April 5 – The Kegger That Reverberated For 30 Years

It was a party for the ages on this night in 1980 in Georgia. But I doubt many realized it at the time – they were too busy getting drunk and just having a good time!

Some hit bands are put together by committees (think the Monkees); others are built to be super-groups from the best of other bands (Asia, Led Zeppelin). Many get there by a group of people determined to be stars who studiously practice and write together for years (maybe Toto, for instance). Then there’s R.E.M.

The most successful American alt rock band, and the pride of Athens, Georgia came together by accident on this day 42 years ago. The four knew each other somewhat; Michael Stipe hung out at Peter Buck’s workplace (Wuxtry Records); Mike Mills and Bill Berry were friends at the University of Georgia there. Presumably they all knew one another and had some level of common musical interest and as we now know, some musical talent. However, they really didn’t come together with an aim to change the face of the musical landscape. They just decided to jam together a little to add some background noise to a friend’s party!

So it was that on an unseasonably cold spring night, what would become R.E.M. and about 300 others, mainly from the UofG, jammed into an abandoned Episcopal church on Oconee Street in Athens to throw a party for Kathleen O’Brien, who was celebrating her birthday. O’Brien worked at the campus radio station which no doubt endeared her to the boys in R.E.M. A good time was had by all by the few accounts, and the quartet played a handful of rather unmemorable covers of artists from Jonathan Richman to the Sex Pistols to the Stones. They played a couple of originals, rough versions of tracks that could eventually make the Murmur album like “Perfect Circle“.

And that might have been the end of the story if not for some unknown person’s greed. Or thirst. In true college form, the party was a “kegger”, with beer aplenty. Someone actually stole several kegs from the party. Poor student O’Brien had put down a deposit on the metal kegs and was on the hook for quite a few dollars. The musicians felt bad for her, and arranged to play a local bar – Tyrone’s OC – on May 6 to raise funds to pay her beer losses. In the meantime, they practiced a bit and haphazardly settled on the name that would take them into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame some 25 years later!

Tyrone’s bar burned down a couple of years later, but the music tourist can still see the steeple and part of the ruined church to this day.

While the band broke up after 31 years, various members have at times worked together since and they seem on amicable terms. Ironically, they saw a sudden resurgence in popularity of their ’80s single “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” in the early days of the pandemic  (it hit recharted on iTunes in early 2020). Mike Mills said of that, “we certainly never saw that coming with this song…you just never know how it’s going to work out.” Same goes for starting a new band, or any other venture, but in R.E.M.’s case, that kegger turned out pretty well!

March 10 – Litt Lit Up Charts In ’90s

Today we wish a happy birthday to one of the important “behind the scenes” people of great ’80s and ’90s music. Scott Litt turns 68 today. Scott’s a producer extraordinaire…and a bit of a mystery man! Unlike say, Mutt Lange, let alone George Martin, there’s not much info about Scott out there. We presume he likes to let the music do the talking for him!

Litt says “I was a math guy in school, but once I got to the college level (in Colorado), I knew I could be a math teacher if I was lucky.” Around that time, he’d really gotten into pop and rock music and “the idea of making it seemed like a great career thing and a lot of fun.” So, in 1976 he made his way to New York, and landed an entry level job at the famous Power Station. He learned how to work tape machines and engineer the studio, by 1980 being the head engineer for Carly Simon’s Come Upstairs album. By 1982, he’d worked his way up to record producing, starting with an album by underground band The dBs. Chris Stamey of that band said “he was clearly a cut above anyone we’d been involved with.”

His reputation and skill grew. In 1985, he was called on to do some remixing and after-production for mainly British band Katrina and the Waves (a local hit in Canada, oddly enough but then virtually unknown elsewhere), including producing their re-recorded version of “Walking On Sunshine”… the record that made them international stars. Good fortune shone on him, and rising alt rock group R.E.M. then. He met up with them and produced their breakthrough album Document, and stayed with them for the next five albums… the ones which would happen to be the most successful, award-winning, multi-platinum ones of their career including Automatic for the People and Monster. He recently remixed and re-mastered the latter for the 25th Anniversary re-release, something he’d told the band “if there was ever a chance to take another shot at”, he wanted. He “decided to clear away the woolen guitar overdubs that clotted over (Michael) Stipe’s voice,” in the words of Pitchfork, something they weren’t convinced was an improvement but does show his willingness to always try to be better.

