R.E.M. Reconstruction Of The Fables

R.E.M. Reconstruction Of The Fables
Photo: Jack Pierson
No one would have predicted that R.E.M.’s first single, "Radio Free Europe,” would change the course of rock’n’roll. But with American new wave of the early ‘80s struggling to find an identity in the wider marketplace, the Athens, Georgia quartet quietly charted its own course, one that initially didn’t look beyond its isolated hometown. The band forged a sound steeped in its surroundings, an unlikely combination of paisley-tinged garage pop, and arcane Americana. R.E.M.’s ties to Athens’ unique artistic scene were just as strong as the Velvet Underground’s ties to Andy Warhol’s New York, and through endless touring, the band just as quickly brought it to an unsuspecting audience. They helped define "college rock” in the ‘80s before becoming a household name in the ‘90s; since then, they’ve been musically adventurous and conservative both, alternately adjusting to and embracing their fame. Their recent work is a far cry from the sound that defined American post-punk, but a timely reminder has arrived in the form of And I Feel Fine: The Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982-1987, which includes a full disc of rare demos and live tracks. In her seminal book Route 666: The Road to Nirvana, Gina Arnold wrote "[R.E.M.] were our mirror, put on earth to reflect what we were and what we were, it turned out, was sick of anger and ugliness and anti-everything cant. R.E.M.’s music was reflective rather than nihilistic, spiritual rather than self-righteous, elegiac rather than mad.”

While working at Wuxtry’s Record Store, underground rock fanatic Peter Buck befriends Michael Stipe, a frequent customer and University of Georgia art student. The pair take up residence with several other students in a converted church in downtown Athens, Georgia and conceive a band to follow in the footsteps of local heroes the B-52s. At the same time, Mike Mills and Bill Berry start classes in Athens, after playing together in several Macon, Georgia cover bands. Berry dates campus DJ Kathleen O’Brien, who also lives in the church with Buck and Stipe. She suggests the pair make Berry and Mills their rhythm section, although at first the untrained Buck is intimidated by the musically astute Mills. They find common ground playing ‘60s garage rock standards like "Stepping Stone,” "Secret Agent Man,” and "Hippy Hippy Shakes,” and toss around the names Cans Of Piss, Twisted Kites, and Slut Bank. Further inspiration comes from travelling to New York to attend a gig by Athens band Pylon. There, Buck meets his hero Lester Bangs, and is honoured to be called "a rotten cocksucker” by the legendary rock critic.

Having settled on calling themselves R.E.M. — the medical acronym for the dream-state, rapid eye movement — the band make a raucous public debut in April at O’Brien’s 20th birthday party, held at the church. Most of Athens’ music scene is there, and within weeks, R.E.M. are on the local club circuit, forcing the band to pad their set with original material. Word spreads to Chapel Hill, NC, where booker Jefferson Holt invites them to play without hearing a note. He isn’t disappointed and immediately offers his aid. However, most business is handled by Berry, who calls in favours with his former employer, Macon-based booking agent Ian Copeland, to get more gigs. He comes through, getting R.E.M. an opening slot for his brother Stewart’s band the Police in Atlanta. The show has a predictably galvanising effect, prompting the band to concentrate on getting new material recorded.

First attempts to make a proper demo are disappointing, so Jefferson Holt suggests R.E.M. record with Mitch Easter, a friend of influential North Carolina power pop band the dB’s. On April 15, they cut "Radio Free Europe” and "Sitting Still.” In July, the songs are released as a single on Athens-based Hib-Tone Records, and virtually all copies are sent out to clubs and magazines across the country. Now facing the realities of the music business, the band accepts an offer of help from fan and lawyer Bertis Downs IV, who convinces them to get out of the Hib-Tone deal. Soon after, Downs and Holt agree to co-manage the band full-time. In October, they return to Easter’s Drive-In Studio to record five more songs for an intended EP. By now, the band has its sights set on signing with I.R.S. Records, owned by Ian Copeland’s other brother Miles, but the label’s initial reaction is muted. Opinions change after several more high-profile gigs and rave reviews make R.E.M. the talk of the New York underground.

