Talk about the passion
Music in Athens is serious business— without a serious attitude
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Here’s the short version: the Athens music scene began April 5, 1980, when an unknown band—that later took the name R.E.M.—played their first gig at a friend’s birthday party. The bash took place at an old church on Oconee Street, where several of the band members lived along with Kathleen O’Brien, the birthday girl. They lived in the renovated front space, and to get to the former sanctuary in the back where they played, they went through O’Brien’s closet. The band played seven or eight original songs, and the rest were covers like “God Save the Queen,” “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone” and “Gloria.” Night life in Athens was practically nonexistent then, so 300 people showed up for free beer and three unknown bands (Men in Trees and The Side Effects also played).
“People came because it was a happening, because it was a party,” R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills says. “Who was playing didn’t matter.”
Entertainment Weekly’s May 28, 1999, issue would name R.E.M.’s first gig one of the 100 greatest moments in rock music. By then, R.E.M. had achieved the kind of mainstream success that caused music fans everywhere to take a close look at the band’s hometown. But there was music in Athens before R.E.M.
In the early 1900s the city’s Hot Corner—the intersection of Washington and Hull Streets—was central to the African-American community, providing office space for black dentists, doctors and lawyers as well as entertainment opportunities at the Morton Theatre, which hosted national acts like Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.
The ’50s brought rock ’n’ roll to campus, with Jerry Lee Lewis performing from the back of a flatbed trailer in the middle of town.
“He was in a category all his own in the music world and just full of rhythm, pounding out favorites on his piano—‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire,’” Rita Olsen Campbell (BSEd ’58) says. “When Jerry played ‘Good Golly Miss Molly,’ we couldn’t keep our feet still.”
UGA later hosted touring acts like Steppenwolf, Sergio Mendes, B.B. King and the Village People at campus facilities like the Memorial Hall Ballroom, the Fine Arts Auditorium, Legion Field and Stegeman Coliseum. Tommy Altman (AB ’75), who enrolled at UGA in 1968 and worked in cultural affairs, counts Dolly Parton’s show in the late ’70s as one of his favorites. In those days, the men’s football locker rooms were on the lower level of the Coliseum. During her visit Parton headed to a conference room in the same area for a press event—and didn’t stop.
“She just kind of kept on going and walked right into the men’s locker room,” Altman says. “She squealed that squeal of hers and said, ‘Oooooeeeee, I think I’ve gone to heaven!’”
Though many performers at that time were from out of town, there were some homegrown acts. The Jesters, a group of friends at Athens High School (now Clarke Central High School), formed in 1964 and played a blend of Motown and beach music, booking their first gig at the VFW on Sunset Drive. Like most of the members, saxophonist Harold Williams (BBA ’71) grew up in Athens and played in the high school band.
“We would play our R&B music, our Temptations and Four Tops, and then right in the middle of it they would blow a whistle and we would have to play a square dance,” Williams says of the Jesters’ VFW gigs, imitating a twangy square dance sound.
“That was what was available, and hell, we just loved to do it. So we would do it anywhere we could.”
The Jesters toured the Southeast, serving as a backup band for some of their idols like Marvin Gaye and the Platters. They ate at truck stops and restaurants along the way, and one establishment wouldn’t let the Platters in.
“It was an amazing time, because I got a black man’s perspective early on,” Williams says. “Now you wouldn’t think about it at all, but then riding through parts of South Carolina, Georgia or Alabama it was slightly dangerous.”
In the late ’60s and early ’70s artists like Williams, fellow Jester Davis Causey and Randall Bramblett (MSW ’89) wrote and performed their own music and played with groups like Goose Creek Symphony, the Normaltown Flyers and Dixie Grease. Over time, venues like Tyrone’s O.C. and the Last Resort began to open their doors to local acts.
“That’s why I moved down here,” says Bramblett, who came in 1969 after graduating from the University of North Carolina. “It was a good environment to explore. It was a good breeding ground for people to test their songwriting skills.”
On Valentine’s Day 1977, the B-52s played their first gig at a house party on North Milledge Avenue. After hearing about the “weird” local band, Jeff Walls made sure he caught a show and was surprised by the band’s combination of dance and surf music, call-and-response vocals and thrift-store costumes.
“Shockingly, none of the guys had long hair or looked like leftover hippies. Unlike most of what passed for rock music at that time, there were no solos, no bass player, no noodley jamming, and nothing that could even be remotely considered musically complex,” says Walls, a guitarist who later formed Guadalcanal Diary and who now plays with the Woggles. “Despite their unorthodox approach, the audience was dancing like crazy. In fact, that seemed to be the whole point.”
