R.E.M.’s Revolution

How a post-punk band from Georgia changed rock ’n’ roll forever.

R.E.M., now no more, sparked the indie revolution

The world in which R.E.M. was created and came to artistic prominence was a much different one from today. They were a post-punk band, to be sure, but they sounded like the Byrds more than X. Their musical roots were in Americana (a genre that hadn’t been recognized yet), the static psychedelia of the Velvet Underground, and to some extent Nick Drakian dreamfolk, but philosophically they were inculcated in punk and its discontents. Issues like integrity, self-determination, and aesthetics were involved in talking and thinking about the band in a way that’s quite foreign now.

In the 1970s, a lot of the fury of the punk movement came from dismay at the limp and patently compromised work of artists like Rod Stewart or the Rolling Stones, or the flatulent excesses of art rockers like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, or Yes. From those negative examples, and from the punks that confronted the issue head on, R.E.M. took a commitment and awareness of what appropriate rock-star comportment might be.

The band, which announced its breakup yesterday after 31 years together, came into the world with a corrosive single, “Radio Free Europe”; a debut EP, Chronic Town, and a full LP, Murmur, that introduced their sound: lyrically murky, musically open-eyed, and, importantly, invigorated. Their dreamy origins were always confronted by a enlivened musical attack. The (very strong) rhythm section of Mike Mills and Bill Berry laid a foundation for Peter Buck’s playing, by turns plangent and driven. (Back in the day the band could electrify a small venue, as you can see from this cramped but exciting early clip from Letterman, and for many years, even in bigger halls, the band’s shows were mass dance concerts.) Michael Stipe’s resonant voice and mysterious warbling made the songs at once unfathomable and compelling, with this or that phrase—”Gardening at night,” “Please find my harborcoat,” “We could gather/Throw a fit,” etc. etc.—floating up to confuse us further.

Similar to any era, you can make the case for the ‘80s’ musical brilliance or its musical deficiencies. But it’s certainly true that there was a decided move away from authenticity, from the rise of drumless bands like Depeche Mode or Pet Shop Boys to a general tendency toward artifice from the period’s biggest stars, from Michael Jackson to Madonna to Boy George to even Springsteen—remember that the single that kicked off Born in the USA’s selling spree was the keyboard-driven “Dancing in the Dark.” None of this was bad: I always felt, once the drum machines had made drummers unnecessary, bring on the lead-singer machines.

R.E.M., with its odd progenitors, few of which trafficked in artifice, was a band somewhat out of time from its inception. And, at the beginning, R.E.M. didn’t matter. The only way you could hear music was on your local radio stations. (MTV had begun, of course, but cable wasn’t as big and college kids, particularly, didn’t have universal access to it.) Commercial radio didn’t play R.E.M.; program directors at the time were openly contemptuous of them. Commercial-radio playlists were determined by “research,” which often consisted of playing listeners 30 seconds of new songs over the phone. Vagueness and dreaminess didn’t play well in that context.

But at the same time college radio was coming into its own, and through the 1980s a network of such stations, fanzine kids, rock clubs, and other bands emerged to create an alternative culture. A lot were detritus from the punk worlds on the two coasts, but a lot of other, odder bands from stranger shores (I’m looking at you, Camper Van Beethoven), and even a few as good as R.E.M. (the Replacements, Hüsker Dü) came up as well. Over time they started delivering remarkably strong records. R.E.M. was always the flagship band of this movement. As the decade went on, the band was consistently delivering killer songs like “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” or “Fall on Me.” As R.E.M.’s ever-more-obvious mastery of the rock-record form became apparent, their sales grew somewhat, and the band eventually had a fairly significant radio hit, “The One I Love,” while still on the indie label I.R.S. This was a big deal at the time.

Still, in the overheated industry of the period, the band’s sales were middling, and it wasn’t as though the Replacements were moving product either. It took a few more years, until the rise of a band with a leader who plainly looked to R.E.M. for career if not musical inspiration, before the Amerindie movement could truly assault the industry. After Nirvana’s Nevermind, everything changed; those commercial radio stations significantly altered their sounds to allow more idiosyncratic bands in; labels searched grimly for the next regional hotbed; and artists, for better or worse, took much greater control of their work and images.