It’s well-known that R.E.M. and Nirvana were fans of one another in the early-’90s, so it’s perhaps no surprise he’d also work with Seattle’s top dogs, co-producing their In Utero album, remixing “Pennyroyal Tea” for a rather limited edition single and then co-producing their MTV Unplugged album as well. From there he worked a little with Kurt Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love and her band Hole. Add in a bit of work for the Indigo Girls, Liz Phair and the Replacements and later Incubus (producing their two biggest albums, Make Yourself and Morning View) Litt was one busy guy in the early-’90s! However, thinking big, he still started his own label, Outpost Records, in a joint venture with Geffen.

Outpost signed Canadian folk-roots rocker Hayden and put out his first two commercially-praised but small selling albums. More successful was Days of the New, another act he signed and produced. Unfortunately, the early 2000s decline in the type of alt rock Litt favored, coupled with a large signing bonus given Hayden pushed the company to bankruptcy by 2002. Since that time, Litt’s kept a low-profile although we know he has his own studio in metro L.A. and started a Recording Educational Facility for youth in Venice, California.

Litt’s own website appears to have been taken down, but we hope whatever he’s doing he’ll be doing a bit of “Walking on Sunshine” today.

February 26 – R.E.M. Helped Alt Rock Take A ‘Stand’ On Mainstream Radio

They’d already crossed over to a major, worldwide powerhouse label (Warner Bros.), now R.E.M. were ready to cross over to major worldwide radio play. They took a step towards that on this day 33 years ago when “Stand” hit the U.S. top 40 on this week in 1989.

They’d long been the darlings of American college radio, and not surprisingly, “Stand” had already hit #1 on Billboard‘s then young Alternative Rock charts, as had the album Green‘s first single, “Orange Crush”. In fact, between the two they dominated that particular chart for 10 weeks in the ’80s, more than any other artist. Add in their friends the B-52s and you had the top spot for 17 weeks in less than a year between late-’88 and mid-’89, showing how vital the Athens, Georgia scene was to modern rock back then.

However, that hadn’t always meant huge mainstream recognition. The then quartet had one prior top 10 hit (“The One I Love”) but “Stand” took it to the next level, going to #6 in the U.S. and #8 in Canada and becoming the first one of their songs to garner extensive airplay on mainstream rock and pop stations and be played in supermarkets. It helped Green go double platinum in North America, their best showing to that point (but only a hint of the success they’d score over the following three or four years.)

Love it or hate it – this writer loves it, but a recent poll of R.E.M. fans suggests it’s one of their least popular singles – “Stand” was a fun single with an offbeat fun video. Who among us of a certain age haven’t spent time trying to perfect that stand/jump/turn dance? It was an offbeat sound the band wasn’t known for. Guitarist Peter Buck says of it “it’s the stupidest song we’ve ever written. That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he points out and compares it to “Louie Louie” or the simplicity of songs by The Ramones, whom he says write “the best songs.” Singer Michael Stipe agreed, more or less. He says the song was an homage to “bubblegum” acts they all liked growing up like The Monkees and Archies.

They threw these super bubble-gummy songs at me. I said ‘I’ll raise you and see you one’ and wrote the most inane lyrics I could.” To add to the effect, Buck pulled out a wah-wah pedal for the solo, which Rolling Stone call “ridiculously wanky.” For all that, there is an added depth to the song, and video. Stipe says it’s “about making decisions and actually living your life rather than letting it happen.” Buck at the time, arguably the least socially-active of the band, told Rolling Stone it, and the album in general, reflected that idea of standing to make a difference. “We have curbside paper recycling (in Athens),” he notes, “which is pretty cool…we go to city council meetings and vote on things.”

So, today’s a good day to make a “stand” and do something worthwhile. Including maybe listening to one of the ’80s great bubblegum pop tunes!

December 17 – Bass And Baseball Get Mills Going

Happy 63rd birthday to one of the most versatile and talented people in the alternative rock world. Mike Mills was born on this day in 1958 in California.