“We were the tackiest band in Athens, Georgia,” says Cindy Wilson, who founded the B-52s with her brother Ricky, Kate Pierson, Fred Schneider and Keith Strickland. “We were just throwing things together and having fun with it.”
The Wilsons grew up in Athens, and Ricky learned to play guitar by watching a public television show. His little sister, Cindy, was his guinea pig—he’d give her parts to sing, and they’d make home recordings. After she graduated from high school, the two moved into a house together and partied with Strickland, Pierson and Schneider. Jam sessions led to the five forming a band, taking their name from a particular style of beehive hairdo and approaching music with a sense of humor and a firm commitment to fun.
Cindy Wilson now lives in Atlanta with husband Keith Bennett (BFA ’78) and their son and daughter. She remembers Ricky, who died in 1985, writing “Rock Lobster.”
“He said, ‘Come in here, you’ve got to listen to this riff. It’s the stupidest riff you’ve ever heard.’” she says, laughing. “So we went in there, and of course it was great. It was catchy. He was just twisted that way.”
A year after the first show, the B-52s were one of the hottest club acts in New York. Encouraged by their success, bands like Pylon were sprouting in Athens. Formed by four art students—guitarist Randy Bewley (BFA ’85, BSEd ’95), drummer Curtis Crowe (BFA ’84), singer Vanessa Briscoe Hay (BFA ’78) and bassist Michael Lachowski (BFA ’79)—Pylon also was known for its live shows and danceable pop but had an edgier sound than the B-52s. The band would go on to open for U2, R.E.M. and Talking Heads, touring the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom but never achieving mainstream success, in part because they distrusted and rejected offers from major labels. Though their approach to success was different than the B-52s—who signed with Warner Brothers in 1979—they shared a fundamental belief that anyone can make music.
“That’s part of what inspired Pylon—the idea that you could be in a band and not have a music background,” Lachowski says.
When the B-52s played their first show, the song at the top of the Billboard charts was “Torn Between Two Lovers” by Mary MacGregor. UGA was pulling in acts like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Heart. But Cindy Wilson and her friends were driving to Atlanta to see the Sex Pistols and Television. Punk had arrived, and bands like the Ramones rejected mainstream rock for a stripped-down, headfirst approach with anti-establishment lyrics and a do-it-yourself ethic.
The do-it-yourself attitude played well in Athens. Descriptions of the town during that time almost universally use the word “sleepy.” The lack of nightlife meant Lachowski could advertise shows with posters featuring only two words—“Pylon” and “Tuesday”—because everyone automatically knew where and what time. People in Athens made their own fun, most often at parties.
“These over-the-top parties played like a bunch of clever art students spoofing a ’60s Hollywood bash, with stylistic nods to Federico Fellini’s ‘La Dolce Vita’ and Russ Meyer’s ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,’” Jeff Walls says. “The early scene was self-consciously arty and theatrical, with lots of dress-up and play-acting (drugs were also certainly present), but it had a campy sense of humor that spun on a shoestring budget.”
Out of this climate came Athens’ first big wave of music that had a recognizable sound—sometimes described as jangle pop. Led by R.E.M. and bands like Dreams So Real and the Squalls, this new sound became identifiably “Athens” and was documented by UGA art professor Jim Herbert in the 1987 film “Athens, Ga.: Inside/Out.”
“It was artists who were not musicians who decided to make their art through music,” Mike Mills says. “And their feeling was—as with the punk ethos of the time—you didn’t really have to know how to be good, you just had to do what was in your head and in your heart. So that’s what a lot of these bands were doing back then. They were just creating art, but instead of a paintbrush or a chisel, they had a guitar or a piano. You got a lot of interesting and unique music out of that.”
Interview enough musicians in Athens, and a percentage of them—from past and present—will claim they can’t play their instruments. Dan Geller (BS ’96, MS ’98) is a veteran of the Athens music scene. He’s a member of three bands (the Agenda, Gold Party and Ruby Isle), co-founder of the Athens-based Kindercore label and long-time dj at Go Bar.
“It’s been the story of my life,” Geller says. “The one thing I don’t have time ever to do is really actually learn how to play music. I just kind of stumbled my way through it… I look back and it’s been over 10 years, but I still feel like I’m a novice when it comes to playing anything.”
