A collection of classic AM Gold radio sounds from his band, The Critical Darlings
While fighting for his life with various medical events
A fully remastered and updated collection of their catalog, out on 10/20
Originally produced by David Barbe and McKay
The only place in the world you’re going to hear Mike Garson (David Bowie’s pianist) playing alongside Brad Morgan of the Drive-By Truckers
Athens, GA-based celebrated rocker and photographer Chris McKay always was in the right place at the right time, and sometimes his worlds would collide. While shooting live music shows at venues, Chris would get his band shows and vice versa. He knew everyone, and everyone knew him.
But his world paused on December 28, 2006, when Chris suffered a Cerebellar Stroke.
Then six months later, in June 2007, he and his band, The Critical Darlings, entered the studio to record Satisfactionista. During this time, he developed a case of Mycoplasma Pneumonia. He pushed through and recovered as the band continued recording and playing shows.
Chris’ desire to remaster the 2008 album came at a time of being asked by friends and fans about the release. “The album got good reviews, but the band’s Satisfactionista lineup split not long after the record was done, so it wound up not being promoted as much as it would’ve been. People have been bugging me about doing a proper release since, so I finally decided to do it in deluxe double vinyl style.”
“A great frontman” – Michael Stipe (R.E.M.)
Satisfactionista is an ambitious project – 20 songs long, including five bonus tracks – filled with their power pop-infused sounds. The band was heavily influenced by the Beatles, David Bowie, Jellyfish, and more. (Side note: there’s something in Athens, GA, water that affects the music coming out of that town.) The band’s original lineup consisted of Chris, Frank DeFreese, and Joe Orr, and then added Josh Harrison on guitar later on.
The album was produced by McKay and Grammy-nominated producer David Barbe (University of Georgia teacher and Sugar – Bob Mould’s former band) at Barbe’s Chase Park Transduction Studios. Some guests were brought in during the original sessions, like Mike Garson (pianist from David Bowie’s band – think; Aladdin Sane) and Brad Morgan, the drummer from the Drive-By Truckers. Chris jokes about it, “The only place you’re going to hear Mike Garson and Brad Morgan together.”
The lush sounds, jangly guitars, and smooth emotional vocals will fill up your speakers and ears, recalling the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Verve and Blur, and more. In songs like “Sadder Day,” you will hear the vast production and strings all line up sonically and resonate with the listener as one deals with life’s curveballs like death; “My father had died the year before. As Frank and I wrote the song, it became a meditation on surviving extreme grief and getting through to the other side. The lead-off lyric, ‘There will never be a sadder day,’ is also an admission that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to feel that level of emotional pain again.” Musically he was aiming to achieve the greatness of songs like “Waiting For A Friend” (The Rolling Stones) and “The Sad Café” (The Eagles), complete with the ‘rock song’ ending, with timings of 10/8 – 3 / 4 and 4/4 as it fades out.
The band travels through many sounds but keeps it original on “Something Unseen’ as they almost outperform themselves, creating an opus of textures and sounds, something like Queen or Styx would do. With the talents of Mike Garson, David Bowie’s pianist, whom McKay connected over the social media platform, MySpace and the two put together a few ideas together to create something mind-blowing; “My musical hero was taking seriously a little song that my friend Tom and I had put together in my living room. IT was so surreal,” McKay smiles. Back when the young songwriter heard Bowie’s Aladdin Sane album in the early 90s, he knew something would come together in the future, “I don’t know who that piano player is, but I swear to you, if he’s alive, somehow, we will work together someday.”
Producer David Barbe called up Brad Morgan from the Drive-By Truckers, who lived in Athens then, to contribute the drums on the songs “An Uncertain Flight” and “Something Unseen.” Even Patterson Hood, the lead singer of the DBTs, who was hanging out in the studio, lamented over how good Morgan sounded, so producer Dave Barbe wrote down the sound notes for him for future use. (Side note: not sure if those settings made it to the next DBT album, but Chris would like to think so)
The bonus songs have Chris returning to his roots as a rocker with power riffs, steady bass lines, and sing-along lyrics – like “Best Case Scenario” and “Feels Like Yesterday’ recalls the New York Dolls and Cheap Trick, complete with hand claps. Musically, he wanted to write a song that felt like mid-70s classic rock, as that’s what he was listening to the most when he was a teenager. Chris laughs, “And I wanted it to be a bit cheesy like so many of the songs from that time. That felt like the way to go, so I went.” It sounds like something from an 80s teen movie… but it ends the band’s history.
