Coincidentally, the two biggest stories yesterday both came from Georgia. It's not easy writing about the demise of R.E.M. when it came on the same day as the vastly more tragic and infinitely more undoable demise of Troy Davis. There can be an R.E.M. reunion whenever three or four guys feel like it, whereas Troy Davis can reunite with nobody; that pretty much overshadows a mere band breakup. But I'm a music writer, and there's no denying that R.E.M. was very important to me. So here goes.
I believe that one's reaction to R.E.M. depends on when one became aware of it. There is no way to say this without sounding like a cranky old man (you kids get off my lawn!), but unless you were a music fan when they first appeared, at the least it must be more difficult to appreciate just how boldly different they were from everything else outside Athens, GA. I'm talking about 1981 (the original "Radio Free Europe" 7", which the singer in my college band shared with the rest of us, inspiring awe) - 1982 (Chronic Town EP, first R.E.M. release I bought) - 1983 (the mighty Murmur, the band's debut album).
Rock critics at the time who wanted to compare them to another band -- because that's what rock critics do -- settled on the Byrds, because of the jangly guitar sound. Seems silly now, as nobody would ever confuse Murmur with any Byrds album, but that was the closest thing they could come up with. Oh, if you were really cool and knew about fellow Athenians Pylon and the Method Actors, you had some more apt comparisons at your disposal, but back then that applied only to a tiny minority of listeners (I freely admit that at the time I was not a member of that exclusive club), and there's no point in making comparisons to bands 99.9% of readers haven't heard.
What did go into R.E.M.'s sound? Well, yes, the Byrds' guitar sound was an influence on Peter Buck's style, but what the Athenians really created was a distinctly non-urban American post-punk style. If all R.E.M. had released was the original version of "Radio Free Europe," they would undeniably be remembered as an unusual post-punk tangent. Even on Chronic Town (now available separately on vinyl and as the last sequence of songs on the CD and download of the compilation Dead Letter Office), "Wolves, Lower" strongly channels an iconically jittery rhythm endemic to certain styles of post-punk, and Buck's career-long aversion to guitar solos is a distinctly punk trait that carried over into some strands of post-punk. There's a headlong-rush feeling to all five tracks on Chronic Town that was nothing like what mainstream rock sounded like.
On Murmur that rush was tempered a bit, but R.E.M. still stood out as very different to anything getting radio play even on the cooler stations. R.E.M. began to be influential (even as the album sold a mere 200,000 copies), and a few bands began to be influenced by them (the first band I heard to which my reaction was "that sounds like R.E.M." was Leap of Faith, a Columbia College band in '83-'84). At the end of the '80s, Murmur remained my favorite album of the decade (don't bother getting the two-CD version; all it adds is the opportunity to hear a somewhat exciting band in 1983 with a singer who gets more and more out of tune as the evening goes on).
With every album that followed, R.E.M. became more polished and a little more normal, and with each succeeding year and album -- Reckoning (1984), Fables of the Reconstruction ('85), Life's Rich Pageant ('86), Document ('87), Green ('88) -- the quartet's influence on other bands and, thanks to its increasing commercial success, on the music business, edged "college rock"/"alternative rock" further and further into the mainstream until, eventually, they were almost in the mainstream: Green found the band not on I.R.S., but on Warner Brothers. Though to my ears none of those albums surpassed the debut, I love them all. Even when Michael Stipe began enunciating (Fables), the band retained its aura.
The growth of the band's audience meant that many new fans weren't realizing that "The One I Love" was not only not a love song, but quite the opposite; ironically, even when Stipe was both enunciating and writing more direct lyrics, he was still misunderstood, even more drastically than before when listeners at least knew that they didn't understand what he was singing. But "The One I Love" going to #9 on the pop singles chart was far from the band's commercial high point; things were about to explode.
I started to lose interest in R.E.M. precisely when most of the country decided they were great: 1991's Out of Time. It took the guys three years to make, a complete break with their previous methods; it also found the number of guest musicians burgeoning to a whopping 17. Previously there had never been non-members playing on more than two tracks on an album; on Out of Time there are guests on every track. And yet the R.E.M. album that sounded least like R.E.M. became the band's first #1 LP thanks to "Losing My Religion" and "Shiny Happy People." But I still liked it, overall. Then came Automatic for the People ('92), a glum, dull-sounding album that, to my eternal surprise, is Peter Buck's and bassist Mike Mills's favorite, and that of many critics as well. Then, wanting to make a more rocking album, they made Monster ('94); its energy sounds fake, or at least forced or ironic, yet reactions were largely rapturous. R.E.M. was not merely in the mainstream, it seemingly was the mainstream, the rock sound that was acceptable to all the folks for whom the gritty sound of grunge was too intense. When 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi proved a bland mish-mosh of Out of Time's heavily produced acoustic sound and Monster's arena-rock moves, I lost interest entirely.
Then drummer Bill Berry had an aneurysm while on tour, and retired soon after. Somehow everybody else gave up on them at the exact moment -- the band's first post-Berry album, Up ('98), which sometimes filled his chair with session drummers, sometimes with electronic drum machines -- at which R.E.M. sounded interesting to me again. When I reviewed it positively on CDNOW.com and compared it favorably to the three previous albums, I received hate email.
The band's work since then has been uneven, better than its detractors say but never the great comebacks that supporters claimed each time one was released. Reveal (2001) is the least of them; Around the Sun (2004), Accelerate (2008), and Collapse into Now (2011) all offer moments of pleasure without ever coming close to the quality of those five great I.R.S. LPs.
I may sound ambivalent about R.E.M., given how little I care for their four best-selling albums. But I'm not. I loved everything those four guys did for a decade, and they made one of the greatest records of all time, Murmur. That's more than most bands can say. And unlike most '80s bands I loved, they made lots of money. Can't begrudge them that. Couldn't have happened to a nicer bunch of guys. - Steve Holtje
I can't say for sure that the members of R.E.M. were all nice guys, since the only one I ever met was Peter Buck, who was standing near me in the audience at an early '90s My Bloody Valentine show. But he talked to me and my friend as fellow music geeks, with no pretensions. A friend of a friend knew Michael Stipe before R.E.M. and said he was always a pal, and another friend babysat for either Mills or Berry, I forget which.
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who is halfway through recording his five songs composed on texts from James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach with singer Kate Leahy and cellist Suzanne Mueller.