Kyle Dawkins (BMus ’99) is a guitarist and member of both Maps and Transit and the Georgia Guitar Quartet. He graduated with a degree in music performance, but he likes the supportive atmosphere in Athens.
“There’s no pressure to be an expert on your instrument, which I think is awesome,” Dawkins says. “If you want to learn how to play an instrument, go for it. And if you want to start a band a week after you learn that instrument, go for it. You’re just encouraged, no matter what your skill level is.”
Allison Weiss, a UGA senior studying graphic design, released her second album in November. She believes the Athens environment encourages creativity.
“Athens loves bands that are weirder and doing more innovative things,” she says. “You go out to see a band, and it’s just a bunch of dudes banging on stuff and making sounds with their amplifiers and people in the crowd are like, ‘Yea, this is awesome.’”
The lack of restrictions gives artists the freedom to experiment, Dawkins says.
“I think Pylon is a perfect example. Randy from Pylon would tune his guitar all these weird ways, and he probably couldn’t tell you what the sheet music looked like, but it sounded great,” he says. “That’s the only thing that matters. No matter how much training you have, at the end of the day if it sounds good it sounds good.”
R..E.M.’s first taste of success came just two years after Mills and drummer Bill Berry, high school friends from Macon, enrolled at UGA in 1979. There they met singer Michael Stipe, also a UGA student, and guitarist Peter Buck. Stipe and Buck had bonded over records at music store Wuxtry, where Buck worked.
The band released its first single, “Radio Free Europe,” in 1981, followed by the “Chronic Town” EP in 1982 and “Murmur” in 1983. They toured the Southeast constantly, sleeping on fans’ couches and playing whatever hole in the wall would have them. As the band’s touring radius expanded and college radio provided a boost, a lot of people started paying attention to Athens—and some decided to move here.
Guadalcanal Diary moved to Athens in 1984 after the band returned from an intense European tour and bassist Rhett Crowe (AB ’94) decided she was tired of living in Marietta. Her brother, Curtis, was Pylon’s drummer and lived in Athens as did Guadalcanal’s drummer, John Poe. Crowe at that time was dating Guadalcanal guitarist Jeff Walls, so she brought him with her and eventually singer Murray Attaway joined them.
Five Eight was similarly hijacked in 1987. The band, then known as The Reasonable Men, was considering a move to Brooklyn or Athens when singer/guitarist Mike Mantione’s songwriting partner moved to Athens—with their equipment. The band followed, forming Five Eight the next year.
“There wasn’t anybody who knew anything about music who didn’t know about Athens, Georgia,” Mantione says. “The movie had been out in the previous summer—“Athens, Ga.: Inside/Out”—I had seen it and had fallen in love with that whole R.E.M. idea of touring the country in a van and playing like Jack Kerouac on the road.”
There were others, like John Bell, who watched the scene from nearby. Bell enrolled at UGA in 1981 and remembers watching R.E.M. hit its stride.
“They were a big influence, just watching them blow the doors off the music scene,” he says.
During his sophomore year Bell met Mike Houser (BS ’85), another UGA student and guitarist. A few years later, the two formed Widespread Panic with bassist Dave Schools and drummer Todd Nance, later adding percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz. (Houser died in 2002.)
R.E.M. may have made musicians more aware of Athens, but there were other factors that kept them here—among them the cheap cost of living, the availability of service industry jobs and a crowd of other musicians to work with.
In Panic’s early days, Bell and Nance painted houses to make money, while Houser made sandwiches at Gyro Wrap and Schools worked the door at the Uptown Lounge. The band had a regular gig there on Monday nights because no one else wanted that slot.
“They gave us free beer and whatever came in at the door” from the $1 cover charge, Bell says. When the band finished playing, they would take their money to Waffle House to have their one good meal of the week.
“I think that what attracts musicians and keeps them here is the sense of community that you have in Athens,” says producer John Keane, who’s worked extensively with R.E.M. and Widespread Panic. “The Athens music scene is a lot more diverse now because there are so many different types of bands, but it still feels very much like a community.” Crowe also liked the sense of camaraderie.
“You could sit down and complain about how you didn’t make enough money to pay your electric bill,” she says. “It wasn’t a question of ‘Well, why don’t you just go get a job?’ Everybody understood why you were doing what you were doing, and what you had to give up in order to do that, and that was ok.”
And Athens musicians extend their support beyond their peers.
“The bands here are so supportive of organizations and causes and groups in town,” says Jeff Montgomery, co-founder of athensmusic.net. “Any time there’s a benefit, the first thing everyone does is say, ‘Let’s have a show, and who can we get to play?’ And bands do it. You never hear them griping about it—they’re more than willing to do it.”
