‘YESTERDAY’S TOMORROW: CELEBRATING THE WINSTON-SALEM SOUND’ UNITES MEMBERS OF LEGENDARY “COMBO CORNER” SCENE IN LIVE PERFORMANCE TRACING SMALL CITY’S OUTSIZE CONTRIBUTION TO THE ROOTS OF INDIE ROCK
Package contains detailed liner notes by Stamey and a 24-page color history booklet with anecdotes, artifacts, and rare photographs.
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — In a fun, Nuggets-like trip back to the Summer of Love era, Yesterday’s Tomorrow: Celebrating the Winston-Salem Sound, due out April 30, 2021 on Omnivore Recordings, shines a strobe light on the vibrant ’60s and ’70s Combo Corner rock scene of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Original members of bands such as Arrogance, Little Diesel, Sacred Irony, and Rittenhouse Square —including Mitch Easter (Let’s Active); Peter Holsapple, Will Rigby, and Chris Stamey (the dB’s); singers Don Dixon, Dale Smith, Lynn Blakey, Bob Northcott; and many others — convened on May 12, 2018, at Winston-Salem’s Ramkat club to revisit those fuzzbox years, and this remarkable live recording shines brightly with their camaraderie and precise enthusiasm for those days of yore. In the mind-blowing songs of now-vanished local legends Captain Speed and the Fungi Electric Mothers, the classic set list of the Imperturbable Teutonic Griffin, and amid the amusing scene portrayals of collectors’ favorite Rittenhouse Square, the electric guitars soar, with plenty of feedback and sizzle. With the added oomph of the Occasional Orchestra (live strings, percussion, and brass), music direction by Doug Davis (Vagabond Saints’ Society), and stops along the way for affectionate renditions of then-faves by Bubble Puppy, the Easybeats, the Music Machine, the Electric Prunes, the Beatles, and even Kool and the Gang, there’s a lot to love here.’
The impetus for this extraordinary concert was that Stamey had a book fresh off the press, a song-based memoir called A Spy in the House of Loud. A portion of the book references his time in New York, but the first part remembers, song by key song, the late 1960s and early ’70s creative rock music scene in Winston. This was sometimes called the Combo Corner scene, after the title of a short-lived column in Guitar Playermagazine was repurposed to ironically christen a hangout spot at RJ Reynolds High School. A surprising number of the Combo Corner crew went on to play and produce music professionally in the decades that followed — often with one another in different configurations (e.g., dB’s, Let’s Active, or with R.E.M., Steve Earle, Matthew Sweet, Vassar Clements, Hootie & the Blowfish, Big Star's ThirdLive, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Golden Palominos) and in different locales. They were still in regular contact the day Stamey suggested they try to “play the soundtrack to the book.”
The band that most credit with starting the ball rolling here, back in 1968, was the aforementioned Captain Speed. Sadly, their bandleader, singer/bassist Bud Carlisle (real name Richard Moore), had died in 2010, and the psychedelic pioneers never released any music whatsoever, although their live shows (complete with flying duck) were still the stuff of local legend. In order to perform their essential songs, Easter, Borthwick, Davis, and Corky McMillan (Sacred Irony’s bassist) created an ensemble just for the event, later dubbed the Love Valets—a tongue-in-cheek moniker taken from “NC’s Woodstock,” a 1970 music festival in Love Valley, NC. And likewise, the catch-all for the new big-ensemble groupings was the Royal Opposition, only a consonant away from Easter and Borthwick’s seminal 1968 surf-rock combo, the LoyalOpposition.
Chris explains: “From the ’50s R&B stylings of the “5” Royales’ “Think” through the dense mystery of Captain Speed’s “Reptilian Disaster” all the way to the future-punk of Little Diesel’s “Kissy Boys” and Sneakers’ “Condition Red” and the sophistication of Let’s Active’s “Room with a View,” there’s a ley line running through a scene and a city, one that you’ll find is worth exploring. Maybe every city has a beloved scene in its rearview worthy of celebration?
n fact, I hope this is indeed the case. But this one is ourstory. Or at least a time-tunnel’s glimpse into a part of it. As Captain Speed sang all those years ago, ‘Our high kites do star those nights, where you can see beyond today, tomorrow . . . forever.’ ” —i
The concert was captured to multitrack, lovingly mixed by Stamey and Easter, and is now available as Yesterday’s Tomorrow: Celebrating the Winston-Salem Sound. A multi-decade tour-de-force, and an important document in itself, Yesterday’s Tomorrowis more than just a celebration. It’s a history lesson, with the present happily dressed up in the past, looking toward the future.