* * *

Mills and Berry, as I said, were the group’s secret weapon; in addition, Mills was an underappreciated songwriter. Stipe’s lyrics, while often an almost random assortment of words, nevertheless managed to inspire analysis rather than frustrate it. But my favorite part of the band was always Buck. He was a record-store geek, older than the other members of the group, who understood deeply how rock bands operated and how their fans consumed their work. His guitar style was received, sure, from Roger McGuinn and, um, not too many others, but he nevertheless enlivened American rock-guitar playing for a decade, at least until the grunge boys took over. At the same time, he reveled in the band’s complex discography—notably the blur of B-sides, covers, and nonalbum tracks on the myriad single configurations of the timeand the orthographical idiosyncrasies and busy nomenclature on R.E.M.’s albums.

Before the band went to Warner Bros. for the album Green, it took the time to record its greatest song, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (But I Feel Fine),” which combined Buck’s popscrew guitar, a rush of a rhythmic onslaught, and Stipe’s most inspired found lyrics. On Warners, with an international record company behind them, the band’s sales and prominence grew, and the songwriting became more sophisticated, creating gorgeous songs like “Losing My Religion.” It was a shock to realize that that song’s album, Out of Time, had sold nearly 10 million copies worldwide a couple years after its release. Stipe’s interest in film allowed the band to hold its own among video innovators of the time, from the relatively abstract accompaniment to “It’s the End of the World” to the lush dreamscapes for “Losing My Religion.” Live, the band gracefully moved out of clubs and theaters and delivered its music, suddenly chock-a-block with radio hits and the sound of something like the rock establishment, to fans in arenas and sheds around the world.

R.E.M. was always a band of six; besides the musicians there was a manager, Jefferson Holt, and a lawyer, Bertis Downs IV. Downs was their first business adviser and remained with the group to this day. Holt, a not-insignificant figure in the alternative-rock scene of the 1980s, left the band’s employ, abruptly, in 1996; there were reports at the time that it had something to do with sexual harassment, but nothing formal was ever said, so it seems unfair to Holt that that story has persisted. On the other hand, something happened, given the curtness and suddenness of the split. Drummer Bill Berry, who suffered a brain aneurysm on tour in Europe in 1995, left the group shortly after the Holt affair.

In 1992 the band had released Automatic for the People, arguably its best and most deeply felt album, and putting them in that rare category of bands (a distinction you felt Buck at least appreciated) that could claim to have put out an unquestionably great album that far into their career. On the album Stipe’s lyrics come down to earth enough to convey meanings but also resonate abstractly the way they always did. The high point is an aching and erotic fantasy called “Nightswimming” that Stipe sings movingly over a lovely Mills piano track.

After Automatic, however, R.E.M. began a slow decline, as bands always do. Monster had some rocking songs, sure, but I have to confess, as a lifetime fan who still viewed each new album with some anticipation, it’s hard to conjure up much enthusiasm for the ones that followed. As the band’s songwriting prowess faded, R.E.M. was canny enough to muscle together a persuasive song to kickstart the release of each new release—”Imitation of Life,” on Reveal, “Leaving New York,” on Around the Sun, “Supernatural Superserious,” on Accelerate. But I can’t have been the only fan disappointed, on release after release, to find there wasn’t a second good song. Another sign of decline: Successive four-star reviews in Rolling Stone kept praising the band for a return to top rock ’n’ roll form, a surefire sign its time had passed.

Their last record, Collapse Into Now, didn’t even have one good song. The band ostentatiously had video directors create videos for each of the record’s dozen tracks; all of the ones I looked at were mind-numbingly tedious.

So in the end, R.E.M. bowed out gracefully. Given the world into which they were born, all of the band members must have been conscious that, however big their tour income, they weren’t putting out significant albums anymore. What idealistic post-punk wanted to be that cliché? Instead they chose to cap off a career with as much grace and integrity as any other I can think of. The band never sold their songs to a soft-drink company; they never tried to do larger-than-life stadium tours like U2. Artists from Kurt Cobain to Warren Zevon to Uncle Tupelo to Patti Smith have found them generous with their time and influence. R.E.M. left behind six or eight albums that rank with the best of their era, and the members got to do what few can claim: watch an artistic revolution they helped spark change the world. Not bad for a goddamned ‘80s band. Watch R.E.M. fans try not to mangle the lyrics to the band’s most challenging song: