“Something is happening in Athens. . . .” the New York Rocker declared in its July/August 1980 issue. In the wake of The B-52’s success with their first album, enhanced and confirmed and nationally spread after an appearance on Saturday Night Live, the new music press turned the spotlight on the little Georgia college town and looked in wonder at the place that had produced one of Warner Bros. hottest acts, as well as the two new bands that were killing them in New York, Pylon and The Method Actors.
The writer of the New York Rocker article ended his paean to this fecund little miracle lab with an invitation to any readers ready to a site for adventure in rock:
“Athens is full of empty buildings, cheaply rented, where bands can rehearse without noise complaints. Try tuning your guitar to EAD-GGD or EADGBB or EECGDA! Go south and create a scene! And remember: If you’re going to Athens, Georgia, be sure to wear a beehive in your hair.”
Of course, no one would wear a beehive in their hair in Athens in the summer of 1980. That was The B-52’s style, and they were gone. Their drag street theater was a thing of the past, their wigs already sanctified and quickly becoming clichéd themselves. Even Jerry Ayers, Keith Strickland’s and Ricky Wilson’s praised and touted influence, had given up drag and was developing a new bohemian hay-cuff ragman style, taking Michael Stipe under his wing.
Pylon guitarist Randy Bewley did use unconventional tunings, as did Ricky Wilson, but in contrast to the symphony of cultural refuse that the B’s put forward, Pylon was clean and minimal. Vic Varney, playing guitar in the two-man ensemble of The Method Actors, also used odd tunings to create a barrage of noise to make up for the lack of a bass guitar or keyboards, but The Method Actors’ sound was muscular and aggressive, propelled by the he-man image and muscular pounding of drummer David Gamble.
Neither of those two Athens bands was loopy and boppy like The B-52’s, but they each scored in New York City, getting gigs through club impresario Jim Fouratt and causing everyone to monitor developments in Athens. The British paper New Musical Express declared that, “aprés The B-52’s” Athens was “still weird, but definitely not wacky.” They called it the “Post-Bouffant Bop.”
The Post-Bouffant Bop was headquartered at the house on Barber Street where Michael Lachowski and Randy Bewley lived. The driveway led from Barber in a steep, flagstoned rut, up the bluff along which the houses on that side of the street stood, up and into the gravel and dirt parking lot—then out again the backway, along another dirt alley cut through a bamboo thicket. The back parking lot was a place for parties, where Michael Lachowski strung lights, ran speakers in the brush and up the trees. As it was the headquarters and party site for Lachowski’s band, it was duly named, house and yard, Pylon Park.
One time that summer there was a party there that was just a party, and it went for a while and it got late and after midnight there was a TV Bash. A guy got up on the roof of the house with a TV set that was plugged into a long extension cord, some late show flickering on screen, and he lifted it above his head and shouted, “Fuck TV!” And everybody shouted in response, “Fuck TV! Yeah! Fuck TV!” Then the guy threw the TV off the house and it exploded. And all of a sudden these other guys ran up and doused the TV with gasoline and set it on fire and everybody went crazy, shouting, “Yeah, Fuck TV! Fuck TV!” And the TV was burning and for about three minutes it was really cool. “Fuck TV! Fuck TV!” But then this huge black cloud of toxic smoke shifted. Instead of going straight up in the air it started hovering and moving around at ground level, this huge noxious black cloud, and everybody ran away. That was the end of that party.
The night Jefferson Holt came to Athens with his friend David Healy, a new friend, Ingrid Schorr, took them to a party at Pylon Park.
In the foyer of the house, Love Tractor set up for their debut.
Love Tractor was made up of Mark Cline and Mike Richmond on guitar, with Kit Swartz on drums. Kit was playing with The Side Effects, but since he was neighbors to Mark Cline there at Pylon Park he found it easy to play with them, too.
It was July 9, 1980, and Love Tractor played their six songs over and over again while the party went on and spread through the house, out the back porch to the packed-dirt parking lot and the thick hedges, old oaks and bamboo. The party had kegs of beer and everyone was there. When the kegs were emptied, Sam Seawright, who had roadied with Cline for The Tone Tones, brought out a tub of green home-made beer and the party kept on. Before the night was out, Method Actors drummer David Gamble wrestled Pylon singer Vanessa Briscoe to the ground. To apologize, he drank some of Sam’s homemade beer out of Vanessa’s sweaty, gritty jelly shoe. When that didn’t quench his thirst he lifted the trash tub and drained the dregs.
Prior to that summer most student bands played jazz fusion, or blues, or covers of rock. But Love Tractor played “existential Ventures meets the Cure” instrumentals. When brainstorming their style they decided not to have lyrics, because a PA was too expensive and too hard to haul around. With that move, the courage to go strictly instrumental, they were quickly the darlings of the art school sect. Immediately they went from parties to the clubs, entering the cabal of bands like Pylon, The Side Effects, R.E.M. By the end of the summer Armistead Wellford had joined Love Tractor playing bass, and through Mark Cline’s connections with The B-52’s they began to get some dates in New York City. Since Kit Swartz played in both Love Tractor and The Side Effects, he wrangled The Side Effects a New York date as well.
Of that year’s original newpunk Athens bands, only R.E.M. had not yet played New York. They preferred to wait a while. Despite the artsy charm of Love Tractor and the boppy fun of The Side Effects, R.E.M. was undoubtedly the best in Athens. No matter the cachet of a New York date, they didn’t need it. Already they impressed everyone who saw them. They didn’t want to get a one-night stand in New York and fool themselves into thinking that made them stars. They wanted a reputation built on solid ground. They wanted there to be no doubts. They wanted to dominate.
“This is the band that plays rock and roll that sounds very familiar,” wrote a reviewer in the Atlanta fanzine Useless Knowledge after R.E.M. played the 688 Club there in July. “This band plays rock and roll songs that are covers, and plays songs that are not covers, and plays songs that are not covers that sound like covers. But it all sounds familiar and it is all danceable. And tonight we all danced to this familiar sound.”