- Hot Smoke & Sassafras—Rittenhouse Square
- Reptilian Disaster—The Love Valets
- Room With a View—The Royal Opposition feat. Lynn Blakey
Mitch Easter &
- Talk Talk—The Imperturbable Teutonic Griffin
- Yesterday’s Tomorrow—The Love Valets
- Hollywood Swinging—Little Diesel
- I See Love—Sacred Irony
- Black Death—The Love Valets
- S'il Vous Plaît (Live) – Sneakers
- Got to Get You Into My Life—The Royal Opposition feat. Don Dixon
- Condition Red (Live) – Sneakers
- Every Word Means No—The Royal Opposition feat. Mitch Easter
- Think feat. Don Dixon—The Royal Opposition
- Like Wow—Rittenhouse Square
- King Battle of the Bands—Rittenhouse Square
- Kissy Boys—Little Diesel
- The Train Stops Here—The Royal Opposition feat. Mitch Easter
- I Am Your Doctor—Sacred Irony
- Ruby (Live) – Sneakers
- Maybe I’m Amazed—The Royal Opposition feat. Don Dixon
- Good Times—Sacred Irony
- Galaxies of Love—The Royal Opposition feat. Bob Northcott
- I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)—The Imperturbable Teutonic Griffin
# # #
An excerpt from David Menconi's book: Step It Up and Go The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk
Combo Corner Mitch Easter’s Winston-Salem
Long ago and far away during my college undergraduate days, a late- spring night in 1983 found me stumbling through a listless first date in Austin, Texas. Particulars are hazy all these years later, except for one moment of surpassing clarity. We were in the car driving down the Guadalupe Street “drag” past the University of Texas campus when the radio began to play side one of a new album called Murmur. I’d never heard of the artist, a band with the mysterious name R.E.M. But once the first song “Radio Free Europe” kicked in, I went into something like a trance. Chiming guitars, driving pulse, kitchen-sink percussive effects, and a singer who seemed to be mumbling in tongues—it felt impossibly exotic yet strangely familiar, which doesn’t even come close to evoking just what a revelatory lightning bolt this was for me.
Heading south past Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard felt like crossing a before-to-after dividing line, and I suddenly became a man with a mission. So I concocted a clumsy excuse to end the date early (she was less than broken up, as I recall) and went home by way of the Sound Warehouse that stayed open late. I bought a copy of Murmur—new rather than used, an extravagance on my college-student budget, but this simply could not wait—took it home, and spent the rest of the night listening to it on headphones over and over, again and again and again. Murmur became the album against which all others in my cosmos were measured, and I played side one at least a couple times a day for years.
Hungry for more information in those pre-internet days, I spent untold hours studying the album’s enigmatic cover shot and trying to figure out what that was (shriveled kudzu, it turned out) and the credits inside. R.E.M.’s members were identified by first name only on the
Your Sorry Ever After The Connells
One of the many bands to come through Mitch Easter’s Drive-In Studio was Raleigh’s Connells, who bore the influence of R.E.M.’s moody jingle-jangle. They went on to make many fine records, none better than 1987’s Easter- produced Boylan Heights. They scaled the charts in the 1990s, too—not in America, but overseas with “’74-’75.”
A pensive and regret-infused ballad from the Connells’ 1993 album Ring (produced by Lou Giordano, who also oversaw later hits by the Goo Goo Dolls), “’74-’75” never charted in the United States. But it reached the top- ten in eleven different countries in Europe, including number 1 in Sweden and Norway.
Key to the song’s success was director Mark Pellington’s evocative, mysterious video. And even though songwriter Mike Connell picked the numbers of the title because they sang well, the years they symbolized became the video’s high-concept centerpiece. Using yearbook photos, Pellington contrasted then-and-now images of sixteen people from the class of 1975 at Raleigh’s Broughton High School (alma mater of two Connells members, before the band formed at UNC). The video perfectly fit the song’s bitter- sweet feel.
I was the one who let you know I was your sorry ever after Seventy-four, seventy-five . . .
The “’74-’75” video became something of a public art project in Europe, with fans substituting their own pictures. In that spirit, I was part of a 2015 News & Observer story and video where we updated “’74-’75” for the forty- year anniversary of Broughton’s class of 1975, with new portraits taken of the video cast. It’s the project I’m proudest of from all my time at the paper.
Mitch Easter’s Winston-Salem
sleeve (“Bill, Michael, Peter, Mike”) and credited by last name only on the record label (“All songs Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe”), which left me trying to piece together guesses at their full names: Michael Buck? Peter Mills? But the credits did identify “Mitch Easter, Don Dixon” for producing and engineering Murmur at “Reflection Charlotte, NC.” And even though R.E.M. was from Athens, Georgia, rather than North Carolina, I believe this counts as the first time I was ever consciously aware of music that had come from my future home state.
Fast-forward two decades to December 2002 and a cold winter’s day I spent lurking around Fidelitorium, Murmur coproducer Mitch Easter’s recording studio near Winston-Salem. I was there to work on a profile of Easter, and we were talking as he puttered around the control room. And then he pointed out a tape recorder that was . . .
