Her name was Doreen and they called her “The Rodeo Queen.” She worked at the Great Southeast Music Hall in Atlanta, just helping out. She liked working there; the Music Hall brought some great acts to town and she got to meet all the stars. That was what she liked best about the job. Doreen was into that country rock, and whenever there was a show she especially liked, she did the Rodeo Queen: wore a white shirt with fringe, tight blue jeans, and high-heeled cowboy boots. She had a big felt cowboy hat that lightly crowned her frosted shag. She looked good in cowboy drag.
The Music Hall was a small venue set up in the angled corner of a shopping center in a space that had formerly served as a Winn Dixie grocery store. It didn’t get huge acts: max capacity was only around five hundred. Through the mellow seventies the Music Hall presented the standard fare: country, folk, modest rock: nothing ever really too rowdy.
But then, in January of 1978, the Music Hall became the site for an historical moment: The Sex Pistols’ first performance on American soil. Atlanta was originally fifth on The Sex Pistols’ tour itinerary, but due to their criminal records their visas were denied. By the time Warner Bros. interceded, the first set of dates had been canceled, making Atlanta the city the punks would burn first.
Stories of their aggressive behavior beat The Sex Pistols to America. For days before the band touched down, Atlanta’s newspapers were filled with reports of this outrageous new “punk rock.” Parents were puzzled, preachers were disgusted, and editorialists indignant. They all railed against the band, that junky spawn of a decaying Britain, come to corrupt the kids into torn T-shirted nihilists, inspiring another wave of degenerate drug culture. The kids couldn’t wait; any teen with delinquent tendencies and a taste for anti-intellectual anarchist melodrama was getting into the Pistols.
Rock-and-roll hedonism, combined with an ideological argument against conventional sanity, made punk appealing to a generation that had been prepubescent during the funfest of the sixties, watching with anticipation the antics of elder siblings but then ending up waylaid in their teens by the letdown of the seventies, when the human-potential romantic crooners like Jackson Browne were offered as the given. Despite how maligned they would become years later, in 1978 The Sex Pistols were new heroes. For the kids who never had a chance to riot, punk was perfect.
So on that night they debuted, Atlanta’s mayor and council were on alert. The cops were called out in force.
When the staff of the Music Hall got the word that The Sex Pistols were coming, they got scared. They’d heard the stories: “The Sex Pistols, man, the ones who said ‘fuck’ on TV. Those guys who cut themselves and spit on the audience and thrash on stage and do that mutilation stuff, that safety-pin thing. Man, fuck!”
Usually, someone from the Music Hall escorted the visiting celebrities around town, took them to dinner, maybe showed them a little of Atlanta, did the southern hospitality routine on them, touring the Confederate zone at Stone Mountain, eating some barbeque. But nobody wanted anything to do with the fucking Sex Pistols, man.
Nobody but Doreen, the Rodeo Queen.
Doreen shepherded them around. They all turned out to be darlings. They ate prime rib at a local restaurant, sipping beers and only lightly gobbing on the scenery. Their one adventure was pulling Sid Vicious from one of south Atlanta’s riskier housing projects, where he had gone off alone to score junk, the white lady, heroin. She’d never seen crazies like this before, but Doreen succeeded in the end: She got them to the show on time.
It was a capacity crowd that night, January 5, at the old Winn Dixie. A local Atlanta band, Cruis-o-matic, opened for The Sex Pistols with an hour-long set of hammy, fast covers. (Jonny Hibbert, the vocalist for Cruis-o-matic, three years later would start his own record label, Hib-Tone, and put out R.E.M.’s first single.) At the show, while Hibbert and his band played a choppy, atonal New Wave Elvis medley, reporters scanned the crowd to see who was indulging in “the favorite punk pastimes of spitting and hurling of four-letter words.” They noted in their reports the costumes of the crowd as though monitoring the spread of the disease. They found a few signs of the spreading pox: One girl wore a wrench hung from a wire around her neck. A guy had stuck a safety pin through his cheek. Another was wrapped in a homemade dress of plastic trash bags, cinched at the waist with a length of chain.
Press came from around the world to cover the show. So did the High Sheriff of Nashville, where The Sex Pistols were playing next. The authorities followed their movements with solemn alarm and fear. This punk rock was the harbinger of doom, the end of civilization as they knew it. It had to be contained. But the system did not crumble when The Sex Pistols played. There were no riots, no sudden flood of spit in the gutters. The effect was subtler: The next day at the University of Georgia’s art school in Athens, it was all anybody talked about.
And Doreen, the Rodeo Queen, she rode that bronc. She held on. At the end of the ride, those few days while the Pistols were in town, she came down new. Like increasing numbers of kids that year, she saw the error of her current style and she felt the death of her cowboy daze. She changed her mind about herself and told her friends she was no longer the Rodeo Queen—it was over. She changed her blue jeans for black. She gave Johnny Rotten her cowboy hat.