By the time R.E.M. reached mainstream success in 1987 with the single “The One I Love” (from the album “Document,” their first that sold a million copies), Athens had changed. The Georgia Theatre had opened as a concert venue in 1978 with a show by Sea Level featuring Randall Bramblett. The 40 Watt Club also was founded in 1978 when Curtis Crowe and his roommate Bill Tabor renovated the third floor of a College Avenue building and christened it with a Halloween party. By 1987 the club, named after its original sole light source, had changed locations five times and would move once more in 1991 to its current location on Washington Street. Tyrone’s O.C. had burned down in 1982, but clubs like the Uptown Lounge, the Rockfish Palace and the Downstairs catered increasingly to local bands, drawing audiences in part from the UGA student body.
Secondary industries developed as the Athens music scene grew. Producers like John Keane began recording demos, later expanding to full studio services when computer technology revolutionized home recording. Labels like Doggone Records and later Kindercore made it possible to release an album from Athens. The agency Revolution specialized in public relations for music, launching spinoff Team Clermont. Managers like Troy Aubrey (ABJ ’94) of Nomad Artists began offering their services. Aubrey would also co-found athensmusic.net with Jeff Montgomery.
Athensmusic.net was created after Montgomery saw Macha perform in 1998, a show he calls “freaking amazing.” He and Aubrey wanted to find a way to help Athens bands like Macha promote themselves to a larger audience.
“Bands would put out records, and they’d sit in the trunk of their cars,” Montgomery says. “Literally. They’d have like 200 in the trunk of their car, and they didn’t know what to do with them besides taking them to [music stores] Big Shot and Wuxtry.”
Aubrey and Montgomery also got involved with AthFest, an annual music and arts festival designed to promote Athens music. The event was founded in 1997 by Jared Bailey (BBA ’84), former 40 Watt manager and founder of Flagpole, a weekly publication covering Athens arts and entertainment. In 2009, AthFest featured about 200 acts in clubs and on three free outdoor stages. AthFest compilation cds (available at http://www.athfest.com) have featured artists like R.E.M., Vic Chesnutt, the Drive-By Truckers and Jack Logan.
Though the city has never conducted an official economic survey, a rough estimate in the late ’90s by Art Jackson (then with the Athens Downtown Development Authority) indicated that the music scene provided employment for up to 2,000 people—making it the county’s fourth largest employer. By Jeff Montgomery’s count, 95 albums were released by Athens acts during 2008. And the Flagpole Music Guide lists more than 800 musical acts, 37 recording/production companies, 36 venues and 16 management/promotion agencies in Athens.
Let’s go Outback tonight…”
That familiar jingle is rooted in the second wave of bands to gain notoriety outside of Athens. The Elephant 6 was a collective of musicians based in Athens and Boulder, Colorado, who formed several notable indie bands of the ’90s including Elf Power, Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel and of Montreal. Elephant 6 bands were known for their somewhat interchangeable members, lo-fi recordings and a sound influenced by British psychedelia.
Formed in 1996, of Montreal would release six albums—two with Geller’s Athens-based Kindercore label—before 2005’s “Sunlandic Twins” record would spawn the Outback Steakhouse jingle based on the song “Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games.” Many Elephant 6 bands have dissolved—of Montreal and Elf Power are exceptions—but the movement drew people to Athens in the ’90s the same way R.E.M. drew people in the ’80s.
Lucas Jensen (MEd ’04, MEd ’09) was doing college radio in Starkville, Miss., when he fell in love with what he heard from the Elephant 6 and other Athens bands.
“To me it was a real lack of pretension,” says Jensen, who moved to Athens in 1998 and now is drummer for Venice Is Sinking. “It was just sitting on your front porch or being lost in the wilderness of Georgia … and deciding to make psychedelic records.”
“I could hear people giving a crap about what they were doing on a record, and that’s important.”
In 1996 R.E.M. re-signed with Warner Bros. for a reported $80 million. Despite achieving success that meant they could live wherever they wanted, the band had kept their headquarters in downtown Athens.
“The four of us all had a gut feeling that we didn’t want to leave,” Mike Mills says. “We wanted to stay here where our friends were, and where our families were, and make the music that we loved.”
Stipe and Mills still maintain residences in Athens; Mills spends about 75 percent of his time here. Berry, who left the group in 1997, lives outside of Athens and Buck moved to the west coast in the late ’90s.
