An Early History of R.E.M., Part 3

Part 1
Part 2

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 . . . Interviewing Bill Berry . . . Fables of The Reconstruction of The Fables . . . R.E.M., back in Fresno . . . Their big rock albums . . . The long wait before Out of Time . . . How do you reconcile huge success, when you were originally a group of arty college-age bohos who somehow got world famous for doing exactly what you wanted to do?

And now, the exiting conclusion to An Early History of R.E.M.!!

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

It’s been almost a year since I first posed that question (which just goes to show you how things really work in the wild, wooly, unedited, and unpaid world of ‘zines), and since then R.E.M. have racked up the accolades for Out of Time. They have become the mainstream — winning MTV’s video awards, Rolling Stone’s readers poll, and even a Grammy for “Best Alternative Album.”

Now that I think of it, that just goes to show you how either fucked up or wonderful things got for the “underground” in 1991, especially when R.E.M.’s main competition for the “alternative” grammy was Nirvana.

Nirvana, for chrissakes, who almost nobody had ever heard of as recently as last summer, and if they did, they probably either liked or hated them as just another member of the Sub Popsters.

I’ll readily admit that I did the latter; the Seattle scene being a hype that I STILL DON’T GET (I’m old enough to like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath when they were still bands) — much like the Athens hype in the early post-Murmur days (remember, the B-52s and Pylon pre-dated our heroes), the periodic Manchester hypes ( ‘cept the almighty Buzzcocks, Joy Division/New Order, The Smiths and the first Stone Roses album), though not the Minneapolis hype which was the REAL DEAL.

And like tens of thousands of Amerindie vets, I scooped up a copy of Bleach in the wake of Nevermind’s audio blitz wondering what I’d missed, and like all but the few hundred who still need to stay in supercool land (and if they bought it after Nevermind, why didn’t they have it before?), got my answer: not much.

This probably won’t endear me to the grungemeisters who let me ramble on forever in their rag, especially cos they got Nevermind as the new Nirvana album, and I’d publicly like to thank Chris Hiatt for foisting his newly minted copy on me. I remember listening to it at first and thinking that it was only ok, though I did recognize “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from the (college) radio. I can only hope that Nirvana’s early fans are still with them, as they would have been had Nevermind been ignored as expected. Because they gotta realize that great music is great music, despite how many people listen to it.

Really now, Nevermind is fucking wonderful, and it’s threatening to stay on my turntable (er, excuse me, CD player) as long as Bossanova, Psychocandy, Let it Be, or The Days of Wine and Roses did. For most of the same reasons, too. And if the rest of the country gets tuned into this sort of subversiveness, even for 40 minutes at a pop, that’s a bad thing??

Cynics would say that Nevermind’s success is due to much MTV muscle flexing, and maybe they’re right. But many MTV hypes dissolve under the weight of their own crappiness: as much as I loved the Jesus Jones “Right Here Right Now” single as a guilty pleasure, I don’t remember their album storming the Top Ten and seriously tangling with the likes of U2, Guns N’ Roses and Michael Jackson during Christmas, always the record industry’s heavyweight season.

Why? I’d like to think that people heard or instinctively knew that the Jesus Jones album was hits-plus-filler (especially when the second single stiffed), and Nevermind was a great album that also happened to contain one real monster of a single. Sort of like the difference between, oh, lets say, any Doors album after their debut and any Rolling Stones album from the equivalent period.

Why is all of this important and relevant? It’s because I always subscribed to the theory that punk was the true successor to the rock n’ roll mantle: it should have taken over the world like most of the best 60’s stuff and we are all poorer for the fact that it didn’t. And to hear the incredibly cute girl in the apartment upstairs alternately blasting the Rolling Stones, The Doors, and Nirvana validates that theory for me.

And fuck fuck fuck all of those goddamn baby Boomer asshole consultant-dependent program and music directors who have been denying us for years. Fuck album oriented (how can it still be called “album oriented” when all they do is play singles?) rock radio.

You dickheads drew a line 15 years ago and then tried your hardest to invalidate anything below it. And every time something squeezed its way through that line — Talking Heads, U2, R.E.M. — you acted like You Knew All Along and then kept on with your Doors and your Stones. Not to mention your Journeys and Bon Jovis.

