Mike Green leaned against a wall in the great room of that old Jewish country club and watched The B-52’s play. He folded his skinny arms across his chest and cradled a plastic cup of warm beer in a crook of his arm close to his body to keep it from getting knocked and spilled by the dancing crowd.
So this is what everybody’s been talking about, he thought to himself.
Mike had lived in Athens for a few years while attending the university, but he moved back to Atlanta in 1975. In Athens he had studied French and music composition on his own and took classes for fun until the school told him to stop, given that his transcript after nine quarters had become a perverse record of classes taken, ignored, and failed.
Mike didn’t care. Never did. He had family money. After he was kicked out of school, he moved back to his mom’s house and for the past two years before this eventful night had been playing keyboards in Atlanta’s highly acclaimed, but scarcely popular, art-rock band The Fans.
Mike didn’t know any of The B-52’s personally; he knew them through friends who visited Atlanta regularly. In 1977, nobody spent the weekend in Athens. Not if they could help it. The longtime tradition was for students to leave town after class ended on Friday and head home to any of the towns anyplace through Georgia, wherever home was. Athens itself was nowhere. To stay in Athens was to be exiled, condemned to terminal boredom. Movies were slow to get there. Good books were hard to find. All there was in Athens, for the whitekid students, was frat rock, disco, and rednecks harassing anybody who didn’t look like them, shouting (what else?), “Hey you, faggot!” The steak-house, one-mike acoustic clubs, and the bluesy southern rock, beer-and-whiskey places presented Neil Young–slash–Joan Baez imitators or heavyset plaid-flannel and bearded, blue-jeaned, hoot ’n’ holler guitar rockers . . . and they all filled the clubs, sure, but that was only because there was no place else the kids could go.
Athens was still latent hip, like a secret yet to be discovered. Nobody really thought about the fact that they lived there. It didn’t mean anything yet, other than that you were a college kid, which was not an insubstantial claim, sure. But it wasn’t yet satisfying in itself to live in what was considered, in 1977, a cool-for-Georgia but still one-horse college town. Whenever anybody did think about the fact that they lived in Athens, they thought about how to get a ride out of it—a ride to Atlanta. Atlanta is only an hour away, down your choice of two-lane routes to the west, and if they could, after the last class at week’s end, earlier if possible, the kids left their small nowheresville and headed out to the big city and its beckoning lights, both bright and dim.
On weekends, Mike Green’s friends from Athens went to Atlanta and hung out at what was called The Fans’ house, where Mike lived and which doubled as a practice studio. And on one weekend one of those friends, Dana Downs, came to Atlanta with big news: Keith and Ricky and those boho glitter folk had started a band. Dana had lived in Atlanta the year before but had moved back to Athens to finish her degree in philosophy and psychology. She was hanging out with the art students, since the Philosophy Department on the university campus was located across the street from the Art School. The art students were a partying bunch and Dana was a party girl. As a child she was so hyperactive that her parents fed her sugar water and whiskey to calm her down. Dana lived with Teresa Randolph and they hung out with Keith and Ricky, since Teresa had gone to high school with them. On many nights Keith and Ricky went over to the girls’ house with new records—Ramones, Patti Smith, Wire—and they all danced and did shots and got ready to go out, some slipping poppers into their pockets for use during later invasions of redneck bars.
Mike first heard about The B-52’s from Dana when the band was still working up their set, cloistered and secretive in their sealed-laboratory phase. Mike missed The B-52’s Valentine’s debut, but he heard all about it afterward. So, when Dana told him they were playing at Teresa Randolph’s new house, he drove in from Atlanta to see what all the talk was about.
He stood on the edge of the madding crowd looking puzzled. Something definitely was happening. It was weird. He drained his cup and wondered if maybe it was just his own drunkenness that accounted for his amazed impression of the band.
Or were they really this good?
Ricky Wilson chopped at his guitar and swung his blond bangs from side to side in a syncopated rhythm with Keith on the Congas. Kate and Cindy sang and warbled in their ticklish girl voices, contrasting neatly with Fred’s resonating chanted recitation of their lyrics. The prerecorded rhythms were almost disco, and all together the whole thing was like a cartoon of a band. But it was working! It was all very simple, but the crowd loved it: They were dancing! It was nothing like Mike’s band back in Atlanta. Nobody ever danced to The Fans. Mike stared out into the red-lit great room of the old Jewish country club and he began to feel uneasy.
As if to put into words the doubt Mike resisted admitting to himself, a friend came up to him—reeling, delirious, glazed from dancing—and hollered, “This is much more fun than The Fans!”
The guy was right. Mike knew it. He edged out of the room and went for another beer.
The Fans were the first big noise of new music in Georgia, and they had been regarded as the best of the progressive bands in Atlanta ever since Bruce Hampton’s Hampton Grease Band broke up. Their small audience verified that status. The fate of The Fans was in marked contrast to that of The B-52’s.
