As the late 1970s gave way to the 1980s, Tampa Bay experienced the early spasms of an alternative music scene, although no one called it that. The common designation was “New Wave,” punk’s less-angry offspring. The scene’s nexus was the Buffalo Roadhouse, on the corner of Armenia and Buffalo (now MLK) avenues in Tampa, where skinny-tie bands like Zenith Nadir played fast, sloppy rock as sweaty crowds pogo’d and partied.
It was a real event when the Roadhouse booked The Swimming Pool Q’s, co-founded by Jeff Calder, who had left the provincial confines of Lakeland for Atlanta, where he and guitarist Bob Elsey formed the band in ’78. Singer/keyboardist Anne Richmond Boston soon came into the fold. The quintet was an early entry in the Athens/Atlanta scene that produced R.E.M. and The B-52s, as well as lesser-known outfits like Pylon, Love Tractor, and The Brains.
The Q’s released two major-label albums that stand with the best music from the New Wave era, but never achieved widespread commercial success. The band — still in existence, still based in Atlanta — has become a fond memory for a small cult of fans, quite a few of them in Tampa Bay.
Calder always wanted to see the reissue of The Swimming Pool Q’s (1984) and Blue Tomorrow (’86). That came to fruition this summer with the release of The A&M Years: 1984-1986, a handsomely packaged artifact from one of the many lost bands of that decade.
The Swimming Pool Q’s cut their first single, “Rat Bait,” at Hitmakers Studio in Ybor City. They opened for The Police during a 1979 Florida swing of smaller venues that included Tampa Theatre.
The band’s Georgia contemporaries “didn’t see a whole lot of value in playing regionally,” Calder said by phone from his home in Atlanta. “The B-52s would play here, go to New York City and the Northeast and came back home. They had no incentive to play the Buffalo Roadhouse. Yet we really gravitated toward that.”
Calder, who started as a journalist writing primarily about music, describes his early songwriting as “taking as many words as possible and jamming them into a few musical ideas.” He was as influenced by such avant-gardists as Atlanta’s Hampton Grease Band and Captain Beefheart as he was proto-punks like Lou Reed. As a result, the early Pool Q’s music was angular and quirky, often featuring Calder’s sarcastic bellow spewing satiric rants.
The group’s 1981 debut album, The Deep End, released on Atlanta’s DB Records, sold about 20,000 units. It had dawned on Calder that Anne Richmond Boston was better suited to singing lead than him, so he started to tailor tunes with her in mind. He realized that the songs would need to be more concise, and require vocal hooks rather than scattershot ideas sewn together. As the band progressed, the songwriting became more collaborative, although Calder was firmly in charge of the lyrics.
Major record companies had come sniffing around, and the band chose A&M, the prestigious imprint co-founded by Herb Alpert, with a roster over the years that included The Carpenters, Styx, and The Police.
In 1984, the Q’s released their self-titled major label debut. Hearing the stuff three decades on, the platter does not sound hopelessly dated like A Flock of Seagulls, The Human League, Naked Eyes or many of the other bands that enjoyed more commercial success than Calder and company. The Q’s were a New Wave band almost by default (although they did adopt, to some extent, the trendy clothes, hairstyles and bouncy stage moves of their peers).
As the adage goes, radio didn’t hear a single. The Q’s continued to tour aggressively, but in the mid-’80s an act simply didn’t take off without consistent airplay. A&M’s support of the group was tepid; it never financed a video to feed the MTV beast. Although the label did retain the band for a second LP, promotion was all but nil. Compact discs were gaining a foothold, but A&M did not release either Q’s title on the format.
Given nearly three decades of hindsight, Calder is resigned to the commercial failure of the A&M stint. “They didn’t know what to make of a band like The Swimming Pool Q’s,” he says of the label and the music business in general. “Acts that gave them something very focused — like R.E.M., or, say, The Who — made it much easier for labels to market. Here you had something like The Swimming Pool Q’s, with a female singer and a male singer, a variety of themes in the songs, contradictions and complexities. We were difficult to promote.
“There was a window to promote a band at radio and chain record stores, and then that window closes. I don’t think our experience was particularly unique as far as its disappointing aspects. For a band like us, there had to be an element of luck. I think in an earlier era a band that was conceptually like The Swimming Pool Q’s might have had an easier time of it. I also think we would have fared better if we’d come along later in the ’80s.”
Calder pauses, adding. “I’m not sure I would have been quite so philosophical about this in 1986.”
A&M dropped the Swimming Pool Q’s that summer and Boston departed at year’s end (returning 16 years later). The all-male quartet forged on, releasing World War Two Point Five on Capitol in 1989. In 2003, the Q’s released the epic Royal Academy of Reality, a psychedelic triumph.
The Swimming Pool Q’s have never broken up.
Supplementary material: a thorough analysis of the Swimming Pool Q’s double-disc re-issue; and a story about how it came into fruition.