The posters began to appear in the first couple of weeks of February 1984, stuck in store windows, nailed to telephone poles. They read: “The Athens Show. Premiere at The Mad Hatter. Feb. 24.” The posters were bigger than the usual letter-size photocopied handbills taped and tacked up around town by the usual youthful self-promoters. “The Athens Show” was a production, the first of its kind in the scene, the first attempt by a couple local businessmen to take advantage of the commercial potential latent in the booming reputation of the once-hick, still small, now famous upland Georgia town.
“The Athens Show” was a video of Pylon’s final farewell performance, shot the previous December. Both the performance and the premiere of the video were held at The Mad Hatter, a downtown club usually patronized by frats and rednecks come into town from surrounding counties to see big-hair metal bands. It was a sign of Pylon’s massive local popularity that The Mad Hatter was required to hold the crowd that eagerly attended both events. It was also an acute irony that Pylon’s disbanding drew such support; such was the casual design of their project:
“Very few real decisions were made by Pylon,” Michael Lachowski says, diagnosing the maladies and circumstances that led to Pylon’s surprising breakup. “That’s one of our faults. When we started, we thought it was just going to last long enough to play around some. But once we were playing clubs and making money, it was, like, ‘Hell yeah!’ And then when the first single came out and got publicity in New York, it was, like, ‘Whoa!’ And with the album Gyrate, it was, like, ‘Oh sure, why not?’ Most of what happened to us, it was offered and we just went along.”
The aftermath of Murmur left scorched earth. When the smoke cleared and the dust settled, the landscape was rearranged. Not just a few were left choking. The prominence of R.E.M.-style pop rock among the new music kids signaled doom for the old art bands; their wave was over. Pylon’s second album, Chomp, and a new single, “Crazy,” failed to win that band major label interest. By 1983 they had been together for four years and had yet to make anything more than a survival wage. Aside from the changing musical trends, the major blame for their lack of financial success fell on the independent label DB Recs. Danny Beard’s operation was run out of a back room; records were kept in spiral notebooks, some say written in crayon. Plus, Danny’s partner Peter Dyer was given access to monies from both the record label and Danny’s record store. Danny Beard later regretted his own casual approach to running the business, after funds were spent foolishly. Danny eventually severed ties with Peter Dyer, but too late; the label was in chaos. There was little they could do for the bands. In December 1983, Pylon played their farewell show.
It was as though Pylon had a built-in obsolescence, a self-destruct mechanism that triggered when they went beyond a certain point:
“Curtis and Michael brought it up to begin with,” Vanessa remembers about the break up. “It’s like they were just tired of it. It was getting to be too much trouble. I told Randy that I knew I would hear this someday, I just didn’t know when. I didn’t want to argue to keep the band together if anyone else wanted to break it up. What good would that be? I just went along with what everyone else wanted to do. It was the best time to do it. We were still having fun. We might have actually signed with a major label. Then again, we might not have. Who knows?”
“We knew that when we quit it was going to capture people’s attention,” Michael Lachowski says. “Everybody thought we were ‘this far’ from making it, and we quit. But from our side, that was completely unknown. No one could really say we were that close. There was no evidence whatsoever. We weren’t going to ask a major label to give us anything. If they didn’t know we were good then they weren’t going to find out. I guess we were snobbish in that regard. So we weren’t going up the scale and we didn’t want to stay where we were. And we weren’t making people sick yet. We hadn’t pissed anybody off. Compared to a lot of bands that at that time were working their butts off, we did good. We didn’t sell out. And we didn’t just peter out and fade away.”
As 1984 began, Pylon was history. And on February 24, The Mad Hatter filled with the burgeoning numbers of students from campus who wanted to take part in an “Athens Scene” event—advertised, labeled and promoted as such. “The Athens’ music scene is going Hollywood,” declared a Red & Black article on the show. In true Athens style, before the video was shown yet another new band debuted:
It was, again, ironic and tragically fitting that Buzz of Delight opened for “The Athens Show.” The main force in the two-man band was Matthew Sweet. He typified “the new Athenian.” He was a prospector, come to Athens to take advantage of the town’s cachet. Sweet had met Michael Stipe when R.E.M. played Sweet’s hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska. The teenager was intrigued. He began a correspondence with R.E.M.’s fan club. It wasn’t long before he told his parents he was going to school at the University of Georgia, and early in the summer of 1983 he drove a Cadillac convertible into Athens, suitably armed with a precocious talent, homemade tapes, a bellyful of ambition, and a pocketful of his daddy’s credit cards.
