My Article on Wayne Famous of the Producers in 2001

In 2001 I wrote a short article for Keyboard Magazine, about Wayne Famous of the seminal new-wave band The Producers. Here is the original text that I submitted to Keyboard  for publication (what they printed was edited and shortened somewhat).

You can see more from my years of work as a music journalist at this link.

I want also to give a shout-out to some young friends of mine in an excellent Atlanta cover band called Electric Avenue (also known in another incarnation as the Yacht Rock Schooner) who are doing a show of early-80s New Wave and synth pop on Friday at the Dixie Tavern in Marietta, Georgia.

Wayne Famous of The Producers
by Wheat Williams
Copyright ©  2001 by Wheat Williams

The Coelacanth was an ancient, extinct fish known only to science from fossils–until one showed up alive in a South African port in 1938. Then, in 1998, they found another one 10,000 kilometers away in Indonesia. The latest Coelacanth showed up in Atlanta, Georgia in 2001, a living fossil from the sedimentary beds of MCA Record’s forgotten tape vaults.

Rewind. It was 1979, the same year the B-52s burst out of Athens, and the scene was changing in nearby Atlanta. Southern rock was over. 29-year-old but endearingly bald Wayne McNatt gave up his R&B road-show sideman persona and sold his Hammond B3 for an Oberheim synth. Enter Wayne Famous of The Producers, a whip-smart quartet who, though since overlooked, help to kick-start the new-wave movement. They deconstructed the clichés of frat-party rock and crafted a new sound: sparse, bouncy, and danceable. They cranked on tightly-arranged power-pop masterpieces, mostly about teenage girls and teenage angst. Their two albums for Portrait/CBS in ‘81 and ‘82, The Producers and You Make The Heat, made them one of the first hit bands on that brand-new cable channel, MTV. “She Sheila,” their biggest song, is a harmony-drenched, perfect four-and-a-half minute pop symphony.

Wayne with his custom keyboard, 1981. Photo by Michael Lippus

“People were tired of the old sounds,” says Wayne. “I was convinced that if I kept playing what I grew up playing, that no attention would be paid to us.” Wayne was determined not to be window dressing in the rhythm section. He developed a distorted, effected rhythm voice, chugging along in tight harmony with the guitarist’s palm-muted ostinatos, breaking out to soar on brief, guitaristic solos, then underpinning the chords with icy, chiming, simple counterpoint.

Wayne went way out front with the Producers. He got California engineer Wayne Yentis to tear apart the Oberheim and build a five-octave over-the-shoulder remote controller which replicated every knob and control on the synth back in the rack. “They didn’t have MIDI back then, so we had to connect the remote keyboard and all its knobs to the synth through two 48-conductor telecom cables fifty feet long.” Boasting seven voices, it may have been the first polyphonic remote synth rig. Though the controller weighed 37 pounds, he played the whole show standing with this behemoth around his neck, except when he set it down to play his Yamaha CP-70 electric piano. “I had serious back problems,” he says, sheepishly.

After their run at CBS, fickle fate left the Producers behind. “We co-owned our publishing with our manager and he ripped us off terribly. We sold 500,000 records but never made a dime from mechanical royalties. By ‘87, CDs were the new consumer format, but CBS steadfastly ignored us and refused to put our vinyl catalog out on CD. If you’re not on CD, you’re not on the radio, you’re out of sight, you’re out of mind. We were extinct.”

The cruelest blow was yet to come. The Producers hung in there and got a new deal with MCA in 1987, recording Coelacanth with producer John Jansen (Lou Reed, Supertramp, Hendrix). But a shift in A&R executives saw the band dropped and Coelacanth unreleased, locked in the vault. “It broke the back of the band, broke our will to achieve,” says Wayne. “Yet we never quit playing, ever. When the band is that good, you don’t break it up.” Wayne drove a cab for 13 years, just to have the schedule flexibility to play the band’s increasingly infrequent regional gigs.

Fast-forward. Fan web sites started appearing in the late ‘90s, and the gigs started lining up again. One Way Records licensed The Producers and You Make The Heat and put them out on a single budget CD in 2000. A tiny royalty check appeared. And now One Way has released Coelacanth, its title more apt than ever.

It might be the missing link, the end of the bouncy innocence of New Wave, heading toward the close of the ‘80s. The Producers confidently craft a much broader sound. Wayne uses MIDI to orchestrate the attacks of a Yamaha DX7 with two meaty Oberheim Xpanders, quirky, undulating Roland D50 sounds, and his custom samples on a Yamaha TX16W, “the absolute hardest sampler on Planet Earth to operate.

“I used the Xpanders for their ability to achieve control over the sound in ways not possible with other synths, then or since. I got deep into the programming architecture and created sounds from scratch.” He played all this out front from a thankfully much lighter, modified Oberheim Xk MIDI controller.

Nowadays there are no roadies or tour bus, so Wayne plays only a single Emu Proteus Master Performance keyboard on a stand. Besides, “At some point the technology starts getting to be in the way of the music. Hopefully, when you get older, you start developing more of a finesse and an expertise about drawing it out of your fingers.” And Wayne still plays. Sure, they may be fossils, but the Producers refuse to be extinct.

Wayne in concert in 2012. Photo by TimothyJ