An Early History of R.E.M., Part 2

Part 1
Part 3

Previously, on An Early History of R.E.M.: We have complex, life-long relationships with the bands we love . . . It’s a piece written in 1991 . . . R.E.M. is discovered via Trouser Press flexi-disc . . . Chronic Town was their first EP . . . Murmur becomes an obsession . . . The R.E.M. lyric-deciphering party . . . Later on came Reckoning . . . The great American rock underground coalesced . . . R.E.M. is the “acceptable edge of the unacceptable stuff,” so they’re on a lot of TV shows . . .

And now, Part 2, of An Early History of R.E.M.!!

Written in March, 1991. Published in Rotting America in March, 1992

Oh yeah, something else happened in that summer of 1984 . . . R.E.M. played in Fresno. At a club called the Star Palace. And my roommate Kirk and I got to interview them.

The Star Palace, at some point in its history, used to be an Arthur Murray’s Dance Studio, and now it’s a waste of space, but for about five or six years, it was the coolest place in town to see shows. Since it held four or five hundred people it was perfect for big underground bands, and through some act of the gods which I don’t remember anymore, in June of 1984, R.E.M. and the Dream Syndicate played there.

Because we were the college station, we got to drag a tape recorder down to the club and interview Bill Berry. I remember being a little jealous at first, because the local A.O.R. station (the great Satan, KKDJ) got an actual live interview, with Peter Buck. I know this had everything to do with the promoter and nothing to do with the band, be we had to take a tape recorder down to the club to do the interview. Even worse, Kirk and I couldn’t tell anybody we were going to do the interview, because how do you decide who gets to go and who doesn’t?

It all turned out for the best, because when we got down to the club we were informed that, sorry, but the band had to do their sound check. So we basically sat through what amounted to our own three-song R.E.M. concert. And they apologized to us for keeping us waiting! No problem, guys, really. The sound check consisted of “little america” and two new songs, one of which was that pesky “Driving Rain” song (a new personal favorite even if I wasn’t really sure of what it was called) and the other was a slow, brooding number about a circus clown. How do I know this for sure? Well, like I said earlier, we had to bring a tape recorder for the interview.

Afterwards, Peter Buck offered us beer and Kirk got a wonderful 20-minute interview with Bill Berry, who was so eloquent that I repented my earlier disappointment at “only getting to interview the drummer” (a sentiment that I would never ever have now.)

Needless to say, later that night, being able to watch R.E.M. in a club from the front of the stage (and I hate being in the pit) was a thrilling experience. Michael Stipe bobbed and weaved around his mike stand with closed eyes and Peter Buck leapt around the stage like Peter Townshend at the Marquee Club. And they played at least four new songs from what would be their next album, 1985’s problematic Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables.

I say “problematic” because, even now, Fables seems so impenetrable. It mostly contains slower songs full of density and texture. They made in London, and from all reports, they hated every second of the experience. And that certainly comes out on the record. From the opening dissonant notes of “Feeling Gravitys Pull” to the final banjo picking of “Wendell Gee,” the whole record had the aura of gloom. But, if, at first, it was off-putting as I was learning all R.E.M. albums are, repeated listenings reaped rewards.

The dread of “Feeling Gravitys Pull” collapsed into a brilliantly lovely bridge, as did the song about the circus clown, “Old Man Kensey,” before they both spiraled out into the ether.

The “Driving Rain” song was finally on vinyl, only it was called “Driver 8,” and was some sort of mutant train song. There was also the ghostly “Kohoutek,” with Michael Stipe reaching for and nailing a great high note leading into Peter Bucks’s bendy little guitar solo, and “Good Advices,” which was possibly the most beautiful song they had done to date.

And to counterpoint all of the gloom and doom, their first great joke song: “Can’t Get There From Here,” which — with its squeaky falsetto parts, contradictory chorus and bad soul horns — was a riot from start to finish.

Finally, it also had another Peter Buck riff-song, “Life and How to Live It,” which completely fucked my mind when they played it at the Warnor’s Theatre that summer.

