HIGH FREQUENCIES: When your ‘love is true, it won’t go out of style’
With ’80s power pop wonders the Producers playing this weekend, CL looks back at the band’s local beginnings
The ’80s: skinny ties, new wave music, big hair … MTV!
What a time to be alive! Or was a it? Sure it was. While many people think back to the more punk-influenced bands of the era — Blondie, Talking Heads, the Ramones, the Police, the Cars, and the Go-Gos, — there were many other bands playing the radio-friendly offspring of new wave music: power pop. Think the Knack (“My Sharona), Thomas Dolby (“She Blinded Me With Science”), the Romantics (“That’s What I Like About You). Tommy Tutone (“876-5309/Jenny”), and of course, Atlanta’s own entry into the power pop sweepstakes, the Producers. (“What She Does To Me,” “What’s He Got”).
Power pop wasn’t as menacing as new wave, which was born ’n’ bred of punk in the downtown clubs of New York City and the streets of London by those on the dole. Power pop was upbeat, jubilant, catchy — the lyrics dealt more with relationships than social upheaval, love over anarchy. And power pop fit right in with the more conventional rock ’n’ roll — Journey, Cheap Trick, Styx, REO Speedwagon — you heard on the radio, prior to the rise of alternative rock.
The Producers were perfect for the time. Nice-looking, well-groomed guys, each with their own distinct look — the pretty boy, the serious musician, the quirky one, and the one with savoir faire — they couldn’t have been better matched had Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson been holding auditions for a prefabricated pop band. Of course, with one big difference, unlike the Monkees, the Producers were all talented musicians, singers, and songwriters.
The Producers return to Atlanta this weekend for two nights at City Winery, and while it may seem like a “reunion” of sorts, the band hasn’t stopped playing since original bassist Kyle Henderson rejoined the other members — guitarist Van Temple , drummer Bryan Holmes and keyboardist Wayne Famous — in the late ’90s.
“Probably good that you put ‘reunions’ in quotes,” Henderson says via email, “otherwise, it sort of implies that we took a big break and then intentionally got back together for a tour or a time or whatever. It's really more organic and less intentional than that. We four old motherfuckers have been playing together for a very long time, off and on, with only a single severe break, which was when I left the band and didn't play with the band for, oh, 10-or-so years. We pretty much play for anybody that'll have us and pay us enough to make it worth the time. And that's what we've done for most of this post-career period of our musical lives.” Social media has played a big part in allowing the band to raise their profile and play more gigs.
“We'd been gigging the whole time, but much less frequently. What happened in 2012 was Facebook. A fan-become-friend, Skip Ferebee, who's been marketing director at a number of big resorts, built the page and started applying his social-media chops. Suddenly, those people who loved us during their high school and college years had a way of contacting us and finding out where we were playing. The result was a pretty consistent stream of a dozen-or-so gigs a year, mostly in the South but occasionally elsewhere.”
Was there ever any trepidation in “getting the band back together,” as the saying goes.
“Nah, we're too old to be afraid of this anymore. These gigs are just a great opportunity to see old friends and play what I'd say is the best original music any of us in the band have been involved with. Yes, it's of its time, but what isn't?
As with any band, there are as many egos as there are members, but that hasn’t been a problem for the four individual who make up the Producers.
“Personality-wise, no,” the singer/bassist contends. “These are my best friends in the world, and I'm sure they'd say the same. That doesn't mean we're all super alike or that we all get along perfectly all the time, but those qualifications seem unnecessary in a conversation with adults.”
Do the Producers still have the drawing power?
“Yes, that's always a concern, as our popularity was and is strangely regional. Throughout our musical life, we could fill pretty big rooms in one town and not draw flies in the next. I guess that's just the effect of getting a lot of airplay on some stations but never having that smash Top 10 hit, or hits, that skyrocket a group from playing triple-A ball to playing in the majors. We have some very devoted fans who just loved — and love — the band,” Henderson notes, though he’s not certain they have the draw to play a larger venue like the Fox Theater again.
The Producers’ roots trace back to the Bistro, a one-time folk club not far from the Fabulous Fox that was a showcase for local and up-and-coming performers. Demolished in the name of progress around the turn of the century, memories of the club at at 1102 West Peachtree Street still linger for regulars of the old house turned music venue.
In the late ’60s it was the place where a young Jimmy Buffett was guaranteed at least a Tuesday through Thursday booking. Comedian Steve Martin used to perform there, too, before anyone would give him a second laugh. Then, it became the proving ground for local bands like the Dixie Dregs, the Glenn Phillips Band, and Bruce Hampton with whatever aggregation of musicians he had assembled or the evening, before they graduated to the larger stage of the Great Southeast Music Hall.
The Summer of ’78 to the Fall of ’79, the Bistro had become the home of Whiteface, a rocking, soulful funk band of which Kyle Henderson was a member. The band members lived there, played there — and, eventually, it’s where Henderson met the future members of the Producers.
Years ago, Henderson recounted to me that chance meeting, one of hopeful naiveté more than anything. “One night, in walks Van Temple and the rest of the guys (Bryan Holmes and Wayne Famous). I thought, for sure John Waite, the singer in the Babys had come to see us. At the time, I was a Babys fan. I went up to him (thinking he was Waite) and said, ‘Man, I’m Kyle Henderson, it’s really nice to meet you,’ and he said, ‘I’m Van Temple, it’s really nice to meet you, too.’ (Henderson recounted, laughing at the the case of mistaken identity). I thought, ‘Oh no!’ I was so disappointed!” Nonetheless, Henderson struck up a friendship with the three musicians, then members of Cartoon, a band known for their Beatles covers.
