40 years ago R.E.M. played their first ever gig : our man was there and here is his reviewR.E.M. 

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church Athens USA

First ever gig April 5th 1980

Live review 

They played a set of covers like the Sex Pistols “God Save the Queen,” the Monkees’ “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” and Jonathan Richman’s   “Roadrunner,”

On April 5th 1980, the vivacious university town of Athens, Georgia, swirled with excitement that went beyond the usual buzz of a nascent college music scene. A rumour that the birthday party of Kathleen O’Brien, a popular DJ of a regional radio station, might include the performance of three local bands, was spread through the capillaries of the student campus and advertised the happening to be nothing less than the mother of all parties. In a place of such bohemian leisure and DIY ethos, it was certainly an event not to be missed.

In the early hours of the evening, several hundred people gathered around a collapsing episcopal church, only a short walk away from the university’s main entrance. The combination of alcohol, barbiturates and southern springtime breeze built a scorching atmosphere that was additionally inflamed by concerts from local impromptu ensembles Turtle Bay and The Side Effects. Last on the bill was a band whose members met only a few months earlier and were so new to the game that they haven’t even decided on a name. The electrifying quartet ravaged through a carefully selected bouquet of cover songs before the singer jumped in the audience and ended the set on the hands of the crowd, joining the festivities that lasted well into the next morning, when even the most eager of the partygoers caved in to fatigue. Even though it must have been one of the best parties of the Athens’ vibrant college scene, it was probably lost on the attendees at the time that they witnessed something as historical as the first performance of R.E.M. 

R.E.M. stands for rapid eye movement, a stage of sleep when dreaming occurs. Although the band members claim that it was just something they randomly pulled out of a dictionary, one couldn’t find a better phrase to describe their music. Their characteristic sound of dreamlike hand-painted landscapes and murmured fables, vested in the mysticism of the abstract and the mythology of rock’n’roll, became synonymous with the art of dreaming while being awake. With it, R.E.M. filled in the voids between what has already been and what was yet to come, using every colour on the palette, and even inventing new colours on their own, as long-time fan Eddie Vedder wittily remarked in his ode to the band before their 2007 induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

R.E.M. was a living proof that the unit is only as strong as its parts. The band members collectively signed themselves under all their compositions regardless of who actually wrote a particular song, which spared them the friction regarding royalties that undermines the foundation of many successful bands. However, the largest portion of their magic lies in four unique individuals who managed to find a common musical language that enabled them to create ‘that special something’ that makes them stand out in spite of their clearly visible differences.

There was Peter Buck, a Kerouacian vagabond, eternally enamoured with rock’n’roll, one of the greatest connoisseurs of rock music and the subject of an anecdote that he knows every record ever released (and probably has it in his collection). There was Bill Berry, a drummer in love with the melody, the band’s main motivational drill-sergeant and the sharpener of the rough edges of some of their best songs. There was Mike Mills, R.E.M.’s multi-instrumentalist and secret weapon in charge of unconventional bass lines and irreplaceable backing vocals.

And then, there was Michael Stipe – one part dreamy poet of abstract, almost allegoric lyrics, one part lucid activist who once stated that music and politics don’t mix but he’s going to try anyway. Utterly ambiguous and painfully straightforward at the same time, Michael’s vocals were impossibly difficult to decode, compliment of his nasal murmuring style of singing that was often buried in the mix. Despite the fact that the records contained no lyrics sheet and the words were a constant guessing game among fans, you could feel the emotion he was trying to put through to you, as if the message was clear and upfront.

That warm spring night 40 years ago set off a journey that saw them embark on a seemingly endless tour of the continent with occasional hops over the Atlantic, and rewarded them with a cult status among the fast-growing and extremely heterogeneous college rock audience. After five excellent indie albums, relentless work ethics and the band’s uncompromising dedication to their art resulted in the long-running contract with Warner Bros. and subsequent worldwide success. They have gone a long way and covered a lot of ground, from alternative rock pioneers to folksy bouzouki troubadours and analogue synthesizer enthusiasts, all whilst maintaining a strong image of integrity. Despite the global success of that mandolin song and the fact that they have sold millions of records and produced quite a few high-grossing tours, no one ever dared to accuse them of selling out. On the contrary, most of the contemporary alternative rock stars like Eddie Vedder, Thom Yorke and Billy Corgan praised R.E.M. for their efforts, and even the late Kurt Cobain continuously cited them as a major influence.

R.E.M.’s legacy is astounding and their influence on the music world cannot be measured. All that is in our power is to remember every moment of their greatness.


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  1. REM is almost all I listen to anymore. I only wish I had been into the more when I was growing up but although I listen to them I certainly didn’t have the appreciation for them then that I do now. I have even caught a couple of their shows but didn’t go to see them I went to see whoever they were opening for. Wish I could have those days back!