The band are approached by RCA Records and record a seven-song demo for executives in February. A deal doesn’t materialise, and a month later, I.R.S. makes a five-album offer. This kicks in with the release of the EP recorded with Easter, Chronic Town, on Aug. 24. Its arrival immediately seduces critics; although the songs are catchy, Stipe’s lyrical imagery — when discernable — is the antithesis of pop songcraft. Everything from the artwork to the song titles ("Wolves, Lower,” "Gardening At Night”) suggests a new, mysterious approach to current rock trends, and almost all who come in contact with it are drawn in. The EP finds its strongest supporters at college radio, where it’s seen as a long-overdue American response to British post-punk. It stays in the top five of the campus charts for three months, and sells 20,000 copies; R.E.M. maintain a tireless touring schedule until the end of the year. Buck reminisced to Melody Maker in 1985, "We wanted to present those people with something that was just undeniable. By the time we were finished [playing], we wanted them to think that everything else was irrelevant. I just loved that challenge. And we did it every night, in, like, 200 bars, all over the South.”

Label expectations are raised for the first full-length album, but after aborted sessions in Atlanta, R.E.M. return to the comfort of Drive-In. However, I.R.S. does not have complete faith in Easter, and he acquiesces by bringing in his studio mentor, Don Dixon, to co-produce. Murmur is released on April 12 and immediately hailed as a masterpiece. Within six weeks it cracks the Billboard Top 50 and the re-recorded "Radio Free Europe” hits #78 on the singles chart. The band defies MTV standards by making a surrealist video, featuring works by beloved Athens artist Howard Finster. Buck tells Musician at the time, "When we were making the album, it struck me as having a real Southern sensibility, real Flannery O’Connor. We wanted to affirm that we’re a Southern band without pandering to the Lynyrd Skynyrd-type mentality. I don’t know if that came across, though. The cover’s probably more Southern than the record is.” They further a media-shy image during their TV debut on Late Night With David Letterman, when Stipe purposely ignores the host, leaving Buck to engage in uncomfortable conversation. Although R.E.M. is sonically more palatable than other underground bands like Hüsker Dü and Black Flag, the success of Murmur becomes the rallying point for a widespread American indie rock movement. The reception in England is equally warm; the band sells out a series of club dates after a hastily arranged appearance on music TV show The Tube in November.

With accolades for Murmur still rolling in, R.E.M. records the follow-up with Easter and Dixon during a month-long touring break. The sound of Reckoning reflects their improvement as a live band, and includes definitive versions of some of their earliest material, "Pretty Persuasion,” and "(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville.” While generally more accessible than Murmur, there’s a sombreness to Reckoning, reflected in songs such as "So. Central Rain” and "Camera,” written after the death of Stipe’s close friend, photographer Carol Levy. A compelling performance video for the former proves to be a sufficient compromise for MTV, although Stipe still sings the song live over the backing track, rather than lip-synching. With R.E.M.’s reputation established, Buck starts using his platform to tout the growing indie revolution at every opportunity, while conversely paying tribute to some of his influences. He appears on the Replacements’ Let It Be, while the rest of the band join him and Warren Zevon for a single under the name Hindu Love Gods. R.E.M.’s folk-rock links are also exploited when they back up Byrds founder Roger McGuinn for an MTV special.

Eager to try a different approach, Buck convinces the others to record in England with producer Joe Boyd, known for his work with folkies Fairport Convention and Nick Drake. Already close to burnt out from touring, the band nearly succumbs to the British winter while making Fables Of The Reconstruction. The sense of desperation rears its head during the mixing stage, when Boyd later claims that each member wanted to hear themselves turned down rather than up. While Fables causes some critics to doubt R.E.M.’s forward progress, it exceeds sales of Reckoning. Stipe explains to Melody Maker, "I had the idea of it being a kind of storytelling record. I was fascinated by the whole idea of the old men sitting around the fire, passing on these legends and fables to the grandchildren.” Back on the road, Stipe’s behaviour becomes erratic; he begins to toy with his image, shaving his head and sometimes appearing on stage blindfolded, something he later claims was caused by improper use of his contact lenses. He also shows little patience for hecklers — one at Barrymore’s in Ottawa prompts the band to punish the audience with an agonising set of garage covers. Later, at a CMJ Awards appearance in New York, Buck snaps, throwing his trademark Rickenbacker across the stage and storming off in the middle of a song. All agree that a fresh start is needed.

