In Athens, Georgia (USA), Michael Stipe and Peter Buck met in 1978 in the record store where Buck worked and discovered they shared an interest in post-punk British music. Two years later they formed REM, playing their first concert (also in Athens, GA) on 19 April 1980 with Mike Mills (bass) and Bill Berry (drums).
Four American college kids reared on folk rock and US author William Faulkner were always going to have a different take on things, and REM would redefine rock songwriting, proving it could be thoughtful and devoid of clichés.
Their earliest songs dealt in mystery: unintelligible lyrics coupled with Peter Buck’s chiming Byrds-influenced Rickenbacker playing.
Their debut single, Radio Free Europe, was released in 1981. Village Voice magazine hailed it as the independent single of the year, and it met with considerable praise by critics who conceded that the band amounted to more than the sum of their influences.
Their country/folk sound was contradicted by a driving bass line and an urgency that put the listener more in mind of The Who in their early Mod phase. Add to this the distinctive voice of Stipe and his inaudible, perhaps even non-existent, lyrics, and REM sounded quite unlike any other band in the USA in the post-punk era of the early 80s.
Newly signed to IRS Records, they gained further favourable notices for August 1982’s mini-album, Chronic Town, produced by Mitch Easter.
The bands’ first full-length album, Murmur, was released in 1983 and quickly became a mainstay of US college radio, gradually nudging its way into the US Top 40. It was eventually named as Album Of The Year by Rolling Stone magazine.
Murmur was pivotal, announcing the arrival of a classic band and inspiring a deluge of alternative rock and Americana that transformed the music industry. REM sounded old as the hills yet sparklingly fresh, mixing folk and rock traditions and post-punk into a newly-minted language. As in the USA, the band earned a devoted cult following in Europe, largely comprised of college students.
Reckoning appeared the following year and was permeated by a reckless spontaneity that had been missing from their earlier work. If Mitch Easter and Don Dixon’s unsentimental production added an unsettling edge to Michael Stipe’s wail, it also gave the ‘underground’ REM a kick into the mainstream.
Although received enthusiastically by critics, the Joe Boyd-produced Fables Of The Reconstruction was a stark, morose album that mirrored a period of despondency within the band. Peter Buck summed it up in the 90s – “If we were to record those songs again, they would be very different”.
Lifes Rich Pageant, produced by Don Gehman, showed the first signs of a politicisation within the band that would come to a head and coincide with their commercial breakthrough in the late 80’s.
Stipe’s lyrics began to dwell increasingly on the prevailing amorality in the USA and question its inherited ethics while retaining their much-vaunted obliqueness. Tracks such as These Days and Cuyahoga were rallying cries to the young and disaffected. Although the lyrics were reflective and almost bitter, the music was the most joyous and uplifting the band had recorded to date.
This ironic approach to songwriting was typified by It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) from 1987’s equally impressive Document, which intentionally trivialised its subject matter with a witty and up-tempo infectiousness.
In a similar vein was The One I Love – a deliberately cold and detached dismissal of an ex-lover that was, nevertheless, completely misinterpreted as romantic by countless record-buyers who pushed the single up to number nine on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The album was produced by Scott Litt, who would continue to work with the band over the next few years.
REM’s major label debut Green arrived the following year and sold slowly but steadily in the USA. The attendant single Stand reached US #6 in January 1989 while Orange Crush entered the UK Top 30 the same June.
Apart from demonstrating their environmental awareness, particularly on You Are The Everything, the album laid more emphasis on Stipe’s vocals and lyrics. This, to the singer’s dismay, led to his elevation as “spokesman for a generation”, particularly with the apparent self-revelation of World Leader Pretend.
Already hero-worshipped by adoring long-term fans who saw him as both pin-up and creative genius, Stipe insisted: “Rock ‘n’ roll is a joke, people who take it seriously are the butt of the joke”.
