Monday, September 7, 2009

The Pressure Boys - 80's Southern U.S. Ska With A Flair For The Unusual

During the early 80's, producers Don Dixon and Mitch Easter were best known for their iconic work with R.E.M, but they did some of their best work wrangling an infectious ska/rock/pop sound from a group of 2-Tone loving high school kids from Chapel Hill, North Carolina called The Pressure Boys back in 1983 and 1984.

Amazingly, The Pressure Boys including Rob Ladd on drums and vocals, John Plymale on lead vocals and trombone, Byron Settle on guitars and vocals, Greg Stafford on saxes, Jack Campbell on bass and Stacy Guess on trumpet had formed just a few years earlier during the fall of 1981 at Chapel Hill High School. Early on, the band relied heavily on their youthful energy and enthusiasm to get by playing covers by Madness and The Specials at local college and high school parties. But by 1982, they were putting together original ska influenced songs with some weirder elements that echoed both early XTC and Oingo Boingo. Within a short time the band were at the top of the local alternative-music totem pole with a lot of support from the fan base they had built up at Chapel Hill High School.

The Pressure Boys didn't sound much like anyone else in the southeast music scene but they fit right into the burgeoning rock underground that was coming together in Chapel Hill, Athens, Gerorgia (Home of R.E.M. and The B-52's) and other Southern college towns. According to Trouser Press, the band "deliver hot'n'sweaty horn-inflected ska-beat rock. The sextet's gangbusting, headlong enthusiasm recalls the early Specials (without the accents or trebly sound) but songs like "Tina Goes to the Supermarket" undercut any seriousness that might have been intended."

Indeed, it was this lack of seriousness that both endeared them to club audiences in their hometown and across the U.S. but also kept them from breaking big. Record companies may have been put off by the goofy image the band cultivated and by their seeming lack of interest in playing the music industry game. The band played it's last show in the Spring of 1989 and its members all moved on. A few of the members joined Squirrel Nut Zippers who had a million selling album in 1996, while band singer John Plymale became a noted producer and band drummer Rob Ladd ended up touring with Don Henley's band.

It took the band twenty years to reunite, but in May 2008, the band found a reason. cystic fibrosis. Plymale's daughter had been diagnosed with the disease and he was looking for a way to help raise money for research. On Friday May 2nd and Saturday May 3rd, 2008 the band returned from its twenty year hiatus to perform at the Cat's Cradle, with proceeds from the show going to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

I was able to interview the band's saxophone player Greg Stafford (now a lawyer) who shared his memories of playing in the band, what it sounds like to open a show for Duran Duran and their 2 show reunion last year. Read on.

What was it like growing up in Chapel Hill in the early 80's and how did that influence you musically and artistically?
Chapel Hill had a good music scene. Don Dixon and Mitch Easter were playing around town and Sara Romweber was in HS with us. She introduced the band to Mitch and he made it possible for us to record/get some exposure.

My dad was a clarinet player in the Marine Corp band. I did not decide to become a musician, I decided not to get my arse kicked. Was a huge fan of reggae but only got turned onto ska because of the band.

How did The Pressure Boys get started? You met all your band mates in high school right? What made you decide to play ska?
I was not around for the initial founding part. Me and the rest of the guys did not really get along. Their problem was their sax playing pal, Will Campbell wouldn't do it so they were stuck with me.

How would you describe the early sound of the band? When and how did you hit on the sound of the band?
We sounded as much like whatever band we were covering as we could. It took a while to mature enough to develop a sound. A lot of critics complained that we did not have a set sound and we were to varied to be placed in a specific genre.

What was the music scene in Chapel Hill and other cities in the South like in the early and mid-80's?
It was a lot of fun. We had a string of clubs on what was a pretty regular circuit for bands during that time. Richmond (Rockets); Chapel Hill (The Cradle); Raleigh (The Pier/The Brewery); Greensboro, (The Milestone); Athens (40 Watt) and the 688 in Atlanta. That string of clubs made it fun and financially doable to travel.

