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Athens Anniversaries and Must-See Sites for Music Fans

  • Peter Buck and Friends at 40 Watt

    Peter Buck and Friends at 40 Watt

    Jason Thrasher

2016 was a year of interesting anniversaries that connect Georgia’s musical landscape to the broader world. Britain spent the year formally celebrating the 40th birthday of punk rock, declaring its genesis to have been marked by the Sex Pistols’ inaugural concert. The Pistols’ first-ever U.S. show was in January 1978 at Atlanta’s legendary but long defunct Great Southeast Music Hall; however, the seeds had already been sown for Georgia’s own punk/new wave explosion. The B-52s also trace their roots to 1976, via an off-the-cuff jam session in an Athens Chinese restaurant.

R.E.M.'s 'Out of Time' turns 25

2016 similarly marked the 25th anniversary of “Out of Time,” the album that catapulted Athens’ stalwarts R.E.M. from highly respected alternative rock standard bearers to worldwide superstars. The Athens family trees intersect on this occasion, as the B-52’s Kate Pierson makes key vocal contributions, particularly on smash hit “Shiny Happy People.”

The deluxe three-CD reissue includes some nice surprises: a rock-leaning alternate take of the album’s hands-down classic “Losing My Religion” and a set recorded for a West Virginia public radio station that merges the quartet’s small-club, devil-may-care energy with a more acoustic setting. If you haven’t listened beyond the hits for awhile, “Out of Time” deserves revisiting.

Wuxtry turns 40

Photo by Jason Thrasher.
Photo by Jason Thrasher.

Speaking of anniversaries, 2016 was also the big four-oh for Wuxtry, the venerable Athens record and comic shop where R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck worked the counter before his band became road warriors. Its birthday party doubled as the launch for the 25th anniversary edition of “Party Out of Bounds,” an oral history of Athens’ wild late '70s/early '80s scene fittingly reissued by University of Georgia Press.

'Party Out of Bounds' turns 25

Author Rodger Lyle Brown, who reveled in the scene first-hand and lived to tell about it, was keen on conveying “that Southern tradition of eccentricity.” In a pre-internet era with only landline phones and only one movie playing in town at a time, he credits “that sense of living in a small, isolated town with artistic ambitions, where you all postured in the same way” as part of Athens’ secret sauce. It was also the days before the HOPE Scholarship, when “all the misfits around the state could go to UGA and pay tuition by working at a pizza joint.”

Brown applied an impressionist approach to “Party Out of Bounds,” allowing that his interviews with the scene’s principals likely include their share of “glorified mythology. I tried to get the dates and names as accurate as possible — the essentials — and then hang it all on the bands,” he tells me. His narrative centers on R.E.M. and the B-52s (or “the B’s,” as he calls them), but Brown is careful not to shortchange key contributors like Pylon (whose 1983 farewell show was recently released as a wonderful live document), the Method Actors, Love Tractor (whose own album reissue campaign begins this year) and Oh OK.  

Brown’s story also illuminates the diverging paths these bands chose, despite landing in more or less the same place. “The B’s took the New York City route to fame, R.E.M. took the road route,” he postulates. Both have left indelible marks on their birthplace, however, even if the Athens of 2017 bears scant resemblance to the sequestered burg of 1978.

Explore Athens music

AJ Reynolds
AJ Reynolds

The Athens Welcome Center offers a self-guided walking tour of the town’s rich musical history. So grab some Weaver D’s (also celebrating an anniversary - their 30th!) and have at it.

Glen Sarvady

Glen Sarvady is Georgia’s official Music Explorer. He has lived in Atlanta for more than 20 years, and has written about music both locally and nationally for at least as long. More recently, he has written regularly for the music/arts publication Stomp & Stammer as well as GeorgiaMusic.org.