Glen Allison, the manager of the hall, also knew a happening trend when he saw it. Immediately after The Sex Pistols played, Allison arranged for Atlanta to have a showcase of its own native “punk” bands, and he organized a two-night lineup of whatever rock outfits then playing in Atlanta came close to the new sound. Allison himself got so caught up in the movement that he left town with The Sex Pistols to travel as Johnny Rotten’s bodyguard. He was gone, off to abet the decline of Western Civilization. He missed the two-night First Annual Punk Rock Festival that took place a week later. He missed the moment when Athens superceded Atlanta and demonstrated its ascendance as the center of Southern Hip.
“You people have been deceived,” The Fans’ Alfredo Villar told the audience the first night of the Atlanta Punk Festival, Friday the 13th. “This ain’t no punk festival.” Nobody was really “punk” in Atlanta, not the kind of nihilistic dole-queue punk that went on in England; America didn’t have a dole. Nobody could rightly figure out how to be punk in the South. A bartender at the Music Hall that night wore a torn shirt and wrapped a bicycle chain and lock around his neck, but he changed back into a polo shirt when the chain got too heavy. He hadn’t realized that the hardware of punk could be such a burden.
The lineup that first night: Johnny Panic and Angelust opened; Cruis-o-matic played next and did a punk cover of “Revolution” and a parody of “Anarchy in the UK.” To close out the evening, The Fans strolled onstage with a cool hostile insouciance bred during their many trips to New York City. But the tension wasn’t a pose. They really were seething. They had been together for three years and nothing was happening. They were angry. There were strains in the band. Introducing one song, Villar said, “This is called ‘Dog Street’ and it’s not pleasant at all.” They played their noise assault and drove the audience out of the hall and into the cold January night.
Snow in the South is special. Maybe once a year a light blanket will fall and stick for a day. And when it does, everything is set off, highlighted by the unaccustomed whiteness and that particular sharp chill air that comes with the freeze. Every time it snows, it is remembered for years, because everything seems to be unique fun then. Special things happen in the South when it snows.
That second night of the Atlanta Punk Festival, it snowed.
Despite the weather, the Music Hall was filled. The Knobz opened, playing a speedy rock, concluding with their locally legendary “Disco Chainsaw,” where the band chants as the lead singer grinds off his artificial leg with a gasoline-powered chainsaw. The Nasty Bucks, featuring future Georgia Satellites guitarist Dan Baird, played a set of raucous, violent fusion. Then The Fans again, the only band to play both nights, testimony to their status as the hippest “punk” band in Atlanta. That night they played a more melodic set including their cover of Johnny and the Hurricanes’ “Telstar,” which they put on their single.
Finally, to end the night, The B-52’s came on.
Outside, the snow came down.
At the time the best-known musician in Athens was a guitarist named Randall Bramblett. After The B-52’s played the Punk Festival, the Atlanta newspaper ran a story about Bramblett. He was from Jesup, Georgia, had played with Gregg Allman, recorded two solo albums, and was playing with the Macon-based band Sea Level. He had recently settled in Athens and had moved into the old Jewish country club that Teresa Randolph had vacated. He explained to the newspaper why he preferred living in Athens:
“I mean, even in Macon you have to put up with that showbiz stuff,” Bramblett explained, noting that Macon was the headquarters of Capricorn Records, the label for many southern boogie bands. “But here [in Athens] the people are nice and friendly, and there are a lot of people just like me who I can party with and go drinking with and eat barbecue with. It’s like a paradise.”
Bramblett ended his interview with a foreboding request. “Listen,” he told the reporter, “don’t put anything about Athens in the paper. If everybody finds out what it’s like, they’ll want to move here and it’ll get out of hand like Macon did. Let’s just keep it the way it is.”
Too late. With their Atlanta debut at the Punk Festival, The B-52’s started the process that would quickly change the town:
Nicky Giannaris saw The B-52’s for the first time that night at the punk festival. Nicky was from Atlanta but had gone for school to Athens in 1969, and he lived there for a few years in the early seventies when, if you didn’t dress like a frat or a hippie, you were a fag and your life was cheap. Nicky had toyed around with bands since he was a teenager and lately then had been hanging out with The Fans. He heard about The B-52’s and he imagined that with a name like that they must be a pretty mean bunch of rockers. But when he saw them that night, he couldn’t believe it. There they were, this bunch of “sissies and girls,” and they were blowing everybody’s shit away.
“It was the meanest thing I ever heard,” Nicky remembers. “There was nothing like it. And in a matter of weeks, they skyrocketed. I saw that something was going on and I hightailed it back to Athens.”
Back in Athens, Nicky got a job as a cook, rented a room for fifty dollars a month, and told his friends he wanted to start a band.
He told them to put the word out.