The Bistro not only played a role in Henderson meeting his future bandmates, but it also connected him with Tom Werman, the record producer and label executive for Epic Records who eventually signed the Producers and produced their first two albums, The Producers and You Make the Heat.
“Tom was producing the first Molly Hatchet album at the Sound Pit here,” Henderson recounted during our talk years ago, “and he used to come to the Bistro every night and hang out. We would start around 2 a.m. and finish around 4 a.m.. He loved our band (Whiteface) and wanted to sign us, but Epic (Werman’s label) wouldn’t go for it.”
Werman, who had created quite a track record for himself producing acts like Ted Nugent, Cheap Trick, and Blue Oyster Cult, as well as signing Boston to Epic Records, was also instrumental in the success of another Atlanta band, Mother’s Finest, having produced their first two Epic albums in the mid-to-late ‘70s.
“There was a time, when Whiteface first started playing the Bistro, that there was definite magic there,” Henderson recalled. In fact, he continued, “Whiteface was run by guys who refused to allow us to take the usual route in trying to get a record contract. They thought the magic at the Bistro was so overwhelming, they would force people from record companies to fly to Atlanta to see us in the club.” The ploy worked. Whiteface, playing the Bistro five nights a week, and determined to get a record contract without ever leaving the club, eventually signed to Mercury Records.
The release of Whiteface’s debut album was widely-heralded in Atlanta and the Southeast, but it did nothing nationally, a common occurrence for many debuts, but especially for those released on Mercury Records. Ever hear Graham Parker’s lament “Mercury Poisoning?” Dissatisfied, Henderson began to seek refuge with his friends in Cartoon, jamming with them at various Atlanta clubs before confirming the rumors, that he would leave Whiteface and, form a new group with Temple, Holmes, and Famous.
The move, one somewhat calculated given the prior contact Henderson had with Werman, paved the way for the Producers to be signed to the Epic Records-associated label, Portrait Records by the producer/A&R agent.
The timing, one would’ve thought, couldn’t have been better. One of the first bands on the Columbia/Epic family of labels to garner regular rotation on the then-fledgling MTV, their songs, while not across the board hits, as Henderson noted earlier, were being hummed by people across the U.S.
Henderson doesn’t disparage what achievements they made, but he admits they didn’t reach their full potential, either. “I put it this way,” he assesses of the early years, “We played pro ball, but we never quite made it to the majors. We played in the equivalent of the pro triple-A leagues. We were pros making records, traveling and playing our own music. But we stayed in cheap hotels and traveled in a Dodge Maxi-Van instead of a tour bus.”
Nonetheless, the band did get a shot, a good shot at the success that is the allure for so many songwriters and musicians, to get their music heard by vast numbers of people. That alone is something for which all the members of the Producers can be grateful. But, with hindsight being 20/20, Henderson does agree there are things he would’ve done differently, starting with himself.
“Oh, yeah, and I'm speaking for myself on this one,” he stresses. “Had I known then ... Ha! … I would have been much more patient and stuck with it for a few more years. We still had a deal, we could've had a future, but my youthful propensity to make big changes without considering the risks — a propensity that had served me OK up till then — failed me and failed the other guys in the band miserably when I quit. That was a terrible mistake at that time. I should've stayed and given at least one more album a shot.”
Henderson says his best memory from the days when the band’s future was unwritten and they were first ascending to some level of success, was returning to his hometown, “playing at the Vogue Theater in Indianapolis where I grew up. All the older players in town whom I had just worshiped growing up were at that gig giving honors and props to us. That was a very good feeling.”
With the good, of course, comes the bad, and for Henderson, and perhaps the rest of the band, that was “having Martha Quinn announce us at MTV’s Second Annual MTV New Year's Eve Rock N’ Roll Ball (1982 - 1983) before we were ready. We had to just play anyway, but I was so hurt and angry. I spent the break screaming at Donnie Graves, our road manager.
Funny, I see footage of that show now, and I really can't even tell that we were so unprepared. But at the time, it just felt like we were cursed.”
As have the other members of the Producers, Henderson continues to play music while balancing a separate professional life. It wasn’t as much intentional, he says, as just life.
“When I quit playing professionally, I had to find somethin,’ so I got into Journalism and then publishing as a copywriter/editor. That moved into digital when the web was very young. I kept with that and now lead a team of digital marketing designers and developers at the University of Wisconsin — Madison. We make WordPress websites and HTML emails for a wide range of university clients. I also teach web design and such at the local community college. I enjoy it a lot, especially the teaching. Both of my parents were teachers, as is my older brother and other cousins. It's in the bones.”
What about music for him now?
“Music used to be my life's passion. I wish I hadn't treated that so carelessly, he admits, “ but life happens, and here I am. For me now, music is a memory and a pleasure. I love to sing. I love to play bass. But I do it now strictly for the pleasure of the experience rather than to accomplish a goal or fulfill a dream or verify a vision of myself.
It’s that pleasure which brings him back to Atlanta once again to play with the three musicians he found solace with so many years ago. Henderson says fans can expect the bulk of their material to be from their first two albums, he pauses, “with a couple of surprises.”
Contact Tony Paris regarding upcoming gigs; noteworthy news, rumor, and innuendo; or, if you just want to say, “Hi,” at firstname.lastname@example.org, as you probably know he doesn’t read messages received on his Facebook account.