REM at Tyrone’s O.C., Athens, Georgia, April 10, 1981
In March 1981 N.Y. Rocker put Pylon on its cover, which promised a look at the “New Sounds of the Old South,” centering on a town that probably not too many New Yorkers had heard of, called Athens, Georgia. If they had heard of it, it was either because of the University of Georgia football team or because of the recent success of a new band called the B-52s.
The title of the Pylon feature is “Temporary Rock”; if you’d like to read it, you can find it at this page on the WFMU blog. As promised, N.Y. Rocker did take a look at the Athens scene, and highlighted, alongside a “psychedlo porch funk” outfit named Love Tractor and a nerdy trio called Side Effects, a promising new four-piece called R.E.M. Vic Varney, author of the roundup, called R.E.M. the “most conservative” of the bunch, noted their relative popularity in Athens (they “pack in” a lot of people), and snarked that their supporters can’t distinguish their covers from their originals, which fact constitutes the divide between the band’s fans and the haters. Varney praised the group for being cautious about chasing the money train and then, rather remarkably, compared R.E.M. in Athens to the Beatles in Hamburg (!).
Where was R.E.M. at this point? They didn’t have an album out. They didn’t have a single out. According to a very useful website called R.E.M. Timeline, the band had been playing Athens pretty regularly over the course of 1980 and had even ventured out to two welcoming border states, North Carolina and Tennessee. They had never played New York, but (quite strangely) they had played, in February 1981, a venue called New York, New York, that existed for a time in Augusta, Georgia. Here’s a pretty funny radio ad for that show that features no R.E.M. music whatsoever (remember I said they didn’t even have a single out?) but does showcase some Devo, B-52’s, and the Police. Don’t miss the “punk rock dance contest”! You might win $25!
As the radio ad mentions, in December 1980 R.E.M. had opened for the Police in Atlanta’s Fox Theater. (I got that audio clip from the selfsame R.E.M. Timeline’s Facebook presence.)
Playing for really good bands like the Police was one of R.E.M.‘s defining pastimes as 1981 came and went. During that year they opened for Gang of Four, XTC, Wishbone Ash, Bow Wow Wow, the dB’s, Siouxsie and the Banshees, U2, and Oingo Boingo—that’s an incredibly impressive list. Clearly, they were Georgia’s go-to openers for a while there.
Say, was anybody reading this in attendance at the R.E.M./U2 bill at Vanderbilt University’s Underwood Auditorium on December 2, 1981? If so, it seems that you saw a historically unique lineup.
The rest of the story is better known. In June they would finally play NYC, opening for Gang of Four, and in July they released “Radio Free Europe” on Hib-Tone, which they would re-record and re-release after signing to IRS Records in May 1982—the cleaner IRS version would hit #78 on the Billboard charts.
As for the article, well, I feel the desire to bestow on it the mantle of some superlative, but I’m not quite sure what that would be. N.Y. Rocker wasn’t a national outlet, so it’s not right to say that this was the first time the national press noticed R.E.M.—and I wouldn’t know that to be true even if you do count N.Y. Rocker as national.
It seems very safe to say, however, that this article was pretty distinctive. It’s incredibly unlikely that anyone in Chicago or Los Angeles as big as N.Y. Rocker was paying enough attention to Athens to feature them in this way, and even in early 1982, when R.E.M. finally made it to Massachusetts, a writer named Jim McKay in the Boston College student newspaper was complaining that nobody in Boston knows who R.E.M. is and referencing the voluminous ink N.Y. Rocker had spilled on R.E.M. in multiple issues. Just to repeat that point: a full year after this Pylon cover, people not living in NYC had formed a mental link between N.Y. Rocker and R.E.M. (By the way, if you look at McKay’s picks, he was a pretty astute music critic.)
It ain’t worth a Pulitzer, maybe, but I say, that’s cracklin’ good rock and roll journalism for you.
I found this issue of N.Y. Rocker at the Rock Hall’s Library and Archives, which is located at the Tommy LiPuma Center for Creative Arts on Cuyahoga Community College’s Metropolitan Campus in Cleveland, Ohio. It is free and open to the public. Visit their website for more information.