That’s right, R.E.M. came back here, and this time played a not-quite-full 2000 seat theatre. Now they were big enough that the promoter didn’t even bother with our small potatoes college radio station and had the Great Satan rock station sponsor the whole show. And supposedly, they botched it so badly that R.E.M. vowed never to play Fresno again.

Well, maybe. But we did get to see their speed-drenched version of “Life and How to Live it” with Michael Stipe dragging the mike stand back and forth across stage as he and Mike Mills scream the whatchamacallit words of the chorus while Peter Buck, with a shit-eating grin, leapt and twirled while he forcibly yanked the amazing riff from the body of his Rickenbacker and Bill Berry powered the whole thing with the full knowledge that he was the engine of a runaway mutant train song.

That night, there was a party at the Star Palace, which happened to be above the Warnor’s Theatre. Nobody expected R.E.M. to show up, but they did, hobnobbing with the fans: each of the surrounded by well-wishers and fans.

Somebody mentioned The Who to Peter Buck, and despite the spins and Rickenbacker, he said that he never really liked them, and even Michael Stipe, who, even then, had the reputation of being aloof, was very friendly, answering my “hope its James” question of what the “J” in “J.M. Stipe” stood for with a wry “Johanna.”

Even better than that, at one point, the DJ played a song that he particularly liked, because he exclaimed “Chaka Khan!” and asked one of the surrounding girls to dance, much to the jealousy of the others. It was a fun and drunk time, and they didn’t seem like rock stars at all, but just regular guys who happened to make music that we all were dying for.

Looking back, it seems now that 1985 was a very transitional year for R.E.M.. Something happened to them that year. The abandon with which they were playing their songs (and I saw them match the Warnor’s show again at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, a show that included their stellar cover of Television’s “See No Evil.” As Peter Buck started the instantly recognizable riff, Michael Stipe shouted “Once upon a time, there was the greatest album in the world!!!”) was so intense that it was obvious that they wanted to ensure that no one would ever call them a “Folk Rock” band again. And their first step in that direction was 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant.

Lifes Rich Pageant was also R.E.M.’s first attempt to break into the mainstream. It still stands as their most straightforward effort, and partially because of that, it was their weakest record to date. Why? Because without some of the mystery that surrounded their earlier work, there was no inducement to delve into the songs. And some of the songs, I think, were their weakest. Not that it’s not a very fine record — after all, I’m making comparisons to some of the best records ever. It just didn’t affect me overall like the three previous albums did.

On the other hand, the cleaned-up sound (bigger drums, less jangly guitar, and actual enunciation of words), made the best songs emerge even stronger. “I Believe” (“in coyotes and time as an abstract” ); “Begin The Begin” (for the importance of the phrase “Martin Luther Zen, a mythology” to my love life); “Superman” (a cover! with Mike Mills singing lead!); and most especially, the transcendent “Fall On Me,” possibly about acid rain and the epitome of one of R.E.M.’s best tricks: the stacking of about a thousand layers of vocals, all singing different things.

Luckily, there was also a video for “Fall On Me,” that printed the words in giant letters for all the world to read. This was seen as a recognition of the importance of the words and/or a big fuck-you to critics who carped about the fact that nobody ever know what the words were before. (Of course, the people who complained obviously didn’t have the acumen to make up their own.) It was one of their finest songs yet and their best single ever. (Well, almost.)

In October of that year, a whole bunch of us made a pilgrimage to the Greek Theatre in Berkeley to see R.E.M.. It rained. After getting completely soaked, they postponed the show until a few days later at the (indoor) Oakland Coliseum. So we had to drive back home (very hung over after a hellacious party in a couple of hotel rooms) and turn around and drive back a few days later to see them play a big basketball arena with the same equipment they had planned to use in a smallish outdoor amphitheatre.

It was a pretty depressing experience. We were miles away, and the sound wasn’t big enough to get lost in. It was easily the worst R.E.M. concert experience I’d had, and coupled with the relatively disappointing Lifes Rich Pageant, it was the beginning of what I though was the decline of R.E.M. in my life.

