Tuesday, June 24, 2008

When Blinding Hope Turns to Dashed Dreams

Last night I was surfing the Netflix ‘watch instantly’ selections and stumbled across a indie documentary on the music scene in Athens, Georgia, famous for launching the careers of the B-52’s and REM. It looked at least passingly interesting, and was short enough to watch on my laptop without fear of burning a hole in my leg, so being the premier music and film blog authority in my own mind, I felt duty bound to give it a watch. That, and it allowed me to focus on something other than the shaky lead the Angels were trying to hold on to in the 9th... It certainly helped my opinion of the film that the Halos held on to win…

For the most part, Athens GA.- Inside/Out was a pretty standard indie doc film. Writer & Director Tony Gayton and his crew were obviously passionate about their subject matter, and did a good job to intertwine the stories of the up and coming artists in the area, the established careers of REM & B-52’s, and how they started, and the people and places that make Athens GA what it is. Had this film been made in the last 2 or 3 years, I likely would have followed up my watching by checking the web for info on the relatively unknown artists profiled, Love Tractor, Time Toy, Flat Duo Jets, the Bar-B-Q Killers, Kilkenny Kats, Dreams So Real, Limbo District, Pylon, and Squalls. Some although admittedly not all, seemed committed to their craft, and had the chops to at least make a moderately successful record.

The thing is, the film was made in 1987, and aside from the already existent careers of REM and B-52’s, none of the other featured bands seemed to grab on to the success they were so deeply striving for. Looking around this morning, I see a few artists did get albums made from their MTV exposure due to this doc flick, but even with the jump start, fate and conflict intervened in rock greatness for these performers. It’s a shame, but it also adds a wholly different feel to the film. Instead of the timbre of hope and potential that the doc subjects express when discussing their plans for world rock domination, it becomes a bittersweet portrait of the failure found so commonly in the recording industry. I found myself really feeling for these performers as they spoke on the doors opened for them by The B-52’s and REM, discussing how perhaps being a rock star isn’t just a ‘pipe dream’ for artists from Athens. Unfortunately, as an audience 21 years in the future, we’re in on a joke that the films subjects cannot understand, which personally turned my feelings of remorse for their failures to a strange guilt, as if I was mocking their dreams by watching their hope only to know it would fade into the wind.

To quell my own guilty feelings, and to give some insight on the bands featured for those who may choose to watch this film (if you have a Netflix account you can watch it as a direct download, skipping that pesky mailman’s involvement). Honestly, if you’re a fan of mid 80’s alt-rock and it’s historical roots, it’s worth the hour and a half of your life. I’ll skip REM and B-52’s, since we all know what happened to them, and even in the film they are presented more as a reason for the making, rather than a subject of it.

Love Tractor- From their Wikipedia entry: Love Tractor is an alternative rock band from Athens, Georgia. The band was formed in 1980 by guitarists Mark Cline and Mike Richmond. The band played their first few gigs with no bassist and a drum machine, but bassist/multi-instrumentalist/artist Armistead Wellford and drummer Kit Schwartz were added early on. Along with The B-52's, Pylon and R.E.M., Love Tractor is considered one of the founding members of the Athens alternative rock scene. Love Tractor originally performed only instrumental material. The band first signed to DB Records. Later, the original lineup (with several different drummers replacing Schwartz) recorded for RCA and Razor and Tie Records. After a breakup that lasted several years, the band re-formed in 2001 and recorded the CD 'The Sky at Night' for Razor and Tie. Their Myspace music page shows more info and has songs available for download.

Time Toy- Time Toy has also jumped on the internet band wagon and sells their tracks through a myspace music page. Maybe all these bands haven’t faded as far into obscurity as I anticipated… They do not have much in the way of bio info on their page, and they do not have a Wikipedia entry. If I wasn’t so damn lazy, I’d look further, of course, if I was going to put out tremendous effort, I’d expect to get paid… Rock has met hard-place…

Flat Duo Jets- Flat Duo Jets went on to record a virtually unsuccessful album that took 2 years to actually find it’s way into local music stores. Their 1990 self titled album earned them a spot on Letterman, and mild exposure, but for the most part, they could not catch the lightening in a bottle required to go from local fringe act to known Rock Stars. In 1998 they released a second album Lucky Eye which was also poorly received. In 2006 film maker Tony Gayton returned to the Athens well and made a 2nd rock doc about The Flat Duo Jets, Two Headed Cow. This spawned a soundtrack album, which equally has fallen on deaf ears, but just the fact they have managed to prolong their fringe fame makes their segments of the film a little less melancholy. Personally, they were my favorite of the under known performers featured with a great hard-edged early rock sound.

The Bar-B-Q Killers- So far as I can tell, the Bar-B-Q Killers broke up in 1989. You can catch a 1986 concert video of them on YouTube. The Bar-B-Q Killers’ drummer, Arthur Johnson joined with Kilkenny Cats bassist Sean O’Brien and joined the Boston Mass. Blues rock band Come, but both left the band in 1995 after recording a few albums to no real acclaim or sales. BBQK Lead single Laura Carter went on to record with another Athens band, Jack-O-Nuts, scoring minor to non-existent success, but touring more widely, and making some records. Laura passed in her sleep on December 2nd, 2002 while living in the US Virgan Islands. She had struggled with her health for a number of years, but seemed to be turning it around. http://flagpole.com/News/2001/2002-12-18 offers a pretty fair send-off to a one of a kind vocalist.

