Synopsis of Pop Music
“Buy the sky and sell the sky,
And lift your arms up to the sky,
And ask the sky and ask the sky…”
Bear with us, but here's a theme to R.E.M.'s career: this is a band that travels to the extremes of both ends of the spectrum, be it musical or ideological, then pitches their tent someplace in between. First a garage band, then arena rockers, and then somewhere in the middle; first anti-video and then downright video savvy; first lyrics that were indecipherable and became perfectly coherent; touring that went from exhaustive to non-existent; a sound that ranges between obscure and accessible, and that plays between their old rock sound and their new musical experiments. Wherever they perch in any of these scales, these guys still regularly satisfy. At their shows these days, there are old fans who thumb their noses at the newbies who happen to have just been hooked by the latest single on mainstream radio. And the same phenomenon, but endlessly more sweet: cool parents, who are longtime fans, are coming with their cool kids, who are also fans. Welcome to rock, R.E.M. style.
Mike Mills, he of the bass, and Bill Berry of the drums, met during high school in Macon, Georgia, moving together to Athens (also Georgia, not Greece) so that they could attend the University of Georgia. Michael Stipe was attending art school in Athens and had met Peter Buck at the record store where he worked (and practiced guitar when it was slow). Eventually, the two boys met the other two boys, and since the Athens music scene was so promising, and the Byrds and punk and British new wave were so inspiring…school was dropped and jobs were quit and the newly-formed band pursued that ever-elusive music dream full time.
And we will now interrupt this program for some of the fun stuff in a garage-band-made-good’s mythology: Their name was chosen from a random dictionary flip-through, their first gig took place at a friend’s birthday party in an erstwhile Episcopalian church, and their first single was 1981’s “Radio Free Europe.” College radio spun the song prodigiously, and the club gigs lined up—sometimes the boys would do two or three sets a night. The fruits of their labor provided them with enough money to fund their first EP release, the five-track Chronic Town, which then caught the eye of Miles Copeland. Under Copelands’ I.R.S. label, the band released Murmur in 1983. In the States, they were admired. In Europe, during those salad days, they were downright adored.
Reckoning came next, which was recorded in just twelve days and contained tonally diverse tracks like the somber “So. Central Rain” and the winking “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville).” The songs weren’t commercial enough for mainstream radio, but once again, alternative stations happily spun them. Fables of the Reconstruction, in 1985, wasn’t especially commercial either—it was recorded in London when the band was worn down and tense from their grueling tour schedule of the last long months. But by the time the album was done, its title was more than appropriate. They had put themselves back together again.
Former John Cougar Mellencamp producer Don Gehman was brought in for the next effort, a record that acted as a sort of bridge to a wider fan base, called Life’s Rich Pageant. Stipe actually enunciated this time round, and sonically, the record wasn't as blurry or esoteric as was Fables.
1987’s Document was produced by Scott Litt, who would produce their records for the next decade. That record’s hit single was “The One I Love,” and its success prodded them out of small halls and theaters, and into arenas. It certainly had a more upbeat, mainstream tempo, but ironically so—and that mixture of simultaneous cynicism and broad market appeal proved winning. A lot of late-80’s music fans were ready for something a little artier on the radio—not quite looking for an all-out rebellion against the bubble-gum pop of that decade, but certainly ready for a little sneer in its direction. That was the thing about R.E.M.—they made you feel hip, but not that annoying holier-than-thou, pretentious kind of hip. Just...nicely hip enough.
The following year, the band toured exhaustively for their Green album, which was the first release under their new Warner Bros. label. But belting out hit single “Stand” to packed arena venues night after night took its toll, and the boys took a two-year break when the tour wound down in 1989. They involved themselves in solo projects and music endeavors well-outside R.E.M.’s world—Buck, Berry and Mills recording an album with Warren Zevon called Hindu Love Gods, for example.
In ’91, the band re-emerged with Out of Time, which boasted a full-fledged string section and help from the B-52’s Kate Pierson and Boogie Down Productions’ KRS-1. Its hits were the sometimes bouncy, sometimes evocative (sometimes both at the same time) “Shiny Happy People,” “Losing My Religion” and “Radio Song.” 1992’s Automatic for the People contained string arrangements by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, as well as the band’s first official brush with 'love' songs, which they had previously avoided like the plague.
And speaking of plagues…well, technically speaking of a plague sub-category—that of illness and general malady—we turn to R.E.M.’s aptly-titled Monster experience in 1994. This rocking, back-to-basics album was a commercial hit, but on the accompanying tour, the boys collected medical ailments like other people collect concert ticket stubs. Berry had a brain aneurysm, Stipe had a hernia, Mills had a tumor in his intestines…and all three had to have emergency surgeries. Woe the insurance company that signed onto that outing.
New Adventures in Hi-Fi was the new record, and new adventures in sound health was the theme. The band signed a gigantically lucrative, five-album new deal with Warner Bros., and in keeping with the not-quite-what-you-might-have-expected-from-us theme of their career, Adventures wasn’t what the label suits would call a sales triumph. In ’97, Berry announced his retirement from the band that he had played in for seventeen years—life on his farm being more appealing than life on the road—but the remaining triptych forged, and forges, on. Buck formed a group called Tuatara; Mills and Stipe explored the film business—Mills by scoring, Stipe by producing. The Berry-less band released Up in 1998, and though they didn’t tour initially, they did appear in a collection of not-so-self-serious television appearances—singing “Shiny Happy People” (as “Furry, Happy Monsters”), for instance, on Sesame Street.
Having compared themselves to a three-legged dog that can still get around, the remaining three R.E.M. guys promise more music (including the score to the 1999 film Man on the Moon and a 2001 album), and given their durability and talent, this dog will get around just fine. Nature is endlessly adaptable, you know.
Artist Release History1982 - Chronic Town
1983 - Murmur
1983 - Reckoning
1985 - Fables of the Reconstruction
1986 - Life's Rich Pageant
1987 - Document
1987 - Dead Letter Office
1988 - Green
1991 - Out of Time
1992 - Automatic for the People
1994 - Monster
1996 - New Adventures in Hi-Fi
1998 - Up
1999 - Star Profiles
Pop Sub Categoriesrock
Essential Music AlbumsEponymous (IRS)
Band MembersMichael Stipe vocals
Peter Buck guitar
Mike Mills bass
Bill Berry (1980-97) drums