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R.E.M. Debuts on April 5, 1980

Editor's Note: R.E.M.'s legendary debut was later dubbed the "60th Greatest Moment in Rock History" by Entertainment Weekly ahead of Elton John's U.S. debut, the Monkees debut, and the Beatles rooftop farewell. The church was later torn down, although the steeple still remains. I later heard Kathleen O'Brien bemusedly remark how her birthday was named such an event.

This article originally appeared as a four-part series in 1995 on athensmusic.net to mark the 25th anniversary of the event and the summer event in 1995 called "Athens Rewind" that was a reunion of sorts for the early music scene fans/participants. This article has been edited down to this version for 2011. - Jeff Montgomery

By Daniel J. Matthews, Jr.

It was 25 years ago today [April 5, 1995], when R.E.M. began to play.

"I really don't remember any interesting specificities, just a great, crazy time with lots of drunk people I didn't really know yet (and that was just the band!)," emailed bass player Mike Mills from New Zealand.

I was a young boy from Iowa, hungry for the world, hanging out at O'Malley's (now Dial America [now part of the University of Georgia's medical partnership]) with my dad and a local Athens UGA journalism professor friend in Dan Kitchens. We stayed at his house on King Avenue.

April 5, 1980 did not seem like the day a rock band would set out to change the world, but they sure did. I came down from Iowa to check out the University of Georgia as a place to go to school. I am sure glad I did.

The occasion was the birthday for Kathleen "K.O." O'Brien (now married) Layson. She was the catalyst for this birthing of a band that did not even have a name yet. She was living at the church with roommates Peter Buck and Michael Stipe at the time of the event.

The following passages in italics were borrowed with permission from the Rodger Lyle Brown book Party Out of Bounds, recently republished by everthemore books.

That night, April 5, 1980, it was O'Brien's party: for her and by her, she did it all. She wanted it to be big. She cleaned the house. She bolted the front doors and posted the sign "Enter in Rear." She told everybody about the party. She reserved the kegs. To make the party extra special she even got a fancy tap: lighted, fake wood grain fleur-de-lis-shaped Budweiser tap-putting down a bad check as deposit. And she got the bands to play.

I was bored by the wooden planks of the O'Malley’s deck and severely bummed out by the fact I was too young to get in the bar. So I abandoned my father and his friend as they sat down and drank a couple of cold ones as I decided to check out the strangely compelling tunes coming from the former church on Oconee Street. I actually was afraid to go in at first, but something about the music made me want to peek in that party.

I walked over there to check it out as I heard the strains of something sounding like the Monkees being filtered through the Sex Pistols. Turns out, that is exactly what it was: "I'm not your stepping stone."

The scene was littered with the usual party refuse: beer cans, 12-pack packages, bricks, rocks, et cetera. You had to climb around the side of the former St. Mary's Episcopal Church to check out the bash.

There were lots of holes in the floor and floor boards worn bare. The sanctuary stage back area was entered through a hole in the closet. The drugs of choice seemed to be keg beer and assorted other kinds of alcohol and cigarettes, but there was plenty of acid, pot and a preponderance of other substances being consumed by the college kids there.

Other musicians involved in the entertainment that evening included deejay Kurt Wood and The Side Effects, with drummer Paul Butchart. Many thousands later claimed to be there, when in fact maybe a couple of hundred people did filter in and out of this birthday bash.'

I asked author Rodger Lyle Brown of Party Out of Bounds some questions about the event and his book, and the subsequent impact.

AMDN: Were you at that party?

Brown: Yes

AMDN: What do you remember?

Brown: I remember crawling through the hole in the closet; remember the floor that was busted open; remember that my priorities were much different than listening to the racket of the bands; remember that the big hairy drummer in Turtle Bay freaked me out due to something that we had ingested earlier in the evening.

AMDN: Were there items or stories not necessarily germane to your book about that party that you did not include?

Brown: Not really. People were there just to party. No one thought history was being made. If anybody says they did, they're being goofy. That's just adding structure after the fact to something that had no structure at the time.

The set list and whether or not the four lads had a proper name remain the most often questioned particulars of the legendary first gig a quarter century ago.

The World Wide Web supplied a supposed set list via [Australia] that goes something like this:

April 5, 1980 - St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Athens, GA

Support: The Side Effects (some apparently erroneously also list Men in Trees)

Possible set: (1st Set) - I Can't Control Myself / God Save The Queen / Narrator / Just A Touch / Baby I / Action / Needles And Pins / Hippy Hippy Shake / There She Goes Again / All The Right Friends / Shakin' All Over / Secret Agent Man / A Girl Like You / Permanent Vacation / I Can Only Give You Everything / Dangerous Times / Different Girl / Mystery To Me / (I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone / Lisa Says / Nervous Breakdown / Schéhérazade

(2nd Set) - Honky Tonk Women / One Nation Under A Groove / Roadrunner / California Sun / Gloria

Notes: First ever R.E.M. performance. Some reports have the band playing under the name 'Twisted Kites’; other reports claim there was no band name.

Song order is not known (although “I Can't Control Myself” and “God Save The Queen” have been acknowledged to be the first two songs played) and it's not known what other songs were played.

According to the fully revised and updated Marcus Gray book It Crawled From The South, singer Michael Stipe and guitarist Peter Buck agreed that the band worked up "between 15 and 18 songs" for the birthday party performance.

More than half were covers, paying tribute to the influences of the day ranging from the Rolling Stones to the Velvet Underground and the Sex Pistols along with Buck’s encyclopedic knowledge of punk rock singles and obscure slabs of wax from the 1960s.

For a band’s first performance to create early versions of songs they would still be playing a decade later is pretty phenomenal and amazing for such a nascent troupe. "Just a Touch" (which ended up on Lifes Rich Pageant) and "Narrator" (which was later recorded by the Hindu Love Gods, featuring Bryan Cook from Time Toy and R.E.M. minus Stipe) were two examples of this early magic. "Lisa Says" and several of the other songs made it to the widely heard later Tyrone’s O.C. (Old Chameleon) bootlegs in cassette, vinyl and CD form.

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