This Day in Music Spotlight: R.E.M. Play Their First Gig in a Church
April 5, 1980
Special thanks to ThisDayinMusic.com.
Rock and roll bands that changed the course of popular music history always have a story to tell. Over the years, R.E.M. would tell plenty of tales and create a few of their own, but their early days in Athens, Georgia, remain the stuff of the American rock and roll dream.
On this very day in 1980, R.E.M. played their first-ever concert at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Athens. That night they were still called Twisted Kites, the wonderfully incisive moniker R.E.M had not popped into their collective consciousness just yet.
Michael Stipe (vocals), Peter Buck (guitar), Mike Mills (bass) and Bill Berry (drums) lined up on stage to play music for the birthday party of Kathleen O’Brien, who at the time was the drummer’s girlfriend. They gave the assembled students and partygoers over two hours of post-punk, cutting edge rock and roll.
Buck and Stipe had met through a mutual interest in music. Peter worked in a record store, Wuxtry, in Athens and the already colorful Stipe like to hang out there and discuss music. They had much in common, musically at least. When they hooked up with fellow University of Georgia students Mike Mills and Bill Berry, the band that would help rescue rock and roll from the synth invasion of the early ’80s were ready to go. They rehearsed around town, wrote songs and finally, feeling ready to debut their music to a couple of hundred revelers, made their public debut
“It was really fun,” Stipe told author Marcus Gray. “I don’t remember the last half of it.” Twisted Kite played for over two hours with a mix of original material and covers like the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” and Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner.”
So good were R.E.M. in those early day that Jefferson Holt, another record store guy who fell in love with their music left his hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to become the band’s first manager. The band quickly became Athens’ premier attraction, pretty much invented college/alternative rock, toured like crazy in the U.S. and Europe over the next decade and developed into one of the biggest bands in the world.
And it all started in a historic old Church.
But while R.E.M went on to fame, fortune and critical favor, St. Mary’s fell on hard times.
The building was torn down in 1990 to make way for a condominium development. But the impressive steeple stayed put, a reminder of the old days of the early ’80s when the church served as venue and home for assorted R.E.M. personnel. Even the steeple is now in a state of disrepair. In January of 2011, Steeplechase Condominium Association, which own the steeple, voted to knock down the building.
Proving just how much R.E.M. means to the culture of Athens, the local newspaper, the Athens Banner Herald responded to the demolition news with the following statement: “So, with a demolition permit pending after the Steeplechase Condominium Association – which owns the steeple as part of the adjacent condominium development – voted to destroy the structure, it might be time for historic preservationists, music fans and others in the community with an interest in keeping that part of the community’s heritage alive, to start looking at alternative means of allowing the steeple to remain a physical presence here.”
Chuck Jones, director of Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau added, “We have a lot of international visitors who come here because of the music history, and ask to see the trestle [pictured on R.E.M.’s debut LP], the steeple, Wuxtry Records, places that are part of that.”