the right emotions from each line as she regrets leaving some things and celebrates leaving others. Using the romantic departure as a metaphor for the erosion of the best and the worst of the Old South, the Q’s announce their mission with power and clarity.

Pull Back My Spring brings Calder to the mic for a growling exploration of generational tension. With wonderful imagery and nicely crafted similes, he poises his character on the edge of something that could be great, given the chance. Boston turns in a remarkable vocal on Purple Rivers, a nostalgic ode to changing times. Although steeped in Southern themes, it resonates with all the changes in Reagan’s America. Things take a nastier twist with The Knave, a look at a scheming character and the twists of his dark mind. Calder’s vocals are flawless, spitting out his distaste with melodic bile.

Some New Highway wraps up side one with one of the band’s finest moments. Some New Highway mourns a culture being paved over by strip malls while holding out hope that the changes might also grind away some of the worst parts of the past. Boston’s vocal is a revelation, making the most of the vignettes that form the song; Calder adds a risky spoken word bridge that he pulls of with sincerity instead of his usual arch vocalizing. Elsey proves that he was one of the most sadly overlooked guitarists of the 80s; his ringing leads swirl beautifully around Boston’s vocals and his solo is aptly heartbreaking.

After driving down that highway, the Q’s blast apart the remnants of the landscape in Just Property. Boston and Calder share a lead vocal that blends beautifully while Elsey swings a wrecking ball of guitar chords over the driving rhythm. Majestic and devastating at once, it’s a stunning opener to side two. Boston takes the lead on the next pair, a couple of southern gothic stories. Silver Slippers is gorgeous, fragile tale of privilege and crumbling patriarchy with a dark sting. She’s Bringing Down the Poison is a tale of vengeance that could fit in with a compilation of the finest southern short stories. Boston’s fine, nuanced delivery of the pair shows off her talent nicely and brings the characters fully to life. (Bonus points go to Calder for opening Poison with “She’s screaming like a phone off the hook too long.”) Calder returns to the lead for the touching Celestion, a grand love song that shows he can sing with passion of many stripes.

The Q’s major label debut wraps up with the epic Sacrificial Altar, a song of dark enchantment over the radio waves merged with a chorus of aching desire. The mix is heady stuff, and Calder and Boston once again blend their vocals to great effect. Over the course of these ten tracks, the Swimming Pool Q’s show of an amazing musical consistency, blending five talented individuals into a stunningly cohesive unit. They spin out their distinctly southern tales in a way that makes them universal, achieving Calder an Elsey’s original vision with skill and charm. Dark, literate, musical, and fun, it’s a unique slice of early “College Rock” and an overlooked gem of 80s music.

FURTHER LISTENING: The Q’s talent got them some major attention, opening for Devo and the Police while supporting their first album and landing a plum spot supporting Lou Reed on his New Sensations tour after their second album. Despite their talent and initial support, however, they never quite caught the public’s ear. After one more album, Blue Tomorrow, A&M dropped them and Boston left the band. The remaining quartet soldiered on, releasing an EP and two more albums. All of the Q’s work is solid. The Deep End is rougher, but it works well. Blue Tomorrow is more polished than the eponymous disc, for better and for worse. After two decades out of print, the two A&M discs were given their first-ever CD release in one package, a fine way to enjoy the best that this talented quintet had to offer.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending October 20, 1984

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 I Just Called to Say I Love You Stevie Wonder 2
R & B I Just Called to Say I Love You Stevie Wonder 2
Country I Don’t Know A Thing About Love (The Moon Song) Conway Twitty 1
Adult Contemporary I Just Called to Say I Love You Stevie Wonder 2
Rock On the Dark Side John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band 5
Album Purple Rain Prince and the Revolution 12

Jack_Wagner_-_All_I_NeedThis week sees TV soap opera General Hospital contribute another hit to the Hot 100. Actor and singer Rick Springfield revitalized his career on the soap with a very successful 80s presence on the charts. Patti Austin and James Ingram’s duet Baby, Come to Me found a second life when played on the show, eventually going to #1. Christopher Cross’ Think of Laura was a hit in its own right but received significant play on the show.

Actor Jack Wagner played Frisco Jones on the show and decided to try a singing career as well. This week his All I Need enters the Hot 100 at #88. It made it all the way to #2 in early 1985. Unlike Springfield, however, Wagner never managed another Top 40 hit and has reverted to a reasonably successful TV acting career.

