An Early History of R.E.M., Part 1

Part 2
Part 3

People have complex relationships with the artists they love. With some artists, the love flares up and dies down almost as fast, never to be rekindled. But with others, that early flare-up settles into a life-long relationship, complete with the ups and downs of any other life-long relationship. For me, one of those artists is R.E.M. 20 years ago, they were probably my most favorite entity on the entire planet, but the post-Bill Berry years have been, er, problematic, and my ardor has cooled. However, they have a new album, Accelerate coming out in a couple of weeks, and I found a copy online and liked what I heard. So I thought that in the next couple of weeks, I would I would go back and republish a something I’ve previously written about them, and then, after the album comes out, look at how things are now. This early history was written for a Fresno ‘zine in 1991: the exact halfway point between when I fell in love with them and fell out of love with them. For better and worse, I haven’t changed a word.

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

If you’ve ever thought that R.E.M. has ever sold out, you are wrong, dead wrong. R.E.M. has always been one of the most uncompromising bands in rock n’ roll history. Those who have been yelling “sell out” since Lifes Rich Pageant (Fables? Reckoning?) are either A) idiots or B) so enamored of their own cloistered underground hipness and their attitude of “if is popular, it can’t be good,” that they’ve completely twisted into themselves and they wouldn’t know the real world if it came up and bit em in the ass. Or maybe not. That probably is a bit harsh, but R.E.M. has been the soundtrack to my life since I first heard the Trouser Press flexi-disc of “Wolves, Lower” in 1982 . . .

For those of you who are too young to remember the actual time that “punk rock” became “new wave” (on the road to being “post-punk,” “post-modern,” and a million other misnomers — including the dreaded “progressive,” which, to me, a child of the 70s, always meant Yes and E.L.P. — for what was basically a unclassifiable musical movement), there once was a magazine called Trouser Press, and it was the monthly bible of what I’ll call the “alternative” music scene.

Wait, I’d like to note right now that “alternative” is as bad as all the rest, since it encompasses bands like U2 and R.E.M., which are now “mainstream,” but in my defense, I’d like to point out that none of these bands would have ever been “alternative” at all, if, in the late 1970s, the major rock radio consultants hadn’t decided not to play the Sex Pistols, Television, Buzzcocks, etc, and actually, as a by-product of their lack of vision, started the process leading to what is now commonly called “The Death of Rock and Roll.”

In other words, had rock radio bothered to play what we called “punk rock” back in those crucial 1977-1980 days, popular rock n’ roll would still be a life-affirming, communal force the way those fucking Baby Boomers talk about how the 1960’s were instead of being dominated by a bunch of posing pretty-boy glamheads who are so insecure about their fake music that they constantly run anything down that doesn’t fit with their corporately pre-conceived notions of what rock and roll should sound be. So the end result is that what is popularly known as “rock and roll” is now endlessly circling upon itself until one day it will suck itself into its own self-made black hole. Goodbye, and good riddance.

Hmm, within the space of a page I’ve pretty much savaged not only my little underground but also the mainstream that in another dimension was really the Replacements and Hüsker Dü was well as R.E.M. and U2 (and ok, we’ll still let Guns N’ Roses and Bruce Springsteen stay) instead of Bon Jovi and the rest of the glam pack. So where does all this leave me? Why, with R.E.M.. And back to Trouser Press, of course.

Ten years later, I’m probably overstating the importance of Trouser Press in my world, but it helped turn me on to The Clash and The Jam as well as others, and in those dark days before college radio (as opposed to these dark days with college radio) all that we had was the Trouser Press (and to be far, Creem, which at the time, had the best reviews as well as Robert Christgau’s invaluable Consumer Guide) and it was pretty much a crapshoot.

Let me explain. Living in Fresno, I had no choice but to buy albums based purely on my interpretation of the reviews. I bought Give’ Em Enough Rope, Rocket to Russia, This is the Modern World, Marquee Moon and Boy, among others, without ever hearing a single note of the music. It was either that, or stay ignorant of an entire subgenre of music. Looking back, that was my first clue that the people paid to spin records are basically morons that don’t give the first fuck about music in and of itself.

Which really sucked, because all of my life I wanted to be a DJ, in order to play music that I loved for other people in hopes that they would love it too. The final realization of my naivete led directly to my vicious cynicism about professional radio and my generation. A generation that has been completely fucked musically by aging Baby Boomers who A) worshiped the music of the 60s when they were young, wild and free and then B) froze musical culture in the 70s when they settled down and turned into their parents.

Whew. Sorry. Ok, the major problem with buying albums without hearing them first was the one you’d expect — for every Joy Division, there was a Bram Tchaikovsky or a million bands with one or two great singles and so-so albums (20/20, The Records), or even worse, major critical acclaim that just didn’t hit me (and at first, that even included Elvis Costello and the Talking Heads, and still includes Richard Hell, the Vibrators and The Residents).

