Looking back at R.E.M.

Two stories broke yesterday about one of my favorite bands. The first was that REM singer Michael Stipe somehow, against all kinds of good judgement, posted pictures of his dick online. The other was that the band broke up.

R.E.M.’s been together for 31 years, a hell of a long time. Their contemporaries – Husker Du, The Minutemen and The Replacements, among others – are all long gone. And yet, they haven’t really done a whole lot in over a decade; the easy joke to make about their breakup is that you’re surprised they’re weren’t already.

For their first few years, R.E.M. was a band that had a hell of a time making a wrong move. Their first three releases – Murmur, Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction – are some of the best musuc to come out of the early alternative rock scene. Later stuff was great too: Automatic for the People is one of those albums which are always at the top of “best of” lists and Out of Time is no slouch, either.

But those came out a long, long time ago. Murmur turns 30 in 2013 and Automatic turns 20 next year.

Murmur’s an album that tries pretty hard to resist easy classification: it’s a rock record that doesn’t really rock very hard, has a spooky quality to it’s sound and sounds utterly unlike the mainstream. The year before Murmur’s release, Billboard’s top 100 was filled with boring pop stars like Rick Springfield and REO Speedwagon, with aging singers like Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton and a rapidly aging Blondie, who had two songs in the top 20.

R.E.M.’s full-length debut went out of it’s way to sound different. Michael Stipe’s lyrics don’t really make sense and Peter Buck’s guitar chords are picked, not strummed, immediately giving them a unique sound – to say nothing of the echo-y backing vocals, string sections or the little bursts of percussion. In so many words, it sounds natural: the drums, piano, singing are all remarkably free of flourishes popular at the time.

That’s what makes this music sounds so timeless; I’m listing to Murmur as I write this and it sounds like something that could have come out last year, ten years or 29 years ago. For comparison’s sake, take a listen to the infamous Stephen Hague demo. That new wave, early 80’s gloss – those snyths! – is so dated it was practically cool again four years ago. Murmur’s producers, Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, were completely in tune with the band and how they wanted to sound. You can’t thank R.E.M. properly without overlooking those two.

The lyrics are really what sets Murmur apart: Stipe’s singing stuff and sometimes it sounds like actual sentences, but mostly, there isn’t much rhyme or reason to his lyrics. They’re indirect, occasionally recede into the music and almost frustratingly aren’t saying anything. In my teenage years, I used to think a lot about what Stipe was singing and what exactly Radio Free Europe was about or if it was about anything at all. I’m still not sure, but I’m pretty confident it’s not about shortwave radio. Even when it’s more direct, it’s still hard to follow: Talk About the Passion’s a song about hunger that only refers to hunger once and occasionally lapses into French (to be fair, the video is pretty direct).

Murmur was followed by Reckoning, a more direct album with some of their sharpest songs: Camera, Seven Chinese Brothers, Harbourcoat. It’s said they recorded the album in less than two weeks and if that’s true, it’s remarkable they were able to get everything down so quickly and especially in how there’s no dropoff in quality from their debut.

At times, it picks up where Murmur left off, at others it feels more fleshed out. Pretty Persuasion probably could have fit in there, right down to the moody vocals. But it’s played more aggressively, like a more confident band willing to play a little faster and harder – as good a way to describe their followup as any, I think. For me, two songs really stand out here: (Don’t go back to) Rockville and So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry).

Arranged and recorded for the album like a country song, Rockville shows the band willing to experiment with new sounds. They’d be known for a more folk/acoustic bent a little later in their career, but at this point, there wasn’t any precident for a song like this. It’s since been claimed by the band they recorded it as a country song for Bertis Downs, but I’m not convinced – it certainly foreshadows where’d they go in a few years.

So. Central Rain, on the other hand, is easily the best song on the album and gave them a great TV moment. In their first TV appearance on Letterman, they opened with Radio Free Europe. At song’s end, Letterman comes over and talks mostly to Buck, with Stipe hiding in the background. They then launch into a fiery performance of a song “too new to be named.”

Pretty much all of their IRS albums are great listening. The weakest of their albums from this period – Lifes Rich Pageant – is only the one with their commercial breakthrough and probably my favorite song of theirs (Driver 8 is a close second). It’s remarkable to me that a band didn’t just put out five great albums in a stretch, but they did so while exploding upward in fame: plenty of great acts have wilted under that kind of pressure.

Music aside, what R.E.M. should be remembered for is how important they were to the alternative rock scene. This was back when alternative rock meant exactly that: the alternative, shown late at night on MTV, on college radio and not really anywhere else. They were the flip side of Black Flag trailblazing a path of gigs across the US, a band that quickly gained critical and mainstream attention – Radio Free Europe showed up in the lower part of Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1983 and Reckoning peaked at 27 the next year.

They were the first alt-rock band to become more than just that label. When they moved to Warner Bros, they weren’t just the first college rock band to make that jump – they started a wave of signings where everybody from Dinosaur Jr to The Replacements to Sonic Youth signed major label deals and releasing some great music. They’ve been namedropped all over, from Kurt Cobain to The Decemberists (who recorded with Buck not too long ago).

Just how important were they? When Michael Azerrad wrote the seminal Our Band Could Be Your Life, a history of the 80s alt-rock scene and how it became the mainstream, there were two acts he felt he didn’t need to include. One was Nirvana. The other was R.E.M.


1 Response to “Looking back at R.E.M.”

  1. September 22, 2011 at 10:32 pm

    Very underrated band.

    P.S. I’ll be very sad if Stipe, infamous for being bald, has a single pubic hair.

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