By Glenn McDonald
Everybody has that One Record that changed things. The one artist or band that opened up whole new vistas of music and sent life off on a different trajectory. For an enormous number of not-quite-cool kids in the mid-1980s, that record was Document and the band was R.E.M.
Well, that was my experience, anyway. As a nerdy high schooler in suburban Detroit, I didn’t have access to much cool music aside from the stack of vinyl LPs my sister left when she went to college—mostly Beach Boys and Elton John records. But when I heard R.E.M.’s first hit single, “The One I Love,” I immediately went out and bought the album at a record store.
The song came from Document, which was R.E.M.’s first album to get serious play commercial radio, and its last for independent label I.R.S. It was the breakthrough for college rock’s little band that could. In fact, Document is arguably the mightiest college rock album of the era in that it served as a kind of gateway drug for a generation of kids profoundly weary of what they were getting otherwise, especially on MTV and conventional rock radio. The mainstream success of R.E.M. hipped a whole generation to the less conspicuous greatness of XTC, the Replacements, the Pixies, 10,000 Maniacs, the Violent Femmes, the Cure, the Smiths and many other bands. R.E.M. is often credited with being the tactical scout unit that preceded the alternative rock invasion of the early 1990s, which was still a few years off.
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R.E.M.’s origin story is so familiar now that it’s become a kind of indie rock mythology. In the Southern college town of Athens, Ga.—invariably referred to as “sleepy”—record store hipster Peter Buck and art-school weirdo Michael Stipe bonded over a shared love of punk rock, obscure underground music and 1960s pop.
They soon formed a band with two other like-minded Athenians, University of Georgia students and longtime friends Bill Berry and Mike Mills. Since Buck could only play guitar (and just barely by most accounts), Mills and Berry—who were capable on multiple instruments—assumed rhythm section duties. With his distinctive voice and quiet charisma, Stipe was the obvious frontman.
The band played its first show at a dance party in a converted church. The music scene in Athens had a reputation at the time for a loose and artsy party vibe for which any spot was a good place for a show and any time was a good time to dance (the B-52’s being Athens’ main pre-R.E.M. exponent of this).
Revisionist band history would later discourage acknowledgment of the fact that R.E.M. was a formidable dance party outfit at the time (track down vinyl bootleg So Much Younger Then for proof). 1981 debut single “Radio Free Europe” and 1982 first EP Chronic Town demonstrated the propulsive pop power the group was capable of. Tracks such as “Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)” and “Wolves, Lower” had a subtly ballistic attack, with Buck’s jangling arpeggio chord work skipping off the top of Mills and Berry’s locked-in bass and drums.
The band’s first full-length album, 1983’s Murmur, solidly established the essential early R.E.M. sound. By way of that unknowable alchemy that sometimes percolates through certain records, the album delivered a sound that was both brand new and timeless. Stipe’s enigmatic lyrics were indecipherable for many (detractors nicknamed the record Mumble), but nonetheless evoked a dreamily gothic Southern world. The production by Mitch Easter and Don Dixon combined an old-school studio approach with what-the-hell experimentation. The record won Rolling Stone magazine’s album of the year award in 1983, beating out Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
Incessant touring followed, along with promotional appearances that raised R.E.M.’s profile considerably—including an electrifying October 1983 network television debut on NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman.The band’s next two albums, Reckoning (1984) and Fables of the Reconstruction (1985), stayed in the same general vicinity of Murmur in mood and tone. Songs such as “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” and “Driver 8” were early minor hits that demonstrated Stipe’s abiding affection for arcane lyrics and random song title punctuation.
With the next two records, Life’s Rich Pageant (1986) and the seminal Document, R.E.M. began to shed its mysterious sepia-toned image, which was by now coming across as a bit too cultivated to be effective anyway. The songs were more direct and forthright both sonically and lyrically, and a distinctively political edge was drifting in. Pageant single “Fall on Me,” regarding acid rain both allegorical and literal, made some inroads into commercial radio while the band simply soldiered on as mid-level working bands did in the 1980s, making the circuits of friendly venues in the United States and Europe.
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Then came breakthrough 1987 LP Document. Top-ten lead single “The One I Love” and the album’s enormous world tour shifted the band into bona fide mass popularity—that dangerous realm where so many great rock ‘n’ roll outfits have gone to die. Rolling Stone declared R.E.M. “America’s Best Rock & Roll Band,” and the group signed to major label Warner Bros. 1988 album Green generated four singles—“Orange Crush,” “Pop Song 89,” “Get Up” and the band’s hookiest, happiest moment, “Stand.”
