In the early 1980s, the music world was beating a path to Athens, where bands such as the B-52's, REM and Pylon were helping redefine underground pop. Although Atlanta produced no break-through acts like those during this same period, it was home to a rich assortment of local sounds and a tightly knit community of local bands and music fans.
Nowhere was that sense of community stronger than in the city's active punk scene, which centered around two of Atlanta's most celebrated music venues, 688 and the Metroplex. The two clubs offered an asylum for a generation of awkward, alienated teenagers wearing black eyeliner and studded collars who came to escape the drab reality of their suburban lives.
"The message of the music was, 'We don't care what people think about us,' and that appealed to us," recalls Jill Griffin, who haunted the clubs during the '80s.
This Saturday, Oct. 4, the former owners of 688 and the Metroplex will throw a reunion party and concert aimed at bringing together some of the bands and fans from an era viewed now with fond nostalgia: Atlanta – the punk years.
Sex Pistols: the blast that started the scene
Folks in Atlanta were listening to punk before 1978, and some were even playing it. But until the Sex Pistols rocked the Great Southeast Music Hall that January, there was no local punk scene.
As Glenn Thrasher, who later published the underground music 'zine Lowlife, recalls: "The only people who came to that show really looking like punks were Chris Wood and David Barge from the Restraints."
During the show, Sid Vicious wore black jeans and played shirtless, displaying his pale, sunken chest. Johnny Rotten, with an open vest covered with buttons and a loosely knotted tie, looked as if he'd just slept off a bender on someone's floor. Both had filthy, spiked hair.
"The Sex Pistols brought a distilled version of punk to Atlanta," says Wax 'n Facts owner Danny Beard. "After that show, you saw people wearing leather and dressing differently."
Punk scenester Jill Griffin agrees: "From that point on, everybody wanted to be punk. They cut their hair and got skinny ties and stopped wearing bell bottoms."
Be suspicious when an old-timer says he saw the Pistols play Atlanta, Thrasher warns. Only about 500 people got into the modestly sized venue in what was once the Lindbergh Plaza shopping center, many of whom were out-of-town journalists looking to cover the band's first U.S. show. The club owners turned dozens of ticket holders away from the oversold hall, offering distraught fans passes to the following week's show – featuring father/son bluegrass duo Doc and Merle Watson.
For some, the Pistols' music wasn't the main allure. The evening before the concert, admitted groupie Griffin and a friend tracked the band to Sweet Gum Head, a nearby drag club. "I don't know if Sid was stoned, but I couldn't understand a word he said," she recalls.
Later on, her friend managed to take Vicious home, but he was jonesing for smack so badly that he spent the night ransacking her medicine cabinet and trying to cut his wrist with a letter opener. The next day, Griffin says, she found Pistols' manager Malcolm McLaren in her own apartment looking for the bassist. After a quick trip to Piedmont Hospital to bandage his arm, Sid was ready for his next gig.
Atlanta's Sid and Nancy
Being part of the counterculture in mid-'70s Atlanta meant you were a hippie – or, if you were really out there, a yippie.
Chris Wood was different. Small, sickly and nearly blind, Wood had Coke-bottle glasses that made his eyes appear froglike. Wearing leather jackets covered with studs and chains, he looked equal parts miniature Hell's Angel and urban redneck, long before being a redneck became chic.
"Chris embodied punk," says guitarist David Barge, who formed the Restraints with Wood in 1977. "He was the first guy I knew who had tattoos all over his arms."
Wood also had one of the first Mohawks in Atlanta; later he shaved his head. Always striving to shock and offend, he collected and wore Nazi paraphernalia, and carried a loaded pistol, which he waved with abandon. On stage, he was a charismatic performer who lived to be outrageous; his signature stunt was sticking a hypodermic needle filled with lighter fluid into his forehead, then setting it on fire.
"In a way, maybe he was like the circus geek," says Barge, who insists that Wood's fixation with Nazism and weapons was part of an act to make him seem more threatening and outlandish.
Like many of the first wave of Atlanta's punks, the members of the Restraints lived in the famed Pershing Pointe Apartments, Atlanta's version of Manhattan's Chelsea Hotel. There, they were part of a group of artists, musicians, poets and other young Bohemians associated with the Blue Rat Gallery, an in-house arts collective.