. . . the very first device he had used to record R.E.M. all those years earlier.
A shiver went through me, and it was like a movie scene where every- thing in the frame goes dark except for an object lit by a halo of light. It was an ordinary-looking 3M brand sixteen-track analog recorder that was still working in 2002 and remains fully functional at the time of this writing— enough that Easter still gets requests from bands who want to use the R.E.M. machine. It seems I’m not the only one who had a “Road to Damascus” turning point over Murmur, so of course I told Easter my story. He listened with the polite patience of someone long-accustomed to enduring similar fanboy testimonials.
“When someone cares and really wants to go for the rock-and-roll tape legacy vibe, that machine is the one to use,” he said. “Everything at my studio when I was ‘famous’ was done on it. I got it from a studio in Atlanta and the engineer was sorry to let it go even though he knew time had passed it by and nobody was doing sixteen-track anymore. I re- member telling him I’d never sell it and thinking, ‘I’m only saying that because I’m twenty-three years old, but I’ll try to live up to that.’ And I have. It kind of represents me getting into this business, my first real ma- chine. Just to have one was something I’d dreamed of forever, and I’ve used the hell out of it. But what makes it super- fucking-legit is it’s the machine that ‘Chevy Van’ by Sammy Johns was done on. When I went down to see it, they put on a master tape to show it off, and that was the song. So I had to buy it.
“If nothing else,” he concluded with a shrug, “it’s an icon of my existence.”
✶ In the years before the Interstate Highway System’s I-40 brought the rest of America within easy reach in 1958, Winston-Salem was an off-the-beaten-path town. Church-going has always been a
major recreational pastime there, going back to Salem’s eighteenth-century roots as a Moravian settlement and continuing into the present day. With more than 54 percent of its population claiming a church affiliation, according to BestPlaces.net, Winston is reputed to be North Carolina’s “most religious city.”
Not that it’s entirely sin-free, of course. Winston was an even bigger tobacco town than Durham in the early twentieth century, and the place where Blind Boy Fuller began his warehouse-busking career in the 1920s before landing in the Bull City. Along with cigarettes and the “5” Royales, some of Winston’s better-known exports include the poet Maya Angelou, country singer George Hamilton IV, basketball legend Earl “The Pearl” Monroe (who starred at Winston-Salem State before winning an NBA title with the New York Knicks) and NASCAR driver Richard Childress.
Even in isolation as a place where you had to make your own fun, how- ever, Winston-Salem was never an uncultured backwater. It’s always been a very diverse town where “millionaires and mill rats live side by side,” as native son Ben Folds put it in his group Ben Folds Five’s 1994 single “Jackson Cannery.” Between the presence of the North Carolina School of the Arts and philanthropy from those millionaires, Winston was always artier than most municipalities of comparable size.
During the 1960s, Winston’s musician population included an unusually sophisticated young generation of students on the track from Brun- son Elementary to Wiley Junior High to R. J. Reynolds High School. One of the main hangout spots for the big kids was “Combo Corner,” right by the front door of Reynolds High School, where aspiring teenage musicians would gather to bum smokes, compare notes, make connections, and form bands. But where their peers farther east were forming beach bands like Stax of Gold, the Winston kids’ bands were more likely to bear the influence of progressive rock, psychedelia, and the sixties “British Invasion” wave led by the Beatles. Mostly that came down to what they heard in the air.
“The radio ‘Good Guy’ deejays at WAIR and WTOB would play a lot of Beatles, but also everything else,” musician Peter Holsapple told me in 2017. “There were always bands in Winston-Salem, a rich scene long be- fore any of us started doing anything. Combos like the Teenbeats, the Five Satans. I remember being a kid in about 1965 and going to Saturday- morning kiddie shows of local bands doing Yardbirds covers followed by a movie. Before long, we started thinking we could be up there on that stage doing it ourselves.”
Similar ideas had been buzzing around adolescent minds all over America since February 1964, when “Beatlemania” erupted after John, Paul, George, and Ringo played The Ed Sullivan Show with hordes of screaming girls looking on. Overnight, being in a band became just about the coolest thing to aspire to. Popular stylistic touchstones included the Move, the Kinks, MC5 and even The Monkees—the mid-sixties Screen Gems/NBC comedy series starring the band of the same name. When the Monkees themselves played at Winston’s Memorial Coliseum in December 1966, twelve- year-old Mitch Easter was there.
“It was the first rock show I ever went to,” Easter told me in 2017. “And after I got home, my parents were watching the news when the band showed up in the studio, crashed the news, and did the weather. It was amazing they had the energy and wherewithal to do that.”
