The Georgia Satellites Were Pure Lightnin’ In A Bottle

A newly released live album from 1988 showcases the unchained spirit of Southern Rock’s most unsung act

Georgia Satellites 1986 (Image: Elektra Records)

When Praxis Records & Management main man Jack Emerson spoke, much like the voice of God dictating the Commandments to Moses, you opened your ears and listened.

So when Jack rang me up on the blower one fine Nashville morning in the fall of 1985 and said something along the lines of “be at Cantrell’s on Friday night or else,” you knew that something earth-shakingly momentous was about to happen. Unlike the fabled commandments etched in stone, the late, beloved Nashville music biz pioneer had but one pronouncement – “thou shalt rock ‘n’ roll!”

Come said Friday evening, I was sitting with a couple dozen other fellow travelers in the now-infamous Cantrell’s, a concrete-block house of pain that had hosted shows by everybody from Black Flag and the Gun Club to Music City homeboys Jason & the Scorchers. I was there to see some band from Atlanta, the Georgia…umm, the Georgia Satellites and, after maneuvering my way past the band’s irritable British road manager Kevin at the door, I grabbed a beer and settled in for what Jack promised would be an unforgettable night.  

As I wrote years later, in a 1990 article for Sound Shop’s in-house magazine Play, “the four band members hit the stage, tearing into what is to become an electrifying two-hour set of high-energy, no-quarter-asked-and-none-given rock ‘n’ roll, including two lengthy encores and guest appearances from Scorchers band members Warner Hodges and Perry Baggs. You leave the dank club and step into the cool, early morning air, the final crashing chords of George Jones’ proto-country rocker “The Race Is On” still ringing in your ears. At once both drained and elated, you realize that you may have witnessed rock ‘n’ roll history.” 

In spite of the band’s hard-won reputation as a force of nature on stage (and their constant touring during the late ‘80s), there has never been a live Satellites album released. The 2014 Rock Candy Records CD reissue of the Satellites’ self-titled debut included three live bonus tracks – a tantalizingly small taste of a great live band – and a handful of bootleg tapes and CDs have long circulated among collectors. Now, however, long-suffering Satellites fans can get the cheap thrills they crave from the recently-released Lightnin’ In A Bottle, a two-disc, eighteen-track set that captures the band at the peak of their powers, performing at Peabody’s Down Under in Cleveland, Ohio circa 1988. 

Released on CD in March by the recently resurrected Cleveland International Records (a vinyl release comes in July), Lightnin’ is the Satellites’ first “official” live album. What prompted the band to release a live disc at this late point in time?

In an email interview with Rock and Roll Globe, Satellites’ frontman Dan Baird says, “Well, in truth, it was a show that was recorded well, and had support from the ‘inside’ gang, so I wouldn’t be a driving force. This one is pretty Rick & Rick heavy, as I had a nasty cold, so I liked that a bunch.”

The Georgia Satellites were formed in 1980 by guitarist/singer Dan Baird and guitarist Rick Richards with bassist Keith Christopher as Keith & the Satellites. The band had a comfy gig playing at a local Atlanta club but, as Baird told me for that 1990 article, they had begun to get frustrated. A demo tape produced by Jeff Glixman (who had previously worked with Kansas and Gary Moore) was shopped around to the major labels but got no takers. “The A&R people would laugh, saying ‘you’ve got to be kidding – you guys sound like a hick AC/DC’,” Baird remembered in 1990, “and they were right, too! We sound like the Faces and AC/DC smashed together with Hank Williams and Bob Dylan sprinkled on top.”

 

VIDEO: Georgia Satellites “Tell My Fortune”

Discouraged and weary, the band broke up. If not for the intervention of Kevin Jennings, the aforementioned band wrangler, that could have been the end of the story. He carried a Satellites demo tape back home to England and laid it on some record company friends of his. The result was quietly released in early 1985 as Keep the Faith, a six-song mini-album on England’s Making Waves label. A ruff-n-ready mix of gut-kicking rock ‘n’ roll and soulful country-fried blues, the disc received overwhelmingly positive critical response from such English rock press giants as Sounds, New Musical Express, and Melody Maker.

