Flashback to 1985, a Saturday night maybe, in a dingy bar on Union Street in Athens. In the dim lights, a band takes the stage, their heads almost grazing the low ceiling. The band starts to play, reverberating distorted noise through a packed crowd of students at the nearby Ohio University. It’s music to their ears.
It’s a scene from the little-documented, but well-remembered Athens punk and hardcore scene. Although Athens’ nightlife is famed for the countless bars lining Court Street, bars like The Union and the Frontier Room in Baker Center (which was later converted to the Front Room Coffeehouse) hosted a smaller, but vibrant punk subculture.
Isolated in the hills of Appalachia, a dedicated and diverse community of musicians and music lovers worked together to bring live music to Athens.
“There was kind of a dearth of live music events in Athens and a lot of music lovers all seemed to get together and cross pollinate,” Joe Miccichè, who booked shows for the Union beginning in 1985 says. “We had students from literally across the spectrum. You know, engineering, the arts, liberal arts. I recall many international students were involved.”
Organizing shows was not a simple task. For each show, the venue or the band had to rent and install a sound system, set up the equipment, and advertise the show.
“It was entirely a do-it-yourself community … everybody pitching in. The shows that I booked and the bands … I guess the whole process of getting bands to Athens … none of us made a cent, period,” Miccichè says.
Venues like the Union and the Frontier Room hosted local bands, as well as bands from Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and even Canada and Italy. Within the local scene, bands like Blue and Nuclear Theater tended to draw particularly big crowds.
“The music was good. Many of us went on to form other bands outside of OU and still play,” Carla Simmons, a prominent figure within the Athens music scene, says.
Simmons is also the drummer for the all-girl band, Skull. Simmons now plays for Grain, a Pittsburgh-based indie rock band.
However, the scene offered much more than good tunes. Veterans of the scene recall an inclusive environment that accepted people of all stripes, who maybe didn’t quite fit into the mainstream OU culture.
“It was just all these people who had no other place to go,” Simmons recalls. “Even if not all of them liked punk, but they could go out and have fun and not worry about being beat up for looking different, because that happened back then, unfortunately.”
Above all, the punk scene in Athens was simply about students getting together, making music, and having fun. “The vibe was there’s this great, cool subculture at OU of artists and musicians, creative people,” Simmons says. “And then of course, somewhere in there we did do schoolwork.”
This story is part of a month-long multimedia series about the Athens music scene called “Sounds From the Hills: An Athens Music Project”