The Monkees would return to North Carolina the following summer to play Charlotte and Greensboro, with an oddly mismatched opening act: Jimi Hendrix, the pyrotechnic guitarist who was a star in England but still not well-known in America right after his headlining debut at the June 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. The Monkees’ audiences had no idea what to make of Hendrix’s high-volume guitar, and he lasted just a half-dozen dates before dropping off the tour.
✶ Easter’s thirteenth birthday in 1967 found him pulling double duty on guitar, in the Wiley Junior High’s stage band as well as his own combo, an instrumental surf band with the somewhat
regrettable name the Loyal Opposition (“Didn’t know that was what the Republican Party was called back then,” he drily noted). Easter already had a virtuosic reputa- tion among his peers— “Even then, Mitch knew more chords than any- body else,” Holsapple said—and even his elders, most notably Sam Moss. Two years older and infinitely wiser, Moss was, in Holsapple’s estimation, “the finest guitar player ever to walk the streets of Winston-Salem, our Michael Bloomfield.” Easter recalled being invited to jam with Moss for the first time as a turning point.
“I was thirteen and he was fifteen, a big gap for that age,” Easter said. “But it was even bigger because he seemed like he was thirty-five, with a demeanor like he’d already been on the chitlin circuit. So seasoned and knowledgeable and just good. Right then I decided, ‘That’s it. This is my new life.’”
Moss would serve as inspirational mentor to generations of Winston musicians, including much of the Combo Corner crowd (Chris Stamey among them). But he never seemed to take himself as seriously as every- one else did. Easter recalled reacting with horror when Moss told him he saw music as little more than a hobby, protesting, “You can’t say that, you’re too good, you have to be famous!” Moss eventually took his own life in 2007, at age fifty-four.
Let’s Active promotional photo from 1984, the last year of the original trio. From left: Sara Romweber, Mitch Easter, and Faye Hunter.
The Loyal Opposition didn’t last long before Easter went on to the next in a long line of Winston rock combos that ebbed, flowed, and came and went over the years. From the late 1960s through the ’70s and be- yond, various combinations of Easter, Stamey, and Holsapple played with other Combo Corner regulars (including Robin Borthwick, a rare female drummer) in a series of bands in Winston, Chapel Hill and eventually New York City: Sacred Irony, Imperturbable Teutonic Gryphon, Wazoo, Rittenhouse Square, Ice, Soup, Little Diesel, Big Dipper, H-Bombs, Secret Service, Sneakers, the dB’s, and more. None of these bands would ever have been mistaken for Nantucket.
“All the Winston-Salem bands were more like one big collective,” Holsapple said. “We did feel like we had a mission, trying to open the minds of people who were just listening to Marshall Tucker or Allman Brothers.
Maybe we could get them to like Mott the Hoople, too. But it was great fun. We had our fifty fans who went everywhere we were, smoked all our pot and drank all our beer.”
If all these bands were “underground” or “alternative” it was mostly by default because the big-time music industry, as seen on TV, seemed so remote from Winston-Salem. The city had no rock clubs to speak of, so local bands made do with shows in church basements, coffeehouses, school gyms, recreation centers, parks, and whatever other spot might have them. Careerist ambitions were unfathomable, because the moon seemed more within reach than playing in sports arenas. There was, how- ever, one notable exception: Arrogance.
Arrogance formed at UNC–Chapel Hill in 1969. But three-quarters of the original members were Winston natives and they came back to play often enough to be part of the local-band scene. They always had all the audacity a name like Arrogance suggests, too. Original lead guitar- ist Michael Greer had them doing stunts like playing Black Sabbath, the eponymous 1970 debut album by the English heavy-metal band, song for song and note for note, months before it was released in America (they’d learned the material from an import copy). Even after developing more of a folksy pop-rock sound, Arrogance’s ambitions remained oversized.
“From the beginning, we wanted to create a band that made up its own songs, got a record deal and became huge,” Arrogance bassist Don Dixon told me in 2017. “There was never anything casual about it. It was always, ‘Okay, we’re gonna take over and be the next big thing.’ ”
✶ A native of Lancaster, South Carolina, Dixon was already a seasoned recording pro by his early
twenties, having worked on a wide array of country, beach, jazz, and rock sessions at Reflection Sound and Arthur Smith Studios in Charlotte (he was also house bassist at Raleigh’s Frog and Nightgown jazz club). Easter and Stamey both had inclinations toward the mad science of recording, too. Friends since second grade, they were both technically savvy—“the guys who knew how to run the film projector and the tape player,” recalled their elementary-school classmate Sarah Shoaf in 2017—and they came into possession of reel- to-reel recorders at around the same time. So they began taping pretty much every sound they could, from radar noises to Jerry Goldsmith’s 1964 theme song to the spy series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. off the tele- vision set in the Easters’ living room.
