Titletown Vinyl Excavation: Fun w/ Atoms personified 1980s ‘Main Street’
A look back on the power-pop album recorded by famed Wisconsin producer Butch Vig and inspired by Green Bay’s people, places and energy
By Rev. Nørb
The ‘80s were kind of an interesting time, at least for a while.
Ronald Reagan’s plan to force the states to succumb to his cockamamie idea of a national 21-year-old drinking age took a while to be finalized, so 18-to-20-year-olds were not yet officially second-class citizens—young adults could still go to bars and, y’know, rock.
Unfortunately, Reagan’s other brilliant plan—holding the minimum wage at a penurious $3.35 for all eight years of his presidency—was in full effect.
This meant that you could go out and see bands and drink, but it also meant that you were probably broke and needed to do your rocking on a budget.
Into this perfect storm of alcohol, music and thrift fell Lefty’s Tavern, on the 1000 block of Green Bay’s Main Street. Employing a strategy of no small genius, Lefty’s offered $2 pitchers and no cover on live music nights for those who arrived before 9 pm. Audiences tended to arrive early and drink heavily the ideal rock and roll atmosphere.
If you lived in Green Bay in the ‘80s and wanted to see a band playing something other than AC/DC covers, you went to Lefty’s.
Lefty’s ruled Green Bay, and Fun w/Atoms ruled Lefty’s.
Combining what was once known as “new wave” with what would later be known as alt-country and Americana to produce the uniquely ‘80s sounds eventually known as “college rock,” FwA were to Green Bay what REM was to Athens, Georgia.
The ladies swooned over reserved frontman Rick Smith; the rest of us enjoyed the capable rhythm section of Dan Collins and Curt Lefevre. No album better crystallizes the feel of living, working and rocking in Green Bay in the ‘80s—heck, maybe ever—than the band’s 1985 long-player, “Main Street.”
The band’s life in the mid-‘80s was seemingly centered around Main Street: In addition to their countless gigs at Lefty’s, Smith operated a small business in Main Street’s 1200 block, and the band routinely ate at the 10-0-1 Club, rubbing elbows with fellow patrons like Packers legend Ray Nitschke.
Recorded at Madison’s Smart Studios (later to be known as “that place Nirvana recorded”) by Butch Vig (later to be known as “that guy from Garbage”), the album’s Green Bay vibe is readily apparent just from looking at the cover, as the band are depicted hanging out amidst some of the city’s scenic downtown coal piles.
“The record was intended to be thematic,” Smith said. “We were strongly influenced at the time by our people and the place we lived. There were shops, clubs, restaurants and left-of-center cool personalities along Main Street during those years that had a big influence on our lives and our songs.”
The album, however, is not exactly a love letter to Wisconsin’s oldest city. Songs like “Ice and Snow” and “Titletown” – with its lyrics of “Nothing’s ever gonna change here / If we live we’re gonna die here / beating heads against the wall here” – underscore local desperation pretty much diametrically opposed to the good-timey jolliness portrayed in songs like “We Go Green Bay” by Bill Etten and the Heritage Band or what-have-you.
FwA’s channeling of the fundamental love/hate relationship between the city and its inhabitants has yet to be equaled – or, for that matter, fully appreciated.
The band had come to know Butch Vig through numerous gigs with Vig’s band at the time, Spooner. Smith recalls Smart Studios – located smack-dab on Madison’s busy East Washington Avenue – as not being air-conditioned, necessitating leaving the windows open during summer recording sessions and hoping that the traffic sounds wafting in from outside weren’t too noticeable.
Smith also said he recalled Vig editing the album’s master tape in supremely old school fashion, using nothing more than a razor blade. “Main Street” was released on Boat Records, a label run by Dave Benton, another member of Spooner, and garnered significant college radio airplay. Notably, the record even got spins on Radio France.
In 2015, “Main Street” was re-released on CD and remastered as a nod to the album’s 30th anniversary.
Not too shabby for a band that spent the ‘80s playing across the street from the PDQ Car Wash.
Rev. Nørb is a lifelong inmate of Green Bay. While in high school, he self-published Green Bay’s first punk zine, SiCK TEEN, and later went on to write for various music publications with names like Maximum RockNRoll and Razorcake. He’s been in numerous bands over the course of the last forty years, most notably Suburban Mutilation, Depo-Provera, Boris the Sprinkler, the Onions, and the Smart Shoppers.