"When people ask me who Arrogance was," says Godfrey Cheshire, "I always say, in a phrase: 'They were The Beatles of North Carolina.' They were the ones who broke through in terms of being the first to do really strong original rock in North Carolina. At the time they came along, if you played in a rock band in this area you played cover material. Period."
Cheshire ought to know. Readers who are familiar with Cheshire's movie criticism for The Independent and The Spectator might not be aware of his longtime arts editing and music criticism for The Spectator. Cheshire was there for the band's entire career--from its beginnings in 1969 as a proto-metal group founded by UNC-Chapel Hill freshmen Don Dixon and Robert Kirkland, through its acoustic guitars and bongos period of the early '70s, to its final incarnation as an English-pop-inspired quintet in the early '80s.
Over the years he's been to shows, written about the band, talked them up locally, nationally and internationally, and even funded their first LP. When the group disbanded in 1983, Cheshire wrote in a farewell missive: "I am more than ever awed and exhilarated by the scope of their achievement." In 2000, as he prepares to join a host of Arrogance faithful at two upcoming 30-year-reunion performances--an all-acoustic show at Carrboro's ArtsCenter on Saturday, May 20, and an electric set on Saturday, June 10, at the N.C. Museum of Art--his enthusiasm still hasn't wavered.
"They were really ahead of their time in doing strong original rock, and getting very quickly to the point at which they did only original rock," he says. Where other bands would throw in three original songs in an entire set, Arrogance always played their own music. As Cheshire puts it, "With Arrogance, the whole thing was creating their own sound, their own songs and everything. They pioneered in a lot of ways."
The group that assembles at Rod Abernethy's Slackmates recording studio on a warm night this spring doesn't, on the surface, seem like a particularly pioneering lot. Amid the studio's ultra-groovy decor, five 40- and 50-somethings drink beer, check their instruments and spend a whole lot of time just shooting the breeze. One aside turns into a 20-minute, power-sermon by Dixon on the household cleaning benefits of a Swifter, with the other guys acting as an enthusiastic hallelujah chorus.
When you can get an answer out of them, it's usually a joke, and usually told by the group's resident class clown, drummer Scott Davison. Guitarist Abernethy, whose addition to the band in the late '70s sparked its re-emergence as an electric group, is the courteous host. Guitarist and singer Robert Kirkland, whom Cheshire and others compare to John Lennon because of his often-scathing lyrics, is the band's cynical wit. The pop-song-writing Paul McCartney of the group, bass player and vocalist Don Dixon, is the businessman, attending to every last detail, and even whipping out copies of the band's four studio LPs to break up disputes as to how certain songs go.
"The main strength was the singing and the songwriting and the sort of synergy of all that," says Cheshire. "The keystone was Don and Robert's voices together. And there again it sort of reminds you of The Beatles. It was definitely a John and Paul kind of thing--a kind of magic between the two of those guys that eventually embraced whatever musicians happened to be in the band at the time."
Finally, pianist Marty Stout, everyone agrees, is the quiet one, content to do his thing and play his songs, oblivious to whatever musical discussions are swirling around him. Out of this, the final Arrogance lineup (the group went through six incarnations), Stout is the only one who has not continued in a musical career. But, in a testament to his talent, on this, the third night of practice following a nearly 20-year hiatus, he's the only one who doesn't need to go over his parts.
"If that Beatles analogy holds true, Marty's the George Harrison of the group," says Joe Vanderford, another longtime fan and scribe of Arrogance who's handling public relations for the two upcoming shows.
All that Beatles talk is pretty funny to the group members themselves.
"My daughter asked if we were bigger than The Beatles," Abernethy says. Stout retorts: "My son asked if I was in The Beatles."
The members of Arrogance always took their music and their mission of originality seriously. They'll readily tell you they were a damn good band. But such talk from other folks seems to embarrass them.
"That's very flattering," Kirkland responds when told that both Cheshire and Vanderford independently came up with the same Beatles analogy. "But it's sort of weird, I guess."