Song of the Day, October 17: The Old Man’s Song (Don Quixote)

TaborAqabaQuixoteToday’s song is The Old Man’s Song. It was written by John Tams and Bill Caddick while both were in the innovative folk band Home Service. The band performed it live, but did not record it for many years. In the meantime, June Tabor — who recorded a number of Caddick compositions over the years — included it on her 1988 album Aqaba. While not exactly a concept album, the disc features many story songs, most of which look at the lives of complex heroes.

The Old Man’s Song, subtitled with its principal character on Tabor’s album, features the Man of La Mancha looking back over his life. It’s a powerful, contemplative song and an unusual look at a character usually celebrated in dashing tales and quirky adventures.

Tabor’s quietly powerful vocal is as flawless as ever, capturing the aged spirit of the knight. The track also features one of her earliest collaborations with pianist Huw Warren, who became a regular fixture on her albums and in her live shows. His sympathetic keyboard work provides just the right musical backdrop.

Enjoy this great song today.

Song of the Day, October 16: Life of Crime by the Triffids

TriffidsBornCrimeToday’s song is Life of Crime from the Triffids’ acclaimed second album, Born Sandy Devotional. Vocalist and songwriter David McComb described the disc as autobiographical, and the scenes are very evocative of life in western Australia. This track conjures up the oppressive heat of summer there, blending that feeling with a deep lust for a person who is better left alone. It’s one of McComb’s most cinematic songs and his slow, deep delivery matches the images nicely.

Sunlight was hot, and your mother was calling
My chest burning, rising falling
Dog licking drips from our garage tap
Miles from nowhere just a little dot on the map
I believe you will lead me to a life of crime

Enjoy this dramatic song today.

Song of the Day, October 15: All the Children Sing by Todd Rundgren

ToddChildrenToday’s song is the opening track of Todd Rundgren’s 1978 mini-masterpiece, The Hermit of Mink Hollow. A cohesive set of twelve songs, unlike the frequently sprawling and experimental discs that feature throughout his career, it’s a delightful collection of pop gems. Much of the album is dark or meditative, reflecting his recent breakup. On the surface, the opener is a different thing, a celebration of music. It has a dark undertone, however, with vignettes describing isolation and dark characters. Each receives inspiration as a bell in their heads rings. Music, then, is a universal language that ties us together, light days and dark. It’s a complex lyrical concept delivered in a fun pop setting, a dichotomy that’s perfectly Todd.

All the children sing
All the birds are chirping harmony
The scent of love is in the air
Sunset on the sea
The angel of the Lord
Just declared we aren’t worth a thing
The galaxy is null and void
All the children sing

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, October 14: Strange Affair by Richard and Linda Thompson

RLTFirstAffairToday’s song is Strange Affair by Richard and Linda Thompson. After recording three albums together, the duo took a brief hiatus while focusing on their life on a Sufi community. They returned in 1978 with First Light, an uneven, fairly subdued collection that includes a handful of real gems. One of these is Strange Affair, an unusual song in their catalog. Atypically for Richard, it features only the most minimal guitar work and no solo. The instrumentation is mostly keyboard and oboe, weaving a quiet, fragile backdrop for Linda’s vocals. It’s one of the best showcases of her singing on the couple’s albums, allowing her particularly crystalline delivery to shine. The lyrics of isolation and despair are not unusual Thompson fare, but the imagery is particularly strong, underscored by the gentle delivery. Richard’s harmonies and subtle guitar and mandolin touches make this one of his least visible contributions to a Richard and Linda album, but it works brilliantly, making the most of their partnership in a new, compelling way.

Enjoy this darkly beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, October 13: (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame by Elvis Presley

ElvisMarieToday’s song is (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame. It was written by the prolific team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, who racked up a string of Top 40 hits in the late 50s and early 60s. Marie was originally recorded by Del Shannon, who included it on his debut album Runaway with Del Shannon but did not release it as a single.

Elvis did release the song as a double-A-side with Little Sister, another Pomus/Shuman composition. (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame is a quick, urgent number over a Bo Diddley beat. The intensity of the song apparently inspired the King, who transcended his long string of successful but syrupy Adult Contemporary ballads and delivered one of his finest vocals.

The song is a classic wish-him-well-with-my-ex track, knocking out the tale of heartbreak in just over two minutes.