Luckily for the music world, as was the case with bandmate Peter Buck, his parents moved the family to Georgia when Mike was young and he met drummer Bill Berry in Macon, formed a group and then met Michael Stipe and Peter Buck when they went to Athens for university. The rest, as they say, is history. Mills was likely the most-talented musician in R.E.M. He was the regular bassist and did a lot of the composing…but through the years you could have found him playing acoustic guitar, electric guitar, piano, organ, synthesizer and even vibraphone for them on various records. And if you ask, he is capable of handling drums too! And of course he added the distinctive counter-melodies to Michael Stipe on a number of their hits like “Fall on Me”, he also sang lead on a few of their memorable tunes, including covers of “Love Is All Around” and “Yellow River” and two great ones from Out of Time: “Texarkana” and “Near Wild Heaven.” As to their success, he told the Guardian a few years back that “it’s a balancing act. You want to be grateful and graceful (but) not let it go to your heads. That was one of the reasons we never moved to New York City. Staying in Athens helped us keep our feet on the ground.”

Never one to let dust settle under his feet, when not with R.E.M. (and since then) he’s worked with artists like Warren Zevon, Robbie Robertson and the Indigo Girls and collaborated with Buck in The Baseball Project, a band which specializes in… yep, songs about baseball. In recent years has been touring with a violinist, Robert McDuffie and a classical ensemble, plus members of the Drive-by Truckers in a mix of classical and rock. Noteworthy enough is it that the Wall Street Journal reviewed it, calling it “strong on melody but weak on classical fluency.”

When not making music, Mike’s likely watching sports – he is a fantasy football star and has written articles about his beloved Atlanta Braves for publications including Rolling Stone.

October 31 – 40 Watt Shone Brightly In Georgia Music History

Great art doesn’t always come forth out of lovely, or state-of-the-art places. In fact, in music sometimes the opposite is the case. And case in point, the musical “hub” of new rock in The South flipped on the lights for the first time 42 years ago… perhaps not bright lights though. In fact, possibly just a 40 Watt bulb. Athens, Georgia’s 40 Watt Club came into existence this day in 1979. Just as the grubby CBGB club in New York City was essential to the creation of the vibrant new wave/punk scene in that city in the late-’70s, the 40 Watt Club was the place that got things going in Athens great ’80s scene.

University of Georgia is located in Athens, and while its sometimes known for its college football, UG is also a major arts school. But in the late-’70s, there were only four clubs in the city that had live music. Two offered only rock cover bands, and another was usually limited to folk music, so really kids wanting to hear anything different, or bands wanting to play, had to go to Tyrone’s OC. Tyrone’s had a decent reputation, but presumably competition was stiff to get booked there and there’s only so much one bar can do.

Come Halloween ’79, Curtis Crowe decided to have a party. Crowe would become the drummer to popular underground band Pylon, his sister Rhett would join Guadalcanal Diary soon also. So Crowe found an empty space in an attic above a sandwich shop on College Ave. and held the party there, with some friends in a short-lived band being the entertainment.

Our band was called Strictly American,” Murray Attaway told me. “Myself, Jeff Walls (later in Guadalcanal Diary), Curtis Crowe from Pylon and a couple of other friends. The venue wasn’t an official club yet, but it was named the ’40 Watt Club’ for that specific night and they continued to use the name ever after.” A few months later it moved to a different spot about a block away and opened officially.

“There was so much music coming out at that time, how could you not start a band?”, Randy Bewley of Pylon queried. The 40 Watt soon became the place to be seen if you were a new band, or to hang out to hear what’s new and cool if you were an ordinary student. By 1982 it had moved to a bigger, but still somewhat dingy, location, and several other moves happened through the years until settling into its current location in an empty grocery store on West Washington St. in 1991. No less a publication than the New York Times included it in an article on “must see” entertainment spots in Atlanta – 75 miles to the west! They describe it as the place which turned Athens into a “rock vanguard” and say “its street door opens directly into a simple, squarish room with a bar along one wall, a cigarette machine on the other, and quilts hanging from the ceiling.”

