The other night I was watching Jeopardy and doing mental aerobics, and Lester Bangs’ name came up as the answer to a clue. Or rather, his name check in R.E.M.’s “End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, which prompted memories of that whole Athens, Georgia, scene of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. How such an improbable community of collegians, townies, and oddballs, playing for themselves and their friends at dives like the 40 Watt Club, ended up attracting worldwide pop music attention.
Of course, Stipe, Buck, and the B-52’s mob are still hanging in there in their fashion, but it’s the origins of that scene that for me still make it so special. That uniquely American, post-punk-fostered idea of how far you could stretch the form and still have it rock and, most importantly, be sufficiently danceable. What also made Athens’ music scene impressive was the creative intuition, even ingenuity, of many of its players. I’m thinking mostly here of the late Ricky Wilson, and flashing back to the inner sleeve of the B-52’s debut disc. That battered Mosrite guitar heard on “Rock Lobster” and “Dance This Mess Around”, with only the top and bottom pairs of heavy gauge strings and radically retuned. If you can find it, seek out a long-out-of-print book by Rodger Lyle Brown, called Party Out of Bounds. Pretty much the definitive Athens music history, Brown at one point quotes an early fanzine scene report that even gives instructions for alternate guitar tunings, such as those used by Wilson.
I suspect that Vic Varney came up with, and made use of, a few of those tunings as well. Varney was part of a now obscure but equally key Athens combo, the duo known as the Method Actors. To look at them, the Method Actors were a mismatch on the order of Mutt and Jeff: singer/axeman Varney being slight and beady-eyed, skinsman David Gamble a square-jawed hulk. But together, this bassless duo were capable of some fiercely abstract yet rocking jams, as evidenced on Acute’s new retrospective, This Is Still It, which cherry-picks cuts from the band’s 1980-81 recorded output.
Readers who have gotten this far probably have two queries looming large in their grey matter: “So they’re from Athens; how much do they sound like the B-52’s?”, and “So they have no bass player; how much do they sound like the White Stripes?” Second question first, then: not much. In fact, the Method Actors’ sonic directive had more in common with the gleeful, FSU abandon of Half Japanese’s Jad and David Fair (albeit a slightly more tuneful kind of skronk) than the bloozy bombast of Jack ‘n’ Meg. They do share, though, a skill for filling in the low end, be it Varney’s repetitive, astringent guitar patterns (occasionally bursting into runs of surprising delicacy on songs like “Dancing Underneath”) or Gamble’s busy yet unflashy percussive fills.
And as to their homeburg compadres, the Method Actors actually were closer to, if anyone, Pylon than the Love Shack’s houseband. Songs like the stumblebum-tempoed “She”, or the frayed unrelenting rumba of “E-Y-E”, also exhibit a sense of angularity and danger that wouldn’t even be out of place within the concurrent NYC No Wave clique. But really, all Athens bands of the time, be they the B’s, Pylon, or R.E.M. later, were playing for dancers every bit as insistent as their San Francisco ancestors a generation previous, and one can imagine that at their best—as on the anthemic “Do the Method” (highlighted by an assured and positively chugging guitar break) or the rag-doll getdown of “No Condition”—Varney and Gamble got the party moving and then some.
While the Method Actors may never earn themselves a clue on Jeopardy, with luck, This Is Still It will go substantial ways towards intrepid music-heads among us getting a clue.