Comedian Patton Oswalt once noted that Athens, Georgia (along with other cities like Madison, Wisconsin and Austin, Texas) was a place that you could pay for a sandwich with a song. He was referring to how certain college towns operate with an entirely different set of rules than other places in America, but if you’ve spent any time in Athens, you don’t need the joke explained. If you’re familiar with Clayton and Washington Streets in Athens and everything in between, you know that something like magic happens almost every single night in the bars and clubs that grace the small town that also hosts the University of Georgia. The soundtrack to Athens, GA: Inside/Out is a testament to how much of an impact bands from a certain era can have on a particular scene. Repackaged with the film on DVD, the long out-of-print soundtrack has resurfaced to see the light of day once again, a sign that young indie music aficionados will discover the history of why Athens receives the reputation that it enjoys.
Trying to review the soundtrack for Athens, GA: Inside/Out is difficult in a lot of ways. The main reason that one runs into roadblocks when trying to evaluate the soundtrack is that the music included is less associated with a film about a small town’s music scene and more of a compilation that documents a time and place that is remembered fondly despite the many years that have passed. Those with some affiliation to Athens will know that the 40 Watt Club has relocated (a few times), the Georgia Theatre has burned down and reopened, new bands like the Whigs and Drive-By Truckers now carry the torch of fine Athens-based music outside of the confines of Loop 10, and hundreds of thousands of students have rung the chapel bell on north campus upon graduating from the University of Georgia. Things have changed since Athens, GA: Inside/Out was released in 1987 – not necessarily for better or worse, but they have most certainly changed. Yet the music recorded during the Golden Age of Athens will be there for posterity. Thanks to this latest release, there’s a chance new listeners will hear what this town once had to offer all in one place (I am sure that many older copies of the soundtrack and film are damaged due to them being overplayed).
When R.E.M. announced their retirement last year, the notice was unsurprisingly met with sadness. To call the band a fixture in the local culture of Athens would be an egregious understatement. On Athens, GA: Inside/Out, we get a few of the early songs from the band’s corpus. “Swan Swan H” from Life’s Rich Pageant and an incredible cover of the Everly Brothers classic (written by Glenn Campbell and Bobbie Gentry) “(All I’ve Got To Do Is) Dream”. R.E.M. fanatics may not drop everything for these tracks, but they certainly provide more justification how central the band was in forming what college radio became over the past three decades.
Bill Berry once told Rolling Stone that R.E.M. wasn’t the best band in America – Pylon, their Athens compatriots, were a better band according to Berry. Fronted by Vanessa Briscoe (now Hay), Pylon could have easily trumped Talking Heads as the punk outfit that managed to achieve mainstream success. The band’s inclusion on Athens, GA: Inside/Out, “Stop It”, is representative of Pylon’s penchant for rhythmical rock that constantly flirted with going off of the rails into punk oblivion. Although the song is the only track offered by Pylon on the soundtrack, it speaks volumes to the influence that the band continues to have on the Athens scene.
The Bar-B-Q Killers, by far the most punk group on the soundtrack, are spotlighted for good reason. “His and Hearse” is a face-melting tune in under two minutes that is sure to capture the imagination of many who haven’t yet heard the song and incite dangerous levels of nostalgia for those that have. The fast riffs and chaotic drums are a perfect bookend to the perfect pop tune “Golden” by Dreams So Real that follows it.
Other, less famous bands from Athens during the 1980s grace the compilation. Do the kids who listen to the White Stripes religiously know of the Flat Duo Jets? Probably not, but they ought to. Fronted by Dexter Romweber (a man MTV’s Cutting Edge once called “no poseur”), the Flat Duo Jets were a guitar and drums two-piece way before two-pieces were cool. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not calling bands like the White Stripes and the Black Keys phonies (trends in art are almost assuredly circular), but the band’s songs on Athens, GA: Inside/Out just proves how much groundwork Romweber laid with the Flat Duo Jets. If noise could be measured in weight, the Flat Duo Jets almost certainly produced it tons and their offerings here (“Jet Tone Boogie” and “Crazy Hazy Kisses”) are evidence of that heaviness. If there is any justice in this world, the release of Athens, GA: Inside/Out will spark a renewed interest in the rockabilly-blues legends that have unfortunately never received the credit they’ve quite deserved.
The lesser-known bands from this era in the Athens scene make this compilation a must-buy. The Squalls offer “Na Na Na Na” and “Elephant Radio”, two tracks that were so downright perfect for ‘80s college radio play that it’s hard to believe the pinnacle of their career is their inclusion on such a great soundtrack like Athens, GA: Inside/Out.
The bonus material on the CD portion of the release is worth the cost of admission alone and will likely be the reason that many of the Athens faithful will buy the collection. This portion of the release makes an obvious nod to Love Tractor, who offer three of the five outtakes that were previously unreleased. The band’s cover of “Search and Destroy” by the Stooges is a nice choice and stays awfully faithful to Iggy Pop’s original interpretation of the song. Love Tractor’s “Shattered” by the Rolling Stones makes an appearance for the guitar noodling alone – the lyrics to the song are largely unintelligible. But that’s okay, it’s just too much fun to hear the band toy around with Peter Buck that it feels necessary to include the track.
In short, this soundtrack is a perfect tribute to a time and place that while far gone, is most certainly not forgotten. Although many listeners will likely opt to buy the DVD/CD combo of Athens, GA: Inside/Out instead of making a visit to the small Georgia town that sparked such an incredible music scene, they will have made a very wise decision in purchasing this collection.