"I think there are certainly stylistic and rhetorical points of view that you can make where we were analogous," says Dixon reluctantly. "But I think it's kind of ridiculous to compare anybody to The Beatles. When you're sitting here thinking about yourself ...
"There was a lot of tension there, as well as harmony, which is certainly analogous to the situation that Paul and John had," Dixon says of his relationship with Kirkland. "A lot of bands don't end up having two relatively equal songwriters like The Beatles had, and I think that's a lot of what these guys come away with."
The Beatles were the last band to which anyone would have compared Arrogance in the early days. Back in 1969, when a group of UNC-Chapel Hill freshmen got together to jam in Aycock Dorm, they sounded more like Black Sabbath than anything else. According to Kirkland, the group even knew all of the first side of Sabbath's debut album.
"They were the loudest band I've ever heard," says Cheshire. "Including the loudest punk band or loudest heavy metal band. It was quite amazing. It really was the sound and the fury."
Kirkland, his roommate, guitarist Mike Greer, and a friend from East Carolina University, drummer Jimmy Glasgow, were all from Winston-Salem (Kirkland, whose father worked for an electrical company testing submarines and missiles, spent much of his teen years living in the South Pacific). Dixon, who also played in the UNC Jazz Lab Band, was from South Carolina. Together, this group recorded an original single, "Black Death" at Charlotte's famed Reflection Studios, which at the time was nearly unprecedented.
"When the New Wave and punk thing started to happen in North Carolina, circa '78," says Cheshire, "a lot of younger musicians sort of looked to Arrogance as the ones who had blazed the trail in terms of the 'do it yourself' ethic, in terms of playing original material rather than covers, in terms of bucking a lot of conventional music industry wisdom, in terms of pioneering, putting out your own records." Arrogance had already done the things that became more standard in the North Carolina scene, beginning in the late '70s. "They were just out ahead of everyone else," Cheshire adds. "They really set a very high standard."
Producer and musician Mitch Easter, who at the time was a ninth-grader back in Winston-Salem, remembers being blown away that folks he knew were now in a real band.
"Mike Greer came by my house with a tape he'd made," says Easter. "It was totally awesome, and then I saw them play later, and they really were impressive as hell because they were like a real serious band that had records out instead of the usual teenage idiots that I was around.
"There was always that double standard of, local band, and then real band, especially back then. And they transcended that because they were as good as anybody you could go see. They were just really good."
As unusual as it was, Dixon says that concentrating on original songs, while every other working local band was honing its list of covers, was a conscious decision.
"Oh, totally. I mean, that's how we came up with our name. I think we mentioned that in our first year ... when we were all freshmen, we learned two big batches of material: the first Black Sabbath record and the new Beatles record, which was Abbey Road. But we were also doing a bunch of originals even then, and within a year, it was 80 percent originals."
Arrogance never played down to their audience. "We didn't pander to them, and we didn't just try to make them happy," says Dixon. "We wanted them to have fun, but we wanted them to be there with us, not just be the background for a good night. That pays off in people's minds, though not everyone got it," he adds. "A lot of people thought we sucked, I'm sure, but that's part of the game."
But club owners, whose bread and butter at the time were cover acts, also sometimes didn't get it. Dixon points out that even the Mothers of Invention were having trouble getting shows.
"The stubborn, arrogant attitude that we paraded around helped define that name," says Dixon. "We felt like it was up to us to educate people and show these club owners that people would ultimately want to be more loyal to, and want to see, bands doing stuff that they couldn't do anywhere else."
"Playing the club circuit in North Carolina, and a lot of places, meant playing cover tunes," says Kirkland. "So we went ahead and played it and played our own stuff, and got thrown out of a lot of places. Not asked back and all that stuff. But we didn't care, you know. We just got to play."
"I guess all of our heroes were doing [original music]," says Kirkland, "so why not us?"