It had to happen, right? After all, it had happened previously to me with The Clash and The Who: the point where my favorite band, and what makes them my favorite band in a very real and now sense, diverge. With The Clash, it was maybe Sandinista! (though time has revealed to me the true greatness of that sprawling mess) and for sure Combat Rock — which I never connected with emotionally, and damn, I tried.

And with The Who, it was my realization that they were destined to be The Band That Will Never Die, creating bullshit excuses to reunite every few years (despite the fact that the first true Who reunion will be when the last one dies) just to steal a few more bucks from the latest Teenage Wasteland Generation. Meanwhile, some of the very best songs ever written — songs that made me leap around in my room in pure joy — die horrid little withering deaths. We will get fooled again.

Dead Letter Office, released in the weird summer of 1987, didn’t help much. It was a compilation of B-sides, most of which I already had on the original singles, and only few ( “Ages of You,” “Windout” and “Voice of Harold” ) that matched even their most ordinary work. I mean, it was nice to have everything on one record (and the CD includes Chronic Town), and the Velvets covers are just fine. But nobody has ever done the Velvets like the Velvets, and while the jokes are funny, the reason that they are jokes is that they don’t cut it musically.

And when the competition included U2’s The Joshua Tree, The Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me, and Hüsker Dü’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories, who needed it? Hell, I barely even wore my R.E.M. t-shirts anymore.

All of that malaise dissipated a few months later in the wake of the awesome power of “The One I Love” and the album that followed in the late summer of 1987, Document.

As everybody now knows, Document was where R.E.M. figured out how to make their old-style mystery mesh with their new-found power. And side one, kicking off with “Finest Worksong,” the heaviest track they’ve ever done, is the best side of any R.E.M. record ever. Which not make much difference now in the CD era, but at the time, especially considering the pure strangeness of side two, was vitally important.

Of course, side two did have “The One I Love,” R.E.M.’s breakthrough single and one of those rare songs that gains power with age. Ten or twenty years from now, “The One I Love” will have the authority of, oh I dunno, “Gimme Shelter” or “Anarchy in the U.K.” Like those songs, it’s got a nastily powerful lyric that is very personal and yet able to sum up an era — be it the war-torn 60s, the punk rock 70’s or the depersonalized 80s. And musically, it, also like those songs, is able to encapsulate everything that makes the group great in a nutshell. Of course it should a foregone conclusion that it’s their best song, but I’m not even sure if its the best song on the album.

Nope. Not when Document contains “It’s The End of The World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” It’s their greatest joke song, a joyous full-tilt celebration of disaster (and what comes after), keyed to the counterpoint line of the chorus “Time I had some time alone.” It’s also the best direct descendant of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” with Michael Stipe just tossing out words and phrases and images to fly through the verses. The whole thing collaspes at the end into a multi-textured folk-rock title hook chorus before being rescued by Peter Buck’s stinging guitar. It’s scary, cynical, apocalyptic, and just plain fun. Boy, talk about followers of chaos out of control!

Document reaffirmed my belief in R.E.M. as a major musical force in my life, especially as it came out in a very difficult period, as a relationship that had started during that Lifes Rich Pageant concert fiasco was coming to a tumultuous ending. For quite some time, the only solace I had was a tape with Document on one side and the dB’s The Sound of Music on the other. So it was fitting to see R.E.M. and the dB’s at the Oakland Coliseum in November of 1987. It was part of my 25th birthday present to myself. This time, we had seats on the floor, and this time R.E.M. had a sound system to match the venue. And since they were now playing large arenas as a rule, they had designed a stage show that, for the first time, included visual aids.

Even weirder, Michael Stipe, who used to spend whole shows hanging from the mike stand and making little, if any, eye contact with the audience, was now running and dancing and addressing the audience like the classic prototype of a lead singer. Given the newfound expansiveness of their music, it worked. And along with a U2 show for the ages the next night, I was pretty much lifted from the doldrums in which I’d been living .

R.E.M. had come back, at least in my eyes, and at the same time were enjoying massive popularity, spurred on by the success of “The One I Love.”

