Thursday, July 31, 2008

Carving a Steak from the Sacred Cow

Within the tapestry of modern American culture, "conventional wisdom" holds Athens, GA to be THE most influential college town incubator of musical talent; spawning such widely known bands as R.E.M., the B-52's and Widespread Panic, as well as the lesser known, but some would argue equally talented acts, Pylon and Love Tractor.

Indeed, this "conventional wisdom" has become so pervasive and entrenched as fact that it has become a proverbial Sacred Cow, the mother of all "conventional wisdoms."

Recall, however, that the term "conventional wisdom" describes widely held beliefs that are not general truths, but rather inaccuracies that are so accepted as true that they pose a cultural obstacle to the acceptance of accurate information.

Athens, Ga is not THE fountainhead of Southern musical creativity and cannot be honestly mentioned in the same breath as Gainesville, FL in terms of artistic creativity, commercial success or longevity.

While Michael Stipe and Fred Schneider were still questioning their sexuality on the playgrounds of middle America (not that there's anything wrong with it), Gainesvillians were selling records by the millions and redefining the American musical landscape.

Do the names Bernard Leadon, Don Felder, Stephen Stills, Tom Petty and Benmont Tench ring a bell? They should.

Gainesvillian Bernard Leadon was a founding member of The Eagles and was widely considered their most talented and versatile musician until he quit the band by pouring a beer over Glenn Frey's head in 1975. It should be noted that, according to the RIAA, the Eagles Greatest Hits, '71-'75 has sold more copies than ANY other record in the U.S. This includes any record by The Beatles, Michael Jackson or anyone else, having sold 29 Million copies.

Indeed, shortly before Leadon's departure, Gainesvillian Don Felder joined The Eagles and remained a member until 2001. Like Leadon, Felder was considered to be the most versatile musician during his tenure. Felder co-wrote perhaps the most famous of American Songs, Hotel California.

Just considering the Eagles records on the RIAA Top 100 (currently that's any record with domestic sales exceeding 5 Million), the Eagles have 7 entries having sold a total of 83 Million records.

Gainesvillian Stephen Stills founded Buffalo Springfied, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Again referring only to the RIAA Top 100, the album Deja Vu sold 7 Million copies and So Far sold 6 Million. Just below the Top 100, 4 Way St. has sold 4 Million copies as has CSN. Again, not approaching total sales for Mr. Stills' ventures, these tab out at 21 Million.

Gainesvillian Tom Petty, as we know, became the house band at Dub's bar, a landmark Gainesville watering hole for decades, where he honed his skills while residing on the Mudcrutch Farm until his lease was famously terminated for repeatedly using the farm as a concert venue. His band, also known as Mudcrutch, included Gainesvillian Benmont Tench who has been the Heartbreakers keyboard player for the duration.

Again, referring only to the RIAA Top 100, Tom Petty's Greatest Hits has sold 10 Million copies while Full Moon Fever has sold 5 Million. I did not bother to tabulate his multi-platinum sales because it would have taken too long. So, conservatively, we can add another 15M in record sales.

All told, that gives Gainesvillians 11 entries on the RIAA Top 100 with sales exceeding 111 Million.

In contrast, R.E.M., the band now synonymous with Athens, GA, has never cracked the RIAA Top 100. To be sure, they have been commercially successful as Out of Time, Automatic for the People and Monster have each sold 4 Million copies. R.E.M.'s only other multi-platinum seller was Green, at 2 Million. Of course, the argument can be made that these represent R.E.M.'s poorest musical work. In contrast, the early and most creative works of The Eagles; C, S, N & Y and, to a lesser extent, Tom Petty, enjoyed immense commercial success. After all, it is the Eagles Greatest Hits from their first 4 albums that has sold 29 Million copies.

Widespread Panic, a widely regarded live performance specialist or "jam" band, has only a single Platinum record. But to be fair, Widespread Panic focuses on live performance. I've seen them a couple of times, they're quite good...I even own a couple of albums.

The B-52's, a cultural phenomenon to be sure in the early 1980's and again in the 1990's, have certainly added "Rock Lobster," "Private Idaho" and "Love Shack" to our cultural lexicon. Sadly, their records sales, when compared to the heavyweights above, are sparse. Again, to give credit where due, The B-52's first 2 records in the early 1980's were unlike anything then released and were undoubtedly a wellspring of the short-lived New Wave movement.

While I don't really intend to get into a comparison/contrast of songwriting abilities, it is worth mentioning that R.E.M. considers their songwriting to have been influenced by The Velvet Underground and Television. The Velvet Underground and Television were, in turn, heavily influenced by The Byrds. Subsequently, Peter Buck, having been made aware of similarities between the Byrds and R.E.M., has acknowledged the roundabout influence of The Byrds on R.E.M. In fact, R.E.M. included a track on a Byrds tribute album.

