A Sixpack of R.E.M

Sociopolitical note – The Music Enthusiast hit the milestone of 500 followers today. Not bad considering I almost quit sixteen times in the first year.

For the uninitiated, my Sixpacks are not intended to say “these are a given band’s best songs.” Just six I dig today, could be six different ones next week. That said, this band has so many good songs I’ve created a Spotify playlist at the end of the post with these six plus a bunch of others. 

R.E.M grew out of the fertile ground that was early ’80’s Athens, Georgia. Athens is a college town (University of Georgia), some 72 miles (115 km), northwest of Atlanta and 78 miles north of Macon.

The band was formed there in 1980 when Michael Stipe (the only one actually born in Georgia) met guitarist Peter Buck at a record store where Buck worked. They soon discovered they had a mutual taste for acts like Patti Smith, Television and the Velvet Underground. (They didn’t sound like any of those bands. And even though they came from Georgia, no one ever referred to R.E.M or the B-52s as “Southern Rock.”)

Through mutual friends they met bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry* who had already been playing together. The four figured they would try putting some songs together. Stipe later said, “there was never any grand plan behind any of it.” They picked the name R.E.M out of a dictionary after considering Twisted Kites, Cans of Piss, and Negro Eyes (!)

They started writing their own tunes and played quite a bit in Athens in the 1980-81 time frame, becoming fairly popular with the college crowd. I got to wondering what they sounded like back in the day and managed to stumble on this 1981 pre-fame video which starts in the middle of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On.” Check it out before somebody pulls it:

The guys figured that maybe there was a grand plan behind it. They all dropped out of school and toured the Southern circuit. According to Wikipedia, “Touring was arduous because a touring circuit for alternative rock bands did not then exist. The group toured in an old blue van and lived on a food allowance of $2 each per day.” (Six dollars in today’s money! That’s a lot of Ramen noodles.)

Of them, AllMusic says: “While there were a number of hardcore and punk bands in the U.S. during the early ’80s, R.E.M. brought guitar pop back into the underground lexicon. Combining ringing guitar hooks with mumbled, cryptic lyrics and a D.I.Y. aesthetic borrowed from post-punk, the band simultaneously sounded traditional and modern. Though there were no overt innovations in their music, R.E.M. had an identity and sense of purpose that transformed the American underground.” (And for that matter, along with U2,**helped invent or reinvent college radio.)

After putting out a well-received EP called Chronic Town, they started receiving attention from labels. To maintain their street credibility, they actually turned down RCA for the now-defunct I.R.S Records, a label started by Stewart Copeland’s brother (and Police manager) Miles Copeland.

Their debut album, Murmur, was released in spring of 1983. This album was a welcome breath of fresh air, given how overprocessed rock music had become by the Eighties. (U2’s War came out around the same time.) The song “Radio Free Europe” was a hit even though nobody could understand most of the words.

Interestingly, it was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry for setting “the pattern for later indie rock releases by breaking through on college radio in the face of mainstream radio’s general indifference.” Heh!

This song – and album – put R.E.M firmly on the map and led to a string of 15 studio albums over the next 28 years. (For the record, that is a hell of a long time for a band to be together. That said, their compatriots in U2 are going as strongly as ever.)

Since this is a six-pack and not, strictly speaking, a biography, I’ll jump around a bit here chronologically. In 1985 the band released Fables of the Reconstruction which was recorded during a cold winter in England where the band came close to breaking up. Neither fans nor the band loved it but it’s grown in reputation over time.

I love this song, “Can’t Get There From Here.” For when the world is a monster:

In 1986, the band released the album Life’s Rich Pageant. Per Peter Buck, the album title was inspired by the Inspector Clouseau movie A Shot in the Dark. (Funny if you’ve never seen it.)

Inspector Clouseau opens car door and falls into a fountain.
Maria: “You should get out of these clothes immediately. You’ll catch your death of pneumonia, you will.”
Clouseau: “Yes, I probably will. But it’s all part of life’s rich pageant, you know?”

Great song here, “Fall On Me.” Though Stipe once described the song as “pretty much a song about oppression,” the subject of the song was initially about acid rain and its effects on the environment:

In 1987 the band released Document, which brought them closer to the mainstream and also went platinum. This album includes “The One I Love” (on my Spotify list below) as well as the great, timeless, ridiculous, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine.)” Love the jangly, intentionally out-of-tune guitars here:

I always liked this song “Bang and Blame” from R.E.M’s 1994 album Monster. Per Wikipedia, “It is the last R.E.M. song to reach the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, peaking at number 19, and also their last number one on the Modern Rock Tracks chart. (“Losing My Religion” had been a big hit way back in 1991.) This guitar figure has a real haunting feel to it:

For the last tune, I’ll turn to an unusual one, a ballad from 1992’s Automatic for the People. Even though it was ultimately released as a single, “Nightswimming” was not a hit and feels to me very much like a deep track. In fact, I hadn’t even much paid attention to it till a DJ played it on the radio.

Supposedly growing out of skinny dipping events when the band were in college, Stipe says the song is about a “kind of an innocence that’s either kind of desperately clung onto or obviously lost.” It features only Stipe on vocals, Mike Mills on piano and a string arrangement by John Paul Jones. 

R.E.M sold more than 85 million albums worldwide, becoming one of the world’s best-selling music artists of all time. In 2007, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in their first year of eligibility. R.E.M. disbanded amicably in September 2011.

*Berry suffered a brain aneurysm in 1995, stayed with the band till 1997. They continued as a three-piece outfit.
**Bono and Stipe have a real bromance. You can find endless pictures of them hanging together on the Internet.

Sources: Wikipedia, AllMusic

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