While KC and the Sunshine Band are opening the rescheduled Atlanta shows for the B-52s this weekend, lucky ticketholders for the band’s “final” touring show in Athens on Tuesday are in for a special hometown treat.
The dance-party art-rock of Love Tractor will be the perfect addition for what is sure to be a memorable evening of music and fun. “It’s a great honor for us,” says bassist-guitarist Armistead Wellford. “I was in Los Angeles when I got the call from [B-52s vocalist] Fred Schneider and I think it makes perfect sense.”
Credit: Courtesy of Love Tractor archives
Credit: Courtesy of Love Tractor archives
Indeed, Love Tractor and the B’s are the only late ‘70s/early ‘80s Classic City-born bands who are still active and productive. “I think we both still have something to say musically,” according to co-founder Mike Richmond. “For us, Love Tractor is writing a bunch of new songs that will hopefully be out next year. We’re exploring new ideas and directions and just broadening the sound even more than before. Some of the new things are even longer than the stuff from [1988′s] “Themes from Venus” or even “Sky At Night.” And I know, “Sky” came out in 2001, so we’re way past due for a new record. The ‘every-twenty-year’ release model thing isn’t exactly the best business plan we could have, but at this point we don’t have to answer to anyone but ourselves.”
With band members scattered up and down the eastern half of the United States, New York-based Mark Cline says they make the most of their time whenever they converge in Athens to prepare for an upcoming show. “We know the old stuff, so quite often we’ll just jam and some brand-new ideas will emerge. And it still sounds like us.”
A highlight of Love Tractor’s unique sound is the convergence of unusual melodies with abstract lyrics. For the track “Themes From Venus,” for example, guitarist Cline says Richmond wrote a standard set of lyrics, “but if another word sounded better, he would just insert it. Written down, they make no sense, but when you’re listening to them, they make perfect sense with the music.”
“I’ve never wanted the words to detract from what we’re playing,” explains Richmond. “The music is pretty odd in the way it’s structured and I wanted the lyrics to be like that, too.” Their self-described “odd” music may be difficult to categorize but it remains instantly recognizable. “Well, we were art students who probably loved music more than art. We were able to take what we knew about artists and how they created and learned to apply it to our music. I was in art history and you’d sort of learn what these artists did to distinguish themselves. I think it worked.”
Blending elements of straight-ahead rock and roll with whimsical imagery and the more challenging aspects of ‘70s progressive rock, Richmond says the band remains “experimental but not noisy or dissonant. I grew up listening to bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer and I love all the prog-rock stuff. But when you say ‘experimental,’ people usually think of things that don’t even have a discernible melody. I like that stuff just fine, but that’s not what we set out to do.”
“I always thought of ‘art rock’ to be the really out-there stuff like some of the more obscure bands were doing,” says drummer Andrew Carter. “When I first saw shows in Athens, some people were doing, like, thirty minutes of TV static and other atonal things. It wasn’t something you’d really want to hear more than once but people still liked it and supported it. In my mind, we were always more of a dance-party band than probably anything else.”
After the B-52′s had left Athens to live in New York in the late ‘70s, Athens was still a sleepy southern town. “Clubs were on the fringes and downtown was pretty much dead,” continues Cline. “We’d have these house parties because we were the ‘odd people.’ The University was all about sororities and fraternities, so the art building was the hangout club for people like us.”
“It’s been said that you could lie down in the middle of the street on College Avenue or Broad Street or whatever and nothing would happen to you. You’d be totally safe because there wasn’t even much traffic in Athens back then,” laughs Cline. “That’s how it was when we started. We all knew each other and supported each other’s shows.”
The art school party scenes centered around the old Victorian houses of Barber Street, where rent was cheap. “To me, that’s the real Athens ‘Walk of Fame,’” suggests Cline. “All up and down Barber Street and Cobb Street, that whole area. I lived in this place called Pylon Park and it was just a rock and roll house. In 1979, Mike and I would sit around and write songs because we both played guitar. There was literally nothing else going on. You had to make your own fun.”
“Cheap rent and boredom, I think that’s the combination that helped create the Athens music scene,” agrees Richmond. “The B’s started it all, but when they left, we had to do it ourselves.”
Cline clearly remembers the early days of the scene as unpretentious times. “Before people started to move to Athens to ‘make it,’ none of us had that intention. Even R.E.M. didn’t have that intention at first. They were just at the right place at the right time — with the right front man. They’d do cool covers and stuff until they had enough of their own material, but we didn’t even try to play a show until we had enough new songs. We just wanted to have ten songs we could play at a party for our friends. That’s how it all started.”
After those early, mostly instrumental, party shows, Love Tractor gradually included vocals into their sound, eventually touring nationally while releasing a series of well-received albums. “Bands have a ten-year period to really do it,” says Cline. “You have to change with the times — and we did.” By that time, the group was writing the multi-layered and complex compositions that ultimately became “Themes from Venus.” Originally released by Atlanta’s DB Records in 1988, the collection was produced by the band with likeminded musician pal Mitch Easter at his studio in North Carolina. Arguably Love Tractor’s best album to date, an expanded version was released last year via Georgia-based Propeller Sound Recordings on all popular platforms.
“We were trying to go back to all the things that influenced us when we were kids learning how to play music — English Rock, Krautrock, a lot of early Roxy Music and David Bowie,” says Cline, who also designed the evocative cover. “We were sort of digging back into these other scenes. At the time it was first released, things were so weird in music that a lot of people didn’t really get what we were trying to do.”
The B-52′s definitely ‘got it’ and invited Love Tractor to open a number of shows on their massive “Cosmic Thing” tour in 1989. “We must’ve played at least 60 shows with them on that tour,” remembers Wellford.
“But the funny thing about that tour,” adds Carter, “Some of it was it was booked way before ‘Love Shack’ became the number-one hit from ‘Cosmic Thing’ and it was all over MTV and everything else. So some nights we’d be playing these in these 1,500-seat theaters and then the next night, it might be a giant 15,000-seat arena. It was definitely interesting and a really good challenge for us as a band. We were driving around the country in a van back then. Some nights, we’d have to leave right after we played — or while the B’s were still playing — just to be able to make it to the next show in time.”
“And now,” concludes Wellford, “to be doing it again with our friends and heroes — right where it all started - this is going to be the party of the year.”
In celebration of the event, the AJC is pleased to present the debut of the trippy lyric video for the title track from “Themes From Venus.” Made by Joedin Morelock, lead vocalist of Blair Gun, a great new band from San Diego, along with fellow artist Sara Morrison, the exuberant production features a rare glimpse at some of Richmond’s abstract lyrics, paired with appropriately historic imagery. Enjoy!
The B-52s with KC and the Sunshine Band
7:30 p.m. Jan. 6-8. $49.50-$249.50. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 855-285-8499, foxtheatre.org.
The B-52s with Love Tractor
7:30 p.m. Jan. 10. Sold out. Classic Center, 300 N. Thomas St., Athens. 706-208-0900, classiccenter.com.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com