When Trouser Press started giving out free flexi-discs to subscribers, I was thrilled. Every little bit helped. That flexi had Lords of the New Church’s “Open Your Eyes” on one side and an obscurely titled song called “Wolves, Lower” by a band called R.E.M. on the other. Of course, since they had members of the Dammed and the Dead Boys, I had heard of the Lords, so that was cool. But R.E.M.?? Sounded like a synth-pop band. But in the interest of fairness, I played it. And played it again. And again. I loved the way the guitar sounded, kinda jangly all over, and the way the song slipped in and out of the chorus. It was like nothing I’d ever heard, yet, at the same time, it was instantly familiar, almost a musical deja vu.

At almost exactly the same time, our college station, KFSR, went on the air and me with it. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was surrounded with people who liked the same music that I did. (Trust me, liking The Clash and Ramones in high school in the late 70s wasn’t the route to popularity, at least in Fresno.) It was a revelation. I could go to parties and hear the Buzzcocks instead of Styx.

Meanwhile, I’d discovered there was a whole EP of stuff by R.E.M. so I went out and purchased it. It had a weird gargoyle on the cover and on the label, and while the EP, Chronic Town, had only five songs, each one was filled with beauty, power, and mystery. And the singer, what was he saying? “Chronic town, poster torn, weeping will” what did that mean?

All that Chronic Town did, with songs like “Gardening at Night” and “Carnival of Sorts,” was make us want more. And in spring of 83, when I read in Tower Record’s nascent Pulse! magazine that the first R.E.M. album, to be called 1,000 Gifts, was due out at any time, I started haunting the store even more than normal.

Of course, the album wasn’t called 1,000 Gifts, it was called Murmur, and it was one of the handful of records that I can honestly say changed my life . . .

You know, it’s really hard to sit here, eight years later, and explain the impact that Murmur had on not just my life, but the lives of almost everyone around me. I’m really not overemphasizing when I say that, as far as the underground scene here went, Murmur was the most major galvanizing force ever. Before, there wasn’t a radio station to be a catalyst, and afterwards, well, the inevitable fragmentation occurred.

So what did I feel when I sat in KFSR’s production room and first heard Murmur? Was it an instant acknowledgment of its timeless beauty?? An appreciation of its perfectly crafted songs? A sense of wonder at the vocal harmonies?? Nah. What I felt was a sense of disappointment.

Gone was the headlong jangling tumble of Chronic Town, and in its place were acoustic guitars, piano, and slow ones. What I failed to recognize, at first, were all of the things that made it my favorite album for years to come: the amazing amount of details packed into every song.

Luckily, I did listen to Murmur a second time, a third time, and a 100th time and a 1000th time — and pretty much drove my girlfriend of the time up the wall with my insistence that we listen to it every single day for months. (Of course, she eventually became a hardcore R.E.M. fanatic.)

Why did it cause such a response? Because of those details: the way the 12-string echoes the vocal on “Talk About the Passion,” Bill Berry’s drumbeats at the climax of “Pilgrimage,” and the way the phrase “conversation fear” was the only intelligible lyric in “9-9 ” (and yet, somehow you could still sing along). And of course, just that overall sound — Mike Mills’ melodic bass and Peter Buck’s unschooled picking and Bill Berry’s trademark bumpbumpbumpdiddleeumpdump fill over which Michael Stipe would sing about what? “Yellow like a geisha doll?” “Up to par and candy bars?” “Take your time, take your fortune?” At least, that’s what I thought he was singing. Other people thought different things. Which is why we decided to have the first of many overreactions to R.E.M. — the R.E.M. Lyric-deciphering party.

I’m not sure who came up with the idea, but it sounded great, and its a perfect example of the particular type of fandom that R.E.M. inspired in those days. The original idea was to get a bunch of people together, listen to Chronic Town and Murmur, and everybody would write down what they thought the lyrics were. Then, at the end, we’d all compare notes and discern what the “real” lyrics were. This sort of thing is exactly why R.E.M. was the biggest college radio band ever. They attracted a bunch of reasonably intelligent people who had a lot of ideas that sounded great on paper, but were actually quite impractical.

As I remember, about halfway through “Gardening at Night” (the second song on Chronic Town), we determined that it really was a stupid idea and that more beer was called for. But what other band in the tangled history of Rock n’ Roll could inspire a party specifically designed to figure out what they were saying? Even other great bands with mushmouthed lead singers (Mick Jagger, come on down!) couldn’t inspire the combination of intensity, devotion, and just plain weirdness that R.E.M. inspired in otherwise cynical people from the start.

Meanwhile, someone else had actually written the band and got a reply that basically said “thanks, and if you like us, here are some other great American bands to look for.” And they sent a list of what would now be considered all of the usual suspects — X, Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, The Minutemen, etc. — but at that time (fall of ’83) most of these bands were just beginning to build their national reputations. R.E.M. had already spent a couple of years on the road and had seen tons of great bands, and being fans themselves, they wanted to share this information with as many people as they could.

Which is why, after the release of Reckoning , in the spring of 1984, R.E.M. became the catalyst for the great American underground rock network.

