The LIVERPOOL OF THE SOUTH
Athens, Georgia, has long been celebrated as “the Liverpool of the South.” In Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture, historian Grace Elizabeth Hale named it “the first important small-town American music scene and the key early site of what would become alternative or indie culture. It became “the model for the small, deeply local bohemias that together formed ’80s indie culture” for Generation X.
In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine proclaimed Athens the "best college music town in the country" and the "alpha and omega of the college music scene."
Since the late 70s, Athens' musical loins have sired a litter of renowned bands, from the "dance this mess around" B-52's and moody jangle rock of R.E.M. to the jam fest pudding of Widespread Panic and the critically acclaimed yet criminally underappreciated Pylon.
Less well known is the city's musical history that predates the emergence of these world-class artists in “America's hippest music scene.”
Pete McCommons, Editor and Publisher of the influential Athens weekly magazine Flagpole, wrote:
“Athens music is played out upon a palimpsest, each layer partially obscuring while drawing strength from those underlying. Yes, the legend is that bored, artistic, hip, cool kids in the late '70s made up a band (the B-52’s) to entertain themselves and their friends at parties in the rambling, decrepit old houses that sheltered the eccentric dropouts who became "townies" to distinguish them from the "gownies" on campus. That band flashed quickly to NYC, paving the way for all that followed, showing that all you have to do is make it up and it will work. So many followed that Athens music is still not only going strong, it has a history. It has living legends and sacred spots. They haunt the new performers, judging them from the shadows, in turn haunted by the youth who ever spring forth, banishing the ghosts by the glare of the spotlight. There are other shades back behind those in the shadows, for Athens was a music town in the '70s and in the '60s and the '50s and beyond.”
Present at the Creation: Ravenstone & the Birth of Athens Rock by Charles Burel, takes us back to the early 70s in this mecca for cool to provide a rare glimpse at the “shades back behind those in the shadows” and one band’s unique place in the city's musical history.
Present At The Creation:
Ravenstone & the Birth of Athens Rock
Ravenstone, a group that has been called “one of the godfathers of Athens rock” and “an early link in the internationally acclaimed Athens music scene,” was one of the premier rock bands bouncing across the city’s nascent music landscape of the early 70s. The group was formed when three of its members met in the University of Georgia’s Department of Drama and Theatre (the “Seinfeld” actor Wayne Knight was a classmate) and discovered their mutual love for hip-shaking music and rabble rousing.
The group's lineup was Butch Blasingame, lead guitar and vocals; Dwight Brown, bass, acoustic guitar and vocals; Michael A. Simpson, lead vocals, harmonica, percussion and air raid siren (yes, air raid siren); Ralph Towler, guitar, mandolin, keyboards and vocals; and Bill Wilson, drums, clarinet, and saxophone.
Unlike many of the era's young musical artists in the South, Ravenstone wasn't fixated on or even particularly interested in the Southern style of rock made popular by The Allman Brothers Band, The Charlie Daniels Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Instead, the group drew its inspiration from such disparate influences as the social commentary of the Kinks, the blistering guitar rave ups of the Yardbirds, the streetwise humor of Lou Reed, the raw theatricality of Iggy Pop & the Stooges, and the clarinet solos of Benny Goodman.
The result was music that one critic called "earotic rock," (that's the way he spelled it) which I still find humorous. Their music, infused with the jolting excitement of youthful passion, was designed for both pleasure centers – the brain and the hips. And Ravenstone stimulated both, splendidly at times.
The band’s explosive sound was muscular, loud and lyrically intense, combining prototype punk elements (before that label was invented) with roots rock, British invasion and old school soul influences such as James Brown and Otis Redding.
Ravenstone's campus concerts at Legion Field and the Memorial Hall Ballroom, and their performances at various clubs around Athens (Between the Hedges, Time Out and Your Mother's Mustache, among others), were legendary as much for the band's stage antics and political activism as their incendiary music.
The band was renowned for its persiflage. One of the earliest published photos of the group featured the bass player in a gas mask and bow tie and the drummer in military uniform hanging on a granite cross in a graveyard. A Mickey Mouse doll and a Crusader's shield are noticeable at his feet. Those two iconic images pretty much summed up the band’s outlook: a crusading spirit that never took itself too seriously.
Ravenstone has been called "the original bad boys of Athens rock" who were "kicking ass long before you were." While that is both succinct and accurate, the band was much more than that.
The group lived at the intersection of music and politics, promoting social justice and human rights issues involving the university and Athens community. The band advocated for environmental justice and the legalization of marijuana, and regularly espoused its staunch anti-war beliefs. They championed the right to freely express sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Ravesters (as their fans called them) are probably the only Athens band ever to perform a solo in a song using a World-War-II-era air raid siren. It was a tune that began with a rather unusual rap in Russian by the group’s multi-lingual bassist.
Chances are they are also the only Athens band ever to be harassed by the Ku Klux Klan for performing at a gay rights dance – reportedly the first ever openly held at a Southern college – on a bill with a renowned drag queen. The University of Georgia administration did everything possible to stop the event, claiming it would promote sodomy. At the time, the act was legally defined as oral or anal sex between individuals, including heterosexuals, and was a felony under GA state law punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Only a last-minute restraining order issued by a Superior Court judge allowed the performance to happen.