“People bought tape recorders back then and presented them as ‘something for the family,’ and I really don’t know why,” Easter said. “But my dad came home one Christmas with one and I was thrilled. I had reels and reels of stuff recorded off the radio and TV. It seemed like a marvel.”
They also spent endless hours using trial and error to try and duplicate sounds they heard on the day’s popular recordings. And once they started playing in bands, recording themselves followed, as did daydreams about being heard beyond their makeshift studio lair in the Easter household’s basement. Their first outlet was the late-night alternative-music show Deaconlight on WFDD (“Wake Forest Demon Deacons,” the school mas- cot), 88.5-FM, the student-run radio station at Wake Forest University.
“Mitch called me up one night before I knew him and sounded almost like a little kid,” said DD Thornton, who deejayed at WFDD for a number of years. “ ‘I have some songs on reel-to-reel tape,’ he said. ‘If I gave them to you, would you play them?’ ”
Yes, as it turned out. Easter and Stamey would drop off tapes at WFDD for years and sometimes get the thrill of hearing themselves on the radio. Beyond that modest platform, New York beckoned tantalizingly. Easter’s father Ken worked as an accountant for Western Electric/AT&T in New York, where he kept a Greenwich Village apartment that became Combo Corner’s de facto northern satellite office. Easter and Stamey would go up to visit and schedule appointments at record labels.
But their quirky underground pop was too idiosyncratic for mass- appeal tastes. They came away with a string of rejection letters like this priceless 1973 specimen from an executive at RCA Records (which I found in a stack of similar communiques in a coffee-table drawer in Easter’s studio in 2002): “I found the tape to be mostly garbled and many of the songs you pegged ‘Radio’ are really nothing of the kind.”
Easter remembered making the rounds in the early 1970s and going around to most of New York’s record companies “to play them our horrible tape.” Their most memorable experience was at Roulette Records, the label run by the notorious Morris Levy. A mobbed-up impresario of the old school, Levy did not have the most generous reputation. He had run King Records when the “5” Royales recorded there in the 1950s, which was not a happy experience. “Yeah, he was a money man—for him- self,” snarled John Tanner at the mention of Levy’s name in 1992. Levy had died in 1990, before he could begin serving a prison sentence for an extortion conviction.
“All the label offices were very groovy and tripped-out,” Easter said. “Until we went to Roulette Records and it was suddenly still 1958. Black- and-white-checked linoleum, fluorescent lights, steel
Whoever it was listened to us for maybe ten seconds and said, ‘Naw, that ain’t a hit. Here’s a hit.’ And he put on Tommy James and the Shondells. He was right, too.”
✶ Coming up empty in New York did nothing to quell Easter or Stamey’s musical ambitions, and they both took their instruments and recording gear along to college. Following one unhappy semester at the University of Illinois, Easter transferred to UNC–Chapel Hill—where Stamey was already a rising star under the tutelage of Roger Hannay, a renowned composer who had studied with Aaron Copland. Future Arrogance lead guitarist Rod Abernethy was in one of Hannay’s UNC classes alongside Stamey in 1974.
“I remember taking twentieth-century theory of composition with Chris, and his composition was to play on his bass guitar until grabbing a pair of wire-snips and cutting a string,” remembered Abernethy in 2004. “The class was speechless, but Dr. Hannay loved it. Chris was the star of the class after that.”
Between classes, Chapel Hill became Combo Corner East, bustling with new bands. Stamey and Duke student Robert Keely (another Winston- Salemite) started up the Pedestrians, who eventually became Sneakers. Sneakers were a significant footnote of the embryonic American rock underground, especially with the addition of Easter to the lineup, even though most of their attempts at live performance were train wrecks. But Stamey was more interested in making records anyway—especially after mail-ordering a copy of “Little Johnny Jewel,” a signpost independent single by the seminal New York City new-wave band Television.
Using “Little Johnny Jewel” as blueprint, Stamey pulled together a marathon one-day Sneakers recording session in early 1976 with Don Dixon producing. The band had shortened, tightened and brightened six songs down to their essence, and they pressed the recording onto a seven-inch
record with the playing speed slowed from the standard 45 down to 331/3 revolutions per minute. Clocking in at just over fifteen minutes, Sneakers came out on Stamey’s own Carnivorous Records, with label copy reading “Distr. by Accident” because they had no means of get- ting it into stores. But thanks to favorable reviews in New York Rocker and Trouser Press magazines (which was how word about new underground music got around in those days), Sneakers somehow sold several thou- sand copies by mail order.
Though recorded in makeshift circumstances at Cat’s Cradle night- club and various apartments,Sneakers sounded surprisingly professional thanks to Dixon, Easter, and Stamey’s ingenuity at low- tech recording. Its songs show ample charm and promise, the sound of smart and earnest young people whose abilities haven’t quite caught up with their ambitions. While they’ve mostly been classified as “new-wave power pop” over the years, Sneakers had more intricate arrangements and ideas than most of that genre. They sound like the missing link in an evolutionary continuum between the Kinks in the 1960s and Memphis cult-pop band Big Star in the early 1970s to 1980s- vintage inheritors like R.E.M. and the Replacements from Minneapolis.
