Gone Tomorrow: Georgia Satellites, “Open All Night”

Written by Music

Howdy, gang! Have you missed reading Cutouts Gone Wild!? You have? Good, ’cause I’ve missed writing it — and even though I’m still of the belief that the rising tide of digital reissues has eliminated the need for a column about cutouts, there are still plenty of flops to talk about, so as of right this moment, I’m starting a new column devoted to that very subject — specifically, flops that followed hits, and enjoyed all the high expectations and large promotional budgets that every album hopes for…and still managed to brick it.

To kick things off, how about we take a look back at the second release from one of my all-time favorite bands, the Georgia Satellites?

To most people, the Satellites — or, as their mamas named ’em, Dan Baird, Rick Richards, Rick Price, and Mauro Magellan — were just the stupid rednecks responsible for 1986’s left-field hit, “Keep Your Hands to Yourself,” but trust me, y’all, they were so much more. Rising like a phoenix from the pile of ashes that was honest rock & roll in the mid ’80s, they took equal parts Stones, Faces, and NRBQ, added a fifth of SoCo and some ice, and downed the whole thing in a single gulp. And goddamn was it delicious. In ’86, they were out-Stoning the Stones (admittedly not the hardest thing in the world, but still) and for a young twit like me, for whom the Faces didn’t yet exist and Rod Stewart’s career might as well have started with “Infatuation,” the Sats were basically the only game in town for good old-fashioned rock music.

And I mean really old-fashioned: Either by dint of their homely bar-band looks or by virtue of a belief in focusing strictly on the music, the Georgia Satellites gave no apparent thought to image. They must have known that rock bands only got by in the ’80s if they looked like Bret Michaels and packed a power ballad in each album, but they took Elektra’s money and churned out track after track of 4/4 boogie-woogie rock & roll, pausing between songs only long enough to crush the empties and stub out the butts.

They never had a prayer, in other words, and if there’s a morning that Dan Baird doesn’t wake up and thank his personal deity for sending him the constant stream of mailbox money that is “Keep Your Hands to Yourself,” then I don’t want to know about it. But even having established the fact that the Satellites were a band out of time, I submit that they still could have — should have — carved out a niche for themselves at AOR stations; after all, those playlists still had room for non-power ballad fare from Aerosmith and Van Halen. The Sats’ second release, 1988’s Open All Night, should have been the second chapter in a long career, not a death knell. And yet.

The album’s problems screamed at you right from the album artwork, a virtual duplicate of the debut, right down to the words “produced by Jeff Glixman.” I have no idea whether this was the fault of panicked bet-hedging at the label or simple lack of imagination on the band’s part, but either way, it didn’t do them any favors. Stickers screaming “GEORGIA SATELLITES” and “OPEN ALL NIGHT” helped, but really, the last thing you want to do with your second release is make your fans wonder whether they’re looking at your first.

Which brings us to the music. When I interviewed Baird in 1992 and the subject of Open All Night came up, he sighed and relayed a variation on the old story about having ten years to write your first album and ten minutes to write your second. This is overly dismissive of the album’s songs, I think, but it’s close enough for a blanket explanation. Actually, I tend to think Open All Night is a little more consistent, overall, than the first album — but where the debut offered some high-altitude peaks (“Keep Your Hands to Yourself,” “Battleship Chains,” “Can’t Stand the Pain,” a terrific cover of “Every Picture Tells a Story”) to offset its valleys, Open All Night hovers more or less around a steady wavelength.

This might have been fine had the band not already scored a Top 10 hit with a song that, although it isn’t a novelty song, is funny enough to pass for one. For Open All Night‘s leadoff single, the band had the fairly unremarkable title track — and the video, whaddya know, played off the “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” clip:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/yYwcY4vYwqA" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

I think “Open All Night” is a solid enough song with all the right ingredients for an ’80s AOR hit, including a dash of borderline misogyny (“I’m old enough to know there’s wrong and there’s right / I just got to know if that thing is open all night”) — but it isn’t funny, nor is it particularly clever, and since those were the main qualities that drove the band’s crossover success, it was dead on arrival. Another troubling sign was the album’s running order, which front-loaded the record with two Ian McLagan-assisted covers, one obvious (“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”) and one plucked from somewhere out in left field (“Don’t Pass Me By,” Ringo’s contribution to The White Album). As a pair, they form a split decision: the Sats’ “Shakin'” is suitably uptempo and sauced with charged-up guitars, but the song’s a barn door of a cover, especially for a band like this. On the other hand, their take on “Don’t Pass Me By” (download) is fantastic; it takes a (very) minor entry in the Beatles canon and pumps it full of piss and bourbon, surpassing the original’s lazy faux country by a mile. (The Sats tipped their hats to Ringo in the liner notes, thanking him for “the right royal rave-up.”)

“Don’t Pass Me By” is probably the best song on the record, but there are some fine originals here. The AMG’s Thom Jurek says “Sheila” sounds like Del Shannon being backed by .38 Special, and for once, crazy Thom and I agree on something; “Cool Inside” is one of Baird’s finest woman-as-tormentor rockers; “Mon Cheri” is wonderfully filthy (“She sat herself down on the other park bench / Her skirt rolled up, and I could see she was French”); and “Baby So Fine” is perhaps the earliest track to reference the Replacements (“Driver, come on now / I bet she’s waiting at the gate / I got the ‘Mats on my Walkman / Singing ‘I just can’t hardly wait'”).

But it’s the record’s closing track, “Hand to Mouth” (download), that’s probably my favorite of the originals. Sung by Richards, it’s a splendidly wobbly ballad-like thing that boasts some of the dirtiest slide guitar you were likely to hear in 1988 (the thing sounds in spots like it’s being run through a harmonica microphone). Like John Belushi singing Randy Newman’s “Guilty” at a Blues Brothers gig, it proved that there was a heart beating underneath all the mugging and volume — and it pointed the way to the next Satellites record, 1989’s brilliant In the Land of Salvation and Sin (which also sold for dick, but that’s another story).

When I spoke with him, to his credit, Baird was unwilling to point fingers for the album’s commercial failure; he talked about regretting being outvoted when it came to re-hiring Glixman instead of finding a new producer, and intimated that he’d take a few of the songs back if he could, but he was pretty relaxed about the whole thing — much as you’d expect for a guy who, in 1991, fired himself from the band. (When I asked him how such a thing was possible, he said “You look in the mirror, point your finger, and say ‘You’re fired.'”) The Satellites have soldiered on (and off, and on again) without Baird — and Baird has bobbed and weaved across a sporadically great solo career — but it ain’t the same and it never will be. We’re bound to cover some genuine turkeys during this series, and Open All Night isn’t a classic, but it’s certainly worth a listen.