The band’s long-term presence in Athens has had an impact. A Sept. 10, 2006, article in the Athens Banner-Herald documented some of the ways they’ve influenced the community: owning historic homes in in-town neighborhoods; owning buildings that allow businesses with unique character, like Go Bar and The Grit restaurant, to thrive; helping to educate the community on issues like historic preservation; and providing direct financial support for a variety of organizations.
“There’s been no entity more broadly supportive of the community than R.E.M.,” Tim Johnson, coordinator for Family Connection/Communities in Schools of Athens, told the Banner-Herald. “I can’t think of any nonprofit I know of that they haven’t had some impact on.”
Athens Mayor Heidi Davison says she can’t think of any aspect of community development that R.E.M. hasn’t touched.
“Thanks to their strong philanthropy, groups promoting human rights, animal welfare, music and arts, tending to the poor, alternative transportation, a clean environment, education, after-school programs, historic preservation and more have benefited, as have candidates who strongly support these issues.”
“This is a fantastic community—always has been, and it’s always been good to us,” Mills says. “It’s been our joy and pleasure to be able to give something back.”
That sentiment has extended to working with local musicians in the studio and hiring Athens bands to open for them on tour. Modern Skirts formed in 2004 and just four years later opened for R.E.M. in Amsterdam. JoJo Glidewell (guitar/piano/vocals) remembers how strange it was to be confronted with the worldwide fame of guys you see around your hometown.
“This is one of the biggest bands in the world… and they get up on stage and say ‘We want to thank Modern Skirts,’ and it’s just insane,” he says. “You can’t get your head around it. And then you go home and you’re like, ‘Did that even really happen?’”
“It was definitely hard to go back to playing in Knoxville, Tenn., for two drunk hippies after that.”
For the most part Athens exists in a little bit of a bubble. It’s still a somewhat sleepy, isolated town, but that isolation has allowed artists to pursue their visions off the beaten path. There have been other college towns—Lawrence, Kan., for example—that have had vibrant music scenes, but over time Athens has proven to be special.
“I just don’t know why Athens had a higher percentage of really good bands than most other college towns,” Mike Mills says. “Maybe it was the quality of the art school. You could blame Jim Herbert. I don’t know.”
Herbert says answers to this question are less forthcoming as time goes by, but he offers a few suggestions.
“Coalescing cultural cacophony as the hippie and frat values collided, mixed and moved on. Or as others have said, there was a certain stressed and edgy breakdown that led to breakthroughs. Perhaps social fragmentation helps the arts bust out,” he says. “But no, to tell you the truth the music scene was all just the result of kudzu and sweat and intense naked play.”
Perhaps the why doesn’t matter—the Athens music scene now is self sustaining, and every once in a while the national media spotlight shines this way. Sometimes it’s focused on a movement like the Elephant 6 collective, and sometimes it’s focused on an event, like Widespread Panic’s 1998 street show in downtown Athens that drew 80,000 to 100,000 fans. Regardless of the attention paid by the rest of the world, bands have continued to form, rehearse, play shows, play benefits, record, tour and break up.
The past year has been a tough one in Athens. There were several deaths—Pylon’s Randy Bewley in February 2009 and Vic Chesnutt in December—that made national news, as did the burning of the Georgia Theatre in June. And there were other deaths that didn’t draw the same kind of attention but had an effect in the close-knit Athens music community. Jon Guthrie, guitarist/bassist with The Michael Guthrie Band and Vigilantes of Love, died in September, followed by drummer Jerry Fuchs (BFA ’01) in November. Fuchs was a member of The Juan MacLean, !!! and Athens band Maserati and played with LCD Soundsystem, Moby and MSTRKRFT.
“I’ve seen a lot of coming together and realizing that we don’t need to take what we do or each other for granted,” Lucas Jensen says. “It’s like a big family—a big, weird, dysfunctional family.”
For Jester Harold Williams, the relationships he’s made during his career as a musician are more important than anything else.
“I think having the same group of friends for 50 years is pretty amazing,” he says. “To this day, my best friends in life are the guys I played music with.”
Download music by more than a dozen Athens bands—including new songs from Five Eight, Modern Skirts and The Bearfoot Hookers—at Georgia Magazine’s Web site.
Check Flagpole’s Guide to Athens for a Music History Walking Tour and a list of Essential Athens Albums, as chosen by the alternative weekly.
The largest collection of Athens music for sale anywhere, including rare and out-of-print releases.