The Story of R.E.M.’s First Concert
R.E.M. weren't even called R.E.M. yet when they took the stage for the first time on April 5, 1980 at a friend's birthday party inside the former St. Mary's Episcopal Church.
One of the oldest structures in Athens, Ga., the church had later been turned into a space where the city's local artists hung out. Michael Stipe and Peter Buck, who'd met as students at the University of Georgia, were two of them.
"Michael has said in interviews that it's a place that only students could have loved," David Ferguson, an Athens-based musician and writer, told WABE. "It’s kind of been romanticized beyond belief."
Buck and Stipe had only recently decided to start writing music together and form a band. Fellow students (and good friends) Bill Berry and Mike Mills rounded things out as they played a set reportedly dotted with covers like the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen," the Monkees' "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone" and Jonathan Richman's "Roadrunner," among others.
"It was really fun," Stipe later told author Marcus Gray. "I don't remember the last half of it." Berry, on the other hand, seemed to have total recall: "We were scared shitless!"
The St. Mary's performance was preceded by a rehearsal at the former church, as well as a stop by the campus radio station WUOG for a pre-show interview. Some reports said the group appeared as Twisted Kites, citing flyers from fellow performers the Side Effects. But R.E.M. confirmed that they hadn't yet decided on what to call themselves.
"We were thinking about Twisted Kites right up until show time," Berry said years later, "but just bagged it and went up and played without any introduction."
By April 19, they were ready to perform at the 11:11 Koffee Club in Athens with the title that would stick. (Stipe was said to have stumbled across the acronym for Rapid Eye Movement in a dictionary.) But R.E.M.'s performance at the unlicensed venue was promptly shut down, pushing back their official debut to early May at Tyrone's O.C. in Athens.
Meanwhile, St. Mary's slowly began to disappear. Originally designed as a place of worship for a local manufacturing company, the church was later decommissioned after the plant closed. The Red Cross initially revamped the space into residences, setting the stage for an important moment in music history. Within a decade, R.E.M. were international superstars, but the site of their first show was set for demolition.
“The church was in such a bad state,” Bob Sleppy, executive director of the nearby nonprofit Nuci's Space, told Paste. “There was enough uproar at the time to save what they could, and that was the steeple.”
Condos soon rose where St. Mary's once stood. Unfortunately, no measures followed that might have preserved what remained, and the historic brick structure – now commonly referred to by fans as the R.E.M. Steeple – began to badly deteriorate.
"The steeple is the iconic symbol of Athens music, I think — what's left from where we were," Marc Tissenbaum, a project manager who sought to restore the site, told Flagpole. "When I first got here in 1986, everyone knew that was the R.E.M. steeple. ... It's a landmark. It's a beacon. It's a lot of things."
Members of Athens' most famous band, local residents, interested fans and even fellow stars like Neutral Milk Hotel and Widespread Panic eventually banded together to save this lingering artifact from a time when R.E.M. didn't even have a name.
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