The Fans had started in 1975, soon after Mike Green moved from Athens to live at his mother’s house in College Park, a small-town suburb of Atlanta. One day, Mike took the bus into the city to the public library. When he went to the checkout counter, he set down his stack of records and books. The clerk, Alfredo Villar, was a recent philosophy graduate from Georgia State University, whose father had once been a highly placed scholar in Cuba before being exiled by Castro. As he processed the albums, Alfredo noted they were all recordings of modern composers. He looked up at Mike who, skinny and pale with a long nose, seemed like the practitioner of some secret science, or the type of person who can be seen in cemeteries at night copying names off headstones. Alfredo and Mike began to talk about music, and Alfredo told Mike that he and a friend had a studio where they were working on an “electronic music project.” He told him to come by.
A few days later Mike went over. He met Alfredo’s friend Kevin Dunn and they sat around through the afternoon smoking cigarettes and talking about classical music. Alfredo and Kevin showed Mike their equipment. They worked over ideas for music projects in flourishes of grand theory. Once they tired of talking they played their tapes for Mike, and when he heard Kevin’s guitar he realized that their “electronic music project” was really a rock band.
Alfredo and Kevin had been playing together since they were students at Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta. By Christmas of 1975 Mike had joined them. They found a drummer, Russ King, through an ad in the newspaper and they had a band. But they weren’t going to just gig around. Mike, Kevin and Alfredo, blessed with more than their share of intellectual ambition and native capacity for theory, fancied themselves “maximally avant garde”; they used the phrase everyday. They were angry, combative intellectuals. Their music was their manifesto.
“Our name indicates the position we take in our music,” Alfredo explained to a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution soon after they began to play out at local clubs like the Bistro and Bottom of the Barrel. “We are fans as opposed to stars, and our music speaks to the problems of fans instead of the problems of stars. . . . We are not a punk rock group. Our music is like 1970s British rock, like Roxy Music and Sparks. It is thickly textured. It doesn’t have the dumb lyrics and crude instrumentation of punk. We’re more polished.”
In the spring of 1976, The Fans recorded a three-song single that they funded and distributed themselves. Alfredo’s cousin Felipe Rodriguez helped pay for the recording. Mike put up money for the pressing. At the time there were many different formats for releasing independent records. After weeks of debate, The Fans decided they could get three songs on a 7" single if they recorded it at 33⅓ rpm. So that’s what they did.
With that first effort, their theorizing got the best of them. They recorded the single at 33⅓. But they forgot that jukeboxes spin at 45. They got their single on the jukebox at CBGB’s, New York’s hot new club, but when it played, the band sounded like The Chipmunks singing Kafka.
Despite the embarrassment The Fans got booked at CBGB’s as the opening act for another new band that had just put out their own first single, Talking Heads. In January of 1977 The Fans drove to New York and played. The next day they read the review in the paper.
It was everybody’s dream: Go to New York, play a show, get a good review in the Times the next morning and read it over croissants and coffee. Partying at the Iroquois Hotel in a thirty-dollar room, the snow of a Manhattan winter falling outside the window, The Fans were convinced they were on their way, that they would soon be famous.
“Who cares if we never make money!” Kevin Dunn said, siding rhetorically with aesthetics over popular success, and wiping buttery croissant crumbs from his lips. “I just want to be the critics’ darling!”
He should not have wished so hard.
Alfredo’s cousin Felipe became The Fans’ manager. How that happened, Mike and Kevin weren’t really sure. Felipe’s credentials, as far as they could figure, were that he had been a promoter of sorts for Genesis, Supertramp, and the Osmonds when they toured Brazil. And that he was Alfredo’s cousin. It was Alfredo’s band.
Felipe fancied himself glib. But when talking to the press he sounded like an open-shirted, gold-chained huckster. And such stuff made the cool kids wince.
“We are in an embryonic position right now in terms of contracts and the direction of the group,” he told the Atlanta Journal from his office in Miami in 1977. “We are talking to labels, but I have them in a holding pattern right now because we are in no rush. The contract is there if we want it, but it should be the contract we want, something we feel comfortable with.”
He told the reporter that The Fans had integrity. He said they wouldn’t make changes just to get dates at clubs. “You can’t manipulate them. It’s been a long road, but they have stuck to their guns. It’s like Alfredo says, ‘The Fans, make it or break it.’”
When Mike read that in the newspaper, he rolled his eyes. “‘Like Alfredo says, ‘make it or break it!’ What a bunch of shit!” He had begun to doubt what he was doing as soon as he had seen the Talking Heads. When he saw them, The Fans seemed old-fashioned. And also, it simply wasn’t fun anymore. He wasn’t getting along with Alfredo, who didn’t let Mike have any say in policy-making. Mike told Alfredo that if nothing happened soon, he would quit. Alfredo told him to sit tight, that a national recording deal was coming in a couple months. Mike figured he would wait it out and see what happened.
Then, that night at the party, while sipping warm beer, Mike saw The B-52’s.