Aliens in Atlanta

The boys from Doraville

Just as promised, a post on the phenomenon of phenomenally ugly bands from Georgia.

I give you Atlanta Rhythm Section.

Their ugliness is unparalleled. Their talent is debatable. Nonetheless, I am proud (okay, a little abashed) to say they are one of my favorite bands.

In the canon of Southern Rock, ARS occupies an interesting position. While they had several chart hits – “So Into You,” “Imaginary Lover” – their charting hits had more in common with Fleetwood Mac than Lynyrd Skynyrd. While they could rock as hard as most of the other B-list Southern Rock bands (think Molly Hatchet and Black Oak Arkansas), their music was much more sophisticated, much harder to drink beer to.

Consider the band’s history: most of the members got their start playing with Roy Orbison’s Candymen, then moved on to the Classics IV, famous for the song “Spooky” (which ARS would later do a pointless remake of, considering that vocals aside, it sounded almost identical to the original). Unlike most Southern rock bands, they had a long history of playing mainstream pop music, albeit mainstream pop with a serious dark side.

So when it came time for them to regroup as Atlanta Rhythm Section, they no doubt took advantage of the growing Southern rock groundswell, typing themselves in name, music, and, especially, lyrics.

But ARS never fit in. Nowhere near as raucous as their Southern rock brethren, yet too Southern in their musical sensibilities to appeal to a wide audience, they only hit the charts with songs totally divorced from any Southern reference, songs that, while appealing, were extremely MOR and not really representative of their sound.

Alas, I do run on. I’ll let the music take over.

Doraville
A statement of purpose, if you will. Representing Doraville. What you notice first off about this and almost all of Atlanta Rhythm Section’s music is that it has a dark, almost brooding quality, even when the lyrics and ostensibly, the music, are upbeat.

Most of the Southern rock bands liked to brag about from whence they came, and ARS are no different, but lyrically, they tend to have a bit of an edge, both structurally and literally. They’ll have multiple rhymes within a phrase without sounding stilted; they use the word “redneck” repeatedly, and unlike many of the other Southern rock bands, it’s not a prideful reference to themselves.

Dog Days
“Dog Days” is one of the prime examples of why Atlanta Rhythm Section was damned to faint success. A song that it’s hard to relate to unless you are Southern, “Dog Days” is a languid epic about just that – the dog days of summer.

The first stanza is amazing:
“Paper fans in sweaty hands/ shooing flies away/ reflections on a porch/ a shelter from the scorch/ when dog days came around.”

It’s poetic, whether you like it or not. Unfortunately, the chorus is a little stale, and the song suffers for it, but is still beautiful.

Champagne Jam
Lord have mercy. You have to wonder how Molly Hatchet must have responded to this one. What bunch of rednecks goes around singing about having a CHAMPAGNE JAM with the boys?

Again, that’s what sets Atlanta Rhythm Section apart. They want “first class fun.” Don’t give ’em “no whisky, give [them] some high-class booze.”

Unlike most of the Southern rock bunch, ARS never identified themselves as rednecks; as a result, rednecks didn’t identify with them. “Champagne Jam” is a perfect example of why ARS could never appeal to their built-in audience. They were Southern rock for the New South, maybe. More Urban Cowboy than cracker.

It’s a strangely sedate party anthem, but when they finally start to break it down around the 3:00 mark is worth the price of admission.

If you want a real laugh, look at the picture above and try to picture them having a champagne jam. Ahem.

Quinella

This one, along with the following song, are taken from one of the original ARS line-up’s final albums, 1981’s Quinella, after the success of “So Into You” and at the aegis of the band’s decline. The title song from that album, this song is about hitting it big at the Quinella racetrack/casino. The champagne’s back, just so you know.

What’s so interesting about this song, to me, is that the band finally put into words what had been obvious all the while – the narrator of the song refers to himself as a “rank outsider,” (in and of itself an odd choice of words for a rock song), and dedicates the song to the rest of the outsiders.

Musically, the song reminds me of Little Feat; singer Ronnie Hammond even sounds a bit like Lowell George at times.
Alien

A minor hit in the vein of “So Into You” and “Imaginary Lover,” “Alien” takes the outsider theme of “Quinella” one step further. “Have mercy cried the alien/help him find his way back home,” the song says, but it’s obvious the narrator is the alien.

And that’s what ARS was, really. A band of aliens, too wordy and slick for Southern rock, but too entrenched in Southern customs to break out of the mold completely. It explains the off-kilter feeling of most of their songs; geeky party anthems that no self-respecting redneck is going to turn up to 10, sophisticated MOR pop that was just a little too dark for lasting success. They were lyrically and musically too literate for the fans of Southern rock, and too Southern for most of the mainstream audience.

In conclusion, another picture. This is the cover of an ARS album titled, ironically enough, A Rock-n-Roll Alternative.

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Aliens in Atlanta

  1. Saw them at Mansfield State College in Mansfield, PA, right after the release of their first album. Consummate musicians. And, referring to you recent band post, I just finished reading Mystery Train again. It’s true what it says on the back…anybody interested in American popular music needs to read it. I also recommend Sounds of The City by Charlie Gillette; essential reading (and, purchasable, of course, at Amazon.

  2. missrubyjones

    OMG – you saw ARS. I envy you. I’ve been looking for a decent copy of their live LP because I’ve heard that they were great.

    Glad to see someone else who loves Mystery Train. That book absolutely changed my life. It affirmed the way I listened to music.

    I will definitely be looking up Sounds of the City – thanks for the tip!

  3. Stoney

    Ha. I didn’t see them at Mansfield but I did party with them at the Holiday Inn in Gang Mills, NY, right after that concert. Remember that day? It was a Wednesday. The next morning Lynard Skynard went down in the plane in Mississippi. ARS lead man got a call from Linda Rondstat who told them the news. I was sitting at the table when the phone rang. I will never forget that day.

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  6. J.R. Clark

    I grew up in a town adjacent to Doraville, GA. ARS wasn’t kidding…it was a blue-collar, redneck, Dixie Mafia town.

  7. J.R. Clark

    ARS was a jazz-rock fusion band that got miscategorized as Southern rock because the vocalist had a Southern accent. They were the proto-Dixie Dregs.

    • I totally agree that they were miscategorized due to the southern accents — but I also think they brought that on themselves. They hitched their wagon to the nascent southern rock thing, then never could escape it.

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