By the time Sneakers made their 1978 follow-up In The Red, Stamey was living in New York and already becoming a Zelig-like figure in the city’s underground music scene. He seemed to be everywhere, playing and recording with personal idols including Big Star’s Alex Chilton and Television guitarist Richard Lloyd. Stamey kept his label going, too, shortening the name from Carnivorous to Car Records; the most notable record he released was “I Am the Cosmos” by Chilton’s former Big Star bandmate Chris Bell, a raw and shockingly beautiful seven-inch that in- stantly attained cult-classic status.
Combo Corner gravitated northward to New York when a collection of Winston-Salem transplants formed Chris Stamey & the dB’s (the name a joking nod to Steve Cropper’s Memphis instrumental soul band Booker T & the MG’s). They’d become just the dB’s by the time Peter Holsapple came up to join, and they had hooks and jittery nervous energy rivaling R.E.M.
Easter was also briefly caught up in New York’s gravitational pull in the late 1970s, moving up to the city with the intention of opening a recording studio. But it proved to be an ill-fated venture. Stymied by frustrating dealings with building inspectors and landlords, Easter gave up and went home—literally, to his parents’ house in Winston-Salem. He turned the garage into a makeshift studio and moved in all of his gear during the summer of 1980, including that 3M sixteen-track recorder, putting out the word that the Drive-In was available at highly affordable rates. A generation of college-radio upstarts soon came running, turning the Drive-In into the Sun Studios of its era.
✶ Spring of 1978 found Jefferson Holt adrift in Chapel Hill. Scion of a prominent family (his
mother, Bertha Holt, was a longtime representative in the North Carolina General Assembly), he was taking night classes at UNC while battling depression in various unhealthy ways. But music was his one solace, and it became a turning point at the Apple Chill Festival that April. Wandering down the Franklin Street main drag, Holt came face to face with Mitch Easter for the first time, playing with Peter Holsapple in the post-Sneakers/pre-dB’s band H-Bombs.
The dB’s, ca. the early 1980s. From left: Gene Holder, Chris Stamey, Will Rigby, and Peter Holsapple. Photo by Chris Seward.
“Peter had on this ripped T-shirt that said ‘PUNK,’ and I remember their posters were all very obviously based on ‘punk rock’ with the rough- looking cut and paste,” Holt told me in 2017. “But then they played Bad- finger’s ‘Baby Blue,’ and I was blown away. It was like walking through the desert for forty days and forty nights and finding water—like being told, ‘You’re not alone.’ They were just so good.”
Soon after that, Holt went to work at Schoolkids Records in Chapel Hill and got to know the H- Bombs along with other bands and club owners in town, knowledge he put to use booking shows as Dasht Hopes Productions. An underground-rock network was emerging in college towns across America with the 1980s coming on, and one of its stops was the Station in Carrboro (a converted train station, not far from where a young Elizabeth Cotten had grown up). This collegiate circuit’s mecca was Athens, Georgia, a town that the B-52’s had put on the map with their underground hit “Rock Lobster.” Any Athens band would be a guaranteed draw in Chapel Hill. So when Holt got the chance to book the Athens quartet Pylon for a weekend at the Station, it seemed like a can’t-miss proposition.
Time Capsule Greetings from Comboland, Volumes 1–3
One of the better documents of mid-1980s alternative-rock Tarheelia is this three-cassette compilation, assembled by the critic Godfrey Cheshire III of the Raleigh-based independent weekly Spectator in 1985. All these years later, Greetings from Comboland is a great little snapshot of the time when scruffy college-town bands playing catchy guitar-pop was the spirit of the age.
Comboland’s selections range from the arty party-rock of Charlotte’s Fetchin’ Bones to the gliding classic rock of Winston-Salem’s the Right Pro- file, sprinkled with familiar names from elsewhere in the story—Chapel Hill’s Southern Culture on the Skids, Mitch Easter, and various members of Arrogance among them. Copies of
Or it did, until Pylon canceled. So did their replacement, the Method Actors. In desperation, Holt got in touch with another Athens group recommended by a friend—a new band called R.E.M., who had never played outside Georgia before. They played the Station in July 1980, and it proved to be seismic.
“Competition among bands was fierce back then,” Holt said. “When R.E.M. played the Station that first time, it split everybody right down the middle. Half the crowd, especially other musicians, were saying, ‘That guy can only play three chords.’ The other half acted like they’d seen the second coming. I was in that second group, obviously.”
