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Athens, Georgia: A Musical History

On August 17, 2016

by Zoe Camp


Say what you want about Manhattan open mics or Chicago basement shows: where scene-building is concerned, nothing compares to the unsuspecting college community of Athens, Georgia. Strolling past the window displays festooned with Bulldogs memorabilia (these folks are really into football around here), wading through seas of undergrads decked out in monogrammed polos and gingham shorts, taking in the massive frat scene, it’s hard to believe this town is regarded by many as a musical hotbed, let alone the birthplace of alternative rock. But here in the Classic City, nothing’s what it seems. Consider it a consequence of its southern charm.

There’s no finer musical incubator than a college town, especially when the associated school is a huge public university like the University of Georgia. Along with the university's steadily-increasing class size (R.E.M.’s class contained anywhere from 2000 to 2500 incoming freshmen) and college radio presence (WUGA), the constant influx of new talent has kept the scene fresh, mutable, and most importantly, relevant. There are tons of music shops, as well–most famously Wuxtry Records, where employee and future R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck bonded with Michael Stipe over shared favorites.The aforementioned factors are hardly unique to Athens– they also explain the accordingly large scenes found in other small towns tethered to massive academic institutions (Durham, NC., Boulder, CO., Madison, WI)–so what makes the Classic City fertile to the point that the tourism board offers music history walking tours? You’ll find your answer outside: Since the dawn of the century, Athens has been glutted with live spaces spaces, from theaters and clubs, to bars and cafes. Venue-wise, the town’s crown jewel will always be the 40 Watt Club, a refined rock sanctuary which played host to local groups and famed out-of-towners (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bad Brains, the Replacements) alike before the doors shuttered in 1987. (The club subsequently re-opened and re-closed at several spots around town before ending up in its present address in downtown Athens.)

Ironically, the Athens scene’s halcyon days didn’t start with the 40 Watt (or at any typical venue, for that matter), but at a house party across the street the Taco Stand, a Mexican eatery on an otherwise nondescript residential street north of the UGA campus. It was here, on Valentine’s Day 1977, that the B-52s played their first-ever concert. Perhaps it was the quintet's cheeky stage business (their penchant for wigs and crazy outfits dates back to that very performance) or their flippant, new-wave revelry; either way, the group soon saw international fame, making them Athens’ first internationally-known musical export. Not long after the show, Fred Schneider and company relocated to New York, but the band’s camaraderie with their peers endured; they even convinced the organizers of their massive concert with Paul Simon in Central Park to squeeze no-wave luminaries Pylon onto the bill.

One evening in early April, a few years after the B-52’s live debut, four UGA undergrads did their friend a solid and played his birthday party, held on the grounds of a former Episcopal Church. For a few weeks, the jangly quartet went by the name of Twisted Kites, before they changed their name and hit the streets to play shows at hotspots like Tyrone’s O.C., 688, and the 40 Watt club. By the time the band released their debut single (“Radio Free Europe”) and EP (Chronic Town) 18 months later, R.E.M. had not only eclipsed the rest of their class, but earned the respect of The New York Times, NME, and their rapidly-growing fanbase. Then came Murmur, and their "Letterman" appearance, and, well…you know the rest. Alas, despite drafting the blueprints of no wave, alternative rock, and indie friends' peers from the Classic City’s first wave–Love Tractor, the Method Actors, the Primates, Pylon–remain criminally underrated. (For those looking to dive in to this period, check out Pylon’s recently-unearthed, just-released concert album, Pylon Live).

The ‘90s were good to Athens commercially, largely thanks to R.E.M. and Widespread Panic. Michael Stipe and company racked up a long list of hits over the years leading up to the new millennium, (“Losing My Religion,” “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?,” “Man on the Moon”) netting 13 Grammy nominations in the process, three of which they won. Amidst their apotheosis from local musicians to rock superstars, the band continued to honor their roots and lift up their peers; In 1997, when Rolling Stone declared R.E.M. the greatest band in America in a 1997 issue, drummer Bill Berry insisted that Pylon were far more deserving of the title. Meanwhile, amidst the rise of jam bands like Dave Matthews Band and company, Widespread Panic graduated from the local circuit to the national stage. In addition to playing alongside prominent groups like Phish and Blues Traveller, the band scored a modest radio hit with their 1994 single “Airplane,” landing them a performance on Good Morning America the same year.

And then, in 1994, the Coloradan came down to Georgia–the Apples in Stereo frontman Robert Schneider, more specifically–and sparked a sub-scene of his own. Three years before, he'd co-founded the Elephant 6 Recording Company, an commercial offshoot of the legendary, Denver-based collective of the same name featuring members of the Apples in prior and the Olivia Tremor Control–and most importantly, Jeff Mangum, of eventual Neutral Milk Hotel fame. Following the release of California Demise, Mangum, Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart’s debut EP as the Olivia Tremor Control, Schneider came out east, continuing the Collective’s work from there. Elephant 6’s roster may not have been exclusively Athenian (two of its biggest acts, the Minders and Beulah, hail from Denver and San Francisco, respectively), but the collective nonetheless played an essential role in ushering in a new golden class of neo-psychedelia savants, including the Music Tapes (fronted by Elephant 6/Neutral Milk Hotel’s Julian Koster), Elf Power, the Gerbils, and Of Montreal.  By the start of the new millennium, most of the Elephant 6 collective had turned their focus to other labels and projects, bringing Schnieder's glory days to an end. Nevertheless, the aforementioned artists forged on, with Of Montreal attaining considerable success, both critically and commercially (literally–Kevin Barnes gave Outback Steakhouse the go-ahead to use of Montreal's 2005 single “Wraith Pinned to the Mist (And Other Games)” in one of their ads).

The Elephant Six crew weren’t the only Classic City crew responsible for boosting the town’s credo during the ‘90s. The decade marked Athens’ second consecutive renaissance, carried aloft by a roster of upstarts with the depth and diversity one expects from a UGA course catalog. From Southern Gothic cowpunk (Drive-By Truckers) to harsh noise (Harvey Milk), sludge metal (Jucifer) to post-rock (Jet By Day), no genre went unexplored. Innovative as these acts may be, the Classic City’s most unique export are easily Servotron, a self-described “collective unit” who waged a battle to liberate machines from human oppression well before Janelle Monáe’s Archandroid saga came into existence.

Three decades on, the Athens scene has lost much of its progressive punch; it’s not a nexus for innovation so much as it is an eternal bastion for alternative rock, the genre it pioneered so many years ago. As metropolises like Brooklyn and Philadelphia (and to a lesser degree, the amorphous cesspool we call the internet) emerge as the stylistic crucibles du jour it’s easy to write off Athens as a stepping stone, an inevitable precedent. To do so would be a grave mistake–the town’s cultivated a reputable roster of high-profile acts over the past several years: the Whigs, Danger Mouse, Futurebirds; meanwhile, established groups like Of Montreal and Drive-By Truckers continue to tour and record (both have new LPs slated to drop in the coming weeks). And yet, even as the spotlight shifts away from the Classic City, this Georgia college town will never, ever fade into the distance–after all, it’s the progenitor of modern rock as we know it. And you can never forget your roots.


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