Saturday, August 3, 2013

Pull Back My Spring: The Swimming Pool Q's Drop Amazing Reissue Package!

In 1984 I was a 17-year-old music nerd who listened to WHFS and I went to see The Swimming Pool Q's open for Lou Reed at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. on October 8.

That was my first real concert even though my parents had taken me to see Gladys Knight and the Pips and The Jackson 5 when I was a kid.

I barely knew anything about Lou Reed and what I did know was thanks to my friend Wolfgang who was one of the only kids in my high school who knew music like that -- we met after he walked into class in 10th grade with a copy of X's Under The Big Black Sun under his arm.

I was a Senior and he was a Sophomore -- I think -- and we went with some hot freshman cheerleader whose sister was a year older than me and who had notoriously dated (and later married) my HS psychology teacher. And another girl from another school.

Wolfgang had given me a crash course in Lou -- I was a big fan of New Sensations that summer -- but it was me who'd heard The Swimming Pool Q's first. I LOVED their first record on A&M and I had no doubt found it thanks to some review in Rolling Stone or Musician magazine. I was the one who was raving about this record in the fall of 1984.

Now, nearly 30 years later, and thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, that album and the follow-up, Blue Tomorrow, are finally on CD in a spectacular package.

The 38-page booklet in this package breaks down the band's bio so I'm not going to repeat that too much except to note that in 1984 it seemed like American college rock was booming.

In a pre-indie universe, there were loads of great bands bubbling up to the surface and getting signed by major labels willing to take a bit of a risk for the prestige of having the bands on their rosters. None of these bands were what you'd call mainstream. Still, R.E.M. was getting a lot of good press on the back of second full-length Reckoning and, despite what X lamented in "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts", a few American bands were getting some radio-play on alternative and college rock radio.

The Q's rode that R.E.M.-generated hunger for Georgia bands for a brief moment and they produced two pretty damn superb records for A&M.

On the self-titled 1984 A&M record, The Swimming Pool Q's consisted of Jeff Calder on vocals and rhythm guitar, Anne Richmond Boston on vocals and keyboards, Bob Elsey on lead guitars, J.E. Garnett on bass, and Billy Burton on drums and percussion. The David Anderle-produced record is a delight.

Really, the album sounds as good, if not better, than it did in 1984. Even after my wholehearted switch to the CD format in 1988, I always had a copy of this close at hand on cassette (since that's how I got it in 1984). It was always in my collection and now it's finally on CD!

The one-two punch of "The Bells Ring" and "Pull Back My Spring" still astonishes. You've got the lovely Anne Richmond Boston vocals dueling with those guitars in the first cut and the Ed Stasium-assisted roar in the second. Assistant Producer Stasium would soon go on to work his magic on Julian Cope's Saint Julian and the guitar-rush there is here on this record.

What's funny now is that in 1984 you could hear the influence of Peter Buck here but now the first Q's record seems to somehow oddly foreshadow the louder tracks R.E.M. would soon unveil on Document in 1987.

Really, there is no dud on this record, From the honey-voiced "Purple Rivers" to the new country of "Some New Highway" and "Just Property", The Q's and their song-craft charm and amaze a listener.

The shared vocals on "The Knave" recall the punkier early cuts of Exene and John Doe in X.

"Something's crawling through the lining of my suit!" Jeff shout-sings and the overall effect of that David Byrne-esque line is not so much horror as joyous rage as "The Knave" thunders forward.

it's worth remembering that 1984 saw the release of some nearly perfect records from R.E.M. (Reckoning) and X (More Fun In The New World) and it's no stretch to say that The Swimming Pool Q's is every bit the equal of those two records.

It is just that good and I've been saying that for nearly 30 years now.

Doubt me? Spin this one.

In 1986, I considered Blue Tomorrow a bit of a disappointment -- (How could it not be after that nearly-perfect first A&M record!?!) -- but after listening to it now, I think that it seems a lot stronger than the work of other lauded American bands from that era; I'd still play this before any Del Fuegos record, obviously.

The line-up is the same on Blue Tomorrow but the production is now being handled by Mike Howlett who worked with A Flock of Seagulls. Nothing against those guys but that sort of production was never going to work with The Q's.

Still, Blue Tomorrow has many charms for a listener.

Like its predecessor, the record opens with a double-punch -- "Now I'm Talking About Now" and "She's Looking Real Good (When She's Lookin'") -- but it's "Pretty On The Inside" with those glorious vocals from Anne Richmond Boston, and squalling-and-scrawling guitars from Bob and Jeff, that seems like the lost classic now. There was always something pure and beautiful about Anne's vocals and the contrast between them and the guitars here creates something unique. There's a hint of X but, really, The Swimming Pool Q's were -- for a brief moment here -- creating their own special sound.