The 40 Watt Club became the center of the music scene in the city (and inspired others to open similar clubs, adding momentum to it) and was the “home base” of a number of that city’s famous, and not so, acts of the ’80s including Pylon, the B-52s, and a band that really put the city on the music map, R.E.M. They were regulars in there in the ’80s and then popped in somewhat regularly for surprise shows after they gained international fame. Helpfully, it was bought in 1987 by Barrie Buck, at the time the band’s guitarist, Peter Buck’s wife. Peter and her have since split, but Barrie still runs the club to this day. Later on, newer bands like Of Montreal and the Drive-by Truckers have carried on the club’s reputation. Outside of the hometown artists, it became a de rigeur place to play for touring alternative rock acts ranging from Nirvana to Iggy Pop to the Kings of Leon.

The 40 Watt Club is still operates in the old grocery store. They’re advertising a Halloween party tonight and shows by various new bands, plus Drive-by Truckers on the bill soon.

It’s too late to get a look at CBGB, but those wanting to see a true American alt rock breeding ground can still do that, have a pint or two and hear some music a few hours to the south, in that quaint college town of Athens.

October 6 – Acclaim For Great R.E.M. Album Was ‘Automatic’

On this day in 1992, R.E.M. put Weaver D’s restaurant in Athens, GA on the musical map with the release of their most acclaimed album, Automatic For the People. The album took up where Out of Time left off and then went to new heights, delivering a set of largely dark-themed lyrics set to incredible melodies.

Songs dealing with death were numerous and led to unfounded speculation that Michael Stipe was dying of AIDS. Guitarist Peter Buck gave some insight into the lyrics, mentioning there was some reflection from “that sense of turning 30…the world we’d been involved in had disappeared.” The result was great though, leaving us with several of their most popular album cuts, like “Nightswimming” and hits like “Man on the Moon”, “Drive” and “Everybody Hurts.” The latter was unusually straight-forward in its anti-suicide message, so much so that Nevada gave the band a commodation for providing a public service with it! Again Buck explained, “if you’re consciously writing for someone who hasn’t been to college or is pretty young, it might be nice to be very direct.” Michael Stipe said of it “this song instantly belonged to everyone except us, and that…means the world to me.”

The album won great reviews, with Rolling Stone giving it a perfect 5-star (“the Athens subversives reveal a darker vision that shimmers with new, complex beauty”), the NME similarly gave it 10 out of 10 and in 2006 ranked it the 37th greatest album of all-time. Melody Maker declared it “REM at the very top of their form” and the public agreed. It was their second #1 album in the UK, got to #2 in the U.S. and became their biggest-seller internationally. At 7X platinum in both the UK and Canada it’s their biggest in those countries and although it sold a few less than the predecessor in the U.S. it was still 4X platinum.

Their longtime associate Bertis Downs summed it up recently: “a really great record full of songs that mattered then and still matter now.”  Oh…and Weaver D’s? It’s a diner in their hometown that they loved. The album’s title was a phrase the owner often said when someone ordered – “cheeseburger and fried okra. Automatic for the People!”

(Read our personal review of the album from last year here.)

September 28 – Reunion Reunion Never Happened

September 25th is designated “National One Hit Wonder Day”, which leads one to wonder what doesn’t have a day honoring it? And who decides these things? We’re a few days late, but we’re looking at one of the real One Hit Wonders of the ’70s. On this day in 1974, “Life Is A Rock” by Reunion hit the U.S. top 40. The “bubblegum” novelty song would soon rise to #8, and do even better to the north where it hit #2 in Canada.

The song was distinctive and happy. The singer rattles off a seemingly endless list of music artists, song titles and music-related businesses at breakneck speed, interrupted only by the chorus of “Life is a rock, ’cause the radio rolled me/ Got to turn it up louder, ’cause the DJ told me.” The singer name-checks artists ranging from Mott the Hoople, Johnny Cash, Johnny Rivers, to the Archies and Poco plus titles like “Take it Easy”, “Gimme Shelter” “CC Rider” and many, many more. Singer Joey Levine refers to it as a “celebration of all things music” and one of the co-writers, Paul Difranco says the key to “the machine gun vocal delivery is a result of not rehearsing…read the lines rapidly and not memorize them.”

