MusicMusic Features

Beyond, Beyond and Then Some

“I can’t believe this is happening in Athens, GA!”

That’s what Teresa Randolph Ott screamed from her perch atop a fellow party-goer’s shoulders during The B-52s’ second public performance. It says a lot about the manic release of energy and tangible excitement of the cultural flashpoint that hit Athens in February, 1977. Ott had spent the previous summer in New York City, catching all the cool punk and no wave bands, but the dark mood of those scenes blanked out anything one might describe as “fun.” She had friends in Athens who were getting a band together who could really teach New York a thing or two.

Ott rented a huge house on Pinecrest Drive in Athens known as the Jewish Country Club (which was in fact its former use). Ott says,”[It was] a magical place we found by accident when we were looking for a place to rent… It was for sale, and the door was open. We went in and convinced the realtor to rent it to us.”

The B-52s

Because fun in Athens was perpetually self-created, there was a lot of focus on what was going on elsewhere. Dana Downs– former roommate of Ott’s but semi-permanent fixture at The Jewish Country Club– says, “Teresa had some high school friends that would come over and hang with us and we’d play the latest new wave and punk music offerings from the big cities and the UK,” says Downs. “[The not-yet B-52’s members] Keith Strickland and Ricky Wilson would bring the latest records and we’d all sit and reverently listen. We would drive to Atlanta to catch the Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, and The Ramones, since very few national acts came to Athens.”

Then one day, the boys had an announcement. They were forming a band. All Downs and the rest of the crew knew was “Ricky would play guitar; Keith would drum; Ricky’s sister Cindy would be singing along with our friend Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider. They were calling themselves The B-52s.”

The band made its public debut on Valentine’s Day 1977 at Julia Stimpson’s green house on Milledge Avenue across from The Taco Stand. For art student Keith Bennett, that night changed everything.

“I came within a split second of not going to the party… to the party that changed my life. Crazy.” Bennett’s memories of that night echo those of everyone else who attended. A four-string Mosrite guitar, reel-to-reel tape machine, a set of congas and a gong were in the front room of the house. People wore t-shirts with “B-52” written in Magic Marker ink. Barbie dolls hung from a chandelier. The band stepped from a behind a glittery curtain they’d rigged up and started off with the riff from “Peter Gunn.” Downs says, “The girls stepped out in giant white wigs, and Kate began to sing along with the music… Fred Schneider began his talking chant ‘She came from Planet Claire…’.”

Bennett was immediately enamored with Cindy. “In the middle of this unlikely lineup, I saw her… I was transfixed, frozen in the moment.” The feeling was mutual. The couple married in 1985.

That night The Bs delivered a spectacular answer to the question, “Will we be able to dance to this new band?” The B-52s knew five songs, and when those were over and the crowd wanted more, they just played them all again exactly the same way. This was targeted art. When The Bs played the Jewish Country Club a week later, their audience had a least doubled.

“Our crowd was the artistic, musical, out-of-the norm crowd,” says Ott. “We liked to make a statement by dressing outrageously, and we liked to party. And not just ‘stand around a keg and get messed up’ party. We liked wild parties where anything could happen and often did… [That second show] was a night that was beyond-beyond and then some.”

Between the romance of history and the fact that “Athens” and “music scene” are now inseparable terms, it’s impossible for anyone who wasn’t there to grasp what the Classic City was like in 1977. It was less than half as populated as now and isolated. The miniscule live music scene was a chuckle hut of college discos and hippie folk dumps hosting bad cover bands.

“If you went downtown on a Saturday night, it was deserted: no cars, no people, no clubs. Well, maybe the B&L warehouse on one end with cover bands… The Last Resort [which was] then a dive whose major draw was 25-cent beer night,” says Bennett.

Maureen McLaughlin, the band’s first manager and friend to Schneider since 1972, says, “Downtown was dead after about six o’clock at night. Many times I rode my bike down the middle of Clayton Street after dinner without encountering a single car.”

While the art party crowd was always itching for something–anything–to break the boredom, Athens itself was dealing with its own identity crisis. The town was in a race against the clock, struggling to improve conditions downtown rapidly to counter the business-draining mall development. Popular saloon owner Ted “T.K.” Harty was murdered that summer. Six days before The Bs first show, the fire department finally burned down legendary Athens brothel Effie’s.

There’s a tendency to attribute significance to mere coincidence, but things were changing around the time that spawned The B-52s. “A kind of grace descended upon Athens,” says McLaughlin. “We were all a part of a massive collaborative spirit where each person’s effort urged the next person on. We knew it could not last forever, but it lasted longer than any of us individually deserved.”

After 35 years, everyone’s memories get a little out of order. We know this for sure: the band went deep into rehearsals, played a few more local parties, landed a gig at Max’s Kansas City courtesy of Curtis Knapp (Ott’s New York artist boyfriend who flipped over The Bs at the Country Club party), had a debut single released by Danny Beard on his DB label, signed to Warner Brothers and then moved to New York. Then came stardom, the death of Ricky Wilson, enormous hits in the ’90s and legendary status.

When asked for comment about the band’s anniversary, Fred Schneider replies with characteristic levity. “We always love playing Athens,” he says.”[There’s] so many great memories and great friends to see again–Hey, Ort! What crazy things are you collecting now?–[This time], I’ll have time to go to The Potter’s House and Wuxtry!” He makes it seem as if hardly any time has passed.

But time has passed, and, as Downs says, “Athens is still a magical place. I mean, we all choose to live here… The joie de vivre and free-spirited hi-jinks of The Bs has forever permeated this town.”

Every memory here could fill a book of its own, each with its own ordered recollection. What is shared is an unflinching thankfulness for having been present at the moment The B-52s–whose name will always be followed or preceded by the words “Athens, GA”–dressed life in the youthful whimsy of thrift-store glamour and space-age fascination, then captured it in sound, creating the irrepressible heartbeat for the exuberance that has defined the Athens music scene ever since.

(Please Note: This article has been modified from its original version published Feb. 8, 2012. Changes were made to correct some minor historical inaccuracies. Also, portions of the accounts credited to Dana Downs previously appeared in Southern Distinction Magazine)

WHO: The B-52s

WHERE: The Classic Center

WHEN: Thursday, Feb. 9, 8 p.m.

HOW MUCH: $38.50–$149; VIP packages available at