All that other music — Talking Heads artiness, U2’s grand gestures, R.E.M.’s ringing guitars — all of that other music made some sense to you. But not this time. This time hahaha you were confronted with Something You Could Not Understand. It couldn’t be metal because where was the big shaggy hair and the obligatory made-for-radio power ballad?? So what was it?? It was big and unruly and out of control and you would have ignored it except that those fuckers from MTV kept ramming it down everybody’s throat like they did that black band Living Colour a few years ago (which really sucked because you wanted to keep anyone black — Jimi didn’t count, cos he played guitar like a white guy — off of your lily-white David Duke-approved airwaves. After all, rock and roll was white people’s music) (and thanks a lot for poisoning my teenage mind with your racist musical attitudes — to this day I’m ashamed of how long it took me to relax and enjoy “funk” and “soul” and “rap” the way I do “rock” ), but it album started selling an awful lot so you had to play it because everybody else considered it rock and you are supposedly a rock station but oh shit its punk rock and you thought you got rid of that crap in the 1980’s.

Finally, after 15 years, that arbitrary line you’d created was nuked by the combined power of college radio, MTV, and — way most importantly — the opening riff of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Finally, the entire audience that (punkrocknewwavepostpunkprogressivenewmusicindierockundergroundalternative) had been coalescing for 15 years exploded all over the mainstream, screaming “HERE WE ARE MOTHERFUCKERS, ENTERTAIN US!!” And you had no fucking clue what to do. Cos the headbangers, your old audience — the hard rockers who don’t care what a band looks like as long has they have POWER, had — like the Russians — gone from blood enemies to part of a new world order, the headbangers were right there with us.

The revolution is over and we won.

Maybe.

After all, many of the program directors were so scared that they wouldn’t even play the single because those sensitive Baby Boomer ears were offended by the noise. Many of the glam, pretty-boy metal fans didn’t like it because Nirvana dress ugly and You Couldn’t Understand The Words. So it could be a one-shot deal: call it Nevermind The Sales, Do You Remember Nirvana?

It’s possible, even probable in a real sad way. But what a shot. And it could have never been possible without R.E.M. paving the way for the commercial acceptance of “alternative” music.

Only in the 1990’s would “commercial alternative” not be a complete oxymoron. But Out of Time and Nevermind (and Metallica and Elif4zaggin and Apocalypse ’91) all had that in common: they were considered as coming from outside the mainstream, and they all sailed into the Top Ten as effortlessly as Dangerous and the Illusion twins. Well, not Nevermind, but its had true staying power.

The whole real point is that R.E.M., as the “acceptable edge of the unacceptable stuff,” (quoth Peter Buck in 84), took the long, dangerous route and opened the doors. Once R.E.M. went number one with their uncompromising attitude, anything was possible. That’s why they are the secret great band of my generation — not U2, not Guns N’ Roses, but R.E.M.

R.E.M.’s navel-gazing to world-embracing perfectly paralleled my generation and while, for a long time, U2 was seen as the groundbreakers for the underground, they really weren’t. This in no way detracts from U2, but in retrospect, its easy to see that they were always interested in making their music big enough to include everybody — you, too — and the fact that it took three albums to break them only points out how supremely fucked rock radio is rather than how uncommercial U2 was at first.

Not that R.E.M. has ever been uncommercial; its just that they were always looking inward where U2 was always reaching outwards. So it just took them longer. On the other hand, they never made a misstep, tirelessly championing the underground, prefiguring a time when the alternative would everybody else’s mainstream the same way it was ours. Which is why my Nirvana tangent — wrongheaded as it may be — makes sense in an old school compare and contrast sort of way. Or to use another metaphor: R.E.M. used foreplay; Nirvana just came.

So finally, what’s next for R.E.M. as possibly the biggest and most respected band in the world? Another album, no doubt, and if its as big as Out Of Time, maybe even a stadium tour. It will have been at least four years by that time, so we’ll see. They might pull a Beatles or XTC and remain a studio band forever.

All I know for sure is that when they break up at 12:01am on January 1, 2000, they will have left behind a two-decade legacy of integrity, not to mention several amazing albums. Whatever happens, I know I’ll stick with them–just as they’ve stuck with me. Peace in 1992.


Postscript #1, written in October, 1995: Right after this was published, R.E.M. put out Automatic For The People, a record which is the equal of Murmur or Fables or Document, and a record which Tim, in his transatlantic phone call, proclaimed “The Double Live Gonzo of mellow” whatever that means. I’ve never had occasion to review Automatic, but “Drive” “Everybody Hurts” “Sweetness Follows” and “Nightswimming” are all better than anything on Green or Out of Time, and “Man On The Moon” and “Find The River” rank with anything in their canon. A simply amazing record.

Postscript #2, written right this very fracking second: Man, it’s ironic that I was so angry about the circumstances that helped give me my musical identity. Also, that whole thing about winning the revolution? Not so much, as not a single younger band could handle their success. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins: they all disintegrated in different ways under the pressure. In any event, I think that 1992 was the very peak of my love for R.E.M, as Monster was, well . . . maybe I’ll save that story for later.

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  1. […] 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. […]

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