It’s interesting to note that the “End of the World ” single pretty much stiffed and that the masses preferred the serious song over the frivolous one. Especially since, a little over a year later, the situation would reverse itself, and the most frivolous song they’ve ever written would become their biggest single to that point.

Green came out on the day in 1988 that George Bush was elected President. By this time, R.E.M. had become known as a political band, as much for their devotion to causes as for their lyrics. While said lyrics had grown less oblique and more easily understood over the years, they were still hardly models of bluntness, especially when compared to the militant African-American rappers like Chuck D, Ice-T or KRS-One who had taken up the political mantle. As a matter of fact, as an old R.E.M. fan who remembers them slagging political bands back in the day, I still have a hard time seeing R.E.M. as a political band — certainly not like Public Enemy or even U2.

Green was also their first album for Warner Brothers records, having followed The Replacements and Hüsker Dü to the largest (and now, I think, last) American-owned major record company. They felt they had gone as far as they could with I.R.S. and they wanted to break world-wide.

Like all of their moves, this was done intelligently and with integrity intact. After all, I.R.S. had always had ties to A&M records, and it wasn’t like a band with R.E.M.’s reputation and proven sales and power was going to give up even an ounce of their artistic control. Besides, Green was so fucking willfully weird that not even the most fervent major label hater could accuse them of “selling out. ” In fact, Green was almost subversive in its strangeness.

I don’t think it’s one of their best efforts, but, as always, on individual tracks, they continued to surprise and delight: “World Leader Pretend” actually had printed lyrics, “The Wrong Child,” and “You Are The Everything” had some fine mandolin (foreshadowing!), and the final untitled song was a lighthearted goof that worked, Peter Buck drumbeats and all. I’ve never been a fan of “Stand,” but it did prove that they weren’t one-hit wonders in the real pop world.

Where the songs from Green really seemed to work was in concert. Once again, in March of 1989, a small part of our faithful made the now-traditional trek to the Oakland Coliseum to see R.E.M. in concert. Of course, they had long since become big enough to fill basketball arenas, and to keep it that way, they’d added former dB Peter Holsapple on guitar and piano. Maybe because of this, or maybe because Peter Buck ditched his Rickenbacker for a Les Paul, songs like “Orange Crush” and “Turn You Inside-Out” had much more authority live than they did on record.

And then a long wait. A long long wait. During which, the Pop Screen video collection came out, supplementing the earlier R.E.M. Succumbs collection. The Tourfilm video also came out, which documented the power of the Green World Tour quite nicely.

But while videos are nice, it’s kinda of tough to drive with them or watch them at work or slap them in the Walkman or do anything else but just sit and watch them with your mouth hanging open. Yuk. As nice as Tourfilm was, the bootlegs from that tour are way better. Especially the amazing Its The End of the World . . . boot on KTS. Find it.

A long long long wait. 2½ years. I fell in love. I quit school. I quit KFSR. I played drums in bands. I broke a vow and bought a CD player and joined a couple of CD clubs (and I managed to get R.E.M.’s entire back catalog for free by signing up other people to these clubs). The Berlin Wall fell. I fell out of love. We started a war. I went back to school. We ended a war.

Finally, in early 1991, came rumors of their new album, where everybody played everybody else’s instrument, and there was very little electric guitar. All of this was ok, I thought, but not after 2½ years. Don’t I deserve more for waiting this long? Some of my fears were assuaged by rave reviews in Rolling Stone and, more importantly, Spin. Yet my first encounter with the video for “Losing My Religion ” (a disgusting fact of life in the 90’s — being reduced to hearing your favorite band’s new single not as simply a song, but as the soundtrack to a video) shook me a bit . . . I didn’t think it was all that special. Yeah, so what else is new? By now you’d think I’d learn to mistrust my reaction to new R.E.M. music, because by the end of the second time I’d heard it, I was singing along.

Naturally, there was a media blitz surrounding Out of Time, with cover stories in Spin and Musician and favorable mentions in Newsweek and the Village Voice, but was it worth all of the hoopla, not to mention the wait? Barely.

It was their most song-oriented as opposed to sound-oriented record to date, and I know that on the night it was released, I got a transatlantic phone call from friend Tim in London (the same guy who held the lyric-deciphering party oh-so-long-ago) and he was raving about it, calling it their best album ever.