In January, R.E.M. is filmed for the documentary Athens, GA: Inside Out, performing the Everly Brothers’ classic "All I Have To Do Is Dream,” and being interviewed along with other local artists. Buck is primarily seen in pajamas with an ever-present can of Budweiser, his normal look while at home. Wanting to make a more rock-oriented album, the band works with John Mellencamp producer Don Gehman. Sessions for Life’s Rich Pageant are the polar opposite of Fables; all instruments are at the fore, even Stipe’s vocals, creating a renewed rawness. They reach back to their songwriting beginnings again for "Just A Touch,” but the real standout is "Fall On Me,” with its resonating, apocalyptic message. Fans are also pleased to discover the "hidden track,” a howling cover of an obscure ‘60s garage nugget, "Superman,” featuring Mike Mills’ first lead vocal. Imbued in the album are the first signs of Stipe’s growing political awareness after his apparent identity crisis the previous year. He now appears fully grounded, both on stage and in public, leading to his association with politicians in Athens and elsewhere. In fact, the strength of R.E.M. becomes each member’s unique individual personalities, a trait that draws comparisons to U2, despite R.E.M.’s determination to maintain its simple, small-town image. Mills tells the Chicago Tribune at the time, "I don’t know what we’d have to do to be seen as selling out. I mean, a lot of people are going to scream if this record is a big success. But we didn’t do anything different than we usually do. Actually, we get some negative comments now. I think that people get sick to death of hearing how good we are, that all the acclaim we’ve gotten from critics has just really turned a lot of people off.”

Buck assembles Dead Letter Office, a collection of b-sides and oddities. He also reunites with Warren Zevon, enlisting Berry and Mills as the core band for Sentimental Hygiene, Zevon’s acclaimed comeback record. During the sessions, the four also record a handful of blues and country songs — along with Prince’s "Raspberry Beret” — which are released as the Hindu Love Gods album in 1990. But the first six months are taken up by recording Document in Nashville with one-time dB’s producer Scott Litt. With Stipe now fully engaged in the fight to oust the Reagan administration, expressed in songs like "Welcome To The Occupation” and "Exhuming McCarthy,” the rest of the band follow suit with a dynamic, anthemic sound. Buck tells Sounds, "Michael always says think local and act local. I’ve seen him get up at City Council meetings and say things. That’s always fairly strange. Michael isn’t the most linear guy. His lyrics are fairly representative of the way he is. The things he says in City Council are fairly amusing to say the least, totally befuddling to those old Baptist guys that run the Council.” First single, "The One I Love,” cracks the Top 40, and "It’s The End Of World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” becomes an instant (if challenging) sing along. By year’s end, Document sells a million copies, and Rolling Stone proclaims R.E.M. "America’s Best Rock ‘N Roll Band.” On tour, Stipe hires his own bus, fuelling rumours that he’s sharing it with Natalie Merchant of opening act 10,000 Maniacs. When questioned about his love life, Stipe describes himself as simply a "sexual person.”

1988 to 1989
The compilation Eponymous fulfils R.E.M.’s contract with I.R.S. and the members state flatly that they will not renew it. Aware of the harsh treatment that many of their peers have received from major labels, the band holds out for full creative control. They settle on a multi-million dollar five-album deal with Warner Bros., and take off much of the year to conceive and produce their major label debut. Buck stays busy, joining Robyn Hitchcock for an acoustic tour, co-producing Run Westy Run’s Green Cat Island, and marrying his longtime girlfriend, manager of Athens venue the 40 Watt Club. Green, again co-produced by Litt, is released in November to great anticipation. Aside from a few obvious pop indulgences ("Stand,” "Pop Song 89”), the album generally retains a dark edge that long-time fans appreciate. The band’s first arena tour requires them to add Peter Holsapple of the dB’s to augment their sound. The Green tour goes around the world throughout 1989, making R.E.M. bona fide global stars.

1990 to 1991
At the conclusion of the tour, members take time off and embark on new projects. Stipe especially is active, helping to edit live footage for Tourfilm, producing Athens buddies Vic Chesnutt and Chickasaw Mudd Puppies, and travelling to crumbling Eastern Europe with Billy Bragg and Natalie Merchant. Buck begins playing mandolin almost exclusively, plucking out an unusual batch of new songs with Mills and Berry. The band reconvenes in the fall to begin recording at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, NY with an unorthodox approach. With Holsapple still an auxiliary player, Mills mainly plays keyboards. String sections are also brought in for the first time, and Stipe collaborates with KRS-One on "Radio Song.” Out Of Time catches most fans off-guard but that doesn’t prevent it from becoming R.E.M.’s first chart-topping album, largely due to the eye-grabbing video for first single, "Losing My Religion.” The band plays only a handful of acoustic club shows under the name Bingo Hand Job. Buck tells the Los Angeles Times, "All of us think it’s the best [record] we’ve ever done. And I would hope, actually, that the people that like us would be taken aback a little bit. That’s the ideal — you hope that it’ll make all the people who’ve been following you for ten years think twice, whether they get it or not.” He adds, "I don’t think we’re so influential anymore. When we were, I was pretty flattered. But right now I turn on the radio and hear a lot of Sonic Youth influence and a lot of Red Hot Chili Peppers, that funk-metal thing. Mostly the R.E.M.-sounding bands were during the mid-’80s. So I guess our influence days are over.” Stipe becomes an even more vocal advocate for the environment, AIDS research and pro-choice rights. Buck takes a joke too far by offering to have the band record with the Troggs (of "Wild Thing” fame), resulting in the instantly despised Athens Andover album.