The album’s success across the pond led to a re-evaluation of the band on Baird’s part. Richards had hooked up with drummer Mauro Magellan and bassist Rick Price from the Brains and formed a new Atlanta band called the Hell Hounds. Baird had been playing with a North Carolina band called the Woodpeckers but, as he told Play, “I was missing that certain ‘crunch’ in what I was doing, so we all got together.” A few weeks later, the reformed Georgia Satellites premiered its new line-up on that now-defunct Nashville stage. 

The band was so tight, so well-rehearsed, and the chemistry so balanced, it was impossible to tell that it had been years since any of those musicians had played together. How would Baird describe a live Georgia Satellites show from back in the day? “Cut it up and duck!” he says. “We had a lot of energy back then. Mostly a band that could drive it home, but we did have a swing to us. I could ride the wave we created, when we were at all on it.” 

That showcase, as well as other equally electrifying performances, led to an Elektra Records contract and an enormous chart hit with the song “Keep Your Hands To Yourself” from the Satellites’ self-titled, platinum-selling 1986 debut. The band toured with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and released two more albums – 1988’s Open All Night, which earned them an opening slot on that year’s Robert Plant tour, and 1989’s In the Land of Salvation and Sin. When neither album achieved the heights of the band’s debut, Baird “fired” himself from the Satellites and launched a lengthy solo career with 1992’s Love Songs For the Hearing Impaired album.

Georgia Satellites Lightnin’ In A Bottle: The Official Live Album, Cleveland International Records 2022

The eighteen tracks found on Lightnin’ are representative of the Satellites’ live set at the time – a rowdy, raucous blend of Baird originals and well-chosen cover songs from such diverse artists as Joe South, Ringo Starr, and Joey Ramone. The show cranks off with the classic “Whole Lotta Shakin’,” the band sounding like Jerry Lee Lewis crazed on steroids and tequila, the arrangement sans piano, substituting instead the clashing guitars of Baird and Richards. It’s a high-octane performance, designed to get the audience on its feet for the next hour or so. The Satellites don’t take their foot off the pedal after the opener, nosirree, crashing right into Baird’s “Down and Down,” his twangy vox accompanied by gang harmonies and an instrumental soundtrack that’s as dense as molasses. 

They roll effortlessly into Chuck Berry’s “Run Run Rudolph,” capturing the spirit of their rock ‘n’ roll idol’s original but emphasizing Rick Price’s titanium-strength bass line and Mauro Magellan’s rollicking drumbeats, adding in jagged shards of Rick Richards’ guitar and Baird’s Berry-by-way-of-Richards rhythm guitar. The title track of their sophomore effort, “Open All Night,” is an underrated gem in the Satellites’ catalog, a grinding mid-tempo rocker with a touch of blues and the familiar strutting melody. In my mind, the Satellites’ cover of Terry Anderson’s brilliant “Battleship Chains” should have been a monster radio hit – with an undeniably infectious chorus with sing-along harmonies, overall raucous instrumentation, and with a killer underlying melody, the song had everything it needed to succeed. Performed live, it takes on a heightened, turbo-charged dynamic.

A cover of 1960s pop idol Del Shannon’s “I Go To Pieces” is totally unexpected, but not at all unwelcome. The song is grunged-up a bit, but otherwise performed reverently, with soulful, mournful vocals, guitars that chime like a church bell, and hearty percussion that can be felt but doesn’t intrude on the song’s tale of romantic woe. Richards’ trembling guitar solo is aces and the ringing finish is like a coronation. The entire performance showcases the depths of the band’s talents. “Shake Your Hips,” which opens the second disc of Lightnin’ In A Bottle, is a scorching display of Richards’ immense six-string prowess, the guitarist ripping off a molten, blues-infused solo before the rest of the boys jump in on a fiery cover of the legendary Slim Harpo’s signature song that leaves the Stones’ previous version on the shelf.

