I’ve been reading a lot about the Athens, GA music scene and how it came to be. Grace Elizabeth Hale’s Cool Town is a fantastic, scholarly treatise on how a scene formed in Athens (review at tinyurl.com/zubathens). Right now I’m reading Begin The Begin by Robert Dean Lurie, which is specifically about the rise of R.E.M., Athens’ most famous band. It was written after the events described in this book and Lurie is canny enough to quote often from Rodger Lyle Brown’s book: Party Out Of Bounds: The B-52’s, R.E.M., and the Kids Who Rocked Athens, Georgia. This book was originally published in 1991 and has recently been given a 25th anniversary republication.
Brown lived in Athens from 1977 to 1987, and was a participant in the scene, so he knows what really happened and the people who made it happen. This book really concentrates on the bands and the way the scene grew, with deep dives about the B-52’s, Pylon, and R.E.M. among others. The book starts circa 1978, with the B-52’s coalescing as a drag/dance/camp show that played parties in town. Next thing you know, they played New York City and quickly became the talk of the town. They make a single with DB Recs Danny Beard (who had a huge crush on Kate Pierson) and soon enough major record companies are sniffing around.
This does not go unnoticed by the UGA art students that become Pylon, led by bassist Michael Lachowski. He figures they can take an art approach to their music and these non -musicians form the band with the goal to play New York, get on the cover of New York Rocker magazine, and then break up. The Athens to New York pipeline works again, so Pylon makes a single with Danny Beard and quickly become the critics’ darlings. They forget to break up, at least for a few years.
The B-52’s, reject their first label deal offer, get big-time management, sign with Warner Bros., and produce their first record. They have outgrown Athens and move to New York as a band. Athens’ stalwarts, the Method Actors, then appear in the story. They are another band beloved by critics, and Vic Varney of the Method Actors ends up managing Pylon. About this time, things are stirring with Peter Buck and Michael Stipe, who meet a rhythm section from Macon, Georgia (Bill Berry and Mike Mills) and begin rehearsing in an old church. We know what happens next.
Lyle Brown is really good at setting the picture of the times, whether discussing the many non-musicians who made things happen, like Kathleen O’Brien, who pretty much single-handedly put R.E.M. together, or local folks like Ort, the scene's town cryer/village idiot. Brown’s descriptions of the beer-soaked, partied out dorms are almost poetic. He also seems to have got almost everyone involved to contribute great stories.
Party Out Of Bounds is a vital, interesting book. I’ve never heard Vanessa Briscoe, Pylon’s singer, called a ‘party girl’ before. Brown doesn’t forget bands such as Oh-Ok and Love Tractor. I also learned everyone loved Love Tractor, Bill Berry drummed with them for a time and Peter Buck wanted to join. Having lived nearby and attended and/or played many of the venues mentioned in the book, I feel like this is a book about my friends, although most are acquaintances at best. The Athens scene is definitely a one of a kind story, and I loved reading this book that is very band and music-centric. Rodger Lyle Brown has produced a readable, well-researched, fun book. Invite yourself to this Party; dance this mess around!