Once more into The Deep End
The Swimming Pool Q's 20-year-old Atlanta new-wave classic resurfaces on CD
It's rare that an old album, newly re-discovered, ever sounds quite as fresh or vibrant to the ears of a fan as it did originally. Even rarer is the vintage LP which re-emerges on CD — especially after a decade or more of being lost in but-I-don't-have-a-turntable-anymore limbo — with both its lyrics and production sounding better, perhaps even richer, than they did 20 years earlier. The Deep End, however, is that sweet and wonderful rarity.
Reissued by DB Recs — the largely dormant label (run by Wax N Facts proprietor Danny Beard) that originally released it two decades back — The Deep End was the 1981 debut album by the Swimming Pool Q's. They were an ensemble widely touted as Atlanta's answer to Athens' then-ascendant B-52's, but that comparison implies a rivalry that wasn't part of the historical picture. A lot of ink was spilled attempting to distinguish Athens' sound from Atlanta's, but the nascent scenes in both cities were all part of one movement called post-punk, or new wave. For their part, the Swimming Pool Q's bridged a gap between the zaniness of the B-52's and the more straight-forward, classicist rock of R.E.M., who in fact opened for the Q's at The Deep End's original May '81 release party.
With the passage of years, it's easy to underestimate the scope of the revolution new wave represented. Until punk came along, the rock scenes of the late '70s and early '80s were largely dominated by steroidal ogres imitating David Lee Roth. New wave opened the door for very different sorts of frontmen and frontwomen, from soft-spoken Fred Schneider of the B-52's to the cheeky Vanessa Briscoe of Pylon. The Swimming Pool Q's were, and still are, led by Jeff Calder, a fellow with a perpetually downturned mouth, reading glasses perched below an impossibly high forehead and a giant mop of Brillo-pad hair sticking upward and outward in various directions. His demurely attired co-vocalist, Anne Richmond Boston, looked like some girlish head librarian. Yet, in the freshly liberated music scene of the time, these oddballs became stars. New wave, it seems, provided the ultimate revenge of the nerds.
Although the Q's already had established themselves as a live act and would go on to record nationally for A&M and Capitol Records, the local indie debut The Deep End put the band on the map. It could be considered a remarkable album by the fact it existed at all — this was an era when American indie rock records, particularly from the South, were virtually unknown. But the passage of years and the vast floodtide of D.I.Y. discs issued since has in no way dimmed the Q's milestone accomplishment. Listening to the album in its crisp new CD edition, there's a temptation to compare The Deep End to a Kurt Vonnegut novel: You liked it when you were young because it was strange and different, even if you didn't understand it; now, with the wisdom of years, you fully appreciate its literary merit.
Fans once loved the opening track, "Little Misfit," simply because it rocked. And, hell, it still does. Due in no small measure to guitarist Bob Elsey's jangly embellishments, the song has more hooks than an Okefenokee bait shop, and Boston's earthy delivery is deliciously pungent with foreboding sexual menace. But only after sinking in over time — 20 years, more or less — can we fully appreciate lyrics such as, "I'm just like a jigsaw puzzle/A little misfit is a whole lotta trouble." It's a couplet whose shimmering pun is of a piece with the wordplay in the band's name (which Calder adopted after mis-reading the phrase "swinging pool cues," from a fight scene in a detective novel).
Similarly, The Deep End's third track, "Stick in My Hand" — an uncharacteristically plodding number that once provided a breather for pogo-ing dancers after the opening double-blast of "Misfit" and the propulsively goofy "Big Fat Tractor" — now emerges, like Moses from the wilderness, with an air of genuine divinity. A narrative song, "Stick in My Hand" is a Southern Gothic saga in which a wide-eyed fanatic marches on the town of Jackson, Miss., armed with a cane and, driven by a higher purpose, disrupts a local football game. Thanks to the re-issue's colorful liner notes, it's finally clear this overlooked gem comes from a scene in A Feast of Snakes by novelist Harry Crews.
In fact, Crews had been Calder's creative writing instructor at the University of Florida in 1972. While the writer cultivated a wildman image — Calder describes him as having "a shaved head, large hoop earrings, a Fu Manchu mustache and a blue hinge tattooed on the inside crook of his elbow" — Crews turned out to be a disciplined and kind instructor. "It was difficult not to gather from him a fuller understanding for the small creeks of modern Southern fiction," Calder says today. "His example allowed a disoriented, middle-class pranny such as myself the confidence to seize his immediate environment — Florida — for subject matter at a time when, as an undeveloped human being, I really had nothing substantial to write about."
The fruits of Crews' counseling can be heard on "Rat Bait," arguably The Deep End's most memorable tune. Inspired by the spectacle of a Sunshine State redneck hunched down low in the driver's seat of a purple AMC Gremlin, the song shudders forward with a slamming, lurching, hiccupping rhythm which suggests a rattling rusty tailpipe dragged over 13 miles of Alligator Alley potholes. Despite its gagged Beefheart-like pace, it's among the Q's most memorable numbers — it became the group's first single and still remains a highlight of occasional live performances.
In addition to The Deep End's original 11 tracks, the CD re-issue includes more than an entire album's worth of bonus songs — 12 in all — many of which are on a par with the band's best material. "A lot of songs got lost in the shuffles which sometimes happen with personnel shifts," explains Calder, noting that the group went through various rhythm sections during their formative years. "Strange how we dig all those songs today."
One bonus tune originally intended for The Deep End is "Model Trains (Are Better Than Rock & Roll)," a wry new wave comeback to that insufferable blues-metal tradition, the locomotive song. "We lost that one when we switched bass players from Billy Jones to Pete Jarkunas," Calder says, "but we're re-learning it for the CD re-release party show. I must make a note to send it to the CEO of Lionel."
Another new gem is "1789," a wild rocker with frantic guitar and bass that tells the story of Frenchman armed with "an ax to grind." Although it was one of the Q's earliest songs, it took until 1989 to record it. "When we had a brief relationship with Capitol, we decided to track the demo of it which appears as The Deep End's bonus track. Someone in the label's International Department offered to pitch it to Capitol France to coincide with their celebration of the French Revolution, but — due to its subject matter — I have a feeling that the only pitching being done was out the back window of a Concorde at 40,000 feet."
With The Deep End's reissue now available, Calder's gruelling three-year process — including art production, remastering and, in the case of "Building With a Clock on Top," additional recording — is finally behind him. Now he can devote his energies to the band which, 23 years since its founding, is still very much alive despite many lineup changes and a somewhat slower pace these days. According to Calder, there's even a new Swimming Pool Q's album on the way — though that too has been rumored on the way for so many years now it long ago entered local-music mythology as a great lost record.
With the success of The Deep End — which has re-entered the regular rotation on local college station WRAS (88.5 FM) — might any of the Q's four other albums ever see reissue? "Sure," says Calder, "but only after the release of our new album — sometime in 2019."
The Swimming Pool Q's perform at The Deep End's CD re-release party Fri., June 8, at the Echo Lounge. Tickets are $7. For more information, call 404-681-3600.??