R.E.M. Biography

R.E.M. played their first concert in Athens, Georgia, USA, on 19 April 1980. Their line-up consisted of four drop-outs from the University of Georgia; Michael Stipe (4 January 1960, Decatur, Georgia, USA; vocals), Peter Buck (b. 6 December 1956, Berkeley, California, USA; guitar), Mike Mills (b. 17 December 1958, Orange County, California, USA; bass) and Bill Berry (b. 31 July 1958, Duluth, Minnesota, USA; drums). Without the charisma of Stipe and his eccentric onstage behaviour, hurling himself about with abandon in-between mumbling into the microphone, they could easily have been overlooked as just another bar band, relying on the harmonious guitar sound of the Byrds for their inspiration. Acquiring a healthy following among the college fraternity in their home-town, it was not long before they entered the studio to record their debut single, ‘Radio Free Europe’, to be released independently on Hibtone Records. This was greeted with considerable praise by critics who conceded that the band amounted to more than the sum of their influences. Their country/folk sound was contradicted by a driving bassline and an urgency that put the listener more in mind of the Who in their early mod phase. Add to this the distinctive voice of Stipe and his inaudible, perhaps even non-existent, lyrics, and R.E.M. sounded quite unlike any other band in the USA in the post-punk era of the early 80s.

Newly signed to I.R.S. Records, the band gained further favourable notices for August 1982’s mini-album, Chronic Town, produced by Mitch Easter. Their eagerly awaited full-length debut arrived in April 1983. With production duties handled by Easter and Don Dixon, Murmur surpassed all expectations, and was eventually made Album Of The Year by Rolling Stone magazine. As in the USA, the band earned a devoted cult following in Europe, largely comprised of college students. Reckoning appeared the following year and was permeated by a reckless spontaneity that had been missing from their earlier work. Recorded in only 12 days, the tracks varied in mood from frustration, as on ‘So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)’, to the tongue-in-cheek sing along ‘(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville’. The songs were accessible enough but, as would be the case for most of the 80s, the singles culled from R.E.M.’s albums were generally deemed uncommercial by mainstream radio programmers. However, their cult reputation benefited from a series of flop singles on both sides of the Atlantic.

Although received enthusiastically by critics, the Joe Boyd -produced Fables Of The Reconstruction was a stark, morose album that mirrored a period of despondency within the band. Peter Buck summed it up in the 90s - ‘If we were to record those songs again, they would be very different’. Lifes Rich Pageant, produced by Don Gehman, showed the first signs of a politicization within the band that would come to a head and coincide with their commercial breakthrough in the late 80s. Stipe’s lyrics began to dwell increasingly on the prevailing amorality in the USA and question its inherited ethics, while retaining their much vaunted obliqueness. Tracks such as ‘These Days’ and ‘Cuyahoga’ were rallying cries to the young and disaffected; although the lyrics were reflective and almost bitter, the music was the most joyous and uplifting the band had recorded to date. This ironic approach to songwriting was typified by ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’, from 1987’s equally impressive Document, which intentionally trivialized its subject matter with a witty and up-tempo infectiousness. In a similar vein was ‘The One I Love’, a deliberately cold and detached dismissal of an ex-lover that was, nevertheless, completely misinterpreted as romantic by countless record-buyers who pushed the single up to number 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The album was produced by Scott Litt, who would continue to work with the band over the next few years.

Signing a multi-million dollar recording contract with Warner Brothers Records, R.E.M.’s major label debut Green arrived in 1988 and sold slowly but steadily in the USA. The attendant single ‘Stand’ reached US number 6 in January 1989, while ‘Orange Crush’ entered the UK Top 30 the same June. Apart from demonstrating their environmental awareness, particularly on ‘You Are The Everything’, the album laid more emphasis on Stipe’s vocals and lyrics. This, to the singer’s dismay, led to his elevation as ‘spokesman for a generation’, particularly with the apparent self-revelation of ‘World Leader Pretend’. Already hero-worshipped by adoring long-term fans who saw him as both pin-up and creative genius, Stipe insisted: ‘Rock ‘n’ roll is a joke, people who take it seriously are the butt of the joke’. The world tour that coincided with the album’s release saw R.E.M. making a smooth transition from medium-size venues to the stadium circuit, owing as much to Stipe’s individual choreography as to the elaborate, projected backdrops.

