After a Shaky Lift-Off the Georgia Satellites Are Sitting on Top of the World
First off, it's the dumbest song in the world. Bullwinkle with a guitar. Just all wrong," Georgia Satellites lead singer Dan Baird, 34, is bad-mouthing his own meal ticket, a song he wrote that is now making him famous. Even Satellites co-founder and guitarist Rick Richards, 33, seems to agree. "I'll be in a car, Phil Collins or Lionel Richie are on, and then you hear our song starting up: 'Eh eh eh eh eh,' and it's like 'What's wrong with this picture?' It doesn't sound right."
The gift horse in question is called Keep Your Hands to Yourself and if it's all wrong, millions of American record buyers can't hear right. Sure it sounds just like the Satellites look—white trash on beer. But the song's raunchy guitars are irresistible, and the likes of Baird's hillbilly yodel hasn't been heard since Hank Williams dove into a cold lake. Yet for all their retro appeal, the Satellites—Baird, Richards, bassist Rick Price, 35, and drummer Mauro Magellan, 32—could not have rocketed into the orbit they now enjoy without a big boost from MTV. The group's low-tech, low-budget and decidedly lowbrow video—about a yokel on the business end of a shotgun wedding—was a viewer favorite that stuck out from most high-tone video fare like a scuffed knee in ripped jeans. Now Baird is hoping that Battleship Chains, the follow-up single from the band's platinum debut LP Georgia Satellites, proves to be just as "dumb" as Hands. "I'm not interested in doing anything fancy," he says. "I just basically want the killer groove in there. Why waste time experimenting when you can actually get up there and do something? Like why would Picasso go mess around with French impressionism? He can do what he does just great, and so can we."
A nice self-portrait, and one that the Atlanta-based Satellites are out to prove true. An endless road trip that began last September now finds them in London, where the band's hip hick image and look—scraggly hair, unkempt jeans, black sneaks, tight T-shirts and beer bellies—is a hit with the Brits. But Baird still worries that the Satellites will be mistaken for some brainy, neo-wave band from the Athens, Ga. music scene. "To me," he says, "Otis Redding is so Southern—just the way he'd say 'err-ler' in the morning, instead of 'earlier.' I don't see the same Southerness in a band like Love Tractor. The Athens crowd goes for Flannery O'Connor; we go for the lower case, the Tennessee Williams kind of people." In its younger days, Richards remembers, the band had artistic pretensions. "But as we got older, we realized exactly where we were—more akin to Molly Hatchet."
Guitar players since their teens, Richards, an army brat from Jasper, Ga., and Baird, an Atlanta native, discovered a mutual affinity for Southern rock when they met in 1980 in an Atlanta guitar shop where Baird was working. He and Richards, a janitor in a rock club across the street, were soon jamming after hours in the basement of an Atlanta rib joint. "It was real nasty, just right," Baird says. "Had one nekkid light bulb."
From the barbeque pit, the boys moved to a small club "where the Satellites really grew up in 1981 and 1982," Baird says. "Everybody has to go through a certain process, unless they're a natural genius like Elvis or David Lee Roth—but that's more Barnum and Bailey than rock 'n' roll."
Despite a strong local following, the group disbanded in 1984 after failing to land a recording contract. That might have been the end for the Satellites if a former road manager hadn't taken one of their rejected demo tapes to London, where it was released as a six-song EP. The music became a hit in England, and the band regrouped, released their LP and took off on a tour that hasn't stopped yet.
In front of a rowdy London audience, Baird is all honky-tonk bravado, introducing Price as a "lean, mean love machine" and Magellan as "100 lbs. of twisted steel and sex appeal." But backstage, Baird's wife of four years, Gina Webb, and Richards' fiancée, Paula, who have recently joined the tour, keep things in perspective. "They've just had this instant success," says Webb, still overwhelmed by her husband's sudden stardom. Then, sounding a bit like a groupie Scarlett O'Hara, she drawls, "Being here in Europe is just beyond my wildest dreams."
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