1992 to 1993
Buck redeems the Troggs fiasco by producing Uncle Tupelo’s excellent March 16-20, 1992, leading naturally into R.E.M.’s next sessions. Automatic For The People, named after the slogan of their favourite Athens restaurant, is a fully-realised version of the Out Of Time studio concept. Improvement is also obvious in the string arrangements supplied by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones. While first single, "Drive,” doesn’t have the impact of "Losing My Religion,” the Berry-penned "Everybody Hurts” becomes the album’s calling card. This is followed closely by Stipe’s tribute to renegade comedian Andy Kaufman, "Man On The Moon,” which later inspires the biopic of the same title, starring Jim Carrey. Once again, they decline to tour, choosing instead to rake in more industry awards and concede some of their turf to the new grunge bands. Buck even moves to Seattle to get in on the action, forming loose collective the Minus 5 with Scott McCaughey of Young Fresh Fellows, who eventually replaces Holsapple as R.E.M.’s "fifth member.” Stipe becomes increasingly immersed in the Hollywood film world by forming his first unsuccessful production company with Oliver Stone. He befriends many actors, among them River Phoenix, whose death in October proves a devastating loss for Stipe.

1994 to 1995
Stipe’s grief is compounded by the death of Kurt Cobain — Automatic For The People was one of Cobain’s favourite albums and Courtney Love asked Stipe to be godfather to their daughter, Francis Bean. Stipe was even in the midst of planning a collaboration with Cobain to try to bring him out of his depression. R.E.M. responds with an unanticipated return to full-on rock, releasing Monster in September 1994. Unfortunately, it’s a regressive effort full of bluster but comparatively little substance. That doesn’t concern fans once it’s announced that the band will tour the world throughout 1995. Things start going wrong two months in when Berry collapses from a brain aneurysm after a show in Germany, requiring life-saving surgery. He miraculously only needs a month to recover, but other medical problems soon follow. Mills requires surgery to remove a benign intestinal tumour, and in August, Stipe has emergency surgery to relieve a hernia. The band perseveres through it all, making the Monster tour their most financially rewarding venture to date.

Controversy arises when long-time manager Jefferson Holt quietly resigns over sexual harassment charges brought against him by a female employee. Bertis Downs takes full control of R.E.M.’s affairs and renegotiates their Warner Bros. contract for another five albums, bringing the band a record-setting advance of $80 million. In spite of this, the band releases the experimental New Adventures In Hi-Fi, much of it cobbled together from demos made during the Monster tour. Sales are disappointing, but several songs stand out, most notably "E-Bow The Letter,” featuring one of Stipe and Buck’s heroes, Patti Smith. Without further touring, the album quickly falls off the charts and the members return to various outside projects. Stipe furthers his friendship with Smith, joining her on tour, and documenting it in a memoir, Two Times Intro: On The Road With Patti Smith.

1997 to 1998
Fans are shocked when Bill Berry announces his departure from the band. He states at a tearful press conference that the decision is completely his, based on mental and physical fatigue. R.E.M., now officially a trio, sets about reinventing itself without Berry, as well as Scott Litt, during tense sessions in Hawaii that almost lead to a full break-up. Ex-Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin, whom Buck knows from their instrumental side-project Tuatara, fills in for Berry whenever a drum machine is not used, but the new material is mainly characterised by an overall lushness, courtesy of new producer Pat McCarthy. The release of Up in the fall of ‘98 heralds the arrival of a new band, as much of Buck’s recognisable presence is replaced by Mills’ expanded use of keyboards. Because of this, the album receives a tepid response in the U.S., although European critics and fans have a more open-minded attitude.

