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The Satellites rock again

Baird, Richards and friends are back in orbit, recalling their launch-pad period

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In late 1980, with the Reagan era poised to trample over the Carter years, the nation's Top 40 was populated with goop from the likes of Kenny Rogers and Barbra Streisand, while Billy Joel (of all people) and Blondie sold new wave to the suburbs. Meanwhile, on college radio, rootsy rock remained healthy, aided by L.A.'s Blasters and U.K. "supergroup" Rockpile. While Atlanta, like every major city, had its music cliques -- "earthdog" rockers, arty new wavers, slick urban cowboy crooners, some prog/fusion holdouts -- the selection of clubs that booked bands playing original music was somewhat limited. There was the Agora Ballroom, 688 and the Bistro downtown, the Little Five Points Pub and Moonshadow Saloon on the east side, and up in Buckhead, the gritty Hedgens and popular Harvest Moon Saloon.

"In the '70s and early '80s, Atlanta music was still a pretty small-time scene," veteran Atlanta drummer David Michaelson says. "Everybody knew each other, and if you needed a bass player or drummer, you instantly knew who to call."

Shifting through a collection of faded photographs and newspaper clippings, the 49-year-old Michaelson -- a professional in town since his teens -- pauses and looks at a current Creative Loafing. "Now there's about a thousand bands around town and the scene is so spread out, there's no real sense of community anymore."

The drummer has been going down memory lane recently in preparation for two reunion performances by Keith and the Satellites, a band he christened and played drums in 1981-1983. Certainly more people know the Satellites in the form of their later incarnation -- as the Georgia Satellites of "Keep Your Hands to Yourself" fame. While both were anchored by singer/guitarists Dan Baird and Rick Richards, Keith and the Satellites is an altogether different outfit. It is where it all began for the group, and it's the period that the original quartet -- Baird, Richards, Michaelson and bassist Keith Christopher -- revisit, 22 years later, this weekend at The Earl in East Atlanta.

On Dec. 2, 1980, all four future Satellites attended a rousingly inspirational show at the Agora. Rockpile, featuring Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds, played to a full house, while touring to support its Seconds of Pleasure LP. "I really understood what they were doing," Baird recalls. "They were havin' fun, playin' loud and missin' stuff, and they were great."

Six nights later the musicians, minus teetotaler Baird, were drinking at Ken's Tavern, which was located across Piedmont Road from where the Gold Club was more recently located. The Harvest Moon was just a few doors down. "Back then, they called it the 'hot corner,'" Michaelson says. "You could stay all night, just going back and forth between the two places."

A fun night of drinking became instantly sobering when the news came on the TV at the bar: John Lennon had been shot. "We were shocked," Christopher says. "We had to go and play -- it's all we could do." The three trekked across Piedmont Road to a basement rehearsal space and banged out tunes all night long.

"About three weeks later, I horned in," says Baird, who had previously played in several bands with Michaelson. The combined forces scrawled out a multi-page set list of songs they all knew.

The resulting sound of the four scrappy players was a marriage of pop, hard rock and country-soul. "I was a ridiculous NRBQ fan," Baird says. "Richards was a ridiculous Aerosmith and George Jones fan. Between the two of us, it was a kind of amalgamation of styles. It seemed to work pretty well."

About a month later, as luck would have it, Richards and Christopher's band the Famous Unknowns had to cancel a gig at the Bistro, and they asked Baird and Michaelson if their still-unnamed quartet could fill in.

"Hell yeah, we want to play!" whooped the effusive Baird. "I recall a stunning amount of volume in a small amount of space that night. 'Do they have to be that loud?' No, but it sure is fun!"

Almost as soon as Michaelson dubbed the band Keith and the Satellites, the group's unpretentious brand of sloppy high-decibel guitar rock, bad jokes and don't-give-a-shit attitude earned the band a large following of rabid fans. "We just had fun," says Baird, who was already in his late 20s at the time. "We were out of fashion and too old. And we didn't care."

While new-wave kids pogoed and posed across town inside the trendy 688 club on Spring Street, the Satellites were making a name for themselves at Hedgens -- in the heart of Buckhead, of all places.

"The new-wave thing was cute, and the high school kids could get into it. But I just didn't get it," Baird says. "The whole thing of 'we're gonna look like this and be quirky on purpose and do silly stuff' wasn't me."

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