 

AUDIO: Georgia Satellites “Games People Play”

The Satellites wouldn’t record their take on Joe South’s classic “Games People Play” until In the Land of Salvation and Sin, but it was already a fan favorite in their nightly set-list. Thick twin guitars double up on the song’s familiar opening melody, Richards’ Southern drawl perfectly suited to punching out South’s poetic lyrics with enthusiasm. The audience expected it, and the band delivered, but not without some flourishes, “Keep Your Hands To Yourself” juiced up with some crowd participation accompanying the song’s swaggering, now familiar chorus, swinging guitars, and a cast-iron backing rhythm track. However, they break in the middle for a rowdy reading of the Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which fits into the performance like a hand in a glove, before they ramble back into their Top Ten hit song for a big finish. 

Baird’s “Shelia” is another unsung gem from Open All Night, a rocking ode with gorgeous fretwork and a radio-friendly power-pop melody that could have been another chart contender with the right MTV video and a little of Elektra’s promotional muscle if they’d only chosen to release it as a single. The band recorded a cover of the Swinging Blue Jeans’ 1964 hit “Hippy Hippy Shake” for the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail, the single peaking at #45 on the Billboard chart. Performed live, it’s miles away from the meek ‘60s-era hit, the Satellites’ muscular take rockin’ harder than Lemmy doing his finest Elvis impersonation. Lightnin’ In A Bottle closes out with an electrifying mash-up of the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” b/w Big Joe Turner’s “Shake Rattle & Roll” by way of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley that is delightfully punky and blessed with the spirit of the guitar gods of rock music.     

Jack Emerson knew when he called me in October 1985 that something magical was going to take place on the diminutive Cantrell’s stage. What are Baird’s memories of Emerson and how he helped the band? “He got us our deal,” he tells Rock and Roll Globe. “We were fairly self-governing. A manager’s role is pretty rough. If you have everything go right, the band expects that. If something goes wrong (beyond the stage) it’s his fault. Jack rode that pretty dang well.” 

Baird’s major label career came to an end after the 1996 release of his second solo album, Buffalo Nickel. Undeterred, Baird launched new bands – performing first as Dan Baird and the Sofa Kings, with former Dusters’ guitarist Ken McMahan – and later as Dan Baird and Homemade Sin, which included his former Satellites bandmates Christopher and Magellan as well as Warner Hodges from the Scorchers. Baird released nearly a dozen live and studio albums with Homemade Sin before retiring from touring in 2019. He’s kept busy, though, recording four albums as the Bluefields with Hodges and Joe Blanton from the Royal Court of China as well as an album as the Chefs with Stan Lynch, the former Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers drummer. 

 

 

How is life off the road treating the rock ‘n’ roll veteran, and what sort of projects is he involved with these days? “I love retirement,” Baird says. “My idea of hell is overseas flights, followed by seemingly endless riding around in a van. To be fair, after dealing with two cancers, I didn’t have ‘the juice’ anymore and didn’t want to be the guy that trotted out a tired front man that didn’t have the ‘it’. I’m still making records out of my basement.” 

Rick Richards and Rick Price reunited as the Georgia Satellites in 1993, releasing a new album in 1996 titled Shaken Not Stirred. Richards has fronted some version of the band ever since, the current Satellites line-up including singer and guitarist Fred McNeal, bassist Bruce Smith, and drummer Todd Johnston. Richards has also been a longtime member of former Guns N’ Roses original member Izzy Stradlin’s band, appearing on all eleven of the guitarists’ solo albums.   

How would Baird like the Satellites to be remembered? As “an honest band that had more than a few good songs,” he states, “ready to push it out live!” With Lightnin’ In A Bottle, the Georgia Satellites prove that if you didn’t see them perform live back in the ‘80s, you were missing something truly special.

 

 

 

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Rev. Keith A. Gordon

RockandRollGlobe contributor Rev. Gordon is an award-winning music critic with 40+ years experience writing for publications like Blues Music magazine and Blurt. Follow him on Twitter @reverendgordon.

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