The Swimming Pool Q’s – The A&M Years 1984-1986
I remember when the Swimming Pool Q’s signed to A&M Records in 1984. It was a big deal, a cause for genuine excitement in a city – and region – whose musical treasures were too often overlooked by the rest of the country, especially the know-it-all label execs in New York and L.A. But R.E.M.’s critical breakthrough with Murmur the year prior, along with the B-52’s ongoing success, prompted A&R scouts to consider some of the area’s other up-and-comers. It was still an uphill battle – bands had to really work for it, but the Pool Q’s were one of the hardest working groups Atlanta boasted in the early ’80s, and their debut album The Deep End along with heavy touring had earned them a respectable following. They were the most popular band in town, and creatively they were bursting at the seams. I know it sounds weird now, but at the time, getting a major label record deal was a badge of validation for a burgeoning rock band, a potential doorway into the major leagues. And hardly anyone from Atlanta got record deals. The Q’s deserved it.
Out of print for decades, the two albums the quintet recorded for A&M, 1984’s The Swimming Pool Q’s and 1986’s Blue Tomorrow, have, thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, been reissued in a double CD package as well as a deluxe version with a third CD and DVD. I don’t know how much any of this will matter to anyone unfamiliar with the band, or who only knows them as one of those old fogey acts their parents used to like that still plays the Inman Park Festival year-in and year-out. There’s nothing remotely hip, even retro-hip, about them. They weren’t even hip at the time, quite honestly. For many, they were more of an enjoyable, reliable oddity, albeit one with really good songs. They seemed older, even then. They were older than a lot of the other new acts surrounding them. They weren’t older than Lou Reed, however. Lou liked them and took them on as openers for his New Sensations tour. I remember driving up to Richmond to see that show since the tour wasn’t coming to Atlanta, and thinking the Q’s came off better that night than Lou. There’s no real point to that reminiscence, except that sometimes the things you convince yourself are great aren’t always as good as the things right there in front of you that you tend to overlook. These two records, quaint as they may sound today, are certainly examples of that.
Formed in 1978, the Swimming Pool Q’s were sort of a Southern new wave band, at least in the sense that they weren’t a “Southern rock” band. They had more literate and artistic sensibilities, as well as eclectic musical interests and influences and a nutty sense of humor. By ’82 the Q’s had settled into their most well known lineup. Difficult to pigeonhole musically, visually speaking they were likewise the archetypical island of (little) misfit toys. You could sense each member’s personality even before they played a note, and certainly after. Singer, songwriter, guitarist and all-around ringleader Jeff Calder was a howling jester who dressed as though he’d hired Bozo the Clown as fashion consultant. Anne Richmond Boston, on vocals, percussion, keyboards and assorted toy instruments, was a mousy kickball queen with a voice from the heavens, dancing in men’s shirts or granny dresses, always jolting and bobbing along as the rhythms blitzed through her. Lead guitarist Bob Elsey was this amazing virtuoso who nonchalantly ripped out fiery, tasteful notes while barely moving. He brought so little deliberate attention to himself, it’s one reason I suspect most people are perpetually unaware of his enormous talent. You could imagine him doing the same thing while slouched in a Lazy-Boy half-watching a game on a Sunday afternoon. The bass guitarist, J.E. Garnett, looked like Fonzie. Kind of acted like him, too (even odder, he later joined the Atlanta Rhythm Section!) The drummer, Billy Burton, had Art Garfunkel’s hair. I always used to wonder why he needed that horizontal overhead rack of cymbals on his kit. Seemed superfluous, and it didn’t even look cool, let alone appropriate for the band. But the Q’s were one of those peculiar entities where seemingly incongruent ingredients converged for a sturdier whole. For some reason their formula worked, and you couldn’t imagine it being any other way.
Though she’d surfaced sporadically on The Deep End, it’s on these A&M albums where Anne Boston truly blooms, singing lead on half the tracks with a depth and emotionally rich maturity that was a shining revelation. Calder, of course, must receive much of the credit; his skills as a songwriter are in full flourish here, with his keen expressive knack for vivid imagery, for tiny details, for the Southeastern region itself – and, in the case of his songs for Boston, a flair for writing from a woman’s perspective. His precisely sculpted lyrics are of that rare strain, as impressive and effective on paper (no lyric sheet?) as sung, and they’re not the simplest songs to sing in the first place. Religious references abound across the two records – “She forms a steeple with her hands…” “In the final hour, find a place to kneel…” etc. Each song unfolds like a colorful character sketch or series of interconnected Polaroids. More or less alternating lead vocals from track to track, Calder and Boston – brains and heart – inhabit these brief narrations, bringing stories and situations to life. You encounter town crazies, con men and kooks, but mostly average lives in turmoil or transition. Granted, some of it comes across as a bit lofty, but the Q’s emerged during an era when it was still cool to care about your craft, hone your skills and strive for something higher.
I was already a big fan, owned The Deep End and was going out to see them every chance I could by the time A&M released The Swimming Pool Q’s. Had it been, as it was for some, my introduction to the group, I may’ve warmed to it more quickly. But I missed the wild absurdity, the jaggedy left turns, basically all the calculated cartoonish eccentricity The Deep End had spewed forth. The Swimming Pool Q’s, by contrast, is pretty, reflective, earnest, thoughtful. From my perspective, this major label debut seemed to drain all the weirdness I liked from the band, as major label debuts so often do. But I was hearing it with immature ears.
