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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."

Although it seems unlikely now, Buckhead back then was once a relatively sedate neighborhood. The Satellites played a raucous death march to the very end of that era while bigger businesses moved in and the nightlife slowly began to flourish. In the band's heyday, however, what few bars existed in Buckhead were decidedly non-descript blue-collar watering holes.

"Back in the old days, people used to park in the Sears parking lot," Baird says. "Man, those days are long gone. Hell, Sears is gone. Metro Music is gone. The things that made Buckhead Buckhead back then, well, they've just changed. That's the price of growth."

While Buckhead's current bar scene is larger and more unruly than ever, it functions as more of a pick-up scene than a place to catch up-and-coming local bands. Or any bands at all that play original music. That's why, when Michaelson put together the current Keith and the Satellites shows -- one the group envisions as a Hedgens reunion -- he had to look to the other end of the city for a hospitable venue.

"When David told me we were playing these shows in East Atlanta, I said, 'Why not in Buckhead?'" Baird says. "Then I realized there's no place to hold it in Buckhead."

By April of '81, the Satellites were regular performers at Hedgens, a modest storefront club located at what is now a pricey Roswell Road site about a block past the Roxy (the site of the old Capri Theater). Just as Roswell Road connected the suburbs to the city, the Satellites bridged the gap between the art and rock scenes. As such, their high-octane racket grabbed the attention of a variety of fans. "We caught people's idea that, 'Hey, these guys don't care, they just wanna rock,'" says Baird.

Andy Browne, who later played in Atlanta group the Nightporters, says, "I remember a lot of bands back then had bad new-wave haircuts, too much lipstick and cheesy synths. The Satellites had real energy and passion. I was just starting to play guitar at the time. I'd sneak into Hedgens when I was 15 or 16, then go home and try to copy what I saw them do."

Joni Strandquest, of early- '80s Athens band Coup D'tat, was a regular visitor to both Hedgens and 688. "Hedgens was a lot less pretentious than 688. It was less of a scene," she recalls. "And Buckhead in general was fun back then. It wasn't the yuppie and pick-up hang-out that it is now."

Baird describes the club in more earthy terms: "Your feet stuck to the carpet in Hedgens. If you stood still for five minutes, you got that Velcro feeling. It was nasty and fun. Nice girls had to be drunk to go there. Basically, it was like a clubhouse with a rock band in it."

A typical Keith and the Satellites show was a haphazard collision of brilliance and bombast. Obscure cover tunes were often reworked and wrenched into spirals of white noise and spit. "The whole thing was a mess," Baird says. "Periodically, goodness came and sat on our shoulders, and we were a good band. Sometimes we existed in a state of grace, but then it was right back to the mess."

After a successful two years in its original form, the Satellites endured a whirlwind of personnel changes -- including a stint with superstar producer Brendan O' Brien on bass -- and began touring regionally. By mid-'83, Christopher and Michaelson were gone, and the band, having already dropped the "Keith and the" prefix, was ready for the next step.

"When ya start putting the Georgia in front of Satellites," says Baird, "that's when it becomes a whole different thing. We were just a bar band to begin with. We went and reached for that brass ring, and we got all the good things and bad things that went with it."

Baird and Richards' adventures continued as the band got signed to major label Elektra in the mid-'80s and scored a worldwide hit with "Keep Your Hands to Yourself" -- a tune that originated back in the Keith and the Satellites era.

The adoration and MTV airplay was relatively short-lived, though. Their subsequent albums weren't as successful, and by the end of the '80s, Baird says he "fired himself" from the band. With the Satellites on the backburner, the '90s saw Baird release two solo albums while Richards joined Izzy Stradlin's Ju Ju Hounds. By the mid-'90s, Richards began fronting a new version of the Georgia Satellites, while Christopher became a journeyman session player and Michaelson continued to play locally as a member of the Blue Velvets.

The temporarily reunited Keith and the Satellites are quick to point out that The Earl shows are not a Georgia Satellites gathering, and they do not intend to revive that period. "We're gonna do a bunch of covers, because we did a lot of them back then, and the songs we wrote then," Baird says. "We're just gonna fly like its 1981."

They also promise a slew of surprise Hedgens-era guests, late-night jam sessions and very little pre-show practice (Baird currently lives in Nashville, and Christopher in New York). In addition, a special limited-edition CD of previously unreleased material, as well as commemorative posters and T-shirts, will be available at the shows. The performances will be filmed for a future DVD release. Amid all the whoopin' and hollerin,' Baird vows to adhere to the original band's only real goal: simply to have fun.

"Can we make something happen again, and then take what happens and channel it?" Baird asks rhetorically. "Well, that's just a kinda groovy, metaphysical way of sayin', 'Hey y'all, wouldn't it be

lee.smith@creativeloafing.com

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