For most of the last 30 years, R.E.M. have been at the forefront of pop music. Their first single, ‘Radio Free Europe’ caused ripples in the music industry. Their first full-length album ‘Murmur’ created a minor music revolution. In a time when Michael Jackson ruled the airwaves, it was #2 on Rolling Stones Critics poll as best album of the year. Their subsequent albums built upon a following of trying to tear down the prior album and yet still master an idea of clever hooks and intriguing lyrics, even if you could not always understand what they were saying.
By the time that Out of Time was released, and went #1 they were a virtual unknown to a majority of the public outside of their fans. Some had felt that they loved their debut album not knowing that their first release had come out 10 years prior.
They have had the big tours, been the biggest band on the planet (Sorry U2) went through personnel shifts and even a couple of scandals, although not as bad as many bands of their length have gone through.
I think one of the most enduring aspects of their music is that ask any fan their favorite 10 tracks and most likely you are going to not find a single fan that will appreciate the same 10 songs. R.E.M. was never a singles band but an album band where often obscure tracks would become fan favorites.
Most of R.E.M.’s music in their heyday can also be considered ageless. Whatever the style, their albums do not sound dated or of the era. In some cases the albums were before their time or were completely unique in their presentation. Consider an album like Reckoning. Could you imagine a young Jeff Tweedy listening to songs like Pretty Persuasion and (Don’t Go Back to) Rockville and not be influenced. Arguably, much of the alt-country movement can thank bands like R.E.M. and the Replacements for influencing their sound.
‘Automatic for the People’ came out in the heyday of grunge and I would be in agreement with Michael Stipe’s flippant position at the time that the album was as much punk for what was coming out as anything being released. The follow-up ‘Monster’ while being difficult to write and make was still much different than what was mainstream at the time.
One of my personal favorites, ‘Up’, the first album without Bill Berry is in my eyes a true masterpiece for here we see a band that is completely out of their element and provide a very dark and gloomy post-glam-hangover. If there has ever been a concept album for R.E.M., this would be the one.
What is lost on much of what is portrayed in the music is that R.E.M. always knew how to sell themselves. It was not what they could have been but rather what they became. The band was never out to sell a million records with their first album. They bypassed tours as support acts for larger, more established acts. They avoided the MTV revolution early on choosing to do things on their own terms. They broke boundaries in defining what a music video actually was.
They captured the impetus of the indie rock mystique and became a band that mattered. They led a charge for American rock when it was largely bypassed as being inferior to many 80s British bands at the time.
Their album covers often provided more questions than answers. Before the era of the internet when information was much more freely accessed they offered a level of mystique to their music, choosing not to include album lyrics on all of their albums up through Up.
They chose not to align themselves with product advertising, choosing it was not a place for their music to be associated with products. They have supported many worthy causes, locally, nationally and globally.
They have honored their teachers, giving credit to bands like the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, Television, Big Star, Mission of Burma, The Feelies, New York Dolls, Iggy Pop to name a few.
At the same time they have been admired by the likes of Radiohead, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Pavement
At the same time they provided that same inspiration for bands like the Replacements, Husker Du, and Black Flag in the new “Alternative” rock movement.
They pushed boundaries and dared the fans when necessary. If the crowd was not into the show they turned it up. Fans would follow the band on tour, as if it was a pilgrimage.
They are not young chaps anymore. They are not living out of the same suitcase or travel in the same van. They have become established veterans of a band that still strives to make great music.
30 years ago today in a rundown church for a birthday party for Kathleen O’Brien (KO), a nervous 4 guys got out onto a stage and gave it their all. I wonder if the pre-show conversation was ever about what I wrote above.
Most of all, happy 30th birthday R.E.M.