By John Ruch
As Atlanta enters another era of demolishing counterculture centers for assimilation into the condo-block Borg, a lack of books and other resources spotlighting their historical significance is part of the reason developers can get away with it.
So the timing is perfect for “Atlanta Record Stores: An Oral History,” a new book from longtime music journalist Chad Radford. While Atlanta often operates on the premise that anything not mega-famous must be outdated and worth mercy-killing for profit, Radford’s book is a reminder that – to paraphrase Faulkner – the past isn’t even past. The city’s counterculture is a DIY torch passed to each generation.
As Radford notes, there’s a misconception that record stores have died out, based on the digitization of music and a 1990s plunge in vinyl sales that increasingly looks like a bump in a long road. He told me that torch-passing is part of his goal: “Whatever it takes to keep this tradition a thriving vibrant part of Atlanta, I’m totally down.”
His book, released this month, focuses on legendary shops in Atlanta and (despite the title) Athens that have stood the test of time: Wuxtry in Athens and Decatur, Fantasyland in Buckhead, and Criminal Records and Wax’n’Facts in Little Five Points. But he also introduces the new generation, like the punk-rock purveyor Disorder Vinyl on Edgewood Avenue.
A former music editor of Creative Loafing when that was still a powerhouse and editor of the Smithsonian’s “Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap,” Radford also has done plenty of time working behind the counter at record stores. That insider’s knowledge helped him tease out great stories from an eccentric business that is not always trusting of journalists, to say the least.
Some of the shops were involved in historic cultural efforts that are pretty well-known to scenesters. Wax’n’Facts co-founder Danny Beard had a record label that issued “Rock Lobster,” the single that introduced the world to the legendary Athens band the B-52’s. Criminal Records owner Eric Levin was a co-founder of Record Store Day, an international indie promotional effort now running for over 15 years. Radford manages to wring out more details — and dispel some misconceptions — about those moments.
There are tales of earlier torch-passers, including several long-lost vinyl shops in Buckhead when that neighborhood had not yet demolished most of its music scene in the name of crime-fighting. And there are many stories of famous customers, like the time Major League Baseball pitcher Randy Johnson and members of the punk band Rancid had an impromptu meeting at Wax’n’Facts.
Some locally and nationally famous interviewees round out the stories: William DuVall of Alice in Chains and the seminal ATL punk band Neon Christ; Kelly Hogan of Rock*A*Teens; Rodney Carmichael, another former Creative Loafing journalist who now covers hip-hop for NPR; and Atlanta Braves organist Matthew Kaminski, among others.
As the intro notes, the book is a “rock-centric take on a town that’s often praised and admired around the world as a hip-hop mecca.” In part, that’s because these legendary stores arose when rock was still king of pop music. But part is other factors, like money following hip-hop’s deserved success with press coverage and memorialization, even as monster rockers like Mastodon continue to spawn from ATL dives.
“Nationally speaking, Atlanta is still kind of a mystery” in terms of underground rock history, said Radford. He covered a lot for Creative Loafing – but even much of that disappeared in the digital ether when that pub turned into essentially a promotional and news aggregator site with many lost archives.
There’s plenty of rock history in town. The groundbreaking punk band the Sex Pistols kicked off its one and only U.S. tour in Atlanta in 1978 in what is now a Home Depot parking lot in Buckhead. ATL punkers – whose culture continues to reverberate from that moment – kinda know that, but Radford suggests there should be a historical marker. And he’s right.
But there are very few setting out to “document this huge part of buried history,” said Radford, citing such exceptions as Henry Owings, the zine-maker and label-runner whose “Plus 1” photo books record goings-on at several long-lost venues.
Radford said that it’s all the more important to record such history when “the accelerator is pushed in Atlanta so much right now” in terms of redevelopment.
“Atlanta was a weird place for a hundred years, the kind of weirdness you love to read about,” he said. “Once these guys are gone… there’s such a wealth of knowledge that each and every one one of them has that will be lost. And that was another big motivating factor for me, was to get these people to tell their stories.”
“Atlanta Record Stores” is just the tip of that iceberg – or the first track of that vinyl. Radford notes there are other great survivors, like Decatur CD and Alpharetta’s Comeback Vinyl. There were mighty chain stores like Tower whose sheer mass of obscure inventory fueled the counterculture. He said there’s “a really rich legacy of Black record stores in this town that deserves a whole lot more.”
With the current book already getting snatched up and inspiring Facebook memory-dumps from record fans, more of those stories will be told, said Radford: “There’s gonna be a Volume Two.”
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