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'Underdog' R.E.M. upstages The Brains

Red And Black
Publication Date: 
May 7, 1980

In their Athens debut a year ago, The Brains were upstaged by the Wuoggerz, a group of campus radio station amateur musicians, at Memorial Ballroom. Tuesday night, The Brains played their second Athens show at Tyrone’s O.C. and were again upstaged. This time it was by a band that has been in existence for two months, R.E.M.

But wait a minute, The Brains come nowhere near the bumbling droogs their Athens record might indicate. They have produced a bona fide classic single to help set the tone for the 1980s with “Money Changes Everything”. And their newly released Mercury album, The Brains, proves they’re not a one hit band. Maybe they should just be a little more particular with the stage company they keep in the Classic City.
The Brains opened a 40 minute set with “Treason”, an instrumental microcosm of the beauty and desperation that is their trademark. Tom Gray’s pre-sequenced synthesizer fills were stunning. The trouble began when Gray sang, however – the sound mix turned into mush at the mere hint of a vocal. This problem plagued The Brains throughout their 11-song set and encore.
It was more than unfortunate that The Brains should have to wrestle with a defective sound mix. Gray’s lyrics were, for the most part, inscrutable. And the “world premiere” of two Brains songs was totally lost. Slower mood pieces like “In The Night” and “Gold Dust Kids” were an excuse to sit down instead of listen.
“Raeline”, a sort of new wave “Maybelline”, and “Girl in a Magazine” featured chainsaw guitar work and a breakneck backbeat. The SRO crowd responded by shaking their heads feverishly and dancing where they could find space. In The Brains’ haste to give themselves more breathing room onstage, they cut off a sizeable chunk of an already small dance floor.
“Money Changes Everything”, a song that could easily be anthemic live, closed the set with frustratingly sludgy comment. Gray’s underscoring organ riff, considered by some to be “the” keyboard sound of 1979, was buried alive. It didn’t make any difference that Gray pulled his glasses off for emphasis when he sang: “Oh, honey, how can you do it? – We swore each other everlasting love – She said, well, yeah. I know – But when we did there was one thing we weren’t really thinking of – Money, money changes everything”. If you didn’t already have the single or album, there was no way you could have understood the song’s great acid lyrics.
Rick Price (guitar) and Bryan Smithwick (bass) performed obligatory instrument jousting to give The Brains some visual flair while Charlie Wolff (drums), ex-Thermos Greenwood, beat up on his drum kit. There were plenty of musical sparks from all four members of the band, but the sound mix quickly stamped those out.
Tom Gray may have more than a little Cars in his blood; however, this is tempered by the Roxy Music and Velvet Underground influences which were a primary source of inspiration for The Fans, Gray’s former musical experience. The Brains hardly mimic The Cars, Gray has simply beaten Ric Osasek and his buddies to the punch with brand new keyboard hooks The Cars should be envious of.
The Brains are an all-American band from Atlanta who sing about girls (“Raeline” and “Scared Kid”), radio (“Girl I Wanna”), young love (“Sweethearts”) and, of course, money (“Money Changes Everything”). You won’t know exactly what they have to say about these subjects, though, unless you give them another chance when they play Legion Field on May 15th.
Just to be on the safe side, though, you ought to listen to their fine debut album. Mercury may have had problems promoting people in the past (Thin Lizzy and Graham Parker, for example), but they’ve since undergone a major management personnel change that will make it impossible to keep The Brains a secret. And that’s good, because being hometown heroes and the second Georgia new wave band to land a major recording contract, The Brains deserve to be heard.
Tuesday night, however, really belonged to R.E.M., short for Rapid Eye Movement. From the first, jangly, British Invasion chords of Pete Buck’s guitar, there was strong evidence something very impressive was about to happen. It did.
The Athens foursome, which also includes Mike Mills (bass), Bill Berry (drums), and Michael Stipe (vocals), exploded with energy in only their third public appearance. Tyrone’s may have been cramped and hot, but it hardly mattered when R.E.M. pulled out Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ rhythm and blues workhorse, “Shakin’ All Over”. This was dance music impossible to resist.
A crackshot “Secret Agent Man”, dedicated to “Athens’ finest”, showcased Buck’s guitar talent. He looked like a hired gun, peeling off ancient riffs that sounded as fresh as if they’d just been learned last week, And they could have been.
R.E.M.’s original material was even more amazing than their excellent cover choices. They switched tracks from funky R&B to pulsating reggae with an ease and speed that belied their short history. Picture James Brown fronting The Dave Clark Five and you only begin to get a handle on the excitement this band caused.
R.E.M. encored with The Monkees’ “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone”. Enough said.
The Brains may have two years of clubbing and a record contract under their belt, but R.E.M. won the hearts and feet of the crowd at Tyrone’s. I don’t think a decent sound mix for The Brains would have changed that.
R.E.M. will open for The Brains at Legion Field. I’m betting on the underdog again.
R.E.M. will play Tyrone’s again next Tuesday, and will open for The Brains in a Union-sponsored concert May 15.