In 1993, I had the great pleasure of producing (along with Dan Baird and Howard Thompson), a compilation Let It Rock: The Best of the Georgia Satellites. Here are my liner notes for that collection.
Runka-runka, three chords, and a cloud of dust. The Georgia Satellites were one of the most ferocious bands of the Eighties, and what set them apart from the other 10,000 groups that cranked their amps to 11 was that their wild riffs and tanked cries came from a quartet that understood its place in rock tradition and fought hard to solidify it with each recording. They only lasted for three LPs and a handful of EPs and odd tracks (some of them really odd), but as Let It Rock: Best of the Georgia Satellites shows, they expanded forever the limits and the promise of what a band could do with those three chords (well, sometimes only two) played harder than ever before.
The story here starts in Hedgen's, a "country club for the spiritually impoverished and emotionally destitute," as Baird would later identify it in "I Dunno." Hedgen's lay in the Buckhead section of Atlanta, the group's home. It was a lonely Thursday night, pushing 2:30 in the morning, and the Satellites were about to begin their third set to a handful of creditors and future ex-girlfriends. Plugging in his Gibson Les Paul Jr., Rick Richards eyed the band with a wilder than usual look, announced "It's in D. It's fast. Trust me," and guided the band through a high-octane explosion of Ringo Starr's "Don't Pass Me By." Surprisingly, the Satellites didn't put it on a record until their second LP, Open All Night. Says fellow guitarist and chief Satellites songwriter Dan Baird, "We loved the Beatles. We couldn't possibly have gotten away covering Lennon/McCartney or Harrison. That left us with the two songs Ringo wrote: 'Octopus's Garden' and 'Don't Pass Me By.' Tell me which one you'd pick." Before you believe such modesty, remember that the Satellites did take on compositions bigger that themselves: they covered "Every Picture Tells a Story" and "Wholde Lotta Shakin' Going On" on record, and everything from "Highway 61 Revisited" to "Suspicious Minds" onstage. This was not a group that lacked chutzpa.
Most Satellites fans were introduced to the band through "Keep Your Hands to Yourself," the absurdly successful first single that went to Number Two in 1987. (Bon Jovi's light-metal Peter Frampton ripoff "Livin' on a Prayer denied it the top slot.) A remixed version of a Baird tune that an early iteration of the group had recorded in 1983 for its eventual debut EP Keep the Faith, the song's wit, Baird's yodeling and an over-the-top video made the quarted overnight hick superstars. According to Baird, "The most gratifying and shameful moment of that whole experience was at the Indiana State Fair. Some woman came up to me and said, 'I love that "huggie-kissie" song you do. My two-year-old dances every time we see it on CMT.' I knew then that I had reached the lowest common denominator." Lyrically, though, it set the pattern for the group's concerns on its first two LPs. Throughout their career, the Satellites tried to stretch ideas of what it meant to be a bar band. Baird refers to many of songs as "the story of a Jethro Bodean with a good education, some simple guy worrying."
Hit record or not, Baird, Richards, bassist Rick Price, and drummer Mauro Magellan made their imprint from the start most early as a barnstorming live act. Price had played guitar and Magellan kept time for The Brains, a fine Atlanta rock-and-roll band that inexplicably got lumped in with the new-wave skinny-tie boys. Mauro joined the band when The Brains broke up in 1983, and left a year later when he and Richards threw in their lot with Kyle Henderson, bassist for The Producers. During this time, Baird started a band called The Woodpeckers with three lads from North Carolina, while Richards and Magellan recruited Price as bassist for The Hellhounds, a group they started after the Henderson project fizzled. In mid-1985, Baird summoned The Woodpeckers to a meeting after a typically fruitless gig, told them that he missed "that certain negativity," and began sitting in with The Hellhounds. Soon after, ex-Satellites road manager and Number One fan Kevin Jennings casually let drop that he had sold a Satellites EP, Keep the Faith, to an independent label in England, so they'd better start using that name again. Hence the band that pulverized audiences with songs like "Open All Night." Baird wrote "Open All Night" after hearing Bruce Springsteen's "Pink Cadillac," eager to "come up with something that had the same primitive swing, fairly suggestive but without spilling the beans." Another high point of their sets was "Battleship Chains," a sturdy rocker that went back to The Woodpeckers. It was covered by many bands, most notably The Replacements in a version that screams for a warning sticker (among other things).
