Longtime Nashville fixture returns to stage after more than a decade
By Michael McCall
JULY 5, 1999: A few days after the White Animals began rehearsing for the first time in 12 years, Nashville's daily newspaper ran a front-page story warning that Ecstasy, a euphoria-inducing street drug popular in the 1980s, had become fashionable once again. That morning, a band member e-mailed the article to the rest of the group. Coincidence, he asked? Or could it be that larger cosmic powers were converging upon the populace because of the band's upcoming reunion gigs--their first public appearances since 1987?
After all, this was the local band that, in more innocent times, slyly named its third album Ecstasy. As one longtime fan posted on the band's Web site, "[Today's] paper had an article on the resurfacing of Ecstasy in the Nashville area. They did not mention any other cities or tour dates."
In the '80s, Ecstasy circulated primarily among middle- to upper-class college students--and so did the White Animals. The Nashville-based group ranked among the most popular bands at colleges in the South and along the Eastern Seaboard. They possessed a fanatic cult status similar to that of the Dave Matthews Band, Hootie < the Blowfish, Phish, and Widespread Panic today; indeed, the Animals were among the bands that pioneered the college circuit, paving the way for these newer groups.
But the White Animals owned a distinctly different sound than those bands, as well as a decidedly different fate. Because it was the early '80s and new wave was in full bloom, the extensive jams of the White Animals were built around terse guitar riffs and succinct arrangements. Like many other guitar-based new-wavers, the White Animals drew on the classic British Invasion sound, which made their shows more upbeat and dynamic than the laid-back, Dead-influenced groove bands that came a few years after them.
Also because it was the early '80s, major labels paid scant attention to the White Animals or other hardworking, hard-touring hometown bands that built strong followings on the frat-based party circuit. At the time, American rock 'n' roll was on a different wavelength; fun-loving college bands weren't as cool as the darker, more angst-ridden, more self-conscious groups emerging from underground punk clubs or from the long-haired metal circuit.
Ignored by record companies, the White Animals nonetheless built a legacy that included six solid-selling albums and six years of memorable, jam-packed shows--a rare feat even among those rock acts that did get major-label assistance. Amazingly, the group even earned MTV play: The video for the Beatle-esque pop rocker "This Girl of Mine" climbed to medium rotation on the cable channel, while the harder-driving "Don't Care" earned a few airings on the station's 120 Minutes program.
Despite scant promotion or radio airplay, the White Animals were one of the most reliable bookings a club manager or college entertainment committee could make. But that success never translated into big-time national popularity--largely because the band wasn't considered hip by the cultural cognoscenti.
"None of the great rock stars have ever smiled in their pictures," says lead singer Kevin Gray, now a licensed doctor who operates a clinic in Dallas, Texas. "That's part of the rules of rock 'n' roll: Smiling is not sexy. But we didn't know that. In any of our photos, or anytime you'd see us onstage, we had these big, goofy, wild smiles on our faces. We were having a blast, and you could tell it. I think everybody else was having fun too."
Indeed, they were. The rock 'n' roll powers-that-be might not have realized the band's potential, but people putting on a party knew that the White Animals were the perfect vehicle for a raucous, upbeat evening. While the punks and the metalheads snarled at their crowds, the White Animals built their reputation on good vibes and bringing people together.
"For the longest time, we couldn't get into the real hip clubs, like the 688 or The 40-Watt in Athens, [Ga.]," recalls Tim Coats, the White Animals' engineer and secret weapon, who often augmented the band's live sound with keyboards and bass-heavy sound effects from his station at the soundboard. "Finally, the 688 booked us on a Tuesday night. At first, they kind of looked down their noses at us. Then we drew a packed house, and they sold out all the beer they had. From then on, it was, 'You guys are great!' and, 'Anytime you want to play here....' All that fake attitude shit went out the door because they were paying their month's rent off of one of our shows."
The band originally broke up after six years when Gray decided to return to medical school. All of the members were still on good terms, and they kept in touch over the years. But the only time they performed was at a fellow band member's wedding. It first happened a few years ago at the Florida nuptials of bassist Steve Boyd; it turns out the leader of the blues band that had been hired for the gig was a huge White Animals fan, so he gladly turned over his equipment for a few songs. Then, two years ago, the band agreed to play a few songs at Coats' wedding; that night, Gray, Boyd, guitarist Rich Parks, and drummer Ray Crabtree stayed onstage for more than an hour, running through old hits and having a blast.
After that, they began talking about a reunion gig. Gray had been wanting to put together a CD featuring the group's best-loved songs, so the group decided to merge the two ideas, releasing a CD, 3,000 Nights in Babylon, and then celebrating its release with a two-night performance in Nashville. Via e-mail and phone, they've learned that fans will be traveling from Virginia, Florida, Texas, Colorado, California, and even the Virgin Islands to attend the reunion. Among those coming in for the show will be Marian Layburn, the band's lighting director, who went on to work for the Grateful Dead, Cowboy Junkies, and Primus.
The group admits to a few jitters and fear of being a bit rusty. "But a lot of it will be about attitude," Boyd says. "We'll be real glad to see each other and to be together, so I think it'll come back to us, and we'll go up there with confidence and swagger. It's not going to be about a note-for-note revival of the old days. It's going to be about the spirit we have when we're together, 'cause that's what it was always about."
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