When R.E.M. is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame March 12, the glitzy ceremony at New York City's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel will certainly belie the band's humble origins at a party held in a dilapidated Athens church in April 1980.
"Back then, the party scene was the thing," says Cindy Wilson of the B-52's, the first Athens band to emerge from what is now considered the golden age of the New Wave era. "If you wanted original music, you did it yourself and played it for your friends."
And that's exactly what R.E.M. did, erupting from the DIY party scene that ultimately spawned a multitude of acts. The now-thriving Athens club scene was almost forced to grow in order to serve the increasing number of bands. Meanwhile, Atlanta's club scene was already well-established and organized. Atlanta attracted so many musicians that the scene fractured into many smaller factions, centered around venues or groups of bands. Compared with Athens' organic scene, however, Atlanta was like the Big Apple. Yet it still wasn't ready for the quirk of the original Classic City rockers.
"When we started out we couldn't have gotten an [Atlanta] gig if we tried," continues Wilson, now a metro Atlanta resident. "We had to go to New York before we could be taken seriously, and even then we had to move to New York in order to be a national act."
But once the B-52's left Athens, bands began to sprout. And in that fertile, unspoiled soil, R.E.M. quickly established itself as a regional draw, before earning national and international acclaim, all while deeply rooted in Athens. They didn't buy a ticket out of town. They bought in, by helping to resurrect historic buildings and landmarks, and bankrolling numerous local charities.
But could the massive monolith that is Atlanta ever produce such dedicated homeboys – a Hall of Fame-bound band whose success is intrinsically tied to the city?
"R.E.M. was a fluke of nature," says Atlanta native David Railey, an East Atlanta cornerstone and the mastermind behind Day Mars Ray, American Dream and Corndogorama. "Athens wasn't a music scene that was trying to 'make it,' it was just a college town with good music."
Indeed, while Atlanta's early '80s pop, rock and New Wave scenes boomed with venues such as Hedgens, the Bistro, 688 and the Agora, Athens' scene remained small-scale. "Atlanta is like Athens times 10, but without all the jam-rock and R.E.M. wannabes," says Ted Selke of the Seventh Ring of Saturn, active in Atlanta music for more than two decades.
Ultimately, Athens and Atlanta are inherently incomparable because of the difference in size. And it's important to remember that while Athens also had individual scenes, there were few geographic divisions due to the close proximity of the divergent musicians. "The biggest gap was the [distinction between the] art side and the more organic rocker side," says Widespread Panic's John Bell. Widespread Panic was heavily influenced by early '80s Athens band the Squalls, which was also divided between quirky art-pop and the jam-band approach of the Grateful Dead.
But perhaps the bigger issue at stake is whether or not bands have to move away from Georgia to find national success – like the B-52's, the Black Crowes and even Atlanta's Keith Vogelsong and his Goodnight Records label recently did? "No one knows the answer," Railey says. "Jimi Hendrix had to move to the U.K. to find a band and then return to the U.S.A. as a success with a British band."
He also points to the success of OutKast, the rap duo that has done its part to imprint Atlanta with a distinct yet divergent identity. "Twenty years after R.E.M. became No. 1, OutKast showed everyone something new and exciting without a corporate, preconceived business model. It worked because it was real, and most people can tell the difference. People decide who is successful, not the music industry. Then the vultures and leeches – the music industry – find out and usually suck the life and magic out of it."