The band challenged Athen's attempts at voter suppression, and supported freedom of speech, repeatedly pressing the issue on stage to the consternation of university officials.
The group was threatened with arrest at a voter registration rally (these guys were rocking the vote decades before MTV thought the idea up) after the band performed a blistering original song called "Off the Pig." Their charismatic lead vocalist cajoled the authorities by explaining to the audience that the song was about animal abuse, not cop killing. The band's reaction to the police threat was to play louder, a point highlighted in a news article written in The Red & Black student newspaper.
The article noted that during the band’s outdoor performance on North Campus near the university’s administration building “plainclothes policemen were stationed outside of President Davison's office.” Some say the authorities feared that Ravenstone’s political banter would inspire the several hundred students attending the performance to social mischief and mayhem.
The Politics of Dancing
Passionate political expression and personal freedom were the life blood of Ravenstone and its music.
An early article written about the group, “Five Set Politics To Music,” appeared in the news section of The Atlanta Journal & Constitution, not its entertainment section. In it, the band announced its intention to form a "coalition" party to take over student government at the University of Georgia, which they preceded to do.
In 1973, Ravenstone Coalition (later simply “Coalition”) elected its entire slate of executive candidates to student government. In a first, the party’s openly gay presidential candidate was elected in 1975.
The Great Speckled Bird, an "underground" newspaper of the era that covered the Atlanta and Athens music scene, also noted the band’s feverish blend of politics and music: "the band usually does political raps between numbers" and “performs original Steppenwolf-like political songs."
Then there was the night members of the group had to be secreted out the rear exit of an Athens area club after several inebriated males threatened violence over their dates' passionate response to what might be tactfully described as Simpson’s microphone-stand-humping performance.
But who would expect anything less from a band that named itself for a field in Germany where they executed witches in the 15th Century? The literary reference is from Goethe's Faust, a play that Blasingame, Simpson and Wilson were studying in class when they met. The scene, set at night in an open field, begins "What weaving are they round the Ravenstone? Mephistopheles. I know not what they are...”
“I know not what they are” is an apt description of the puzzlement some felt when first exposed to the band’s vibrant music and rousing stage antics.
One of my favorite philosophers, Yogi Berra, once said you can observe a lot by just watching. Back in the day I was often asked to explain the group and their music. I couldn't then. I still can't. You had to be there. You had to watch and hear the band to understand what Ravenstone was about. It does remind me of a quote by Maya Angelou: "A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song."
The Ravesters never became a brilliant music force. They didn’t stay together long enough to reach that nirvana, although I suspect they would have given time. But they were immensely talented and fearlessly entertaining. Their loud and rowdy play and ebullient performances captured the pure joy of rock as well as any Athens band before or since.
Jim Pettigrew, Jr., music critic for The Red & Black, favorably reviewed one of Ravenstone's early Memorial Ballroom performances. Describing the band’s "hot licks" he wrote: "The five-man group played some good hard rock, a smattering of blues and tasteful original material."
What is most noteworthy about this concert review is that it was written in the fall of 1971, six years before Athens gained fame with the emergence of the B-52's, eventually leading to the city's worldwide recognition for such bands as R.E.M. in the early 80s and much later, Widespread Panic.
Although Ravenstone stands as a concise rebuttal to those who believe the Athens music scene began in 1977, perhaps the band’s most enduring impact on Athens music was its early support of the University of Georgia’s student radio station. The band endorsed the funding of WUOG in its Coalition Party platform and advocated for it during live performances. The station is often credited with bolstering the emerging Athens music scene by showcasing bands in it.
More Love RECORDING SESSIONS
With their fan base growing in the spring of 1972, Ravenstone went into Atlanta's Web IV Studio to record their first album, “More Love.” After completing the title track and several others, including “Watercolor,” a rocker that was to be their first single, and “Babylon,” a rousing political anthem that was a live performance favorite, the always combustible group abruptly disbanded. The exact reasons for this breakup remain a matter of speculation and dispute. The material recorded during the Web IV sessions has, to date, never been released.
The final performance featuring the group’s original five members was at Legion Field. Amped with a sound system that had previously been used at the Atlanta International Pop Festival, the band’s thunder that night could be heard all the way to Five Points, approximately a mile away.
After the demise of the original roster, later lineups of Ravenstone featuring Simpson and Blasingame became fixtures on the Southeast club circuit until 1974.
Those incarnations of the band included drummer Randy Delay (whose work can be heard on Drivin-N-Cryin's "Honeysuckle Blue" and the Georgia Satellites' "Keep Your Hands To Yourself") and bassist Greg Veale, who became a founding member of critically acclaimed Athens' recording artists, the Normaltown Flyers.
Perhaps the most unusual career trek happened to Ravenstone's inexhaustible roadie and photographer, Jimmy Ellison. Following his time with the band, he was a music critic (using the moniker J Eddy Ellison) for The Athens Banner-Herald, and a founding member and bassist of The Side Effects, an Athens band that had the distinction of debuting at a party with the band that became R.E.M. in their first performance. In May 1980, The Side Effects became the first band to play at the legendary 40 Watt Club, one of the more famous music venues in Georgia, if not the United States.
Ravenstone's original members reunited in the late 1980s and continue to record and perform.