Sweet came to Athens in the summer of 1983. Unable to immediately bond with Michael Stipe, who was out of town promoting Murmur, Sweet took up with Linda Hopper. He soon joined Linda’s band. Matthew then quit Oh-OK, and teamed up with David Pierce, Oh-OK’s original drummer who had quit the year before. Together they formed Buzz of Delight, a name coined by Lynda and Michael Stipe. Pierce and Sweet then recorded a Christmas single and an EP for DB Recs—all this before they ever played in public at their debut before “The Athens Show.”
“I calculated it,” Sweet admitted to a Washington Post reporter, when questioned about his social climbing.
After securing some New York dates, Sweet and Pierce played there. Unbeknownst to Pierce, Sweet had begun communication with some record companies. Soon he had a deal lined up for himself. Back in Athens, Sweet took Pierce aside and told him it was over: he didn’t need him anymore, he had got what he wanted: a deal. The experience soured Pierce on music for a long time after. “I was pissed!” Pierce would say years later. And Matthew Sweet himself soon left town with an unsavory reputation.
On that night when Buzz of Delight opened for “The Athens Show,” Sweet’s machinations were yet to be realized. But in hindsight it can be seen that as Pylon’s last show marked the end of the Golden Age, Buzz of Delight’s debut marked the beginning of the next era: an era of admitted and explicit ambition, more intentional band-marketing, competition, and strategic styling. The folks would say, again and again, it was then that innocence was banished.
Love Tractor had played with Pylon on the night of that band’s farewell performance, and so they also were featured in “The Athens Show.” While Love Tractor was still a working band in 1984, they too suffered from an inefficient label. Like Pylon, they were frustrated, tired, disillusioned. They had recorded their DB Recs album Around the Bend in the fall of 1983, and it was released in early 1984. The video for the single, “Spin Your Partner,” made it onto MTV, and the album got a good deal of college radio airplay, but when the band toured there were no albums in the local record stores for the newly won fans to go out and buy. Then their drummer Kit Swartz quit once again and was replaced by Andrew Carter. By late 1984 Love Tractor was considered ripe for the picking by a major label. They had added vocals to their songs and were willing to tour. But nobody was interested. It was a pattern that would repeat itself for the rest of the decade.
Unlike all the rest, R.E.M. had a good year in 1984. They released their second album, Reckoning, to still another wave of acclaim. The album featured an ode to the band’s early touring days—“Little America”—and Michael Stipe’s haunting valediction to Carol Levy, “Camera.” The album was a maturation and a departure. The band was more confident and the lyrics were gradually becoming more comprehensible. Membership in the fan club began to reach into the thousands. R.E.M. was solidly on their way to the toppermost of the poppermost.
Following each new R.E.M. album—one each year after Murmur—the mainstream press came back to Athens. The Washington Post, Newsweek, Entertainment Tonight—the reporters came to divine the scene. In 1984, the reporters looking for a story scouted the new 40 Watt Uptown, the latest version of Athens’ first and quintessential new-music dive. The 40 Watt Uptown was now located in a reconstituted fern bar, complete with brass railings and a liquor license—the better to accommodate the swelling crowds of students that now showed up to see the increasing number of local bands as well as the national acts that were beginning to play Athens. The one-time cow town had become a site of prestige for touring bands, now that it was a landmark new-rock district.
The press came, took away some freshman’s quote, some drifter’s diagnosis of the movement, and went to print with the by-then stereotyped image of Athens: an eighties Liverpool South, a place where legions of kids came each fall, new pop fan students filling the town, feeling the fever, starting new bands, packing the clubs. In a few short years Athens had been transformed by a handful of kids from a hick college town to a holy shrine designed by a punk Faulkner, where rock poets in Future Farmers of America jackets, and painted and porcelain-powdered party babes, dance till the break of day to the sound of jangly guitars, and wander footsore and famedrunk to first-period class at the university—while the whole world watches. . . . It made good copy.
“And, oh, what a scene it is,” reported The Washington Post in a 1984 article titled “O Little Town of Rock ’n’ Roll.” “Home town of the University of Georgia Bulldogs, mecca for beer-bellied Hairy Dawg devotees in red underwear, reputed sight of the first streaker and the place once picked as Playboy’s No. 1 Party Town, Athens is inspiring almost everyone to pick up a guitar and get down.”
It was the same a year later when Newsweek filed its report, “Hot Rockin’ in Athens”:
“It’s nearly twelve on a Friday night in Athens, Ga., and the 40 Watt Club Uptown is going strong. . . . The throng surrounding the boot-high stage starts to jump and grind, and a few overeager leather-clads pogo and slam-dance, causing bodies to bounce about. . . . No doubt about it, in this town, there’s good rockin’ at midnight.”
