There was More to the Athens, Georgia Music Scene Than REM and the B-52’s

I say Athens, Georgia and you say REM. Athens. REM. Athens. REM. Ah, but there was so much more to the Athens alternative scene than the increasingly irritating boys in REM. Much like U2, REM had at best three or four albums in them and then embarked on a downward slide. Fortunately, REM isn’t quite the joke that U2 has been for the past few decades, but probably only because Michael Stipe hasn’t yet been convinced he’s the second coming of Christ like Bono. In fact, the Athens musical hotbed produced a multitude of bands that should have hit the charts with the frequency of REM. If you had to rank in order of talent the best bands to burst forth from Athens in the 80’s, REM would certainly not rank at the top.

Who was the best Athens rock band? Easy.

Pylon.

Pylon suffered from the fact their music wasn’t quite as accessible as REM’s, nor were they tempted toward going as mainstream as Stipe and the fellas. The music of Pylon had more in common with Gang of Four than the country rock that got REM played on college radio stations across the country. And the lyrical content of Pylon’s songs had to deal a subtle complexity that was even more of a hindrance than Stipe’s inability to speak coherently:

“You’re funny and you don’t know why

You’re funny and you can’t even cry

You’re funny and you don’t know why

You’re funny and you don’t even try

You’re head keeps shaking

because you’re arms are shaking

and your feet are shaking

because the earth is shaking.”

Pylon chose to remain true to their vision, much like Love Tractor which was also an Athens band that should have risen to the heights of REM and the B-52, but didn’t. They began life as a band that focused exclusively on instrumental compositions that also brought to mind Gang of Four in the way the guitar and bass would appear to be engaged in a duel of the fates. The only admonition that mainstream success might be impossible was their later addition of singing and lyrics, but even this didn’t change the core personality. The Love Tractor instrumentals are incredibly good choices to play while driving the car on a day trip, preferably with the windows pulled down and the wind blowing through your hair. Despite the lack of singing, Love Tractor was in some ways more accessible and likely to break through to mainstream success, yet it managed to elude them as well.

Also likely to break through the ranks at the time seemed to be Oh-OK, primarily because this band had the extra added benefit of a Stipe in the band. Mikey’s sister Lynda handled the thumping bass work for Oh-OK that really seemed to come together when the great Matthew Sweet came on board. In fact, Matthew Sweet would become probably the best thing to ever emigrate from Athens, Georgia, and his song “Girlfriend” remains one of the five best singles of the 1990’s. As for Oh-OK even having a Stipe in the band wasn’t quite enough. Which was actually kind of odd because Oh-OK is a far better sounding band than REM became, if not necessarily what they started out as.

One final band from Athens is worth mentioning and they suffer only in that they bear a strong similarity to REM. The first few offerings from Dreams So Real were produced by REM member Peter Buck and so it should come as little surprise that the jangling guitar sound is omnipresent. Overall, Dreams So Real was a bit too derivative of REM, but not nearly to the degree to which they were originally accused. Dreams So Real certainly never rose to the artistic level of Matthew Sweet or Pylon, but it would be a mistake to consider them merely another of the admittedly overpopulated class of REM ripoffs.