1982 was an active year for Athens bands. In January, Tyrone’s—the favorite club of the new bands, where R.E.M. ruled weekends—burned down. Love Tractor recorded an LP for Danny Beard, featuring Alfredo Villar, late of the ill-fated Fans, on synthesizer. Their debut, Love Tractor, was released in February. The record was favorably reviewed, but failed to garner anything more than limited college radio airplay, some club dates, and a handful of “Wow, swell” reviews. The Side Effects, who had the year before released a well-received EP on DB Recs called The Side Effects, broke up after playing a final show at the 40 Watt Club in May.
Oh-OK had done minimal touring in the fall of 1981 and in October of that year the trio recorded a four-song “mini-album,” also on the Atlanta DB Recs label. In the spring of 1982 Oh-OK’s “Wow Mini Album” was released and the band went on the road to play New York and Boston. “We’re going up north to play three dates soon,” Lynda Stipe told the local college newspaper. “And after that, we’re going to make records and records and records.”
Oh-OK started out strong. Their mini-album received high praise. The songs—all about hairdos and recess, incest and jealousy—were themes straight out of the bedrooms and off the front porches of Barber Street. Their image was kids at play, and their sound was kids untrained. Trouser Press described the songs as “all delivered with the simplicity of jump-rope doggerel. Oh-OK pulls it off quite well. Athens is go! And Oh-OK are Hey, Neat.”
The Village Voice reviewed an Oh-OK show at New York City’s Danceteria in June. The reviewer noted that, coming from Athens, the band gets “unnatural attention and swanky gigs and the automatic stigma of arty-party cutes . . . but Oh-OK is charming, gentle and infectious. . . . Another Athenian alchemical reworking of the tiny, hidden formulas of pop, with no concessions to kitsch either. Thesis: Oh-OK take the radical deconstruction of rock ’n’ roll that The B-52’s initiated to its farthest extreme by liquidating all chords—no guitars, no keys. The result is eerie, unsettling even in its pretty, furious quietness, just melody and pound.” Robert Christgau, in his consumer guide that fall, described the members of Oh-OK as having “tiny little voices and sharp little minds.”
As these young bands—R.E.M., Love Tractor, Side Effects, Oh-OK—released their homemade records with their hand-carved sounds, the older bands like The Method Actors and Pylon began to feel the strain of time.
In January 1982 Melody Maker reviewed The Method Actors’ Little Figures double album and hailed it as “great stuff.” In March New Musical Express featured a favorable article about The Method Actors, titling their profile, “A Brainy Night in Georgia.” In England, and in small corners of New York, L.A., and Boston, The Method Actors were highly respected and admired for their bravado at sustaining a two-man act. But back in Athens The Method Actors played to empty clubs. They hardly attracted a crowd of twenty, all of whom were old-time scenemakers and personal friends of the two musicians. Later that year, Vic and David played a brief tour in California. When they came back to Athens they played to the smallest crowd ever. Bitter, frustrated, they saw a young crowd coming up looking for something accessible. They decided to abandon their two-man act. But despite some personnel additions over the next year, The Method Actors never recovered their original cachet. David Gamble left first. Soon after that Vic too lost his motivation and dissolved the band. The Method Actors were gone.
In stark contrast to The Method Actors’ misfortune and the respected yet weakly received efforts of Love Tractor, The Side Effects, Oh-OK, and a handful of new high-hoping quick-mix bands, R.E.M. was riding the crest of a wave that showed no sign of crashing. They criss-crossed the country in support of Chronic Town, playing a different town every night of the week. By late fall Jefferson’s black briefcase was bulging with a thick stack of carefully clipped newspaper reviews, one from each town they played. Their press kit swelled with love notes and delirious hosannas.
In October 1982 R.E.M. nearly sold out the thousand-seat Agora Ballroom in Atlanta, which national acts at the time were having a hard time doing. In November R.E.M. opened for Squeeze and The English Beat at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. It was their biggest crowd yet: thirteen thousand. They expressed doubt about their readiness, but only playfully; they couldn’t wait. “I’m going to try to make eye contact with thirteen thousand people in forty minutes,” Michael Stipe explained to a reporter before the show.
“I wouldn’t want to do a tour like that,” Peter Buck said, “but it’s kind of irresistible to do it once. When you think about it, that’s almost as many people as have bought our record so far. What if they all went out and bought the records and doubled the sales?”
Their innocent humility was counterbalanced by an assertiveness, as their comments about fellow Athenians The B-52’s made it into print when R.E.M. turned down an opportunity to open for the original Athens band. “Six thousand people waiting to hear ‘Rock Lobster’ is not really what we want,” Mike Mills explained.
R.E.M. distanced themselves from the Athens scene to avoid being caught up in a widely anticipated “Athens Backlash.” The propaganda about Athens had been widespread for the past three years, and everyone felt it had been going on for too long. Like any bull market, the Athens exchange was expected to crumble soon. But those considerations aside, R.E.M. found it easy to deny Athens because of the historic antagonism between themselves and the art crowd.
“We’re not a party band from Athens,” twenty-two-year-old Michael Stipe declared to Rolling Stone. “We don’t play New Wave music, and musically, we don’t have shit to do with The B-52’s or any other band from this town. We just happen to live here.”
“l don’t think any of the Athens bands would have been any different if they hadn’t come from Athens,” Peter Buck said. “Everything is a little bit different, but I don’t think there’s any real formative thing about Athens. It’s just a place where people play in bands.”
Back in Athens, “where people play in bands,” Jefferson had moved the R.E.M. office from his apartment at 169 Barber Street around the corner to a big yellow house on Grady Avenue where he and Sandi Phipps lived with Peter Buck. Sandi and Jefferson had met two years earlier on the December night that John Lennon was shot, that tragic night when all through the neighborhoods and at the 40 Watt Club doom-drunk girls danced off their grief and broke store windows with rag-wrapped fists. Sandi and Jefferson were both visiting Bill Berry’s house when the news broke and together they left and wandered through the streets, finding themselves at the end of the night in the graveyard by the river. The two met and moved in together, and Sandi began assisting Jefferson in the band’s management, as she would continue to do for the next six years. From the beginning Sandi also served as the band’s unofficial photographer, shooting the portraits for use on album covers, posters, and publicity photos. After she organized the R.E.M. fan club she designed mail-outs and postcards that uncannily anticipated the haphazard, naivist style of Michael Stipe.
When the band went out of town Sandi was left to answer the mail, the phones, take messages. Together she, Ann Boyles, Linda Hopper, Lauren Hall, and Kathleen O’Brìen—the R.E.M. wives—hung out during the hot summer and steaming fall of 1982, waiting for the boys to come back to town. And they found solace in the company of R.E.M.’s biggest fan, their lawyer Bert Downs.
“Whenever the band would go out of town, Bert would come take us out,” Sandi remembers about those days when she was one of the wives left behind. “We would sit on his front porch on Prince Avenue all night. He would buy us flowers. One time The Replacements came through town and they stayed at the house on Grady. The band was out of town and Bert knew that I was freaked out because they were tearing everything up. Paul Westerberg kept apologizing again and again because they had destroyed the house. We came home and there were records everywhere and the beds were all torn up and I was like, ‘God damn it!’ crying and screaming, and Bert tried to calm me down. He kept saying, ‘Sorry, Sandi. I’m sorry. I know it’s awful.’”