Flipside to the accolades was the internal bitching. “For years it has been denied . . . that there is such a thing as an ‘Athens Music Scene,’ wrote one fan(atic) in Tasty World, a local new-music tabloid started by former Oh-OK drummer David Pierce. “But now, trendies abound in Athens. It’s too late to argue about semantics. The Athens Music Scene has become a reality. . . . Hey, if you’re not in a band, don’t start one. Please, no more new bands. . . .” The writer went on to praise a recent R.E.M. show at Atlanta’s Fox Theater with a nostalgic “so good to see the boys again” tone.
“I thought R.E.M. at the Fox sucked!” responded another fan in the next issue of Tasty World. “Stipe didn’t dance—no enthusiasm what-soever from the band as a whole.” Then came the credentials debate, the “I knew ’em first” bitch: “Where was [the first writer] during the Tyrone’s era? If she thinks the Fox show was spectacular, then she wasn’t around when Tyrone’s was home to this band.”
The “scene”: The in-crowd reluctantly used the word, but when they inevitably did they cringed and threw quotes around it. With craning neck and wagging head they hissed the word. Its pronunciation became symbolic of the bitterness that was taking root in town, as they sneered out a spitting “s,” followed by a long, grating “e” sound—a nasal, mocking singsong “eeee”—and ended with a whiplash, a stinging, whining “n,” like metal-on-metal. Like a car crash.
And on it went: petulant, pissy, competitive: One night a gaggle of new musicians who had been criticized in the Red & Black by that newspaper’s entertainment editor, Charles Aaron, conspired to attack their nemesis. They found him outside the 40 Watt and hit him with pies made from Comet, molasses, and barbecue sauce. The attack was supported by David Pierce, editor of Tasty World, because Pierce felt the Red & Black was not supportive enough of the scene: “Aaron has such a base dislike for the local music that he is only outdone by his inherent ignorance of music and lack of credibility in his writing.”
In another Tasty World column, this one written under a pseudonym and printed right next to a picture of Aaron after the attack, Pierce himself took up the propagandizing mission he had criticized the Red & Black for lacking. Pierce repeated the oft-heard and, by 1985, untrue festering old saw about the quaintness and sense of community of the Athens scene, a trope that was blatantly contradicted by his championing of the pie-slingers: “Athens is no mecca or magic wonderland for artists and musicians,” Pierce wrote, with blinders firmly in place, “only a small town where the pretentions of the big-city rivalry are reduced to the positivism of friendship among productive people.”
Finally the scene got so bad that the movie cameras showed up. In January 1986 Subterranean Productions, a film company from Los Angeles, came to Athens to make a documentary about “the Athens scene.” Their presence in town caused a flurry of rumors and whispers, as the crew was offered their pick o’ the chicks and aspiring stars worked connections to be featured, as parties were held in hotels all across town and the director did handstands in Pete Buck’s hallway. The result, Athens Ga. Inside/Out, received mixed reviews from critics outside the state, but an almost unanimous thumbs down from the locals in Athens itself.
As a documentary, the movie failed to cover the basics of “scene” history. While much of the footage was interesting, the historical information in the movie was inadequate; the filmmakers ignored a number of crucial characters and players in the town. The most glaring omission was Danny Beard, whose record label DB Recs was the “label to the stars” in the early days. The filmmakers paid much attention to Howard Finster, who was not an Athenian and who had had little-to-no influence on the scene up until then. They also made main characters out of Dexter Romwebber and his master-blaster, jaw-dropping, two-man band Flat Duo Jets, although Dexter had only been in town for a couple of months and was to leave town after the movie was made. The fìlmmakers did manage to capture an impression of Athens at that particular time, featuring performers such as Paul Lombard, Time Toy, Barbeque Killers, Kilkenny Cats, and the poet John Seawright, but it was a slice taken during a downspell: Filmed in winter, the movie had no sweat on it; Athens, Ga., Inside/Out missed the summer—those nine months of skinny-dipping, iced tea, and gin-and-tonic when the folk of Athens are kids together outrageously, with nothing more important on their minds than where to buy bootleg beer on Sunday.
Ultimately, the end result of the moviemaking was to show how difficult it is to pin down what counts as “a scene.” How can you measure a thing in motion? Can you tack an intangible to a board? Dissect it? Analyze it? Reproduce it? The inadequacy of the movie caused the kids to ask themselves what counts as “a scene,” what is the vital ingredient. On the dance floor they get close to an answer, they feel they’ve got it figured out, but when they stop to explain, it evaporates like sweat from a satin party dress.
They conclude: Forget it. Just feel it.