Later that year, Holt said, he found himself called upon to help a drug- dealer friend launder a large sum of cash, which they did by moving to Athens and opening a record store. But the store soon folded, leaving Holt at loose ends. So he went on tour as R.E.M.’s roadie, a role that evolved into manager in the spring of 1981. R.E.M. had continued to split crowds down the middle, leading Don Dixon to joke that they were “despised by all the right people.” But their audience was still growing, in numbers as well as fervor. It was time to start making records. After an initial attempt at a conventional professional studio in Atlanta went poorly, Holt called Holsapple for advice.
“Go to Mitch’s,” Holsapple told him.
The original three-volume cassettes of Godfrey Cheshire III’s Greetings from Comboland compilation. Photo by Scott Sharpe.
That brought R.E.M. to Winston-Salem and the homey confines of Easter’s Drive-In, a studio so small that sessions often spilled out into the driveway (providing both wide-open ambience and natural sound effects). Easter’s parents, Ken and Lib, were enthusiastic about having the studio in
their home, supplying a steady stream of snacks and encouragement; it was not uncommon to hear Lib blasting the likes of Deep Purple while doing household chores. It was a low-key atmosphere that suited R.E.M. perfectly for their earliest recordings, the 1981 “Radio Free Europe” single and 1982’s mini-album Chronic Town. Two decades later, R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills fondly recalled the Easters’ family dogs running around the studio and making themselves a part of the sessions.
But the Drive-In’s biggest draw of all was Easter—“the master of cool,” in Mills’s words, a studio wizard who could get the sound you wanted, cheap. All those endless hours of experimental recording with Stamey as kids had given Easter a unique garage-producer expertise you couldn’t find at modern, far more expensive studios. Easter was so good, in fact, that bands he worked with frequently couldn’t live up to his recordings of them. Josh Grier, a music-industry lawyer who ran the Record Bar retail chain’s label Dolphin Records in the 1980s, said he and his peers used to joke about what he called “Mitch’s demo-tape monsters.”
“He’d make these moderately talented bands sound like the next Cheap Trick,” Grier told me in 2003. “He’s always had a huge vocabulary of musical signatures. You could tell him you wanted the guitar sound from ‘Daydream Believer’ and he could tell you how to get it: the right guitar, tuning, and amplifier in the right place, and there it was. A lot of the bands he was working with, that’s the only vocabulary they had: ‘I heard this.’ He could interpret that and put it on a record. To a large ex- tent, that’s his true talent—finding groups in a very raw state and pull- ing out what they have.”
✶ While R.E.M. didn’t need any tricks to be special, Easter still proved to be the ideal sonic
caretaker for the ambient jitters of their early years. Easter served as R.E.M.’s coproducer through 1984, contributing eccentric and just-right touches as needed. Mills said the oddball percussive flourishes on 1983’s Murmur track “Moral Kiosk” came from Easter banging a chair leg with a piece of metal, creating an almost call-and- response effect with singer Michael Stipe’s semi-intelligible vocals. With their breakneck tempos and aura of mystery, R.E.M. sounded like kids who’d grown up on punk rock trying to play folk-rock—and getting it just wrong enough to be perfectly, absolutely right.
Once I.R.S. Records signed R.E.M. and insisted they start using a “real” studio, the band moved eighty miles down the road to Reflection Studios in Charlotte. Don Dixon, who had done enough sessions at Reflection to know the place inside and out, signed on as Easter’s coproducer forMurmur and 1984’s Reckoning—albums that established R.E.M. as toast of the American underground. R.E.M. would go on to much bigger hits and chart-topping glory in the 1990s, when they were perfectly poised to take advantage of tailwinds from alternative rock’s brief period as the mainstream of popular music. But for a left-of-the-dial generation that came of age with college radio in the 1980s, it was R.E.M.’s North Caro- lina records with Easter and Dixon that remained mysterious talismans of an era. Kurt Cobain, iconic front man of Seattle grunge superstars Nirvana, was among those listening.
R.E.M. made Easter’s reputation as a producer, and names both familiar and obscure beat a path to the Drive-In: Suzanne Vega, Marshall Crenshaw, Bongos, Windbreakers, Beat Rodeo, Pavement, Game Theory, the Connells, and more. Between production projects, Easter also found time for the most significant band he ever played in himself. During sessions for what became R.E.M.’s Chronic
“Shape Up, Firm Up, Tone Up” The Cosmopolitans
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jamie Sims and Nel Johnson were a familiar sight on New York City nightclub stages as the Cosmopolitans, “New Wave Pom Pom Girls Gone Go-Go.” They would accompany the dB’s or Fleshtones with dance routines based on Picasso paintings, A Chorus Line, or other unlikely whimsicalities. The embryonic Cosmopolitans started in the mid-1970s, when Sims and Johnson were at UNC, and moved north in 1977 as “a Saturday Night Live version of a dance company,” Sims told me in 2009.