After a break of two years, during which Berry, Buck and Mills collaborated with singer Warren Zevon as the Hindu Love Gods, the band re-emerged with Out Of Time. Their previous use of horns and mandolins to embroider songs did not prepare their audience for the deployment of an entire string section, nor were the contributions from B-52’s singer Kate Pierson and Boogie Down Productions’ KRS-One expected. Ostensibly the band’s first album to contain ‘love’ songs, it was unanimously hailed as a masterpiece and topped both the US and UK album charts. The accompanying singles from the album, ‘Losing My Religion’ (US number 4/UK number 19), ‘Shiny Happy People’ (US number 10/UK number 6), ‘Near Wild Heaven’ (UK number 27) and ‘Radio Song’ (UK number 28), gave them further hits.

R.E.M.’s third major label album Automatic For The People was released in October 1992 to universal favour, reaching the top of the charts in the UK and USA. The album, which has endured as a modern classic, produced a number of memorable singles including the moody ‘Drive’ (US number 28/UK number 11), the joyous Andy Kaufman tribute ‘Man On The Moon’ (US number 30/UK number 18) with its classic Elvis Presley vocal inflections from Stipe and an award-winning accompanying monochrome video, ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’ (UK number 17) and ‘Everybody Hurts’ (US number 29/UK number 7). Monster showed R.E.M. in grunge-like mode, not letting any accusations of selling out bother them, and certainly letting fans and critics alike know that they had not gone soft. ‘What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?’ (UK number 9) started a run of hit singles taken from the album and further awards were heaped upon them.

Following the collapse of Bill Berry in Switzerland while on a major tour in 1995, the band was forced to rest. Berry was operated on for a ruptured aneurysm and made a full recovery. In August 1996, the band re-signed with Warner Brothers Records for the largest recording contract advance in history: $80 million was guaranteed for a five-album contract. New Adventures In Hi-Fi was released in September. Recorded mostly during soundchecks during the ill-fated Monster tour, it was nevertheless another outstanding collection. From the epic chord changes and lyrical sentiments of ‘Be Mine’ to the cool understated calm of ‘How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us’, it showed the band’s remarkable creative depth. ‘E-Bow The Letter’, featuring Patti Smith, also provided the band with a UK Top 5 single.

In October 1997, Bill Berry shocked the music world by announcing his intention to leave R.E.M. after 17 years with the band; the remaining members were quick to confirm that they would be continuing without him, using the adage ‘a three-legged dog can still walk’. Although there was no official replacement on drums, with the rest of the band electing to continue R.E.M. as a three-piece, ex-Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin contributed to sessions for 1998’s Up, which also featured new producer Pat McCarthy. Introduced by the single ‘Daysleeper’ (a UK Top 10 hit), this album was the band’s most adventurous recording since the mid-80s. The following year they provided the soundtrack for the Andy Kaufman biopic Man On The Moon, which included the excellent new track ‘The Great Beyond’. The band’s first studio album of the new millennium, Reveal, delighted fans and critics with sharp lyrics and some classic Buck chord changes, most notably on the UK hit single ‘Imitation Of Life’. Even the guitarist’s minor air-rage incident on route to London (he was acquitted of any criminal charges in March 2002) could not taint the plaudits the album received. R.E.M. earned further praise the following year when they contributed the track ‘All The Right Friends’ to the soundtrack of Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky.

R.E.M.’s commercial fortunes had been on the wane in their native America since the mid-90s, with each album selling successively less copies. They continued to sell large amounts of records in Europe, however, and enjoyed a particular sales boost with the release of the 2003 compilation set In Time. The album cherry picked a selection of their Warners material and featured two new tracks, the politically-charged ‘Bad Day’ and ‘Animal’. The band made their political leanings clear in October 2004 when they embarked on the Vote For Change Tour, joining acts such as Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam and the Dixie Chicks in a series of shows intended to influence voters to remove President George W. Bush from the White House. Their new studio album, the slick and unadventurous Around The Sun, was released while the band was playing on the tour.

The critical praise heaped upon R.E.M. has been monumental, but despite all this attention they have remained painfully modest and reasonably unaffected, and, despite the loss of Berry, still appear united. They are one of the most important and popular bands to appear over the past three decades, and although their commercial heyday appears to have passed they still retain massive credibility and every new release is anticipated with great excitement.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.