Getting Here from There: A Slight History of Athens Music
By Steven Uhles
Party Out of Bounds
There is no record of the first time a University of Georgia student, feeling moved and the need to move, stood up while a band was playing and began to dance. Some cite the Ether Frolics, popular during the 19th century, which made liberal use of the anesthesia first used some 20 miles north of town in Jefferson. Others point to regular revues featuring jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong in the Morton Building. In the early 1970s, the band Ravenstone played the first gay rights dance in the Southeast, which Jason NeSmith (Casper & the Cookies/Pylon Reenactment Society) believes might have set a standard.
But most say that the Athens music community, as we know it today, began as so many things in town do – with a party.
A paucity of live music venues and an art-school approach to rock and roll that looked both forward and back meant the B-52s, the band most often unofficially crowned as the original “Athens” act, would shake its mess around at a house party on Valentine’s Day 1977. And while it wasn’t long before the band decamped to New York City, the band’s appearances caused ripples and reactions still felt today. Michael Lachowski of Pylon attended the party, recalling it as his earliest awareness of a music community in Athens.
“It was an eye/ear-opening experience,” he said. “In the kitchen of a friend’s house. The green house across from the Taco Stand.”
The departure of the B-52s, Lachowski said, was, in part, responsible for the formation of Pylon and the first wave of acts looking for new ways to work within the parameters of a rock band.
“That was really the main argument that my roommate, (Pylon guitarist) Randy Bewley, made to me for why we should start a band,” he said. “The Bs had left and somebody had to have a band.”
Music historian Paul Butchart came to Athens in the fall of 1977. His first show – the then-hot Seattle rockers Heart shortly after his arrival. It was not long, however, before he gravitated toward early B-52s performances and later, acts such as Pylon, inspired by both their creative and commercial success. He said his own band – The Side Effects, formed in 1980 – was a direct response to the music that was becoming popular in town.
“When The Side Effects came into being there were really only four Athens bands to be influenced by – the B-52s, Tone Tones, Pylon and the Method Actors,” he said. “Their influence was that we did not want to sound like any of them and they did not wish to sound like us.”
Creativity, he said, had become the coin of the realm.
The Side Effects’ spare, dance-ready sound, which recalled English acts such as Wire and the Fall, quickly became popular, and it was the first band to take the stage when the 40 Watt Club moved to College Avenue in 1980. Pylon was the second. Still, it’s another show that the band is best remembered for. The venue – the somewhat shattered remains of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, then one of the oldest standing structures in town. Also on the bill, a band that up until that point had been toying with the moniker Twisted Kites but took the stage unbranded. Soon thereafter it took up the name R.E.M.
“As well as being a huge Pylon fan in high school, I had R.E.M.’s Hib-Tone single (Radio Free Europe b/w Sitting Still) and had seen R.E.M. open for Bow Wow Wow in Atlanta,” said Arthur Johnson, drummer for the popular ‘80s Athens act the Bar-B-Cue Killers. “That greatly influenced my decision to come to Athens for college.”
Indeed, Johnson was not alone. Prospective students taking campus tours were as likely to ask about the little band attracting big attention as campus housing. The band, which spent the ‘80s evolving from club dates and van tours to major label success, might have transitioned to more urban environs, a la the B-52s, but instead opted to base its operations in Athens.
“The fact that R.E.M. chose to remain in Athens as they achieved their fame was a galvanizing influence, attracting even more creative people to town and inducing people to stay in town,” Lachowski said.
Dan Geller, CEO and co-founder of the Athens based label/pressing plant Kindercore, was one of those acolytes. He said he first became aware of Athens while still a high school student in Wisconsin.
“It was because I was a huge R.E.M. fan,” he said. “I became obsessed with what I thought the ‘Athens scene’ was like. R.E.M is one of the reasons I am here. They really paved the way for a lot of us.”
His was not a unique experience. NeSmith said R.E.M. might have been an early attractor, but it was what the band represented and inspired in others that kept him here.
“Some kids at school started talking about R.E.M right before I saw the video for So. Central Rain. I had no idea they were from Athens or where Athens was. But it all made a lot of sense very soon. Somehow the town hit a combination of boredom, poverty, outsider status, the need to celebrate and the push-pull force of an institution like UGA that resulted in an explosion of original creativity that is still happening.”
Lachowski said the success the B-52s, Pylon and particularly R.E.M. – as well as subsequent acts such as Of Montreal, Drive-By Truckers and Widespread Panic – seeded what became a small business industry in Athens; the entrepreneurship required for the proper care and feeding of a thriving music community.
“Little by little a number of support services/businesses opened and helped sustain the whole enterprise – clubs, Flagpole, recording studios, record stores, the people who staffed these entities, and the people who bought records and came out to shows,” he said. “Venues, really, are the second most important thing after the bands. I know the 40 Watt is the most important club for me and for Pylon overall.”
A Little Old Place Where We Can Get Together
Named after the single dim bulb that illuminated the small – and infamously warm – room, the original 40 Watt Club was Pylon drummer Curtis Crowe’s College Avenue apartment. And while the iconic club remains perhaps the most famous of the current and former Athens music spaces, it is far from anomalous. The willingness of club owners to take risks, both financially and artistically, allowed acts performing original music to hone their craft in front of live audiences. Arthur Johnson said for the Bar-B-Cue Killers, venues sympathetic to the band’s often outrageous behavior and music was essential.
“The various incarnations of the 40 Watt – particularly the Clayton Street location – and the old Uptown Lounge gave us and other bands license to figure ourselves out onstage,” he said that. “And we did. We tried out some really crazy s***.”
Geller said that upon his arrival in town, he found himself at the 40 Watt “almost every day” but understands there is a certain fluidity to the business. 40 Watt itself has had five locations. The Georgia Theatre began as the Uptown Lounge before moving into bigger digs. Most recently the Go Bar, in business for 20 colorful years, shut its doors. NeSmith said he believes the role of the music venue may be shifting.
“The pressure they feel from the overpopulation of bars downtown, rising rents and city ordinances causes most of them to be conservative in their booking,” he said. “Venues rely on the acts to bring in crowds, and if they don’t they aren’t given many chances.”
NeSmith said house parties seem scarce, but he admitted he might not know the right people. Perhaps it’s an old model ready to be made new again – just like they did almost 45 years ago in a kitchen across the street from the Taco Stand.
Over the course of reporting this story, a lot of Athens acts – past and current – were namechecked.
Here’s a quick list of bands mentioned:
The Side Effects
The Helium Kids
The Rev. Connor Tribble
Olivia Tremor Control
Neutral Milk Hotel
Masters of the Hemisphere
Pylon Reenactment Society