“Athens, GA: Inside/Out” (1987) looks at the proverbial Southern hotbed of ’80s “college rock”

By on June 13, 2019

Tony Gayton’s celebrated 1987 indie documentary Athens, GA: Inside/Out — which was prominently featured once-upon-a-time on MTV’s “The Cutting Edge” program, as well as the first six episodes of MTV’s adventurous “120 Minutes” series, and you’ll now find streaming on Night Flight Plus — remains perhaps the best look at the proverbial Southern U.S. hotbed of ’80s “college rock.”

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Athens, GA: Inside/Out provides us with an early peek at a couple of bands who went on to mega-stardom, including the two bands typically mentioned first when anyone starts talking about Athens, GA’s music scene: oddball sci-fi age new wavers the B-52s (who debuted on Valentine’s Day in 1977, as we told you about here) and post-punk Byrds-influenced jangle-rockers R.E.M. (read more about them here), who can be seen doing performing songs — “Swan Swan H” and a cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Dream (All I Have to Do)” — in an abandoned chapel at the Lucy Cobb Institute.

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There are also interviews and early performance footage of Pylon, a long-standing and influential part of the Athens scene who became critical darlings in the 1980s, but who had never achieved any significant mainstream success.

They had, however, broken up by the time Gayton and producer Bill Cody had begun filming their documentary.

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There are also multiple performances and interviews with lesser-known Athens, GA groups and artists like the B-B-Que Killers, Time Toy, Dreams So Real, Limbo District, Flat Duo Jets (one of the main inspirations for Jack White’s the White Stripes), Love Tractor, Kilkenny Cats, Squalls and a few more, all of them seeming to co-exist in harmony and brother/sisterhood together in Athens, GA.

B-B-Que Killers at the Uptown Lounge, Athens, GA, 1986

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Athens, GA: Inside/Out is also highlighted by quirky appearances by R.E.M’s Michael Stipe (illustrating “Popeye boxing”) and Peter Buck (who shows up in a bathrobe and pajamas), in addition to famed outsider artist, the Reverend Howard Finster, artist Jim Herbert, poet John Seawright, and a wacky local character, William Orten Carlton, who goes by the name “Ort.”

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Read more about Athens, GA: Inside/Out below.

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To an entire generation of modern music aficionados, the small, liberally-leaning progressive-minded town of Athens, Georgia — located about seventy miles northeast of downtown Atlanta, and home to the University of Georgia — is still today mostly known as being the birthplace for a lot of the aforementioned idiosyncratic late ’70s/early ’80s new wave and post-punk bands.

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Celebrated rock scribe Richie Unterberger writes in Music USA: The Rough Guide (1999):

“It’s nonetheless a shock to drive into town for the first time through neighborhoods dominated by stately antebellum homes and modest, attractive suburban dwellings. Apart from a few blocks in the commercial district near campus, things are so sleepy that it’s difficult to imagine anyone working up a sweat, let along playing rock music.”

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Unterberger further notes that the only characteristic any of the bands from Athens, GA shared was “their willingness to do something different,” which is why there’s still an audience for this excellent documentary more than thirty years later.

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All these decades later, the town’s citizenry proudly and enthusiastically cling to their reputation as the “Liverpool of the South,” although we think it might have to be explained to subsequent generations who don’t remember why Liverpool, England, was significant in the 1960s.

Still, we hesitate to point out, there have been no major bands of any consequence produced in Athens since the 1980s, unless you count solo singer-songwriters like Vic Chestnutt (who died in 2009) or Jack Logan, or lesser-known bands, like the Woggles and the Vigilantes of Love or any of a dozen or more bands with rabid cult followings but not much in the way of a national profile.

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In the 1980s, Athens, GA’s local rock scene was fostered by a thriving downtown area and several nightclubs of note, including the 40 Watt Club on Washington Street, which earned its name because it started as a loft party in a room lit by a bare, dangling 40-watt light bulb.

There was also the Uptown Lounge, the hippest music club in town, where Widespread Panic started out as the weekly house band, and the Georgia Theater — a converted movie-house on Lumpkin Street, where the Police played on their first U.S. tour — which burned down in June 2009 (it was later remodeled into a state-of-the-art venue, re-opening in early August 2011).

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The Athens, GA music scene was aided by a college radio station WUOG (90.5 on the FM dial), and the free alt-weekly Flagpole, which regularly featured blurbs about local bands.

A handful of record labels have called Athens, GA home too, including Kindercore Records, Wuxtry Records (which also had a retail store), and the long-running indie label Happy Happy Birthday To Me Records, which has been operating consistently since 1999 (alas, it wasn’t around in the 1980s).

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In the mid-’90s, Athens, GA once again became known as the home to another group of eclectic indie-rock musicians, known collectively as the Elephant 6 Collective — like-minded bands and musicians that included Neutral Milk Hotel, Elf Power and Olivia Tremor Control — but none of these groups ever reached the heights attained by R.E.M. or the B-52s.

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We’ve read that producer Bill Cody — now living in the hipster haven Highland Park, a suburb of Los Angeles, CA — is currently working on a new project, Athens, GA: 30 Years On, which hopes to chronicle the Athens music scene once again (read more about that here).

Watch Athens, GA: Inside/Out on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.