Sims majored in composition at UNC and was also writing songs along the lines of the B-52’s oeuvre. There was “Wild Moose Party,” an ode to Sims’s twenty-two-pound cat Moose, and “(How To Keep Your) Husband Happy”—based on an old exercise record by 1950s-era “Queen of Televised Fitness” Debbie Drake: “Shape up, firm up, tone up, with Debbie!”
These songs and others were recorded in 1980 at the Drive-In Studio, with contributions from various members of Let’s Active and even Mitch Easter’s mother Lib (credited with “party crowd vocals”). And the Cosmo- politans actually picked up some airplay on New York’s big FM rock sta- tion WNEW, but that’s as far as it went. Sims came down with Epstein-Barr virus in 1982 and the group disbanded. Johnson moved back to her native Wilmington and started singing in a blues band. Sims eventually relocated to Richmond, Virginia, where she composes classical music.
The Cosmopolitans were last heard from in 2009, when they played a one-off reunion show at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro.
Town EP in the fall of 1981, they were on dinner break at the local K&W Cafeteria when it came up that R.E.M. had a show coming up in Atlanta. They offered Easter the opening-act slot and he said sure, putting together a trio with his girl- friend Faye Hunter on bass and a teenage drummer Jefferson Holt knew from Carrboro, Sara Romweber (older sister of Dexter Romweber, of Flat Duo Jets fame).
They dubbed the project Let’s Active, after a garbled Japanese-to- English translation, a flight of fancy they would come to regret. The show went well, and that name stuck as they continued on. Eventually Let’s Active signed to I.R.S., the same label as R.E.M., releasing three albums and an EP of art-pop long on the musical substance and veri- ties of Combo Corner—ambitious arrangements and impeccable guitar- playing, wrapped in songs so tuneful it was easy to miss the dark, moody lyrical undercurrents. Not that Easter seemed to take it all that seriously. Writing with tongue firmly in cheek in his 1984 record-company biography, Easter described the Let’s Active sound as, “Essentially neo-post quasi but not particularly. Diatonic, with chromaticism. Kinda free kinda wow. Hell, we don’t know.”
Despite never breaking beyond college radio, Let’s Active was much- beloved and had a good run, cracking the lower half of Billboard’s album- sales chart with three of its records. But the group had a tumultuous existence, too. Easter grew frustrated at being typecast as “the jingle- jangle guy” as both producer and artist, and being in a band with his girl- friend proved fraught. He and Hunter broke up, and the lineup turned over completely, eventually becoming Easter and a revolving cast. The Let’s Active records that Easter continued making were all first-rate, but he lamented the end of the original trio (years later, Hunter committed suicide in 2013, while Romweber died from brain cancer in 2019).
By the end of the 1980s, Easter had had enough. Following a dispiriting show near Washington, D.C., where Let’s Active played a party “for the children of important people at this exclusive high
school,” he dissolved the band in 1990 and retreated back to his studio. Eventually he tired of the Drive-In’s cramped quarters and built the musical palace of his dreams—Fidelitorium Recording Studio, a Xanadu-like music paradise that opened behind his house in Kernersville in 2000.
Fidelitorium served as archive for Easter’s own career (the R.E.M. gold records for Murmur andReckoning hang on a wall in an upstairs room), showroom for a fantastic array of instruments and destination studio of the sort that Led Zeppelin might have used in their glory days. An analogue place in a digital world, Fidelitorium was decidedly, proudly out- of-step with the modern world.
“As a joke, I was recently telling some of my more philosophical rock- recording buddies, ‘You’ve become Delta bluesmen,’” Easter told me in 2002. “It’s true. Playing rock, you’re in a historical niche now.”
That became no less true in the years following. But Easter has man- aged to keep Fidelitorium going for two decades at the time of this writ- ing, even as such studios have become anachronisms. He has ventured out to play himself somewhat intermittently over the past three decades, releasing a few records with then-wife Shalini Chatterjee and a solo album of his own in 2007. But for the most part, Easter has been largely content to stay in his studio and let the world come to him.
“Mitch has a controlled environment with his studio, which is the exact opposite way a lot of producers work,” Grier said. “He’s a pretty sane guy, and being a big-time record producer involves dealing with a lot of insanity—living in hotels and spending twelve hours a day in someone else’s studio. It seems like he found balance in his life by staying home. I’ll hear from people in the industry asking whatever happened to him and think to myself, ‘He figured out a way to live his life and run his studio without having to deal with you fucking assholes.’ More power to him for pulling it off.”
One day in December 2017, I dialed Easter’s phone number intending to leave a message. To my surprise, however, he answered the call him- self, even though he was busy, because he’s always busy. Mojo like his might never be in fashion, but it’s always in demand.
“We’re laying down some epic jams today,” he told me in his amiable drawl. “Can I call you back?”