It’s the End of the World as We Know It: R.E.M. – A Retrospective

In light of R.E.M’s shocking split last week, Dan Moriarty discusses the legendary band and why they will be so sorely missed.

On September 22nd R.E.M. announced they were calling it a day. A short statement from Michael Stipe read; “To our Fans and Friends: As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening. R.E.M.” The announcement was typical of R.E.M; classy and poignant.

They may well be the first massive band to retire gracefully; Stipe further noted that “A wise man once said – the skill in attending a party is knowing when it’s time to leave.  We built something extraordinary together. We did this thing. And now we’re going to walk away from it.” Peter Buck spoke directly to R.E.M fans everywhere saying “One of the things that was always so great about being in R.E.M. was the fact that the records and the songs we wrote meant as much to our fans as they did to us.”

R.E.M. formed as four college students in Athens, Georgia. They were; Stipe (vocals), Mike Mills (bass), Buck (guitar) and Bill Berry (drums). They achieved local success relatively quickly after their formation in 1980 and their first single; ‘Radio Free Europe’ was released in the summer of ’81. Their debut album Murmur was released by I.R.S, it enjoyed moderate success selling 200,000 copies. The album is noteworthy now as it is the starting point of Stipe’s journey as a vocalist. The album does have the typical timeless feel of R.E.M., but the mumbled lyrics are in stark contrast to the soaring heights of ‘Losing My Religion’ and ‘The Great Beyond’.

The succeeding three albums Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction and Life’s Rich Pageant allowed Stipe’s to make a progressive leap as a singer and lyricist. These albums also allowed them to enjoy a large cult following and included great songs such as ‘Fall on Me’ and ‘(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville’. They are still revered for those days as a young college band.  Document and Green released in ’87 and ’88 saw the vocals begin to come to the fore and they set the tone for the mainstream success that was just around the corner.

Document was the bands last album with I.R.S, they would move to Warner Music for Green and subsequent albums. It was also the first album co-produced by Scott Litt and this partnership would continue for the next five albums. It would also coincide with the period of their greatest successes. Document also featured some of the strongest and most political lyrics yet on the songs ‘Welcome to the Occupation’ and ‘Exhuming McCarthy’. ‘The One I Love’ is arresting proof of Stipe’s progression as a vocalist, and while it is still often played on radio stations for saddened hearts it is worth noting Stipe’s considerable lyrical caveat; the reference to ‘the one I love’ as ‘a simple prop to occupy my time’

Out of Time is one of very few albums that saw a band move from cult to mainstream success without selling out. The band experimented with a range of new instruments; mandolin, organ and acoustic guitar are littered generously through the album. The hit single ‘Losing My Religion’ received huge airplay helped in part by its unusual video. It is probably still their most famous single song. Out of Time propelled R.E.M. into the minds of mainstream music fans whilst still remaining a bona fide R.E.M. album.

The follow up; Automatic for the People was nothing short of a masterpiece. Slightly rockier than Out of Time and containing an embarrassment of riches in terms of hit songs; ‘Drive’, ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight’, ‘Everybody Hurts’, ‘Man on the Moon’ and ‘Nightswimming’. It further accelerated the success of the band and by the time they released Monster in 1994 they were the biggest band in the world. In terms of commercial success and arguably artistic merit these three albums were the zenith for R.E.M. Monster contained one of R.E.M’s most beautiful and unusual songs, ‘Tongue’. Allegedly inspired by cunnilingus, Stipe adopts a high falsetto, sounding almost female.

It was undoubtedly a controversial song, in a very understated way. It could possibly have been some sort of reaction to the new wave of R.E.M. fans. Stipe and the other band members noticed a change in the crowd they were drawing as they became bigger. They were no longer just playing for university kids with similar hopes, dreams and fears. They were now playing to a much wider audience packed full of people who Stipe admitted “would probably kick me in the street if they didn’t know me.”

In 1996 they released New Adventures In Hi-Fi which many people consider the last true R.E.M album. While not quite hitting the hits of the three previous albums it contained hits such as ‘Electrolite’ and ‘E-Bow the Letter’ which included guest vocals from Patti Smith. It also sold five million copies worldwide. New Adventures… was, however, the final album co-produced with Litt as well as the final album with Berry who left the band in 1997. After suffering a brain aneurism the previous year, he informed his colleagues that he wished to retire, but would only do so if it didn’t split the band up. The remaining three elected to continue as R.E.M. with his blessing.

The change in line-up caused disruption and at it took an emergency band meeting to keep the R.E.M. ship afloat. They managed to get their act together to release Up with reached one and two in the UK and US charts, respectively. Lead by the hit single ‘Daysleeper’, it also contained the tender and beautiful piano driven ballad ‘At My Most Beautiful’. The following albums never quite hit the heights of their older work, and reviews came to be full of patronising lines regarding a ‘return to form’. There will still moments of brilliance; ‘Imitation of Life’ and ‘All The Way to Reno’, but they were becoming rarer.

Now recognised as one of the godfathers of indie and alternative music they steadfastly refused to do things any way but their own and made the music they loved until the very end. A peek across their discography reveals a plethora of truly wonderful songs and ambitious albums. Rather than suffer the ignominy of Paul McCartney or Bob Dylan trying to desperately recapture the ability to play their hits in old age R.E.M. have left the party at the right time.