Tell me about working with Mitch Easter on Jump Jump Jump in 1983 and Don Dixon on Rangledoon in 1984. How did you get connected with them? Any interesting stories about recording with them?
In retrospect both Mitch and Don were extremely patient guys. We were so young and arrogant. We thought we knew so much and only time was able to teach us how little we knew. Don and Mitch knew but chose to help us anyway. I am very thankful for that. Don likes pouring coffee in mixing boards.

I know you played close to 500 shows and put in 100,000 miles touring during the lifetime of the band, but can you share any unusual stories about any live shows that were particularly memorable?
I fell through the stage at the Milestone. That was cool. We played a club in Minneapolis owned by Prince. During the show I got hit in the head and was bleeding all over the place. We finished the show but I had lost a lot of blood and was in pretty bad shape. The guys were sitting around and said they thought they should bring me to the hospital. Some girl volunteered to take me and they sent me off with her. I did not know her nor, before cell phones, did I know how to contact the guys. Anyhow she took me to the hospital and as I looked through the fog I look up and it is my high school girlfriend sewing up my head. She was doing her residency there...and wondering what I was doing with this horrible woman.

That was a funny story but the real, more boring story was how much fun it was to travel and how much I learned from the rest of the guys. They are truly gifted and I feel it was an honor to play with them.

What was it like to open up for Duran Duran? When and where was this? What other bands did you play with?
Duran Duran was cool because it was our first huge show. I can remember the sound of 20,000 pre-pubescent girls screaming as we came out...and the groan of 20,000 girls when they realized we were not Duran Duran. It was a ton of fun though. Their sax player stole my neck strap. We played with Missing Persons, Billy Idol, Fishbone, REM, Bow Wow Wow.

You had a video that aired on MTV's 120 Minutes back in 1986. What was the story behind it?
Our singer John Plymale could tell you more accurately than I can. I just showed up and played on a cold day.

Why don't you think the band got signed to a major label? You certainly had the live chops and the following to warrant it?
I think our arrogance and unwilling to be tamed attitude had a lot to do with it. It is really hard to say.

Why did the band break-up in 1988?
We had done all we could in a way. It was getting stale and I do not think we believed we would get signed so some guys wanted to try other things. I don't blame them and they did and are doing very well. The rest stayed with music. I chickened out and went to school.

You reformed for two shows last year to raise money for cystic fibrosis research. What was it like to play again after 20 years and what kind of reaction did you get from your hometown fans?
It was a blast. Again, it was an honor to play with those guys. I had not played since the Pressure Boys years so I had to practice a ton to get ready. I was so happy that my kids could see me play and it was a blessing. God let me have that moment and I am thankful. John is a truly special person and I guarantee he is the only person who could have talked us into doing that. As for the people there it was great. It was crazy how many folks I recognized. I did not look at them as fans though. They were friends who's faces I still know. The club was packed both nights and I owe every person there for helping me have the night of a lifetime. My biggest fear was that we would play to an empty house. They paid the money to make sure that did not happen.

What are your lasting memories of performing with The Pressure Boys?
Learning to truly respect the musicianship of the guys I got to play with. Each one of them is amazing. Though we keep in loose contact I always know what they are doing and it makes me happy knowing they are alive. I miss Stacy. I have taken my kids to see his grave and his life has informed my decisions when I counsel other families who have kids in his situation. This story would not be complete without thanking Frank Heath. He is the owner of Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill and a generous great guy. We owe him a lot.

Below is a video for 'Round The World' that was played regularly on the MTV show 120 Minutes in the mid-80's.

Below is a video for 'Where The Cowboys Went'. This video give you a sense of the band's sense of humor and why some fans called them the American version of Madness

You can listen to a story about The Pressure Boys reunion that was produced by North Carolina Public Radio

The band re-mastered and re-released their entire catalog of songs titled 'Incomplete Recordings' just a few years ago. All the money earned from its sale is donated to research for cystic fibrosis. It can be purchased from CD Baby or downloaded from iTunes.

1 comment:

jeffen said...

That ultra-obscure two-tone era ska I promised is up. It's an odd compilation with an odder history but let me know what you think and if it would be of interest to your readers please link to the post.