Who exactly was Reunion? Hard to say. They were undoubtedly a collection of studio musicians, with Levine singing the song. He’d worked as a songwriter since he was a teen in the ’60s, most famously writing “Yummy Yummy Yummy” for the Ohio Express. The song was put out on RCA Records, and they wanted them to record more and go on tour, but Levine turned it down, saying he thought the song only a “novelty thing.” In all likelihood, a wise decision.

Levine says people told him what he wrote sounded like commercials, so he took the cue and went into advertising, writing and at times singing commercial jingles. The famous “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t” campaign for Mounds chocolate bars was his, as were some popular ones for the likes of Pepsi, Chevy and Sears.

While it was just a One hit wonder, it perhaps was an important one. The rapid-fire vocal delivery style has been emulated on hits like Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know it.”

September 10 – Live & Studio Mix Was A New Adventure

R.E.M. did what they did best on this day in 1996 – put out a good album that was different than people expected. New Adventures in Hi-fi was their tenth regular album. It would also be the last one with drummer Bill Berry and the last produced by Scott Litt who’d helped them on their run of smash hits for Warner to that point.

Mike Mills says their idea at the time was “we wanted to get some of the looseness and spontaneity of a sound check or live show” and to accommodate that they took along some 8-track recorders on the road for the Monster tour. Most of the songs on the varied album were recorded at either sound checks or in hotel rooms, rather ala Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty. An exception was the first single, “E-bow the Letter” on which Michael Stipe’s musical idol, Patti Smith joins them. That they recorded in a studio like normal. Stipe frequently has said it was listening to Smith’s Horses as a teen that got him interested in becoming a musician.

All in all, it was an eclectic album, at 65 minutes clearly designed to be heard on CD. They mixed some rock tracks that would have been at home on the previous one, Monster, like “Low Desert,” “Wake Up Bomb” and “So Fast So Numb” with some sweeter melodies harkening back to Automatic for the People, as with “Be Mine” and “Electrolite,” even throwing in a little electronic looping on “Leave” that would perhaps be a signpost pointing to their next album, Up. The album didn’t sell as well as the last few but still went double platinum in Canada and platinum at home and was a #1 hit in Canada and the UK, #2 at home in the U.S. American radio had begun to cool to them by then, but “E-bow” was a top 10 hit in both the UK, and Canada, where “Bittersweet Me” was as well.

For the most part, critics approved. Q gave it a perfect 5-star rating, Rolling Stone,4.5-stars. The latter called it “the most ambitious album to date” for the Georgia band, which “attempts to stitch together all the disparate mood swings that have characterized its fight to maintain its integrity.”  Allmusic graded it 3.5-stars, noting it was “ragged and varied” with a “loose, careening charm.”

The band are releasing a 25th Anniversary edition of New Adventures… next month in various formats, generally including a DVD of the videos and an extra LP or CD of outtakes and live tracks including their previously difficult to find take on “Wichita Lineman.”

July 28 – When R.E.M.’s Rich Pageant Began To Be Heard

R.E.M. continued their path to dominance with the release of their fourth album, Lifes Rich Pageant this day in 1986. The misspelling of the first word was intentional according to Peter Buck: “Michael and I agreed that there had never been a good rock album with an apostrophe in its title.”

So, they definitely still had their quirky, underground appeal cultivated over the first trio of albums. From the title (a quote from Inspector Clousseau in a Pink Panther movie) to the cryptic cover with part of Bill Berry’s face and faded pictures of buffalos to a video shot in B&W, upside down, little about the record suggested a well-mapped out path to stardom. Songs like the Civil War-referencing, acoustic-folk “Swan Swan H” and the odd “Underneath the Bunker” show that more. But working with Don Gehman (previously known mostly for producing John Mellencamp records) helped put a more straight-forward rock sound to the songs and have Michael’s vocals less blurry than in the past.

The result was their greatest success to that point. The record hit #21 in the U.S. – their highest charting then – and gave them their first platinum record in Canada. Singles “Fall on Me” and “Superman” got them significant airplay on both college radio and mainstream rock stations (the former got to #5 on the Mainstream rock chart and got significant play on MTV). “Superman” would be the only cover song they’d release as an A-side of a single, though few fans noticed. It was done originally in the ’60s by a band called The Clique, but wasn’t exactly a hit. Add to that in years to come, the lead song on the record, “Begin the Begin” would become one of their perennial concert highlights and you have a pretty impressive record.