Would you believe that yesterday
This girl was in my arms and swore to me
She’d be mine eternally
And Marie’s the name of his latest flame

It has a Country/R&B crossover flavor reminiscent of Presley’s early work; maybe that’s what made it resonate. Whatever the case, it sounds like the King was having fun with this one, and it stands as a perfect gem of early rock.

Enjoy this wonderful classic track today.

Album of the Week, October 12: The Naked Shakespeare by Peter Blegvad

BlegvadNakedPeter Blegvad was born in New York City and raised in Connecticut. When he was 14, his family moved to England, where he attended St. Christopher School. He played in a number of bands, usually alongside Anthony Moore. When Moore moved to Hamburg after their graduation, he asked Blegvad to join him there to form a new band. The pair hooked up with vocalist Dagmar Krause, forming the avant-cabaret / naive rock unit Slapp Happy. After two-and-a-half albums as a trio, they merged with art rockers Henry Cow for two discs. Blegvad and Moore felt increasingly alienated from the combo’s direction and went their own ways. His next project found him writing literate, intricate lyrics to go with music written by former Henry Cow bassist John Greaves. The resulting art-rock concept, 1977’s Kew. Rhone. was credited to the two men and vocalist Lisa Herman. Blegvad then turned focus to his successful cartooning career while occasionally appearing on other people’s recordings. Finally, in 1982, he entered the studio with friend Andy Partridge (of XTC) as producer and created his first proper solo disc, the highlight of his varied career.

Title The Naked Shakespeare
Act Peter Blegvad
Label Virgin Release Date 1983
Producer Andy Partridge (Dave Stewart, track one)
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
  1. How Beautiful You Are
  2. Weird Monkeys
  3. Naked Shakespeare
  4. Irma
  5. Like A Baby
  6. Powers In the Air
  7. You Can’t Miss It
  8. Karen
  9. Vermont
  10. Lonely Too
  11. Blue Eyed William
  12. First Blow Struck
  13. Major Minor [bonus track]

Whether writing songs solo or collaborating with Moore or Greaves, the common thread through Blegvad’s work is a literate lyrical approach filtered through dark whimsy, paired with music either deceptively simple or directly intricate. The Naked Shakespeare distills this approach, showing off his skill for creating great pop songs with bite, smarts, and frequently a sense of fun. Rather than the simple cabaret sounds or dense art rock of his previous collaborations, this disc is based on very 1983 soundscapes, with smart guitar leads, direct rhythm sections, and evocative synth work. Besides Blegvad, Greaves and Partridge, drummer Anton Fier (Golden Palominos) and keyboard/synth wizard David Lord appear on most tracks, forming a strong in-studio band that gives a cohesive feel to the whole enterprise.

Things kick off with the haunting How Beautiful You Are, composed with Greaves. It’s a powerful postapocalyptic love song, filled with eerie background noises and dark musical spaces. It features a strong vocal from Blegvad, who up to now had seldom sung (and only occasionally spoken) his own words on record. The carefully crafted track is one of his finest and welcomes the listener to Blegvad’s curious world perfectly.

The songs vary from the dark to the cryptic to the whimsical, and the sequencing makes the most of the variety. Weird Monkeys is a darkly bemused look at the modern human race, balding primates who “squat before their boxes” to gain information and entertainment. Somehow Blegvad manages to skewer and celebrate humanity all in one witty package. The title track strikes a middle ground, and elliptical story about the creative process. Blegvad turns in another charming vocal, this time quiet and wistful. Up next is a nightmare song, the dark Irma, also composed with Greaves. The soundscapes are barren and the vocals are detached, creating a sense of menace that matches the grim tale. The fact that the song’s title character appears only as an object and victim is a dark twist that makes the inertial dream all the more gripping.

Like A Baby, the last Greaves collaboration on the disc, is sub-titled “an exploded pop song,” an apt description of much of Blegvad’s work. It’s a curious, stream-of-consciousness narrative that Blegvad intones over a brief, surprising set of musical moments, serving as a good palate cleanser after the dark Irma. On Powers In the Air, the singer returns to forces outside his control, seeming intent to challenge them despite their intensity. It harkens back to his Slapp Happy work with a nice modern pop framework. You Can’t Miss It is a charming, brief existentialist meditation, a fine moment in the grand mix.