The world tour that coincided with the album’s release saw REM making a smooth transition from medium-sized venues to the stadium circuit, owing as much to Stipe’s individual choreography as to the elaborate, projected backdrops. After a break of two years, during which Berry, Buck and Mills collaborated with singer Warren Zevon as The Hindu Love Gods, the band re-emerged with Out Of Time.
Their previous use of horns and mandolins to embroider songs did not prepare their audience for the deployment of an entire string section, nor were the contributions fromB-52s singer Kate Pierson and Boogie Down Productions’ KRS-One expected.
Ostensibly the band’s first album to contain “love songs”, it was unanimously hailed as a masterpiece and topped both the US and UK album charts.
The accompanying singles from the album, Losing My Religion (US #4/UK #19), Shiny Happy People (US #10/UK #6), Near Wild Heaven (UK #27) and Radio Song (UK #28), gave them further hits.
As their confidence grew, their arrangements became even more baroque, while Michael Stipe’s lyrics – audible now – fearlessly embraced the political and the personal. Even their biggest seller, Automatic For The People, is suffused with themes of suicide, death and sexual jealousy.
Automatic For The People was released in October 1992 to universal favour, reaching the top of the charts in the UK and USA. The album produced a number of memorable singles including the moody Drive (US #28/UK #11), the joyous Andy Kaufman tribute Man On The Moon (US #30/UK #18) with its classic Elvis Presley vocal inflections from Stipe and an award-winning accompanying monochrome video, The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite (UK #17) and Everybody Hurts (US #29/UK #7).
Monster featured the band in grunge mode, not letting any accusations of selling out bother them, and certainly letting fans and critics alike know that they had not gone soft. What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? (UK #9) started a run of hit singles taken from the album and further awards were heaped upon them.
Following the collapse of Bill Berry in Switzerland while on a major tour in 1995, the band was forced to rest. Berry was operated on for a ruptured aneurysm and made a full recovery.
In August 1996, the band re-signed with Warner Brothers Records for the largest recording contract advance in history: $80 million was guaranteed for a five-album contract.
New Adventures In Hi-Fi was released in September. Recorded mostly during sound checks during the ill-fated Monster tour, it was nevertheless another outstanding collection.
From the epic chord changes and lyrical sentiments of Be Mine to the cool understated calm of How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us, it showed the band’s remarkable creative depth. E-Bow The Letter – featuring Patti Smith – also provided the band with a UK Top five single.
In October 1997, Bill Berry shocked the music world by announcing his intention to leave REM after 17 years with the band. The remaining members were quick to confirm that they would be continuing without him, using the adage “a three-legged dog can still walk’.
Although there was no official replacement on drums, with the rest of the band electing to continue REM as a three-piece, ex-Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin contributed to sessions for 1998’s Up, which also featured new producer Pat McCarthy.
Introduced by the single Daysleeper (a UK Top 10 hit), this album was the band’s most adventurous recording since the mid-80s. The following year they provided the soundtrack for the Andy Kaufman biopic Man On The Moon, which included the excellent new track, The Great Beyond.
Reveal delighted fans and critics with sharp lyrics and some classic Buck chord changes. Even the guitarist’s minor air-rage incident en route to London (he was released on £30,000 bail and eventually acquitted of any criminal charges in March 2002) could not taint the plaudits the album received. They earned further praise the following year when they contributed the track All The Right Friends to the soundtrack of Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky.
The critical praise heaped upon REM was monumental, but despite all this attention they remained painfully modest and reasonably unaffected, and, despite the loss of Berry, still appeared united.
They were one of the most important and popular bands to appear over the past three decades, and although their commercial heydey appeared to have passed they still retained massive credibility and every new release was anticipated with great excitement.
The band finally officially called it a day in 2011. Singer Michael Stipe said, “A wise man once said the skill in attending a party is knowing when it’s time to leave. We built something extraordinary together. We did this thing. And now we’re going to walk away from it”.
A statement on the REM website read “To anyone who has ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening”.