Anything characterized by high energy, originality, humor and intelligence is bound to get my attention. I was at an annual fund-raising party for an alternative art center called Nexus in about 1986. Touring the studios I kept being distracted from the visual art by some very interesting Rock ‘n Roll. I wasn’t the only one. A large segment of the crowd was gathered around the Swimming Pool Qs in the courtyard. Once in their vicinity I was there for as long as they would play.
In any field of endeavor certain efforts stand out and the Qs were (are) definitely one helluva group. I’ve taken every opportunity to be in their musical presence since – most recently at the Inman Park Festival where the audience was dampened and thinned by rain. Sound-wise the instruments were turned up so high the vocal mics couldn’t compete without feedback so the singing was way buried. Since I could hardly hear the vocals I focused more on the players, a rewarding experience, if a little hard on the ears. But missing the singing is no small loss. The venue is partially responsible, the stage being on the short side of a narrow tent. That arrangement gives everyone a ringside seat but the sound people failed to take control and the volume drove a few people off.
Unfortunately for the Qs they did not quite, though they came very close, manage to catch the fickle tide of megabuck pop success. They were the opening act for a Lou Reed tour which helped sales on the first album with A & M Records. The second got little promotion and so low sales. Their “failure” has blessed me however with the opportunity to see/hear them in some very intimate venues. I use the term blessed because that experience has always been a near religious one.
The band formed in 1978, with frontman Jeff Calder writing the songs, mostly, and singing many in his gravelly inflection; Bob Elsey playing a siren-song guitar, and the woman with the great name, Anne Richmond Boston, singing like an angel. Drummer Bill Burton was settled in when I first saw them and the original drummer was now playing bass when I last saw them. They’d been through a few bass players, J.E. Garnett coming and going but the core of Jeff, Anne, Bill and Bob remained (remains)… except for Anne who left the group for 16(!) years. This after their two albums with A & M failed the public whimsy and record company promotion test. But as I said, their misfortune was this writer’s listening profit. My priority has been to make the art of my choice and, since I’m even less successful than the Qs at dipping into that money stream, my strategy has been to live frugally so as to have the time to do so. That means concerts by those who have caught that tide are not in my budget.
At the Inman Park Festival the Qs were promoting the re-release of the two albums they did for A&M, 1984-86, the self-titled Swimming Pool Qs and Blue Tomorrow. The package I got is a generous and tastefully assembled box including three CDs and a DVD of performances during those years along with an essay by music critic Geoffrey Himes. Photos of the youthful group capture some of their whimsical Dada, one shot depicting them surrounded by Shetland Ponies.
The bonus CD is titled Pow Wow Hour, Rarities 1982-1986. This includes some of the only love songs I’ve heard the Qs do. But they’re far too ironic to do these without tongue-in-cheek. The DVD film, Kickstarter, is credited to drummer Bill Burton. Some of the footage seems to be on the west coast, beach scenes, I suppose shot near L.A. as they flirted with the fame machine out there.
The record company must have failed to fully promote the group because, as the DVD richly shows, the Qs had all the star ingredients – young, attractive, imaginative and skilled performers, intellgent song-writing, great costumes – didn’t seem to be any stinting there, some of those outfits had to be costly. Anne’s performance of The Bells Ring is just magical on the DVD. Her voice is unique, sonorous, and expressive. Jeff is no slouch in the singing department but he was (is) very fortunate to have Anne’s voice to write to. Apparently she started out as back-up singer but it couldn’t have been too long before the group noticed her talent went way beyond and put her up front with Jeff. Calder’s witticisms, both between and in the songs themselves, and in banter with Anne, reveal an intelligence that characterizes lyrics, stage presence and musicianship (and their progressive politics).
It is a real pleasure to watch any of the performers at any time as they all seem to be constantly giving 100%. They draw from an experience and talent that makes it all seem so easy. And still fun after all these years. The drumming is intense. Bob’s guitar playing is typical Qs’ standard, casually standing there, complete confidence, but with a half smile as if he’s as surprised as you are at what’s coming off those strings. And maybe he is. Jeff pounds away at his blue-green electric also, occasionally dashing off a lead lick himself but mostly providing rhythm and vocals reminiscent of, I don’t know, Jagger? Steve Earl?.. but mostly Jeff Calder.
The Qs are playing Smith’s Olde Bar, in Atlanta, June 15 if you want to catch’em.