As you would expect, Gainesvillians both influenced, and were influenced by, their contemporaries The Byrds. David Crosby of C,S, N & Y and C, S & N, was a member of The Byrds, given his decades long collaboration with Stephen Stills, their mutual impact is obvious. Bernard Leadon played in The Flying Burrito Bros with ex-Byrds Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman prior to founding the Eagles where the country-rock genre, essentially, was created.

So, it can be fairly argued, without Athens!

Who's your Rock 'n Roll Daddy?

I think I'll have that filet mignon medium rare. Pittsburgh style.


Anonymous said...

didnt know Gainesville had such great pop roots.

but if you want gainesville to be known for the eagles and petty, go ahead. you can equate that with the ford taurus, jorts and cheese from a can. sorry rem bests them all by a landslide.

Gator KGB said...

The anonymous post, obviously, misses the stated point of the post: Athens is not the Gold Standard music incubator everyone who roots for Georgia seems to think and then use as a contratemp for explaining that claiming Athens as a cultural apex and Gainesville a cultural nadir.

Everyone is going to have their personal tastes. You are certainly entitled to enjoy the "Cheese Whiz" era, mass-produced R.E.M. during their commercial period after the multi-album Sony contract, much as you are entitled to your mop top and funny looking trousers.

Clearly, the post hits a nerve so squarely as to cause a reflexive, non-responsive response, emotional response.

I would have expected better from a Blutarsky reader.

Tommy said...

This a fun post, because I'm a big fan of many of the artists mentioned, i.e., the Velvets (drummer Moe Tucker is a Georgian), Television, REM, Gram Parsons (who was born in Winter Haven, Fla., and raised in Waycross, Ga.).

What's interesting to me is how different these two music towns are and how little influence they seem to have had on one another, in spite of their relative proximity. While there's always been a lot of cross-pollination between Athens and Chapel Hill musicians, there doesn't seem to be that relationship between Athens and Gainvesville. Also, it seems like a lot of the "Gainesvillians" referenced in this post had to move to LA to earn their stripes, whereas Athens bands dating as far back as REM and B-52s to the current crop, Olivia Tremor Control, Drive-By Truckers, Neutral Milk Hotel, Of Montreal, Vic Chesnutt, Panic, etc., have all stayed in Athens.

Gator KGB said...

Actually, you will find that neither the members of R.E.M. nor the B-52's have remained in Athens.

The B-52's long ago fled to NYC as did Stipe.

If I recall correctly, some members of R.E.M. have retained property in Athens, but it's not where they spend their time.

Regarding the "stripes" thing, it must be remembered that these bands pre-dated the southern college club circuit that has existed since the early '80's.

At that time, you pretty well had to go to LA or NYC to get a major label contract.

There really wasn't a system of micro and small labels with ties, ownership or otherwise, to the larger labels that I can discern.

Gator KGB said...


Re-reading your post it is interesting that there was no cross-pollination.

The primary reason was distance, recall the college band/bar circuit that existed. A band could play UGA one night, Vanderbilt the next, and Tennessee on Saturday night. Or perhaps UGA then Auburn and then Alabama.

In short, there were many schools within a reasonable geographic range.

Florida, unfortunately, was too far south. A band could hit UF one night or f$u the next, but the third night was lost.

Anonymous said...

I suppose using Bo Diddley would be padding it, since Diddley really retired to Gainesville, rather than coming from there...

Gator KGB said...

Good point anon.

Bo Diddley lived just outside of Gainesville for over 20 yrs. if memory serves correctly. He was far from retired.

But, he was already famous when he moved to the area and did not develop his musical skills there, as did the others.

Tommy said...


I don't know much about the B-52s whereabouts, but REM is still pretty visible in Athens, particularly in local politics. Stipe and Buck might be keeping residences in New York and Seattle, but you still see them at local shows and they still do surprise shows (talk about hitting the jackpot when you go to the 40 Watt on a night when the band is "TBD").

I guess what made me thing of the stripes comment is something I see with my hometown, Macon, Ga. Macon is the birthplace of Little Richard, Otis Redding, the Allman Brothers, half of REM, half of WSP, and Capricorn Records. Needless to say, much of that talent had to go elsewhere to get industry support.

So it's a fair point about having the infrastructure to keep the scene local, vs. simply laying a claim to musicians who had to make their name elsewhere. I live in Austin now and the amusing phenomenon here is that Austin just decided to call itself "the Live Music Capital of the World" sometime in the 1970s and just willed it to be so. Other than the nascent "Outlaw" country scene, Austin was a college town with a gazillion good Tex-Mex joints. And then suddenly all these bands started parachuting in from all over the country, to where South By Southwest is arguably the biggest music industry event in the world.

Speaking of which, Athens, Ga., has one of the largest showcases at SXSW every year. Gainesville might have one as well, but I'm just not aware of one.