1999 to 2000
Stipe’s new film company, Single Cell, is more successful than his first attempt, producing Velvet Goldmine, Being John Malkovich, and American Psycho in rapid succession. R.E.M.’s music hits the silver screen too, when it contributes a more characteristic song, "The Great Beyond,” to the Man On The Moon soundtrack. Soon after, the band announces its first tour without Berry. The expanded line-up includes McCaughey, Beck drummer Joey Waronker, and multi-instrumentalist Ken Stringfellow of the Posies. The show proves to be a successful mix of both old and new material, silencing many who claim that R.E.M. has lost touch with its roots. A feisty Mills defends touring a year after Up’s release, saying to Q Magazine, "Sure, it’s a U-turn, but doesn’t it make sense to anyone that when you lose your drummer, you might wanna reconsider a nine, ten-month tour? And why would we prop up an album that’s off the charts in virtually every country in the world? Besides that, we don’t tour to prop up albums, we tour because we like to play. People say, ‘Oh well, they’re doing it because the record company is making them.’ But if you know anything at all about R.E.M. you know that the record company doesn’t make us do anything.”

During a British Airways flight to a concert in London on April 21, Buck is arrested for causing a violent disturbance. Witnesses claim he started acting irrationally soon after take-off, mistaking a beverage cart for a CD player, and assaulting two flight attendants while yelling, "I am R.E.M!” He is also charged with public drunkenness, although at his trial, Buck claims his actions were the result of a single glass of wine reacting with a sleeping pill he had taken. Those who testify on his behalf include Bono, and all charges are ultimately dropped on the grounds of "non-insane automatism.” The band takes this incident in stride, releasing Reveal in May. Although a more conventional record than Up, it still divides audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, selling double platinum in the U.K., but only gold in the U.S. However, old fans are treated by the appearance of "All The Right Friends,” a sharp, previously unreleased rocker from 1980 that the band re-records for the Vanilla Sky soundtrack. During an interview with Newsweek, Stipe describes himself for the first time as a "queer artist,” but adds that he has largely maintained a bisexual lifestyle.

2002 to 2003
Stipe spends time on the road with Radiohead, occasionally appearing on stage to sing "Lucky.” Thom Yorke admits in interviews that Stipe had helped him deal with depression during the late ‘90s. With gaps between R.E.M. albums increasingly widening, Warner Bros. fills the space with In Time: The Best Of R.E.M 1988-2003, which sells an impressive five million copies. As a hook, the band re-records another old song, "Bad Day,” originally an early version of "It’s The End Of The World As We Know It.” More interesting is the Minus 5’s Down With Wilco, a star-studded affair featuring Buck with Jeff Tweedy and company.

2004 to 2005
Around The Sun arrives with the least fanfare of any R.E.M. album to date, although it is more cohesive than the previous post-Berry records. This is partly due to ex-Ministry drummer Bill Rieflin becoming the new full-time stickman, which also allows the band to mount another full-scale world tour. Highlights include dates with Bruce Springsteen as part of the Vote For Change tour in support of U.S. presidential candidate John Kerry. Later, they appear at the Live 8 concert in London’s Hyde Park, but their own show there the following week is cancelled after the London subway bombings.

R.E.M. is inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, and the ceremony reunites the four original members. They perform three songs: "Begin The Begin,” "Losing My Religion,” and "Man On The Moon,” as well as backing fellow inductee Gregg Allman later in the evening. During his induction speech on behalf of the band, Stipe says, "As an international act, we have, for years, found ourselves cast as unlikely representatives of the American South, particularly the state of Georgia, and we have worked hard to provide, often against prevailing attitudes or political shifts, a shining example of the greatness that Georgia is capable of. When I say greatness, I think of those people — political, musical, cultural — who have touched, through their hard work, not only us here at home, but also a vast international audience.” The honour coincides with the release of And I Feel Fine: The Best Of The I.R.S. Years, the definitive statement on the band’s first golden era. Stipe hints in interviews that a new album can be expected by the start of 2007.

The Essential R.E.M.

Murmur (I.R.S., 1983)
Basically an art-pop guitar record, but in the early ‘80s that was still a radical idea. Yet, for all of its allegiance to iconoclastic bands like the Minutemen, R.E.M.’s traditional pop ambitions couldn’t be denied. This album strikes the perfect balance, and is rightly regarded as one of the most influential records of its time.

Document (I.R.S., 1987)
The band’s steady creative climb culminated here, with a thoroughly confident mix of politically charged swagger ("Finest Worksong”) and fragile beauty ("King Of Birds”). After this, R.E.M could only hope to repeat themselves or change completely, options that resulted in the band’s ensuing two releases.

Automatic For The People (Warner Bros., 1992)
After the clumsy transition of Out Of Time, the band finally connects with its more musically sophisticated approach. But it is Stipe’s fearless exploration of personal demons — his own and others’ — that ultimately touches so many. It’s a place they, as yet, haven’t been able to find again.