How a Student Group Made Music History at UVA
How a Student Group Made Music History at UVA
PK German, a now-defunct organization, once brought stars from the Ramones to Kool & the Gang to Grounds.
The year was 1985, Elvis Costello was about to play his first show without his band, The Attractions. Costello was nervous.
He asked University of Virginia student Brian Otero to sit in the middle seat in the front row for his show at University Hall, so that he would have someone he knew in his eyeline.
“I had my first conversation with him that morning,” said Otero, then a co-chair for PK German, a subcommittee of University Union (now the University Programs Council) that was responsible for booking concerts on Grounds. “He shows up and he’s like, ‘Hey, I guess you’re the boss.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I wouldn’t say that.’”
The Athens, Georgia, band R.E.M. came to UVA multiple times during the 1980s. (Contributed photo)
Otero normally wouldn’t take the best seats from someone who had paid to come to the show, but he couldn’t tell Costello no. It worked out. Costello hit his stride within a few minutes, Otero recalled. According to the University’s former yearbook, “Corks & Curls,” “Costello’s voice was loud and clear despite the infamous U-Hall acoustics.”
It’s not clear exactly when or how PK German formed, but at some point in the 20th century, the German club (a reference to a kind of dance popular in the 19th century, not the language) merged with the rival PK Society and became the University’s booking agent.
It wasn’t the last time that Otero would get hit with a surprising request from one of the musicians he helped bring to Grounds. It wasn’t even the last time it would happen that month. Just a couple weeks later, the Ramones came to play U-Hall, and Johnny Ramone wanted to play basketball.
Hüsker Dü, a punk band that played at UVA in the 1980s, was a major influence upon bands like The Replacements and Pixies. (Contributed photo)
Ramone was a sports fanatic, and admired former UVA basketball player Ralph Sampson, who had graduated just a couple years earlier. Otero was excited about the concert that night, but it was Ramone who was starstruck.
“He’s like, ‘This is the room. This floor is where Ralph Sampson played,’” Otero said.
Ramone asked if he could shoot some hoops where the legendary player had played, but Otero had to deny the rock star. They’d put the baskets away to make room for the concert.
Costello and the Ramones were hardly the only famous acts PK German brought to Grounds. While Otero was in the group, funk band Kool & the Gang, R.E.M. and the Talking Heads (yes, front man David Byrne wore his famous Big Suit during the show) all performed at UVA.
Because PK German was entirely student-run, it was a group of 20-somethings who were responsible for getting bands like the Pretenders and The Band to Charlottesville. But it was hardly amateur hour. Agents reached out to the student group to book their acts a gig near Washington and Richmond, just as they would contact booking agents at any music venue.
UB40 was one of the world’s most popular reggae bands. (Contributed photo)
Tickets usually cost only $10, and the shows were meant for students to enjoy. The bands, which PK German co-chair Tom Widener said tended to be “hard partying,” often requested contract riders specifying certain conditions. The Pretenders, for example, insisted on dining on fine china.
“We were punching above our weight,” said Tom Widener, Otero’s roommate and a PK German co-chair the year before Otero. “The shows weren’t limited to students, but they were very much targeted to them.”
Every now and then, PK German would book a group like the Grateful Dead that appealed more to other people living in and around Charlottesville – and in that case, “Deadheads” from around the country – than to students. The 1982 Grateful Dead concert, of course, sold out.
Kool & The Gang was one of many soldout shows put on by PK German. (Contributed photo)
Unlike other concert venues, shows that PK German booked at U-Hall or Memorial Gymnasium didn’t have to turn a profit, though the group’s chairs did have to manage a budget of about $15,000 a year. Neither Widener nor Otero went on to work in music, but said they did learn how to run a business from being in PK German. (Widener has served as a board chairman for the Count Basie Center for the Arts in New Jersey).
The success of a show like the Talking Heads could help pay for another act – like Nigerian pop singer King Sunny Adé – to come to Grounds, even though the act wasn’t expected to sell out. That meant the students were free to book acts that were interesting and important to music history, regardless of how big their UVA audiences may have been.
Though best known for their 1983 hit “Blister in the Sun,” the Violent Femmes released an album of new songs in 2019.
PK German paved the way for the John Paul Jones Arena by proving that Charlottesville was a viable concert stop. Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and Chris Stapleton have all played JPJ in recent years.
More than any single concert or interaction with a celebrity, Widener remembered how it felt to foster a music scene on Grounds.
“It was amazing for UVA to empower students to the extent that it did,” Widener said. “It really worked.”