Alfred had a bit to say today about R.E.M., my beloved R.E.M. Interestingly, and I’ll largely attribute this to the slight but occasionally significant difference in our ages (I’m older by a few years), he focuses on their ’90s/’00s output, whereas for me they’re first and foremost an ’80s band. I’ll admit that I don’t listen to them, album-wise, as much these days, but their singles (and a few album tracks) never leave my iPhone’s heavily-weighted-towards-the-’80s college rock playlist. In 2006 I wrote this about their then-recent I.R.S. early-years comp, and I stand by it, especially my final sentence: “This is the stuff American rock’n’roll dreams are made of; this is the best years of the best American band of the time, hands down.”
It was Robert Christgau, inevitably, who introduced me to the term “Amerindie,” in one of his mid-’80s Pazz & Jop essays. He included everyone from Game Theory to Let’s Active under that rubric, but no group (it was always groups) exemplified Amerindie like R.E.M. They grew up in the ’80s: their debut EP, Chronic Town, came out in ’82, and their major-label (Warners) debut, Green, was released on Election Day 1988. They were the American indie band of the ’80s, often considered the US “version” of the UK’s Smiths (or vice-versa), which I’ve always found a more than fair comparison: all-boy quartets with queer lead singers and iconic/influential guitarists who both played jangly leads, with lots of intentionally obscure songs, loads of ’em about feelings. R.E.M. and the Smiths were my two favorite bands in the ’80s, and are still my two favorite bands of the ’80s. I identified with them because of their outsiderness, their queerness (even if we didn’t exactly know that Stipe and Moz were so inclined back then, there was still something unquestionably queer about them, in every sense), and those jingle-jangle guitars, which were different enough from what was on the radio but not so foreign to a midwestern boy living on a farm.
I’d be remiss here not to properly credit the man (well, teenager, back then) who introduced me to both Athens’ and Manchester’s finest, my buddy Curt. Back in 2005, I wrote: “Back in high school he was the one who got me into a lot of the music that I still love to this day: the Smiths, the Cure, R.E.M., New Order… I could go on and on. [Curt] dubbed onto cassette (mostly on metal tapes) this amazing record collection he had, and these tapes were collected in a wooden cassette case which Gaz kept affixed to the wall of his bedroom.” I suspect that a preternaturally musically mature Curt was already listening to our local college radio station when we were in high school, and I know he read Rolling Stone (as did I), and sometimes Billboard and even, when he could get his hands on a copy, stuff like Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll. And somehow, in those pre-internet days, he’d figure out which records to take chances on, and he had an excellent batting average. I owe pretty much my entire pre-1987 college rock education to Curt, from the Sex Pistols to the Smithereens, Siouxsie and the Banshees to Bauhaus, but most of all, and above all, R.E.M. and the Smiths. (And by the way, if you want some real insight into me, I recommend you read the reminiscence I wrote back in 2003 about Curt Wednesdays, which I still miss.)
I suspect the first R.E.M. album I heard front-to-back was their third full-length, 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction. Which is a damned odd introduction to the band: quite possibly the most muddled, murky record in their I.R.S. catalog, an album rooted and mired in the American South, recorded in London. But yet “Driver 8” and the rave-up “Can’t Get There From Here” both broke through, slightly, on U.S. AOR radio (hitting #22 and #14, respectively). And I do remember seeing the videos for both, and “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” as well, on MTV — 120 Minutes started airing in early ’86, so these ’85 videos from one of college radio’s biggest bands still would’ve been fairly fresh. Much more accessible (such as it is) was 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant, produced by Don Gehman, who’d at that point helmed the previous three John Mellencamp albums (American Fool, Uh-Huh, and Scarecrow) — and who, wonder of wonders to Indiana boys such as us — recorded R.E.M. at Mellencamp’s Belmont Mall studios outside of Bloomington, Indiana. They’d been in our state! They made this record here!
Lead single “Fall on Me” made a weird kind of sense to weird kind of kids like us (or me, at least), especially hearing Mike Mills sing contrasting lyrics against Michael Stipe’s. And yet the instrumentation was easy to understand, which helped, too. But the whole damn thing was so, well, rich: from the “we are young despite the years/we are concerned” lyric in the chorus of “These Days” (it sounded like a clarion call), to the delightfully ridiculous cover of the Clique’s “Superman,” to opener “Begin the Begin,” which sounded like an album-opener (“silence means security”), to the mystifying obliqueness of “Swan Swan H.” This was music and lyrics that spoke to me, loudly, even if I didn’t entirely understand what was being said.
’84’s Reckoning and ’83’s debut album Murmur (which famously topped Michael Jackson’s Thriller in that year’s Rolling Stone critics poll) came later, likely sometime between Pageant and their ’87 commercial breakthrough, Document. There was also the giddy b-sides and knock-offs comp Dead Letter Office, which introduced me to the Velvet Underground, courtesy of their trio of cover versions. A number of friends went to see R.E.M. on the Document “Work tour” in Indianapolis, where I believe, weirdly, Public Image Limited opened for them. I didn’t have the money to afford tickets, and heard about the show secondhand. Document is, of course, where R.E.M. ceased being just “our” band, the cool secret, thanks to nasty kiss-off (and lyrical cousin of “Every Breath You Take”) “The One I Love” becoming a shocking top 10 single. Except they were still ours. Success hadn’t spoiled them yet, and in fact (arguably) never would.
My passion for them admittedly waned as they grew commercially bigger, but I never stopped loving them: seeing 1991’s “Losing My Religion” become a globe-conquering colossus was wonderful, because I knew that R.E.M. were fighting the good fight. I’ve never much cared for 1994’s “Everybody Hurts,” but its parent album Automatic for the People includes some real gems, such as the ’70s AM gleefulness of “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” and the breathtaking “Nightswimming.” ’95’s Monster is their “let’s fuck” glam album, amps cranked and Stipe eyeliner’d. (“Star 69”! “Crush With Eyeliner”! “Bang and Blame,” which sounds like a song penned for them by Joan Jett!) I frankly love its lack of focus, its looseness, but your mileage may vary. New Adventures in Hi-Fi has some highlights, but diminishing returns were starting to be the rule rather than the exception as they moved into the late ’90s and beyond. I’ve never even heard 2008’s Accelerate and 2011’s Collapse Into Now, their final two albums, all the way through. (I will, one of these days.)
But still, they’re mine. Michael Stipe is a weirdo, and he showed me, back when I really needed to know it, that it was okay to be a weirdo too. And I love that he’s still a weirdo. And even more, I love that he and Bill Berry, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills made such an indelible catalog of music: those first, say, 15 years are damned near unimpeachable. Their influence has waned these days, but it’ll come back. The great ones always do. In the meantime, should we talk about the weather? Or the government?