Swimming Pool Q’s ‘A&M Years’ revisited

Atlanta new wavers resurrect major label beginnings

One of the first and most underrated bands to emerge from Atlanta’s nascent new wave scene of the early ’80s has a lot to celebrate this month. Not only has it been 35 years since the Swimming Pool Q’s debuted, its first two major label albums, 1984’s eponymous A&M Records release and Blue Tomorrow (1986) are being released on CD for the first time in the U.S. Although both albums were critically acclaimed upon arrival, commercial success has remained elusive for the Swimming Pool Q’s. Led since its inception by vocalist and songwriter Jeff Calder and lead guitarist Bob Elsey, the Swimming Pool Q’s debuted live in June 1978. That show, part of an “Underwear Invitational” party, hosted by a local artists collective, was the culmination of several months of intense songwriting. After traveling to Atlanta that January to write about the Sex Pistols’ American debut at the Great Southeast Music Hall, Calder brought his friend Elsey back to his Florida home to write songs. When they moved to Atlanta later that March to start the band, the town had changed immensely. “That’s an event that energized the Atlanta music scene, and our little new wave world,” Calder says of the now storied Sex Pistols show.

The fledgling Q’s had several years of playing live throughout the blossoming regional scene ahead of them before they got a sniff of widespread interest. This required networking, which was no easy chore in an era long before the Internet made booking tours as simple as clicking a mouse. “Somehow, we managed with the telephone, which I was on all the time, and a committee of correspondence,” Calder says.

Sharing resources with Athens’ new wavers Pylon and the B-52s, paired with the infectious pop-rock sound of the group’s 1981 DB records debut, The Deep End, the Swimming Pool Q’s landed a deal with A&M Records.

The ensuing “A&M years” didn’t lead to much commercial attention, though they did enable the band to record two solid albums that, on June 25, are getting released as a deluxe, four-disc set via Cipher Bureau and Bar/None Records. In addition to the first two albums, a third disc of bonus material, dubbed Pow Wow Hour, and a DVD of live footage, TV appearances, and videos titled Auto Zoom will be part of the deluxe package as well.

According to Calder, both albums are just now being released on CD in the United States because the label’s back catalog has undergone multiple ownership changes over the years due to various corporate mergers. But once the band had a solid contact person at the label, they learned that their dream of having both albums re-released together with all of the bonus materials would only set them back $15,000. With a price tag in mind, the band turned to Kickstarter with crossed-fingers. When the campaign came to a close, fans had eclipsed the initial goal by shelling out a sum of $21,584.

The highlight of the group’s self-titled album, “The Bells Ring,” is one of the first and finest songs Calder wrote with keyboardist Anne Richmond Boston’s vocals in mind. Like most of the songs on the album, the song addresses the positive aspects of the New South while lamenting how they can sometimes compromise Old South stability. “We weren’t hicks; we were part of a very modern music scene,” Calder says. “But we were moving through these backwaters constantly, and the songs on this record are peopled by characters who are not urban sophisticates.”

The group’s second A&M album, Blue Tomorrow, didn’t follow a singular theme. But its finest moment, the solemn and beautiful “Wreck Around,” would have fit the previous album like a glove. According to Calder, the song, with its imagery of charming dime stores getting demolished and soulless industrial parks being built in their place, was about “the outskirts of any Southern town of that era, where the metropolitan area shades into the rural.”

Other highlights from Blue Tomorrow are less accessible, such as the herky-jerky “Corruption,” which the band mimes along to during the punk bar scene in Brain Damage, a 1988 film by director Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case, Frankenhooker). This and other eccentric tracks throughout the album illustrate the band’s range of musical influences and the writing skills of Calder, a former creative writing student of the late novelist and short story author Harry Crews (The Gospel Singer, A Feast of Snakes) at the University of Florida.

While both A&M albums have aged well, their strengths never translated to any significant commercial radio airplay. At the time, it could make or break a band’s chances at mainstream success, and the Swimming Pool Q’s fell on the latter half of the equation. The dilemma is echoed in one memorable scene from the Auto Zoom DVD, capturing the group’s sad reality: The band’s members walk into a Turtle’s record store on Peachtree Road. After asking the store’s confused clerks if their album is in stock, a painfully awkward exchange comes to an end when one puzzled clerk says, “I thought you guys broke up.”

In the background, the store blasts “Dancing In the Dark” by Bruce Springsteen — a friend of Calder who played the major label game and won. The song plays on while the band’s members fade into the background with the rest of the store’s shoppers. In the eyes of the music industry, the Swimming Pool Q’s weren’t a viable commercial product during the “A&M years.” But when left to their own devices, whether being revisited by long-time fans or taken in by fresh ears for the first time, both albums resonate stronger than ever in the here and now.