Bruce Baxter

Bruce Baxter

The Boy Who Pressed Buttons

In fall 2007, Athens quartet Pylon reissued its 1980 debut album as Gyrate Plus. Gyrate was the first LP on Danny Beard’s Atlanta-based DB Records, the pioneering new wave label in the South. With the omission of R.E.M., Beard released Athens groups the B-52s, Love Tractor, Oh OK, Pylon and the Side Effects. Atlanta colleagues Kevin Dunn and the Swimming Pool Q’s (my band) also appeared on the label. All of these artists were recorded by Bruce Baxter, an unsung hero who eased these avatars into the magnetic domain.

In 1978, Beard phoned Tommy Dean of the Atlanta band, Thermos Greenwood. Bruce Baxter, one of their guitarists, was cutting the group’s album at Stone Mountain Music in northeast Atlanta. Would Bruce be a suitable choice to record Danny’s friends, the B-52s? Dean said yes. Studio time: 11 hours. Total cost: $350. Today co-producer Kevin Dunn describes “Rock Lobster” as “The Ur of Everything.” Beard quickly moved 17,000 copies, a then-staggering figure for an underground act.

Steve Marsh describes his band Thermos Greenwood as “a cross between the Coasters and Zappa.” Of Bruce, their drummer Charles Wolff says: “He was a fantastic guitar player. He played the guitar behind his back. He played upside down, too, and our roadie would hold him up by the ankles as he did the solo.”

Bruce Baxter had a technical mind to complement his calling as a musician. “From the time he was a child, he was pressing buttons,” says Steve Wofford, Thermos’ percussionist. Between 1973 and 1975, he took his first engineering job at Libra Sound, a mysterious 8-track facility near Six Flags. Unfortunately, Bruce went to work one morning to find the studio empty. The owner had beetled off with the gear overnight. Nonetheless, Bruce’s knowledge of multi-track recording had advanced significantly.

Atlanta music publisher Bill Lowery saw promise in Thermos as a novelty act. Lowery arranged for the band to record an album at the prestigious, if down-home Studio One in Doraville. The project stalled, but oddly, Bruce’s career took a momentous turn. Don Tanner, who had deep connections to Studio One, purchased some of their old equipment to outfit his new budget studio, formerly a canine kennel on Buford Highway. Bruce eventually drifted over, piggyback style, and became one of their chief recording engineers. Despite Stone Mountain Music’s limitations, Bruce suddenly came into his own as a “cheap producer,” as he once put it.

Completing the Thermos Greenwood album, Pinhead Teddy, he whisked Danny Beard and the B-52s out the door in early 1978. He recorded the Brains’ single “Money Changes Everything.” Voted Village Voice Pazz & Jop Single of the Year in 1979, “Money” led to two Brains’ Mercury albums produced by Steve Lillywhite (U2, XTC).

Bruce Baxter (left) with Tommy Dean in Thermos Greenwood. Photo courtesy Leslie Baxter

Bruce Baxter (left) with Tommy Dean in Thermos Greenwood. Photo courtesy Leslie Baxter

With Pylon’s Gyrate, Bruce limited the production to mostly 12 tracks, utilizing his minimal effects to maximum potential. Nothing recorded at Stone Mountain Music had sounded like this before; Bruce had harnessed the special properties of the makeshift room.

Pylon vocalist Vanessa Hay says:

He was trying to get the best sound out of the instruments that we had. We wanted everything to sound equal. We wanted a kind of democratic sound. He went along with it. He didn’t look down on anybody. He wasn’t surprised by anything. On “Read a Book,” he took a microphone and laid it between two headphones so it would sound like a person talking on a telephone. They were mixing “Gravity” and I wanted my voice to sound very dry … some really hot shot engineer who thought that he knew everything and had a big ego problem would have made fun of me, or made demeaning comments or said, “Maybe she just won’t notice.” But What I’m trying to tell you is that … I stood my ground, and he accepted what I wanted.

Following Gyrate, Bruce hopped over to Protestant Radio and Television Center near Emory University. The main floor was a great old aunt of a room with a kick-ass pipe organ from the Truman era. Here, Bruce engineered and co-produced the Swimming Pool Q’s debut album The Deep End for DB in December 1980, reissued in 2001.

Bruce Baxter in the studio. Photo courtesy Anne Richmond Boston

Bruce Baxter behind the desk at the Protestant Radio and Television Center in Dec. 1988. Photo courtesy Anne Richmond Boston

“Let’s get this thing going!” he barked at us on the first day. Then he would cock an eye and call us “the panel of experts.” Bruce had a great cynical sense of humor, but you had to be ready for it. He had suffered a heart ailment in his childhood. At 16, he told Steve Wofford that he knew he was going to die young.

Q’s guitarist Bob Elsey enjoys recounting the infamous “Yardstick Incident.” Bruce kept a long measuring stick on the PRTVC audio console. We never asked why. One afternoon, Bruce had a mix set up, when Bob and I raised the subject of some last-minute “ideas” we had. Bruce calmly placed the yardstick across all 16-faders. Applying some force, he brought them down all at once with a snap. We jumped like hot peas. Then he turned very deliberately to our preposterous haircuts and snarled, “So, you have some … ideas.”

Then the scene changed.  He got into computer programming, and, not surprisingly, he was good at it. He married Leslie McNay. They had two boys and moved to Florida, returning to Atlanta in the ’90s. He died of congestive heart failure on July 21, 1998, at the age of 47. Bruce was at Emory University Hospital, only a few hundred yards from PRTVC, where among his last projects were Pylon’s milestone single “Crazy” in 1982 and his own album on Cheap Producer/Landslide Records, Middle of the Night, in 1984.

Bruce always depicted himself as “the old guy,” even though he was only a few years farther along than the rest of us. He understood that all these young tyros came from the same place he had, and it was a place that we wanted to get back to forever. With a cagey grin, he helped us make it, so that 30 years later we can drop 7 to 12 inches of beautiful black and hear ourselves breathing again and again, probably sounding a little bit better than we really were.

(Top photo of Bruce Baxter at a Chastain Park picnic shelter in 1969).

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