I don’t know about that, but it does contain some of their best songs ever: “Belong” for the harmonies, and “Me In Honey,” cos I’m an eternal sucker for Michael Stipe going for those long-note vowel sounds. And while it’s true that except for silly-fun “Shiny Happy People,” Peter Buck doesn’t come up any of his stick-in-your-brain riffs–he was far from completely silent, as one listen to “Country Feedback” revealed.

As for the much-publicized instrument switching, it isn’t all that big of a deal. Oh, sure, on a couple of tracks, Bill Berry played bass and Mike Mills played organ, or Peter Holsapple played the only electric guitar, but for the most part, the instrumentation is as its always been, just not on every track.

So is Out of Time a major departure, the end of R.E.M. as we know it? I don’t think so. It reminds me more of records like In Through The Out Door or The Unforgettable Fire in that like Led Zeppelin and U2 before them, they devoted a whole album to offbeat styles the heretofore had only shown up on a track here or there while at the same time seemingly playing down their hotshot guitarist.

To promote the album, they appeared on Saturday Night Live. It was their first appearance on network TV since the Letterman show, and this time they were easily the featured attraction. They were fine, even though Michael Stipe looked kind of silly in his whatever-it-was-he-was-wearing.

One weird irony: the day they performed, my monthly copy of Spin appeared in the post. This issue happened to contain a small article by Michael Stipe discussing which major corporations to boycott for various reasons. One of these was GE, who is the parent company of NBC. But by being on SNL, was he being a hypocrite by generating commercial revenue for NBC and subsequently GE? Or was he using the evil corporation to promote his band and the humanist values they represent?

And who really cares? Is Time/Warner, the company R.E.M. records for, any less evil than other major corporations? How do you reconcile all this, especially when you were originally a group of arty college-age bohos who somehow got world famous for doing exactly what you wanted to do?

Part 3 of an Early History of R.E.M, written in the Spring of 1992, and in which is the question posed above is not only not answered, but instead there is a long tangent about Nirvana — which is all anybody was thinking about at that time — which somehow winds its way back to R.E.M.

12 Responses to “An Early History of R.E.M., Part 2”

  1. Jeff Majka says:

    Great post Jim! I’ve been a fan of REM ever since I discovered them in high school, right around Life’s Rich Pageant (I’m a little younger than you.) As I learned more and more about them, I grew to love all the old IRS music they created. MHO, but “Finest Worksong” is the best REM song there is.

  2. Jim says:

    Thanks Jeff!!

    There are very few things as fun as discovering a band with their new album, and then finding out that they have a bunch of cool previous stuff. Most recently, this has happened to me with Drive-By Truckers and Southern Rock Opera and White Stripes with White Blood Cells.
    Oh, and Rilo Kiley.

  3. A couple observations:

    I love “Voice of Harold” so very, very much. “7 Chinese Bros.” has always bored me (and I’m someone who can’t get enough of “letter Never seNt,” nobody’s idea of a good time), but “Voice of Harold” is one that I always gravitate towards.

    It may well be weak in comparison to what came before it, and musically it’s never done much for me beyond “Swan Swan H” and “Fall on Me,” but I’ve always loved that ginormous poster for Lifes Rich Pageant which has hung in your various homes. Indeed, it’s the only piece of your swag which I’ve ever coveted. (After all, I have my own copies of the Sedan Delivery flyers.) what noisy cats are we, indeed.

  4. Jim says:

    “The Revelaires . . . a must!” “Voice of Harold” actually came out before “Seven Chinese Bros.” It was on the B-side of the 12″ of “So. Central Rain.” Along with “Pale Blue Eyes.” I think.

    I actually don’t even know if that poster still exists. I should check. If it does, it’s in shite condition. But if it does, and you want it, you can have it.

  5. Heh. I doubt it can be in much worse condition than my Twin Peaks Fire Walk With me poster, which has been through several wringers over the years. But, yes, if you can find it, I’d very much like it. Thank you.

  6. Great publish,stick with it!!


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