“The real thing” – Doug Pinnick (King’s X)
The Critical Darlings only released two albums over the years they were together, C’mon Accept Your Joy and Satifactionista, both were works of labor and love, both in the studio and out on the road. The albums got solid reviews across the South, from Athens to Atlanta to Alabama and up to Chris’ home state of South Carolina. They reached an odd pinnacle via The Daily Show, and the story goes like this, as McKay recalls, “It was something to do with Robert Bork and Harriet Myers. Yep, it was that obscurely political. Some commentator used the phrase, “This is an inside-out Bork experience,” To which Jon Stewart replied, “Which is coincidentally the name of my high school band” or something like that. Then a picture of The Critical Darlings appeared behind Jon Stewart with Jon’s face pasted over mine and “Inside Out Bork Experience” added to our shirts and the kick drum. I have no idea how they wound up using us.” After a few good years of playing out, the band called it quits.
Chris’s love of photography is also an extension of his music; he loves shooting concerts in a huge arena or small clubs with minimal lighting. Over the years, his work has been published worldwide, starting in Flagpole (an Athens, GA weekly), Rolling Stone, Pollstar, Spin, MOJO, Getty Images, and various promotional materials for other musical acts. A massive highlight of McKay’s music and photography worlds colliding was when R.E.M. crashed a 40 Watt benefit of other musicians covering their music with a two-song set. The photo McKay got went around the world and was a highlight image for the band’s very own Rolling Stone magazine special collection edition. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. And a few years later, the iconic band held a fundraiser for Chris to help him cover the rising medical costs.
As a live show photographer, Chris’ gained the venue’s and the musicians’ trust, so he captured some incredible shots of David Bowie, Paul McCartney, and the late Tony Bennett. Chris could be in the pit, the sides, and the red carpet; his infectious personality gave everyone the confidence that the shots would be great. “These are people…well, not just like you and me, but they actually exist as humans in our world in a way that one wouldn’t otherwise even think about.” – Chris McKay.
Life was going great… until Chris’ next string of health scares: In September 2017: Rear-ended by a “distracted driver” at a stop light, causing vertebral artery dissection, traumatic brain injuries, and concussion. April 2018: “Flu-like virus” hospitalized the rocker after working at the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta. Summer 2018: Put into ICU for vertebral artery dissection and its complications. Summer and fall of 2018: Various hospitalizations in Athens, Georgia, and trips to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, bad reactions to contrast dye, and stroke/dissection deficit issues.
“Absolutely superb!” – Mitch Easter (Let’s Active, R.E.M. producer)
In early 2020: As the COVID global pandemic hit and we were dealing with masks, regulations, and the hopes of immunization shots, Chris’ immune system was too compromised to take the injection. So, like many musicians, Chris got online to do video streaming, interviews, and more interactions with fans, friends, and family. So, in reaction to all the frustrations and societal clashing, he penned a song, “If You Don’t Wear A Mask,” to convey the sheer importance of face coverings to not spread the deadly disease. The song mixes in a line from The Rolling Stones’ classic “Dead Flowers” with “won’t forget to put roses on your grave.” It got attention worldwide, from Athens, GA, to the U.K. “Thank you to everyone who donated their time and energy to this ridiculous, pissed off, stupid, serious, necessary song for the summer of 2020.” To this day, he still must be cautious when venturing into the world.
To come full circle with the ambitious project with the music, the redesigned album art, and photography, the album title is a play on words, with the band’s views of success. While in the studio years ago, the sometimes positive/negative adjective, perfectionist, was used towards Chris and the band. But in a pure genius move, Chris corrected the rumor by saying, “I’m a satisfactionist. I just want to be satisfied. It doesn’t have to be perfect.” Then the band’s guitarist Frank modified it by saying that we were all, in fact, ‘Satisfactionistas.’”