But just as the band was gaining a following, Greer and Glasgow departed. Adding Stout on piano and Ogie Shaw on bongos and conga, Arrogance forsook metal and, going with the Crosby, Stills and Nash flow of the early '70s, plunged into the acoustic-only era of their career. Soon afterward, they released their first full-length, Give Us a Break (1973); followed by Prolepsis, featuring Steve Herbert on a traditional drum set (1975); and Rumors, with Davison replacing Herbert. But while many of the songs on these records bear some of the instrumental hallmarks of the time, they sound remarkably vital, even 30 years later.
"The Band is probably my favorite comparison," says Vanderford. "The thing that's really spectacular about The Band is that their music is absolutely timeless. And I think some of what Arrogance did had that timeless quality. It didn't necessarily belong to any particular era. Also, The Band didn't have typical instrumentation for that era. They would use tubas and pipe organs, fiddles and odd-sounding bases and things. Arrogance, in its early acoustic lineup, had sort of a novel instrumental sound.
"They could knock you down, not with volume but with sheer intelligence and taste and, really, a sense of history," he says.
Toward the late '70s, though, with acoustic rock losing favor in the face of punk, disco and New Wave, the band once again shifted focus. In 1979, 10 years after forming as a heavy electric blues band in a Carolina dorm, they added their final member, guitarist Rod Abernethy, and embraced electric English pop.
"We needed something to help spice us up a bit," says Davison.
But, as with their other incarnations, critics frequently didn't quite know what to make of them. Abernethy recounts how, while thumbing through a rock encyclopedia once, he came across a review of Suddenly, the group's final studio LP and the first to feature his playing.
"They called it, 'Solid mainstream rock in silly New Wave drag,'" he says, laughing.
"And the quote you take from that is: solid," quips Davison.
"That record was about as New Wave as Ann-Margaret's cat," Dixon retorts.
By that point, living the rock 'n' roll lifestyle (touring, dealing with unscrupulous industry types, never quite getting the elusive big break) was beginning to wear thin. Even though the group had a whole album's worth of material recorded, they couldn't find another record deal. And in 1983, just as a new generation of Southern artists, most notably R.E.M., was widening the trail Arrogance blazed, the group decided to call it quits.
"That's when we followed the edict of, Dizzy Gillespie said, 'dis band should disband,'" says Davison.
"We all got married, and the impetus to play was over because we couldn't pick up girls," jokes Abernethy.
"Well, we could, but we'd be talking to lawyers a lot if we did," Davison adds.
So why didn't The Beatles of North Carolina become bigger than Jesus?
Cheshire thinks it has to do with the old realtor's motto: location, location, location. "Being in North Carolina, from the '80s on, was an advantage because bands had time to develop, cheap living expenses, a club scene and A&R people down here scouting the clubs. At the time Arrogance came along, there was none of that. If you weren't in New York or Los Angeles, then you obviously weren't 'serious.'"
Still, none of the band members would characterize their experience with the industry as completely negative.
"We had good and bad experiences," says Kirkland, "even if we didn't become wealthy and move to Hollywood."
"There's thousands of bands that never get near a recording studio," says Abernethy philosophically. "We had a great time."
There are people to whom Arrogance is still one of the most important bands ever, even if they didn't conquer the world. The UPS delivery man who recently walked up to Davison as he sat in a lawyer's office and said simply, "Arrogance rules." The gaggle of middle-aged women who, drunk and listening to Rumors while on a gals' weekend in Florida called up Kirkland as he sat at home one night chopping wood. Joe Vanderford, who admits that "there was a time when, if I went a week without seeing Arrogance, I didn't feel well." And the fans, now scattered round the country, who have already begun making airline reservations so they can come back for the two upcoming shows. When they get there, if their old copies of Prolepsis or Suddenly have become warped or colored on by their kids, they can purchase brand new CD copies, because the band is re-releasing their old LPs.
"Everybody that gets out there and plays original songs at the Cat's Cradle and puts out their own records is following in Arrogance's footsteps in North Carolina," says Cheshire. Now, 30 years later, Arrogance is following itself.
For more information, view the Arrogance Web site at www.slackmates.home.mind spring.com/.