musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Memories of R.E.M.

I first heard the news in an e-mail from a friend in Florida yesterday: after 31 years together, R.E.M. had broken up. Damn, that’s sad news, and it certainly signifies the end of an era, at least for people like me who followed the band throughout their entire career. R.E.M. was a great band, one of my favorites of all time, but if they felt they had nothing left in the tank after all these years, all you can say is; “Thanks for all the great music, guys!”

But 31 years? That’s mind boggling. All I can do is shake my head and wonder where all these years have gone. In my mind R.E.M. still represents the “new” breed of rock bands, not the rock dinosaurs from the 60s and 70s that I grew up with. I remember hearing a very catchy, propulsive guitar-driven song played at the 688 Club in Atlanta one night back in 1981. After hearing it for the second time that night, I asked the guy standing next to me: “Who is this?” The answer: “R.E.M.” The song in question was “Radio Free Europe,” a single the band had recently released on Johnny Hibbert’s locally produced Hib-Tone Records. I found a copy at Mark Methe’s Wuxtry Records in Decatur that weekend and played it to death when I got back to Orlando. “Radio Free Europe” was a fantastic song, and the flip side of the single, “Sitting Still,” was nearly as good. Like many music fans, my appetite now whet, I wanted to hear more.

That wish soon came true. In seemingly no time at all, R.E.M. was the hottest band in the region, thanks to touring, airplay, and word of mouth. Remember kids, this was well before the Internet. Tweeting was something only birds did. The band signed to IRS Records and released the enticing Chronic Town, an excellent 5-song EP in 1982. They followed that with their first album, the classic Murmur in 1983. I was such a fan of that album and so inspired by the spirit of the music that when I opened my own record store in Orlando in October 1983 I called it: Murmur Records. Another Athens band, Love Tractor (R.E.M.’s drummer Bill Berry had once been a member), performed a concert in our back room the following month. An Orlando band named themselves Stumble after one of the tracks on Chronic Town. Another local band took the name 7,000 Gifts, after yet another R.E.M. song. Like the band, we were on a roll. R.E.M. was our good luck charm.

Earlier that same year, just before they released Murmur, R.E.M. came to Orlando for a show at a local disco that held a weekly “New Wave” night called “Spit.” As expected, the band put on an electric show and took the time to talk to some of us fans afterwards. Guitarist Peter Buck was especially personable and full of tales. The next year, after Murmur had turned our heads around, I saw R.E.M. again in concert, this time at a free Spring Break show in Daytona Beach, opening for the English Beat. Thanks to the efforts of a mutual friend, I was able to coerce Michael Stipe, the band’s shy singer, into doing an interview at a bar after the show. I realized later that doing interviews wasn’t something that he was very comfortable doing, so I was grateful that he took the time to talk with me that day.

R.E.M. kept up their hot streak of consistently great albums the rest of the decade with Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, Life’s Rich Pageant, and Document. In the eyes of their fans, this was a band that could do no wrong. But then they switched labels in 1988, signing for big bucks with Warner Brothers and released the uneven Green album. It sold well, but many longtime fans like me were very disappointed. To the delight of many pessimists, however, the band bounced back with two of their most popular albums, Out of Time and Automatic for the People, punctuated by great songs such as “Drive”, “Everybody Hurts”, “Man on the Moon”, “Nightswimming”, Losing My Religion”, “Near Wild Heaven” and “Shiny Happy People.” Their music took on a harder edge with the next album, 1994’s disappointing Monster. By that time, the band seemed to have lost the magical spark that had separated them from other bands of the era. Nevertheless, I kept buying each and every album when they were released. Every three or four years R.E.M. would record a new album; some good to great songs, some lackluster stuff, but just nothing nearly as amazing as those 80s albums. Their two most recent albums, Accelerate and this year’s Collapse Into Now, were especially strong collections, refreshing bursts of energy after a few too many lethargic albums the previous decade.

No matter which albums are your favorites by R.E.M. — and mine are still those early masterpieces on IRS — you can safely say that R.E.M. stuck true to their ideals (musically, socially, and politically) and always treated their fans like gold. To say that they will be missed is an understatement, but at least they went out on their own terms; no messy breakup with nasty accusations or bitter fighting, just a group of musicians who realized the time was right to call it a night.

In the last couple of years, the band has released 25th Anniversary editions of Murmur and Reckoning. Both are now available as 2-CD sets; the original album plus an extra CD with live concert material. In the case of Murmur, the album was completely remastered. Such sonic improvement is usually considered a good thing, but fans of the original “murky” sounding Murmur were more than a bit distressed to hear that their beloved album was being tinkered with. And so, I put off buying it for the longest time, until I finally took the plunge when I found a copy in the sale bin of a B2S branch in Bangkok earlier this year. I was relieved to find that the remastered version was not as dramatically different sounding as I had been led to believe. Then again, I’m no audiophile. If everything was still in mono I wouldn’t be distressed. The bottom line is the quality of the songs and the depth of the music, and that hasn’t changed a bit. It’s still a classic. As is Reckoning. That was an awesome one-two punch that the band never really topped, although they came close with Fables and Life’s Rich Pageant, both of which are also now available as deluxe 25th Anniversary editions. There have been a lot of articles in the media this past month about the anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind album and the impact that it had on so many music fans. But for me, Nirvana never really mattered that much, or at least they never had the impact on my life the way that R.E.M. did. That’s not to dismiss the influence that Nirvana and their album had on many people — every generation has its touchstones — but for me, R.E.M. was the band that truly changed things.

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