Blegvad resurrects an old Slapp Happy demo with an updated version of Karen, a tale of doomed love. It’s the closest to Top 40 territory he ever gets, and the subversive pop works very well indeed. In a just world, this would have been a hit somewhere. Vermont is another literate meditation, exploring chance and fate. What could be ponderous is instead inspiring, brightened by the musical setting and a wonderfully inquisitive vocal tone. Blegvad flirts with classic pop again in Lonely Too, a song of romantic yearning and isolation. The fact that his loneliness is captured in a strange dream about Ezra Pound turns it on its head in a delightfully Blegvad way.

Another Slapp Happy track returns with Blue-Eyed William, originally sung by Dagmar Krause. Her vocal was eerie and detached, creating a mysterious feel. Blegvad’s intonation is more direct and heavy, creating a sense of menace rather than mystery which works to showcase the versatility of a good song. The wrap-up is a grim, ultimately optimistic epic. First Blow Struck would fit on a Henry Cow or Greaves collaboration but is more streamlined. Majestic and oddly compelling, it makes a fine wrap-up to this wonderful adventure. The CD release features a quirky coda. Major Minor was the B-side of the single from Blegvad’s next album, but it fits well on The Naked Shakespeare. A great bit of wordplay and romantic misadventure, it actually wraps up the album even better than the original closer, providing a wink and a bow as the minstrel leaves the stage.

FURTHER LISTENING: Peter Blegvad’s musical career is a set of collaborations and long breaks punctuated by a handful of solid albums. The collaborations tend toward the art/prog side of his work; they’re great for what they are and always interesting, but generally not high on my listening list. An exception is his one disc as a “member” of the Golden Palominos, Blast of Silence, in which the ever-changing lineup — including Matthew Sweet, Don Dixon, and T Bone Burnett in this case — gives him a nice backdrop for some solid songs.

After Shakespeare, he released the similar Knights Like Us, which has some great moments but is neither as adventurous nor as cohesive. Downtime is a set of experiments, demos, and oddities that has its lovely moments. From there, his occasional solo albums are more stripped-down, almost folky affairs that feature continued smart lyrics and a fun sense of melody. The highlights are the wonderful King Strut, possibly his strongest set of songs but less diverse than Shakespeare, and Just Woke Up. Always willing to reinvent his own songs, Blegvad also created a sort of unplugged greatest hits album, Choices Under Pressure, a good overview of his songs that pushes the great lyrical content to the fore.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending October 13, 1984

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 I Just Called to Say I Love You Stevie Wonder 1
R & B I Just Called to Say I Love You Stevie Wonder 1
Country Uncle Pen Ricky Skaggs 1
Adult Contemporary I Just Called to Say I Love You Stevie Wonder 1
Rock On the Dark Side John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band 4
Album Purple Rain Prince and the Revolution 11

HoneydrippersThis week sees a song with multiple hit versions debut on the Hot 100 by a group with members who hit the charts in multiple bands. Sea of Love was written by John Phillip Baptiste, who recorded as Phil Phillips, in 1959. His version went to #1 on the R&B charts and #2 on the Hot 100. In 1982, Del Shannon took it to #33 as he rejuvenated his career.

This week the Honeydrippers debut the song at #62. The one-off supergroup featured vocals by Robert Plant and guitars by Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Nile Rodgers. The quartet notched 17 aggregate Top 40 hits with Led Zeppelin, the Yardbirds and Chic.

BONUS CHART FACT: Stevie Wonder pulls off an unsusal feat by taking #1 on three charts at once. I Just Called to Say I Love You tops the Hot 100, R&B, and Adult Contemporary charts for the first week this week. Curiously, it spent three weeks atop each chart.

Song of the Day, October 10: Song for Thirza

SongForThirzaToday’s song is Song For Thirza, written by the amazing Lal Waterson. Lal and her siblings — Mike and Norma — were orphaned young and raised by their grandmother, Eliza Ward. Helping in the household was a family friend and a fixture in the children’s life, Thirza. Lal wrote this beautiful, haunting tribute while composing songs for what became her brilliant collaboration with Mike, Bright Phoebus. They recorded a demo but did not include it on the album.

Thirty years later, producer David Suff  brought together an amazing array of folk talents to celebrate that album. Shining Bright features smart covers of nine tracks from the 1972 disc as well as interpretations of five songs not included in the original listing. One of the finest moments is a tender treatment of Song For Thirza, sung by Norma Waterson — one of the finest interpreters of her sister’s unique vision — with her husband Martin Carthy, daughter Eliza Carthy, and longtime family friend Ben Ivitsky rounding out the sound.

Enjoy this flawless reading of a touching song today.

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