  2. If you would iike a true insiders story. The article above has many errors.

    A Behind the Scenes look at a Moment in Athens Music History

    First Night (April 5, 1980)

    Boy, are we nervous. In just a few minutes we are going to be playing our very first show ever. Who could have known when we decided to just get together and make some music that we would actually be playing in front of an audience?

    Tonight is the birthday of one of my oldest friends in Athens, Kathleen O’Brien… I first met Kathleen while we were in high school at a German convention for students who were studying the language. I used to work with her brother when I was 15 and her best friend was in my high school German class.

    On February 29, 1980, John Cale played the last show for a long time at the Georgia Theater, after the show was a birthday party for local college radio D.J. Kurt Wood. It was at Kurt’s birthday party that Kathleen O’Brien asked if Kit Swartz, Jimmy Ellison and I could play at her birthday party on April 5th. She said her roommates’ band was also going to perform, if they could get a set together. Nervously we agreed, even though we had only been playing for about 3 months all together, we also hoped to have our set, too.

    During spring break a few weeks after Kurt’s birthday, I rode to New York City with the future singer and guitarist of the other band and Kurt Wood, who started the first “New Wave/Punk” show at WUOG, the student-run University radio station. The trip to NYC was, to say the least, quite eventful. It while in New York that we all were somehow invited to attend a birthday party for Lester Bangs. I had already met the guitar player, because he worked in a record store and the singer and I worked together at the Steak and Ale restaurant where the crew would sometimes get together and have go-go parties at a house outside of town.

    Two weeks ago, the singer and a friend of his, Mark Cline, came
    to see us rehearse at a house my parents had bought out in the suburbs of Athens. We were quite the amateurs. We plodded through our 9 song set and asked them what they thought. The singer seemed to feel that we were really no threat to them musically, but we definitely may have had them beat in the originality department. Two of the songs we played were covers that he said they were going to do, too, but since we were, he decided to not to play them. We decided not to play “Secret Agent Man” so that they could perform that as well.

    Last night we loaded our equipment through a back door into the sanctuary of the church, where Kathleen lived with the guitarist and singer. There was a two story apartment built inside the church occupying half of the available space. Fortunately there was a back door, or we’d have to load our equipment through the closet in Kathleen/s bedroom, which had a small door about 3 feet high that one had to duck through to enter the sanctuary from the apartment.

    After setting up our equipment in the dark and dusty chamber, we ran through our set. We played our set for the drummer of the headlining band and the bassist. It was the first time the guitarist heard us as well. We were quite nervous, since they had just finished performing some of their songs for us. It was the first time I had ever heard them play, and it was much more professional and quite tight. Their set consisted of mostly covers, with about 40 percent originals interspersed throughout it.

    “That is interesting the way you accent the downbeats the same as the upbeats.” said the other drummer to me.

    I honestly had no idea what he was talking about, having never taken a lesson in my life. “Thanks”, I said through the microphone after our set while doing a very lousy impersonation of Johnny Lydon in the Public Image Ltd vein. We were really wasted by the time the last night was over, because we wanted to play sober tonight.

    Today, earlier in the evening members of both bands had done interviews with Kurt Wood on WUOG. The party was to be a big secret. The headlining band hadn’t even chosen a name yet and were asking the audience to vote on such names as “Twisted Kites”, “Third Wave” and “Negro Wives”. Both bands were really playing up the big rock star image. It was quite hilarious. We decided to call ourselves “The Side Effects”, after a book we had seen at Barnett’s News Stand.

    Time for our debut set, and the whole place is packed. There are even people hanging in the windows next to the stage, being careful not to fall through the holes in the floor. We are scared to death! We open with “I Always Used to Watch You” and run quickly through our set, ending with a song the other guitarist would eventually name for us, “Neat In The Street”. For some reason I think the idea of playing before the audience has given us some weird boost of energy and we bring the crowd to an exciting dancing frenzy. Finally our set is finished and everyone is screaming for an encore, so we play our first two songs over again.

    The headlining band finally takes the stage for the first time ever, “Oh No!! Ba ba bada ba ba ba badaba” They play “I Can’t Control Myself” Or maybe it was ‘Nervous Breakdown”. It is hard to remember. Our set is over and the need to remain sober has long vanished. However, their set is just beginning, and for them it will be the first of many for years to come.

    When the headliners were finished a few guys came up and did some drunken Sex Pistols covers, one of them was the other guitar player’s coworker at the record store. Later they would become the $windle$, Athens’ first true punk band, and in spite of what one may have heard in the past Turtle Bay did NOT play this evening.

    A few days later when I was cleaning out the van we had driven to go to NYC I found a pair of Tightie Whities in the refrigerator. I was eternally perplexed as to their origin. Years later upon mentioning this story to Peter Buck he laid claim to the underwear saying that he had had an intimate encounter in the back of the van on the night of their very first show.

    I sincerely want to Thank K. O. for providing us the opportunity to be part of this mo(ve)ment. Happy Birthday Kathleen, and Happy Anniversary r.e.m.!


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