Kilkenny Cats- The Cats split not long after the release of Inside/Out and none resurfaced until O’Brien’s foray into Boston Blues-Rock with Come. If you are willing to dig, they did put uot a single in 1984 called ‘Attractive Figure’, a full length LP 2 years later ‘Hands Down’ and their swan song, was release in 1987 an EP called ‘Hammer’. I can give no impressions of the music as I have not taken the time to track any of it down. All I know of them is what I have seen in the film, and I did not find my self forming much of an impression one way or another.
Dreams So Real- Much like Love Tractor, Dreams So real can be tracked through Wikipedia and MySpace Music. From Wikipedia: The trio consisted of chief songwriter Barry Marler on lead vocals and guitar, Trent Allen on backing vocals and bass, and Drew Worsham on drums. Forming in 1983 when its members met in an Athens record store, their debut single, "Everywhere Girl", came out in 1985 and was produced by Peter Buck of R.E.M.. Buck also produced their first full-length album, 1986's Father's House. The band gained a bit more exposure by performing their song "Golden" (called "Steps" in the movie's end notes) in Athens, GA. Inside/Out , a rock documentary on their hometown music scene. With the success of R.E.M., the Athens scene, and other college radio-friendly bands, Dreams So Real was signed to Arista Records and released Rough Night in Jericho in 1988. The title track earned some success, reaching #28 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Chart and receiving some MTV airplay. A follow-up single, "Bearing Witness" also cracked Billboard's Rock Chart. The album would reach the Billboard Hot 200, peaking at #150.[The 1990 follow-up album, Gloryline, met with less success both critically and commercially. Soon after, Arista dropped the band and Dreams So Real soon drifted apart. As a kind of parting gift, the band released a collection of outtakes, rarities and B-sides titled Nocturnal Omissions, made available through their fan-club mailing list. Marler and Allen have both left the music scene after a short detour with the band Ether in the late 1990’s. Worsham, despite being shot in the head in 2003 continues on in music, and works as a computer technician. Their myspace music page is managed by a fan with the band’s blessing and tracks are available for download.

Limbo District- The most avant garde of the bands featured in the film, Limbo District had faded into obscurity, even at the time of the film’s making, with the only references being old video footage and comments from B-52’s and some of the other interviewed acts. It’s a shame, as they seemed to be one of the more interesting and unique artists mentioned throughout the movie.

Pylon- Mentioned by REM, B-52’s and virtually all other Athens music fans as the ‘best of the best’ in the Athens scene, Pylon never planned on being rock stars, and had disbanded by the time the film was made. Offered a spot opening for U2 on a national tour, the band turned down the offer, and at the time of the film were all working odd jobs in and around the Athens area. Ultimately however, the band decided to re-join and accept their place as influential artists for the most successful Athens acts, REM and the B-52’s. Pylon officiall reunited in 1989, opening for REM on the final leg of the Green tour. Once again however, they could not stick together and broke up in 1991. In 2004 they reunited yet again, and in October of 2007 released the album Gyrate Plus, their first in 17 years. http://wearepylon.com/ is the band’s official website for more info on their current comings and goings.

The Squalls- Made up of the Athen’s music scenes ‘elders’, my personal opinion of The Squalls was that they ranged somewhere from a jam band to a club circuit ensemble wishing for so much more. Within the band there seemed to be tension over the direction, if not of the music, then of the desire to sign a deal, make a record, go on a tour, and hopefully, make some money in the process. The Squalls music is available online for download, but the band is no longer available to play gigs. Lead Singer & Guitarist Bob Hay, lead guitar Ken Starratt, and keyboardist, percussionist, & singer Diana Torell are now playing as Bob Hay & The Jolly Beggars. Bob also went on to marry Pylon lead singer Vanessa Briscoe.

All in all, there was some level of success from the Inside/Out artists, though none on the level that the film’s subjects seem to wish they would achieve. There are happy stories here, and sad stories, but all in all, there are rock stories, and a whole lot of reasons for me to update my music collection accordingly… If you are interested, I highly suggest you work your Google and dig up some tracks and info on your own about these bands. While the music may not be for everybody, their stories are the quintessential American Rock & Roll experience, and even those of us who can’t play a note can respect that.


Bob said...

I found your post through a google alert. Very nice!

Oddly enough, Vanessa and I saw Inside/Out last week. (There was showing of it as part of the annual AthFest.) I hadn't seen it in years - my main impression of it was that we were all so young.

Michael, Pylon's bassist, spoke after the show and said that although he hated it when it came out, he has now suspended his judgement of it, because of the numerous people who have told him that seeing it had changed their lives.

The movie seems to me to over-emphasize the striving for success aspect. Sure we made records and hoped for success, but we mostly did it for fun.

And fun is why we continue making music (especially now-a-days when you could have a million downloads and not get a penny!) Vanessa has a new band, check it on mysapce /supercluster1.

My new project beside the Jolly Beggars is called A. Che Why, also at myspace /achewhy.

Best wishes,
Bob Hay

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the note. I really did enjoy the film and will definately check out yours, and Vanessa's stuff!