Among the pantheon of 1980’s “college rock” bands, only a few – R.E.M. being the most prominent – managed to transcend their cult following and attain mass popularity. Others, despite having releases on major labels, were destined for obscurity. Either they were too quirky, didn’t have the support of their record label or the radio, or just had bad luck. Atlanta’s The Swimming Pool Q’s had all these problems.
Thanks to the online fundraising site Kickstarter, however, the band managed to raise the money to buy back the master tapes for 1984’s self-titled release and 1986’s “Blue Tomorrow” to reissue them this year. In fact, they raised more than enough to reissue the albums, and with their extra funds were able to add a bonus disc of rarities and a DVD of live performances to the re-release of these two long-lost albums.
The Swimming Pool Q’s were founded in 1978 by Jeff Calder, a journalist and onetime creative writing student at the University of Florida. From the beginning, they were a New South band in an Old South world. Rather than take their cue from blues or country music, they latched on to the thriving New Wave scene as well as the music of early 1970’s avant-garde Georgia rockers The Hampton Grease Band. The Q’s sounded quite unlike anyone else.
By the time of their 1981 debut, “The Deep End” on indie label DB Records, Calder had established the group as a guitar-based, darkly humorous, literary band with a penchant for songs with titles like “Rat Bait” and “The A-Bomb Woke Me Up”. Record labels at the time were trying to find the next B-52’s or R.E.M, so despite the relative oddness of The Q’s music they attracted the attention of numerous large companies. Signing to A&M, the band made some drastic changes to their sound, most prominently bringing Anne Richmond Boston’s vocals to the forefront, featuring her as lead singer on the majority of the songs. In addition, the songs became more streamlined, melodic and accessible. The playing of lead guitarist Bob Elsey, often in tandem with Jeff Calder, was chiming and dynamic. Boston proved to be a powerful vocalist, and the self-titled album is filled with instantly memorable songs such as lead-off single “The Bells Ring” and “Silver Slippers”.
A busy touring schedule including the opening slot on Lou Reed’s “New Sensations” tour ensued, and critical reviews were generally laudatory. Yet, radio play for the album was sparse and no money was fronted for the Q’s to make a video. Videos were everything for a band in these days of the young and influential MTV (when it was still a music channel), and without one the Q’s were mostly off the average record-buyer’s radar.
Despite the disappointing sales, the band went into the studio to record a follow up for A&M, this time with hot producer of the day Mike Howlett. Howlett had had big success with radio staples such as Berlin and Tears for Fears. As a result the album, “Blue Tomorrow”, was engineered for radio friendliness. Because of this big, slick sound, it comes across as the more dated of the two A&M releases. The songs on “Blue Tomorrow” were not as consistently strong as the ones on its predecessor either, but tracks such as “Wreck Around” and “Pretty on the Inside” were as good as any the band would record.
While the self-titled release was a very cohesive, focused record, “Blue Tomorrow” was a mix of that album’s chiming jangle-pop and somewhat of a return to the weirdness of “The Deep End”, with songs such as the menacing Calder-sung “Corruption” and a re-recording of The Deep End’s “Big Fat Tractor” (“Your Baby is a big fat tractor / Three wheels of steam and rust / Your Baby is a big fat tractor / Ride him you must!”). This unevenness didn’t help the record’s chances and the lack, once again, of a promo video or the release of the album on CD (until this year, both A&M albums had only been released on cassette and vinyl) hastened the album’s quick disappearance.
Within a few months, the band was dropped by A&M. Boston left soon after and even though they put out an EP, were re-signed to a major label (Capitol) for 1989’s “World War Two Point Five”, and released a concept album of new songs called “The Royal Academy of Reality” (with Boston back in the fold) in 2003, their two A&M albums have remained the albums most treasured by their fans.
“The A&M Years 1984-1986” is available in a re-mastered albums-only version, as well as a deluxe version which includes a CD of outtakes and demos and a DVD of odds and ends, TV and live performances. Among the outtakes on the CD is an acoustic version of “The Bells Ring” and a blazing previously unreleased version of Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown”, which if it had been released as a single at the time might have garnered heavy radio airplay. One of the odds (or is it one of the ends?) on the DVD sums up the fortunes of the Swimming Pool Q’s quite well. A video of the band in 1984 at a local record store chain shows the band asking the staff how their then-new record is selling. One clerk has never heard of the band and the other says “Didn’t you guys break up…?”
Thankfully, these overlooked albums of smart and snappy jangle-pop now have a second chance.