Much would be made in later years of R.E.M.’s skillful navigation of those rocky waters between indie darlings and mainstream success. How did they manage to keep it together when so many of their contemporaries, such as the Replacements and the Pixies, struggled mightily and sometimes imploded?
Part of the answer is that while R.E.M.’s ascent was dramatic, it was also relatively gradual. The band was also famously democratic, with all songs co-written by Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe and all decisions made by consensus. In fact, a standing rule in the band was that if even one member vetoed an idea, it was off the table. Several successful bands that came in their wake credited R.E.M. with proving that it could be done—that success and integrity were not mutually exclusive in the music business.
Those few not already acquainted with R.E.M., after the success of Document and Green were forcibly introduced in 1991 when the band simply could not be avoided. Seventh album Out of Time and its instant-classic single, “Losing My Religion,” introduced R.E.M. into the exclusive club of massively successful international acts that could pack arenas worldwide.
Which they promptly didn’t do. R.E.M. instead took savvy advantage of the day’s media resources by relying on music videos and select one-off appearances to promote the album. It was another canny move to diffuse the dangerous crush of superstardom; one that the band would later cite as a critical factor in their survival.
With Out of Time, R.E.M. hit its stride as one of the great U.S. rock bands. The familiar elements of the R.E.M. sound—melody and melancholy—had come into a kind of full bloom, and the album still hangs together with a cohesion that for some is rivaled only by Murmur.
The band dug deeper into this low-key approach, both musically and in its public profile, with 1992’s Automatic for the People. Quiet and somber, the music is largely mid-tempo and acoustic. It’s a gorgeous album, and the one most frequently cited by band and critics both as R.E.M.’s finest hour.
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The seismic shift in mainstream music branded as “alternative rock” had permanently altered the cultural landscape by 1994. R.E.M. returned to the road and to record store shelves with two releases in quick succession, the rocking Monster (1994) and the eclectic New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996). The tour in between, however, was darkened by a series of calamities. Stipe and Mills had surgeries, and, most alarmingly, Berry suffered a brain aneurysm onstage in Switzerland. The band also fired longtime manager Jefferson Holt.
Berry soon afterward announced his retirement, citing health issues and a general waning of enthusiasm for the rock-star life. In a gesture typical of the band’s enduring solidarity, Berry insisted he would not quit if it meant the end of R.E.M.—he would only leave if the others agreed to carry on without him. It was that rarest of events in rock history: an amicable departure.
For hardcore fans, though, Berry’s departure marked the end of band they had grown up with. R.E.M.’s artistic missteps have been rare (that KRS-One rap in Out of Time‘s “Radio Song” comes to mind), and they never made a bad album. But after the mid 1990s they never again made another great one, either. Their first effort as a trio, 1998’s electronica-influenced Up, used drum machines and session musicians in place of Berry.
For the final decade or so of its existence, R.E.M. settled into a comfortable-enough place; the blinding lights of fame having trained in other directions with the new millennium. As an artistic entity, R.E.M. had reached the summit with intent and integrity intact, and had earned the right to make their music on their terms indefinitely. A procession of studio albums—Reveal (2001), Around the Sun (2004) and Accelerate (2008)—appeared amid concert films, live albums and a couple best-of collections. 2009 album Live at the Olympia is a particularly good retrospective of the band’s very long list of very good songs.
R.E.M. was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, reuniting with Berry at the induction ceremony to perform four songs. The testimonies given before, during and after the event suggested that R.E.M. had earned a place as respected veterans and elder statesmen for a new generation of musicians and fans. R.E.M. “took us all under their wings,” said Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder in the official induction speech. “They became like big brothers.”
R.E.M. released fifteenth and final album Collapse into Now (a title that resonates on a few different frequencies) in 2011. Soon after, the band announced it’s official demise on its website: “To our Fans and Friends: As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening.”
Countless listeners were and still are touched by R.E.M.’s music. Many experienced the excitement of seeing them in concert. R.E.M. further had a genuine, enduring and often monumental effect on new generations of musicians who look to a more recent era for their greatest influences rather than rock’s first decades. They did things their way and led the way for legions of devoted fans to a musically vibrant, exciting and intelligent world beyond conventional rock and radio. Turns out it isn’t really the end of the world as we know it after all. And it still feels fine.