At first glance, Reckoning seemed to be the natural follow-up to Chronic Town that Murmur wasn’t. The emphasis was back on electric guitars, and the songs weren’t as chock full of little details as the songs on Murmur. But, as I was quickly learning, pigeonholing a R.E.M. album on first listen is a pretty stupid thing to do. If Reckoning didn’t inspire the fanatical devotion that its predecessor did, well, how could it? (It still topped our radio station DJs’ poll just like Murmur.)

But actually, song for song (and with the perspective of time), it’s every bit as good. Songs like “HarborcOat,” “letter never seNt.” “little america,” and my most favorite song, the majestic “Time After Time (annElise)” were every bit as stirring as anything they’d done. And along with U2’s The Unforgettable Fire and The Replacements’ Let it Be, Reckoning kept me going during some pretty dark days in late 1984 and early 1985. I’d often have to listen to all three before I got out of bed on some weekend mornings.

As the “acceptable edge of the unacceptable stuff” (Peter Buck’s words), R.E.M. had acquired a high profile, certainly higher than their record sales warranted, and after Murmur, they’d even performed on the Late Night with David Letterman show.

Compared to how bands are handled on Letterman now (they have to perform with Paul and the band), watching the tape of that show is almost an exercise in surreality. They do “Radio Free Europe,” and then Dave comes over to interview mostly Peter Buck and Mike Mills (Michael Stipe sits down and ignores the whole thing, and Bill Berry is stuck behind the drum kit) and they answer Dave’s tentative questions in a way that makes me think they’ve seen the opening sequence of The Kids Are Alright one too many times (you could almost hear Peter Buck wanting to say “Peter from Oz.), and then they play “so. Central Rain,” only it hasn’t even been named yet. Hardly a way to promote your band. And yet, as far as I remember, it’s the only time I’ve ever seen a band play two songs on Dave’s show, and I’m a stone Dave junkie.

After Reckoning , they were on two different MTV shows: IRS’ The Cutting Edge, and MTV’s first attempt to care about the history of the music they’ve so completely changed — a show called Rock Influences. For whatever reason, the premiere episode of Rock Influences delved into the history of Folk Rock, but more importantly, it showcased R.E.M. doing several live songs, none of which were particularly folky. (Which is ok, because the Dylan clip they used was the Newport Folk Festival electric version of “Maggie’s Farm” featuring Mike Bloomfield tossing off wicked bluesy licks behind a supercharged Bob — and it also had nothing to do with folk-rock as its usually defined.)

And naturally R.E.M., being R.E.M., chose to do not only their truncated, countryish version of the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” (the Velvets are usually not on the short list of folk-rock influences), but also a brand-new song, which at first I thought was called “Driver Ray,” but then I figured out was called “Driving Rain.”

They also did “Driving Rain” during their acoustic hootenanny on The Cutting Edge, a now legendary program that aired on MTV during the last Sunday of every month and was sponsored by IRS records, the epitome of cool at the time.

Interspersed with the ragged acoustic jam was a riotous interview sequence where Peter Buck called most pop music “Cheese Whiz for the masses,” Michael Stipe said “We don’t strive to be a critics band . . . we don’t strive to be a band, hardly.” After exhorting the MTV viewers to go out and buy Black Flag records, Peter Buck wrapped the whole thing up by observing “We’re the wimpiest band I like, and I’m not all that sure that I like us,” whereupon Mike Mills added “me, either.”

This kind of hilarious self-effacement only endured the band to its fans even more, and there is no doubt that their tireless championing of the underground helped. For example, I know that got the Replacements’ Hootenanny and Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade at least partially because of what Peter Buck had said about them in previous interviews. (Of course, since both of those bands were my fave rave American bands of the 80s, after R.E.M., I would have discovered them anyway, just not as soon.)

Part 2 of an Early History of R.E.M. in which a soundcheck is surreptitiously recorded and I grapple with the implications of their newfound fame.

7 Responses to “An Early History of R.E.M., Part 1”

  1. Will says:

    Thanks for writing this, over the years I’ve kind of forgotten how much REM used to mean to me but there was a time when they were, to my teenage self, the biggest thing in my life.

  2. Tim G. says:

    In so many ways, R.E.M. changed not just the music as we know it, they changed the people who were into the music. One should never write them off completely. I look forward to their new album, and hope I won’t be as disappointed as I was in the last one.

  3. Tyson says:

    Hey, I still have that edition of Rotting America, mostly ‘cuz I dug your article (and because my friend Chris Hiatt was half-responsible for the production of it)! I wonder how much it’s worth today?

  4. Jim says:

    I’ll tell you what I would love to have is the Video Zone cartoons that Chris used to do.

  5. For better and worse, I haven’t changed a word. Exept in the title, which I seem to recall being “A Psychohistory of R.E.M.”, at least online. (I’d link to it, but, you know, spoilers and all.)

  6. Jim says:

    Shush, you!!!

  7. Jim says:


    The original title was a tribute to/stolen from an old Trouser Press story called “A Psychohistory of The Who.”

    I did change it for this because a) I wanted to convey that this wasn’t an accounting of R.E.M.’s full history and b) I still don’t actually know what a “psychohistory” is.