"Laredo Radio" is The Blasters by way of Georgia and "Wreck Around" sounds like The Boss trying his hand at penning a college rock tune.

"More Than Just One Heaven" remains catchy and a downright perfect near-hit. Why wasn't this huge? Why didn't this have a great video and break through on MTV like XTC's "Dear God" or something?

"Big Fat Tractor" seems to sum up the sound of Southern alt-rock from that era and the title-track gets by on its superb hook.

Decades later and Blue Tomorrow sounds less and less like a misfire and more-and-more like a gem. Every bit as good if not better than critically praised albums by Guadalcanal Diary, Blue Tomorrow may have failed 'cause tastes were changing but it's a fantastic set of tunes.

Spin this.

Now it's on to the bonus CD and bonus DVD!

What to know what's on these bad boys? Achin' to see what the extra goodies are? Feast your eyes on this.

"Power and Light" is a stomper! This roaring rocker would have fit in perfectly on either of the band's A&M records. It's a joy to hear this now.

There's a touch of Lone Justice to the country version of "The Bells Ring" here and the Scott Litt remix of "More Than One Heaven" sounds even more like a lost hit than it would have in 1986 or so.

Pow Wow Hour functions more than a collection of 17 rarities. It's both a peek behind-the-scenes of those 2 A&M records as well as a resurrection of a few genuine gems -- "Big No Vacancy" and the cover of "Tears Of A Clown" to name two -- which serves to solidify the reputation of The Q's. Beloved by music critics (and me) at the time, they never quite got the recognition that they so richly deserved.

As a listener and fan who remembers that era fondly, I can remember hearing stuff "More Than One Heaven" and cursing the fickle whims of the Top 40 market. In my mind, college rock was where it was at. Why listen to the likes of Expose and Bon Jovi when stuff like "Blue Tomorrow" was spinning on some college radio station somewhere?

Drive "Some New Highway" and find it "left of the dial" somewhere.

And there's a DVD in this set!

Crammed with live clips and stuff, the DVD is worth the price of this package alone.

(And none of these clips are on YouTube so don't bother lookin'!)

There are two scorching live videos from D.C.'s own 9:30 Club from early 1985 when the band swung through town after that earlier Lou Reed gig; there's a great clip of "Pull Back My Spring" from some obscure North Carolina TV show; there are bits with the band in a record store while Springsteen plays on the store record player; and loads more.

The Swimming Pool Q's are one-step closer to getting the recognition they so richly deserve with this deluxe reissue set. If nothing else, the press attention will reaffirm the band's place in American rock history -- that sounded pretentious, didn't it? -- but, really, it seems downright unfair that Anne Richmond Boston and Jeff Calder and the rest of The Q's never totally broke big on the scale of other bands like 10,000 Maniacs.

When I worked in a college record store and someone would buy a Guadalcanal Diary record, I'd always mouth-off like a typical record store snob about how The Swimming Pool Q's were "doing that sort of thing first and better"...and there's some truth to that.

I always thought that, apart from the presence of Anne Richmond Boston, that The Q's sounded like what a Peter Buck-fronted R.E.M. would have sounded like if Michael Stipe wasn't in the picture.

The Swimming Pool Q's were not quite X, certainly not Lone Justice, and most assuredly not roots rockers like The Long Ryders. They were too smart to pretend to be dumb and too clever by far for Top 40 radio.

For a moment in 1984, I felt like I had discovered something magical. Driving through Southern Maryland, I was pretty certain that I was the only kid in my high school cranking out that first A&M record. As "The Knave" would blare out of my Duster's tape deck in the school parking lot, I'd reflect on all the great bands I'd started listening to in 1984.

In my mind at least, The Swimming Pool Q's were poised for the big time.

In a mere two or three years, with the likes of The Del Fuegos and Dreams So Real -- two fine bands, I guess -- getting played on WHFS, this Q's fan felt cheated.

It's taken nearly 30 years to finally have these two albums on CD and to have them in such a nice and lovingly-produced package -- complete with a 17-track bonus CD and a DVD -- is something that this fan is very, very grateful for.

Here are the details on the set.

But better still, check out the band's website for details on their current activity as well as this beautiful reisssue set:

The Amazon link for the 2-CD set is here.

The Amazon link for the 3-CD and 1-DVD set is here.