"Almost Saturday Night" is the John Fogerty standard, as recorded for Elektra's Rubaiyat anniversary colloction of Elektra artists covering their label mates, with a bit of Fogerty's "Rockin' All Over the World" grafted to the end. The Satellites' arrangement, built around Price's open-hearted mandolin, was a thrilling mix of acoustic and electric, runka-runka plus a heart full o' soul. "At first we wanted to do something by the MC5 or The Stooges," Baird recalls. "For a while we thought we'd do something by The Cars. It would've been great to do a hick version of 'My Best Friend's Girl,' but the Fogerty song was the best for us. We were probably more familiar with Dave Edmunds version than Fogerty's but we were big Fogerty fans. Here was a guy in the mid-and-late-seventies who was really the only guy writing Americana that worked. No one else had any sense of history."
A whiplash version of Chan Romero's "Hippy Hippy Shake" was recorded for the otherwise forgettable Cocktail, produced along with Brenden O'Brien, one of many former Satellites bass players and the only one who didn't owe the band money. The group knocked it out in one day at Doppler Studio in Atlanta. The director had cut the movie to the Swingin' Blue Jeans version and the group played along with a videotape of the film Magellan had to lengthen the drum fill so it would synchronize with images of Tom Cruise slapping down bottles on a bar. It might not have been the best reason to make a record, but it burned holes in playlists around the country and became the band's biggest hit since "Keep Your Hands to Yourself."
The Satellites' final record was the sprawling In the Land of Salvation and Sin. Even the group's longtime fans were shocked and thrilled at how the group had reinvented themselves, discovering how to channel the energy of their engaging bar-room stomps into a wider variety of forms. Even their tributes--unavoidable in a group so conscious of history-- had gained depth. (As an example of the 14-cut record's overflowing strengths, the vivid "Saddle Up" was left off because the group didn't want any of its standard 12-bar-three-chord-turnover blues on the set. It was exiled to a CD-5.) Augmenting the band on half the record was Faces vet Ian McLagan, an obvious role model for the group, who helped them achieve their dream of sounding sloppy and inspired, and fit in perfectly with the group's purposeful lunacy. but on the record, the band was all business. The devastating "All Over But the Cryin'" had elements of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Neil Young, and Tom Petty, their hardest, most direct lost-love foray; Baird wrote "Six Years Gone" about an old relationship of Richards's. "Rick was wonderful subject to write about," Baird says. "He'd go through all the things that I wouldn't."
Many of the tunes had shiney surfaces, yet Baird's writing on In the Land of Salvation and Sin was his darkest and most emotionally complex; think of it as Jethro Bodean bumping into Carl Jung at a double feature of Cape Fear and Night of the Hunter. "Dan Takes Five" was a sweltring rocker in which Baird conveyed an I'm-outta-here-babe tale with an overlay of terror about his newfound independence. In this way "Dan Takes Five" descended directly from the Sun rockabillies who bragged about their brazen exploits only to regret their flight from the Sun rockabillies who bragged about their brazen exploits only to regret their flight from domesticity. Says Baird, "That song was about me running away to Mexico. I didn't know I was going to Mexico until I made it to San Antonio and noticed I had my passport in the car. I wrote it in a hotel room in Monterey and in the car one night at 3 a.m. with the cruise control on 70."
The breakthrough track on In the Land of Salvation and Sin, and the one that best showed how far the band had traveled, was the acoustic single "Another Chance," which overtly recalled The Faces and cruised on the interplay between guitars and hearty, vulnerable vocals. "It was the last song I wrote for the record," baird says. "I'd been listening to the Faces' Ooh La La, and I wanted something with the same world-weary but optimistic quality. The first line of the song--"Livin' with my back against the wall/Nowhere but forward to fall"--was a Paul Westerberg rip. What I liked most about 'Another Chance' was the vocals. I loved the first three Band records, where they had three guys singing, trading off lines. I felt that was important to do here, to capture the friendliness of the song. We didn't know whether Mauro would sing until we made him." Baird wanted the lyrics each person sang to represent him; Richards' lines reflected his rock-and-roll lifestyle. Price got to express his fascination with race cars, Baird got to make believe he was Robbie Robertson, and Mauro (who played hurry-up-and-learn-that-damn-thing-already bass on the drum-less track while Price put the "man" back in the mandolin) did his best Ringo impersonation.
From the start, The Georgia Satellites wee full of audacity and talent to justify that fearlessness, demanding entry into the room that housed the top rank of rock and rollers. It didn't take long to smash down the door. Any band now exploding out of a garage that wants to live out the dreams of Chuck Berry's "The Promised Land" now has the greatest role model the U.S. has yet produced.