At the time of the release, Mike Mills said of it “the strongest, best album we’ve done.” Later, Michael Stipe would concur to a point. “It’s a great sounding record, but I really hated Don Gehman at the time,” he admits. Like him or not, Gehman helped them begin “stepping out of the corner into the spotlight,” as Rolling Stone would say in 2011. At the time, that magazine rated it 4-stars. Their appeal was beginning to cross the seas as well. Britain’s The Guardian applauded it and its “swaggering confidence absent from its murky predecessors.”

The confidence would continue to grow for the rest of the decade as they put out their follow-up, Document, which eclipsed this one commercially, then switched over to Warner Brothers and platinum-success around the globe.

May 14 – R.E.M. ‘Reveal’ed Summery Side

It’s well-known that R.E.M. were big fans of The Byrds and Big Star; perhaps less widely known was that they also loved the Beach Boys. They “revealed” that if you will with Reveal, their 12th studio album, which came out 20 years ago today in 2001. It was among other things, their first of the new millennium, their seventh on Warner Bros. and the second one since drummer Bill Berry had quit, leaving Athens favorite band scaled down to a trio.

They recorded it at a leisurely pace in 2000, using studios in Vancouver, their hometown in Georgia and Dublin with Irish producer Patrick McCarthy once again. He’d worked with them on the previous effort, the experimental and rather-panned Up.

The dozen song album was different for them. Not as reliant on synthesizers and programming as Up, but still rather breezy, pop-like and lacking in what used to be their trademark, Peter Buck’s jangly guitars. Many picked up on the summery sound reminiscent of the Beach Boys and other California acts of the ’60s, heightened with titles like “Beachball” and “Summer Turns To High.” Peter Buck acknowledged the homage to Brian Wilson & Co., as well as to Jimmy Webb, “a songwriter we all admire” on “All the Way To Reno”, which initially had been called “Jimmy Webb on Mars” in the demos. Of all the tunes, many felt only “Imitation of Life” had the “traditional” sound of the band; probably no coincidence that Warner chose it as the lead single. One thing helping restore the vintage sound was that unlike Up, they utilized a drummer, albeit not their founding member. Joey Waronker, Beck’s drummer of choice, filled in on the kit and the Posies Ken Stringfellow added some keyboards.

Reaction was mixed. Almost across the board critics thought it was an improvement over Up, but beyond that, opinions varied. Britain’s The Guardian gave it 3-stars, saying they were “settling into a convincing identity as a trio” and that “perhaps the most striking facet of Reveal is its debt to California.” Rolling Stone gave it 4-stars, reminding readers they were “the archetypal American band of the ’80s” and when you put on the new one “30 seconds into ‘The Lifting’ you can tell these guys got lucky with the muse again.” Pitchfork, a dissenting view, gave it a middling 5 out of 10, complaining about it “relying more heavily on synthesized sounds than any of their past albums.” Later on, allmusic gave it 3-stars, better than Up, or the follow-up Around the Sun, but well off their best. They suggested “give them credit for realizing that Up was a dead end” and saying it has “some very good pop songs, windswept and sun-bleached beauties like ‘Imitation of Life’, the dusty “All The Way To Reno” and “Beachball’” but feeling overall “this is mood music, not music that creates a mood.”

The public perhaps agreed, at least domestically. For the first time, it was an R.E.M. album that did far better in Europe than North America, and like several of their Warner releases, over here, better in Canada than the U.S. – a well-publicized free concert on a downtown Toronto street to mark its release didn’t hurt there! “Imitation of Life” was a major international hit…but not so much at home! It stalled at #83 in the U.S. while making the top 10 in Canada, the UK, several European countries and giving them their first Japanese chart-topper. Overall, the album hit #1 in Britain, as well as Norway, and got them platinum records in the former and Italy as well. In North America, they had to settle for gold records in both the U.S. and Canada.

While R.E.M. fans are divided over the album’s enduring qualities, it has one very big fan – Michael Stipe himself. He says it’s his favorite of all their works.