Listening back to it now, on this reissue, it’s clearly a masterpiece of offbeat, early ‘80s Southern pop poetry-in-motion. The album strikes the track in full gallop with “The Bells Ring,” one of their finest and most enduring creations, crisply jangly and urgent, with a soaring, singing solo by Elsey. “Pull Back My Spring” is all-out emancipation-in-waiting, spinning along at an incessant clip, its harmonies pulling you further into another of Elsey’s lightning storms – along with the spectral, majestic “Celestion” and the album closing inferno of “Sacrificial Altar,” among the songs he sings it’s Calder’s apex amid many contenders across each of these records. And I have a newfound appreciation for “Purple Rivers” and “Silver Slippers,” two of Anne’s lovelier melodic showcases. I mean, the way her voice rises aloft on the “sequins in the sky”/“Roman Caesars of old” sections of the former stops me in my tracks every time. These two songs stand out like Christine McVie’s songs would always stand out on Fleetwood Mac albums.
Musically more varied, if not the equal of its predecessor, Blue Tomorrow is very nearly as good. Yes, several songs come across like retreads or leftovers from the previous record (“More Than One Heaven,” “A Dream in Gray”) but it also contains my two absolute favorite songs from either A&M release: “Wreck Around” and “Pretty on the Inside,” both of which, along with “The Bells Ring,” are Anne Richmond Boston’s splendid pinnacles, and arguably the band’s as a whole. I’d maintain that A&M’s failure to adequately promote those very songs as singles doomed the Q’s tenure with the label as much as anything. To this day, among the band’s longtime followers they rank at or near the top of their most beloved compositions.
Meanwhile, to a greater extent the distinctions between Calder’s songs for Anne and for himself are more pronounced on Blue Tomorrow – Anne, the elegiac, graceful yearners; Jeff, the nutty, whimsical wacky-pack-attacks. They even re-do crowd favorite “Big Fat Tractor” to close the album, as it often did their shows, but it just doesn’t feel right here. It’s funny, ‘cause as I mentioned, I initially missed such silliness on the prior record, but by this point so much of that Deep End stuff sounded like a whole other band, or at least another time. Which it was. (Of course, sans Boston, who departed after Blue Tomorrow, Calder would again indulge the band’s goofier tendencies on the more rocked-up/stripped down follow-ups, The Firing Squad For God EP and World War Two-Point-Five. But those are other records for another deluxe reissue Kickstarter campaign.) Despite the zigzagging absence of cohesion, Blue Tomorrow is a sweet little gem, ripe for rediscovery (or simply discovery, as may more likely be the case by this point).
There were a few really terrific songs that the Pool Q’s would sometimes play at shows during those days that never made it onto a record, which is one prime reason the deluxe edition is worth the extra investment – it includes a disc packed with rarities from this era, including a mess of otherwise unreleased songs. Several – “Power and Light,” “Miss Sensitivity,” “Think” – are as strong as most anything on either A&M release. On the other hand, I always felt like “Make Me Bigger Than the U.S.A.” was one of their more worthy rockers, and thought it odd that it never found a home. Hearing this studio rendering of it, I realize it obviously worked better as a live springboard for Calder’s antics than a stand-alone song; still, it’s nice to finally have a recording of it. You also get a great rendition of “Tears of a Clown” (check the DVD for a live version from Anne’s farewell show) and assorted alternate takes: a lazy-tempo, acoustic variation of “The Bells Ring,” a near-instrumental version of “She’s Lookin’ Real Good (When She’s Lookin’),” what sounds like Calder’s solo demo of “Blue Tomorrow,” etc. The DVD offers a grab-bag of live footage (including an otherwise unreleased song, “The Wig of Sensation” from the Piedmont Park Arts Festival in 1983), appearances on local low-budget TV shows and MTV and what appear to be home movies set to music. Obviously their idea of a bizarre yuletide joke, there’s an instrumental hippie-cult cover of “Little Drummer Boy,” but even that’s not as weird as their performance of “The Bells Ring” on some mutant American Bandstand knockoff from God knows where. Funniest of all is a visit by band members to an Atlanta Turtles Records & Tapes store upon the release of The Swimming Pool Q’s where none of the employees has heard of the band.
That was obviously a planned skit, the clerks all in on the joke. Nowadays, with this reissue, they might be likelier to get blank stares without need of a script. That’s just the way life sometimes plays out. But take my word for it: this is a wonderful glimpse of a band at its peak, with songwriting, chops and indefinable chemistry all firing at once. It’s no fault of theirs that they never caught on with the worldwide pop mainstream. They were who they were, and they never attempted to be anything else. As a piece of Atlanta’s musical history, it’s indispensible. Simply as a couple of poetic, poignant and unconventional pop-rock records, it’s an exceptional delight. It’s certainly something to be proud of.
The Swimming Pool Q’s
The A&M Years 1984-1986
[A&M/Universal Music Enterprises]