Four graying guys reforming a rock band four decades after its peak is a tried-and-true nostalgia trip, but the members of Atlanta's long-defunct Radar are convinced they've got something unique to offer. They're at a point in their lives when everything is coming back full circle, one more time. A reunion show at Smith's Olde Bar brings together the lineup from Radar's 1967-'73 peak, and they've been working on an hour-long set for months, offering a look at a long-gone era of Atlanta music.
Though little-known these days, Radar had a sizable presence in Atlanta's rock scene of the late '60s and early '70s. The band bridged the sunny sounds of the former decade and the more complex rock of the latter, lacing three-part vocal harmonies reminiscent of the Beach Boys through spacey, bluesy prog-rock numbers that settled nicely between those of Procol Harum and Hawkwind.
Vocalist, bassist, and synth player James Cobb and drummer Tony Garstin formed Radar when they were students at Sandy Springs High School, later recruiting vocalist/keyboard player Arthur Offen and vocalist/guitarist Chris Cornish. "Arthur and I couldn't write fast enough," says Cobb. "We were inspiring each other; he'd bring something great and I'd want to outdo him. We'd push each other to improve."
No official recordings exist and only a handful of tunes are on YouTube, thanks mainly to Elliott Garstin, Tony's son and host of AM1690's "Radio Undefined." The throbbing bass tones and vocal harmonies of "Misty Moon" evoke heavy tripping psychedelics, while the cinematic "White Sun" is packed with major chords and celestial soundscapes. Then there's the epic "Mozel," a 20-minute-plus suite based on Godzilla, written long before Blue Öyster Cult's "Godzilla."
Radar is perhaps best known as one of the opening acts at 1970's Second Atlanta International Pop Festival (held, ironically, south of Macon). Boasting a lineup including Jimi Hendrix, the Allman Brothers, Richie Havens, Ravi Shankar, and Grand Funk Railroad, among others, the fest was billed as "three days of peace, love, and music."
As the '70s progressed, Radar faded. The group had found a niche opening for nationally touring acts such as Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, and Jefferson Airplane, but record labels began insisting that bands take labelmates with them as openers. "Our bread and butter was opening for major national acts," Cobb says, adding that smaller clubs and bars only wanted to book cover bands at the time.
A near-deal with Capitol Records caused tension within the group, and no one is eager to dredge up "ancient history." The group chalks up its dissolution to personal differences, and its members went on to play in bands including Air Raid, Flag, and Starbuck. But Garstin continued playing with other musicians as Radar throughout the '80s. "What brought [this reunion] together was that the wall of acrimony finally crumbled," Garstin says. "Everyone got over what they were pissed about."
The idea for a Radar reunion show was hatched during the Pop Festival's anniversary celebration, but early rehearsals proved that they'd need months to get their intricate set ready for the stage.
Modern technology allows the group to flesh out its songs beyond their abilities, adding string and brass parts, for instance. Multitracked recordings also allowed four guys in their 60s with busy lives the ability to practice even when they couldn't be in the same room together — they all had rough tracks of each other's parts that they could practice along to solo or in twos or threes when all four couldn't meet up.
"Our vocal range is a little different," Cornish says, noting that four decades can change a man's voice. "We changed the keys on a couple tunes, rearranged the harmonies a little bit ... You still get that special blend, though, which was part of the original chemistry."
That original chemistry is the main driving force behind this reunion. "The reason we were popular is we were good," Garstin says. "I don't mind saying that because I didn't write the songs, so I don't mind bragging on them. There's something really special there."
Doing anything 40 years later requires more than a little motivation, and for Radar, it's not just the desire to relive — they believe they've got something to offer, even if it's only for one night.