erin petrie takes us to the dirty south, where the music history is as lush and delicious as a slice of peach cobbler …
Athens, Ga., is home to the Peach State’s oldest and largest collegiate institute, the University of Georgia, which has undoubtedly made invaluable contributions to higher education and research. But to the student of music, this southern city nestled in the northeastern part of the state is most revered for its influence on college rock — the precursor to the current alternative rock movement.
In UGA dorms and Athens establishments, artists like the B-52s, R.E.M., Neutral Milk Hotel, Matthew Sweet and Danger Mouse have experimented with their own unique styles of music.
It was October 1976 at a Chinese restaurant in Athens, where the wheels were set in motion for the name B-52 to become more associated with a quirky new wave act rather than the Boeing aircraft. New Jersey transplants Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson, along with Athens natives Cindy Wilson, Ricky Wilson and Keith Strickland named their band not for the bomber but for the bouffant — B-52 was southern slang for the wacky beehive hairdos that both Kate and Cindy often rocked on stage.
The B-52s represent the campier side of new wave and college rock, with an energetic — and sometimes borderline manic — deliverance of bizarre yet humorous lyrics best represented on early hits like “Rock Lobster,” “Planet Claire” and “Private Idaho.” Even after they returned to prominence in the late ’80s, following the untimely death of guitarist Ricky Wilson, they maintained their goofy vibe. Hits like “Love Shack” and “Roam” achieved success beyond the college radio spectrum and granted them some serious mainstream success.
Catch a peak of the infamous hairdos in the “Rock Lobster” video:
At their peak, Kate Pierson contributed vocals to several songs by another Athens band that made it big: R.E.M. Here they are together on “Shiny Happy People”:
Long before losing their religion and lamenting about personal pain, Michael Stipe and Co. were UGA students busy playing their brooding yet jangly mix of pop, post-punk and underground rock capped with indecipherable mumbling from Mr. Stipe around campus. R.E.M. became a cult favorite for several years after releasing a string of college radio staples like “Radio Free Europe,” “So. Central Rain” and “Pretty Persuasion.”
David Letterman pondered why bands keep coming from a small town like Athens during R.E.M.’s first televised appearance, performing a song they didn’t even have a name for yet:
By 1987, R.E.M. had achieved breakthrough success with their album Document and hit single “The One I Love,” and it just got bigger from there. Since their humble beginnings in Athens, the group has become a worldwide success and one of the top alternative rock bands of all time.
But for every Athens band that made it big, their is one that is comfortable in their underground, indie bubble. Take the Elephant 6 Collective: a group of musicians — many of whom now live in an eco-village outside of Athens called the Orange Twin Conservation Community — that have generated an abundance of independent bands under the Elephant 6 Recording Company. The four founders of the collective — Jeff Mangum, Robert Schneider, Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart — produced the most prominent of the collective’s acts: Neutral Milk Hotel, Apples In Stereo and The Olivia Tremor Control. All three bands played their own variation of lo-fi indie rock.
Here is Mangum performing Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Naomi”:
An interesting addition to the Athens music scene is the eclectic Brian Burton, aka the funky artist and producer Danger Mouse. In his early days, while a student at UGA, he deejayed and made his own electronica music. While still in Athens, he attended an Outkast/Goodie Mob concert and gave a demo tape to Goodie Mob singer and MC Cee-lo Green — his eventual partner in the soulful rock duo Gnarls Barkley. They made two albums together and achieved significant success with single “Crazy.”
Danger Mouse allegedly got his name in his early performing days, when he was too shy to go onstage and show his face, so he dressed in a mouse outfit. He then named himself after the ’80s cartoon show. As part of Gnarls Barkley, the costumes continued — the band often dressed in themes during their performances, as evidenced here:
After almost finishing his college degree, Danger Mouse moved to the United Kingdom and eventually linked up with Britpop king Damon Albarn. The former Blur front man tapped him to produce the second album of virtual band the Gorillaz — of which Albarn is the lead singer — and Albarn’s own solo album, The Good, the Bad and the Queen.
More recently, Danger has paired with the Shins’ James Mercer to form Broken Bells.
Best one-hit wonder from Athens: Matthew Sweet was always a critics favorite but never managed to achieve much in the way of commercial success. Still, his one commercial hit, “Girlfriend” (it reached No. 4 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart in 1991) remains one of my favorite songs: