Illustration by Emma Majury
REM were my favourite band.
And as favourite bands go, they’re a good one to nail your colours to. They have impeccable heritage, they had an unbelievable run of world-beating albums, and always seemed like a band you could really connect with, three pretty regular guys with a substantial record collection, and one artsy, weird guy who made it cool to be an outsider.
Then the drummer left, and it all fell to pieces.
But let’s not start there, let’s go way back to the start, which is a very un-REM-like thing to do, which – in turn – makes it a very REM-like thing to do.
Starting as a bar band in Athens, Georgia, a fairly sleepy American college town, these four guys – Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Bill Berry, and Michael Stipe – began to really enjoy the reaction their band was getting, and hopped in a green van to explore the American south. And so begins a real American underground success story, filled with hard work, sweat, grit, and determination. And no small amount of magic.
After an obscure single release, the first real taste of what the band were capable of came in the shape of 1982’s Chronic Town ep, a five track release with a weird, blue tinted photograph of a gargoyle on the cover. The contents were no less beguiling, subverting every notion of what punk and new wave had been building to. Guitars chimed, rather than chugged, and the rhythm section did everything to avoid just being the rhythm section.
And then the singer opens his mouth to sing, and the entire thing goes into the realm of the mystic. When Michael Stipe opted to mumble his cryptic utterances, could he have known that he would be enshrining his band’s place in rock and roll history? Or was he just nervous? Either way, Stipe added a layer of unforced mystery and enigma to the music that had hitherto been unheard of in contemporary music. This stuff was really strange, like it had come from another planet, and instantly attracted an audience of people who were searching for something new.
Murmur followed in 1983, and as far as debut albums go, it’s difficult to think of a more confident opening statement. In my humble opinion, it’s not understatement to say that Murmur is flawless, one of the most perfect albums ever recorded. Each song reveals its secrets to the listener, building on the previous track, whilst leading the way towards the next. The cover image of the Kudzu vine perfectly captures the sense of something being hidden and oblique that permeates through the record, an old world encroaching on a new one. In 1983, no-one sounded like this.
And from there on in, REM could do no wrong. Albums like Reckoning (1984) and Fables of the Reconstruction (1985) built upon this success, and added new layers to the band, fully exploring what they were capable of. Relentless touring had honed the band into a streamlined indie-rock monster, before such a term even existed. When it hit the stores in 1986, Life’s Rich Pageant reflected how tight the band had become, bringing a newfound sense of clarity to the proceedings.
And then a miracle happened. 1987’s Document brought the band into the big league, and REM suddenly became cool. But this wasn’t because they changed their sound, or sold out on any level; REM made the mainstream come to them. They were still weird, they were still strange, but now they were totally accessible, and had become the thinking rock fan’s band of choice. Green (1988), Out of Time (1991), and Automatic for the People (1992) turned the band into art-rock heroes, then proper popstars, and finally the biggest band in the world.
Monster courted the grunge fans in 1994, and New Adventures in Hi-Fi was a welcome return to weirdness, back in 1996. Nothing could go wrong, and they’d just re-signed to Warner Bros for an astronomically large advance, reputed to be $9,000,000 dollars or something (a figure they have since disputed).
I’d loved them for years, ever since hearing ‘Losing My Religion’ on the radio at the start of the 90s. In my childish wisdom, I thought the lyric was really controversial, and it had a cool, confusing video. ‘Shiny Happy People’ came out shortly afterwards, and I was impressed by the bassist’s glasses and happy face. That was enough for me back then, and Out of Time promptly became the first CD I ever purchased. I passed on Automatic, never having been overly fussed on it, but came back just in time for Monster, and by 1994, they were firmly ensconced as my favourite band, my collection of cassette tapes largely consisting of REM albums, and self-made REM compilations.
And my love of the band spread to the bands that had influenced them, taking me on a journey that would eventually lead me to Husker Du, The Velvet Underground, Television, Wire, Patti Smith, Mission of Burma, The Replacements, The Soft Boys, The Dream Syndicate, The Minutemen, The Beat, The Byrds, Big Star….the list is seemingly endless. They were music fans, and encouraged the teenage music fan in me to dig that little bit deeper to find the good stuff. The fact that I do what I do now is largely due to my love of REM preparing me for the big, wide world of strange music that was out there.
Then Bill Berry left.
I thought they’d split up, to be honest. They’d always seemed like a band of brothers (later reading revealed that they weren’t *quite* as close as I’d always been led to believe), and the loss of Bill would surely be the end of it. And with New Adventures still only a recent memory, it was good to go out on a high.
But for some reason they decided to continue, and strange reports started to filter out that the new album would be full of strange experiments, and all the songs would be performed on crisp packets and empty tins or something. This proved not to be the case, and when it arrived, Up was a lovely collection of songs that gently pushed and pulled the band in different directions. It’s not an out and out triumph, but it’s an unjustly overlooked wee gem.
Then the true horrors started. The band took the plunge headfirst into mediocrity, and started releasing records that said nothing, and did so in an unsatisfying and boring way. Reveal was lazy, but Around the Sun was insulting. This band that had been so vital to my life, who had literally soundtracked my life and my most important moments, were now reduced to going through the motions in glossy videos, struggling to appear ‘artistic’, and speaking out about “causes”. In the 21st century, the most exciting thing about REM was Peter Buck’s court case where he threw yoghurt at an air hostess.
So we parted company. It was more or less painless, to be honest…the kind of breakup where it’s happened long after it should have, and any love you had left has slowly ebbed away to be replaced with mild embarrassment and quiet resentment. I walked away from them, and never looked back. The old albums began to acquire dust on the shelves, and the jangling 12 string guitar was naught but a distant memory.
Then I heard the re-mastered version of Murmur, released a few years ago. With crystal sharp clarity, this album took me right back to when I first heard it, back to the days when I was probably a better person, and viewed the world through eyes of hope, rather than as a cynical old hack. It was like I’d never even been away. The re-issue of Reckoning did exactly the same thing, as did the one for Fables. I belatedly came round to Accelerate, having not even noticed it coming out, and found it to be…pretty good, actually.
So as we stand on the threshold of a new REM album, for the first time in 10 years, I find myself brimming with excitement. When New Adventures came out, I queued outside a record store in the rain, such was my enthusiasm. I’m at that point for this one. I want it, and I want it NOW. The singles have been tantalising. The videos aren’t embarrassing. It’s all looking good.
It’s like finding out that a lover you once spurned has shaped up, underwent that swan-like transformation, and is still interested in you. It’s all looking too good to be true.
And then you find it is too good to be true, and whilst they might look good, that personality defect that put you off in the first place is still there.
So, I’ve made a date with REM. They’re looking good, I feel fine, and I have high hopes. March 7th will show me whether it’s truly time to rekindle our love affair, or whether to finally get that divorce.
My head says “NO!”, but my heart says “YES!”
» Steven Rainey is a self-confessed music lover, blogger and broadcaster. He hosts a late night music show on BBC Radio Ulster which you can listen to here.
» Emma Majury is an illustrator with an amazingly impressive stationery, illustration and gift site Longshot Press.
» R.E.M. is an American independent rock band formed in Athens, Georgia in 1980. They’re not currently touring but you can listen to some of their music here.