The story of how a band of young hopefuls with independent aspirations and a shared love for American - specifically New York City -  New Wave/Punk, ended up putting up the college town of Athens, Georgia on the musical map is pretty much the definitive tale of third phase rock music enthusiasts. To begin with R.E.M. locked into place as a quartet and grew up in the studio and on stage with such passion and élan that they swept their generation along with them and like kindred spirits U2 in Dublin they succeeded in elevating the alternative into a credible strain of mainstream without compromising too many ideals, or alienating their fan base. Since their formation in 1980 the band has sold in excess of 85 million albums, enjoyed countless Top Ten singles and thrilled crowds on stage. From small town origins they would end up inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and then announced an amicable split in 2011, though each member has and always did pursue other activities beyond the integral band of brothers. Along the way they have developed various strains of music, incorporating jangly Byrdsian melodies into more contemporary strains. They’ve never fought shy of technology, or avoided prevailing trends if they suited their modus operandi; but nor have they slavishly followed fashion. They set out quietly to begin with and then dragged the music business round to their way of thinking. Political activism has always been within their compass and Michael Stipe has insisted on a liberal and politically correct outlook. A supporter of PETA – not all the band fall into line all the time – Stipe has also pushed for Democratic causes while the entire group worked on behalf of the Freedom Campaign in Burma. Since they have acquired wealth and fame along the way these causes have sometimes drawn flak from the press but their power to raise awareness on certain issues seems genuine enough – it definitely isn’t lip-service - and they have done more than most to preserve local landmarks in the historic parts of Athens, GA.

R.E.M-rock-band--007From humble enough beginnings a band is born. Michael Stipe and guitarist Peter Buck met in a local record store where they found they shared a love for the 1970s pioneers like Television, Patti Smith and the Velvet Underground before them: a natural lineage that necessarily embraces strands of classic rock music while seeking to adapt to the times.

Mike Mills and Bill Berry, who would form the rhythm section, were enlisted from the local University of Georgia. They rapidly became celebrities in the locale, not always to the pleasure of other bands, and cut their teeth with solid touring throughout the southern states. The debut single, “Radio Free Europe”, cut at producer Mitch Easter’s Drive-In Studios in Winston-Salem, North Carolina was a classic beginning that was voted one of the ten best singles of the year in the New York Times.

REMsplitThey threw another curveball with the EP Chronic Town in late 1981 and were picked up by I.R.S. Records who acquired their demos and gave them a professional setting for the forthcoming years. We are delighted to say that their classic early albums are available here.

Avoiding too many of the tropes and clichés of classic rock bands they convened to record Murmur in 1983 with Easter and partner Don Dixon perfecting the jangly pop sound of the era on a classic set that included a cover of the Velvets’ “There She Goes Again” in the restored versions of the album, as well as out and out landmark R.E.M. tracks like “Talk About the Passion”. Exploring avant pop and art rock with a flair unmatched by many outside of, say, Talking Heads, R.E.M. wowed the scene. Stipe’s semi-mumbled and deeply mixed, often incoherent lyrics, only added to their mystique while Buck’s guitar prowess was evident even as they fought against giving their audience the bleeding obvious. Murmur was a five star beginning and sold well enough to make the 36 slot in the USA while becoming a cult artifact elsewhere. The re-recorded “Radio Free Europe” arrived with a slightly cleaner sound and did well in the UK but what followed set R.E.M. on the path to stardom.

499d62ea6cc2dReckoning (1981) found the band writing and recording with prodigious energy. With Stipe, Mills and Berry hitting on a tasty harmonised central core and Buck leaping off at tangents on occasion, this album contains such essential pieces as “Harbourcoat”, the enigmatic “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” and the much loved “Don’t Go Back to Rockville”. Look out for this in the I.R.S. Vintage Years series for a cracking live in the studio “Pretty Persuasion” and check out the 2009 Deluxe Edition bonus disc (Live at the Aragon Ballroom, Chicago, July 7, 1984) to hear the band in their early pomp.

Fables of the Reconstruction, a conceptual album concerned with exploration of the South’s rich mythology and gothic landscape, was recorded with Joe Boyd in London. Moving their sound away from the full-on jangle of before R.E.M. now utilize strings and brass in places and a wider range of guitar sounds. Even so the layered, acoustic bedrock of “Driver 8”, “Can’t Get There From Here” and “Wendell Gee” mark this out as vintage R.E.M. The Athens Demos bonus on the 25th Anniversary Edition contains three different songs and some subtle variations. The main album would soon go Gold and inroads were being made - yet there’s still a feeling that these first three albums have been missed by many who picked up on the commercial breakthrough years post-1987 and we’d direct you towards them without demur. They each deserve rediscovery because they’re remarkable works.

import_photos_406Lifes Rich Pageant (1986) was produced by Don Gehmann, an old school control man; it’s undoubtedly another essential disc and still one that has slipped through many a net.  Again the I.R.S. Vintage Years and the 25th Anniversary (Athens Demos) Editions are recommended; but even without those the core brilliance of “The Flowers of Guatemala” and the dense “Begin the Begin” are durable and lovely. Gehmann succeeded in liberating Stipe and company from the dense sonic undergrowth of their previous albums and while the new in your face production was a shock it hasn’t diminished the album over time.

On Document the band finally make major headway. Now established as a critically favoured entity the reviews for this album were so ecstatic that something had to give and it did as they cracked the US Top Ten and beat a path towards commercial supremacy with a slew of ever more classic songs – from  “Finest Worksong” and “The One I Love” to the surefire festival singalong “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” which functions as a clever update of a Bob Dylan protest song like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” – though once again a younger fan wouldn’t need to get that reference to feel the thrill and power of the track.

REM-in-2011-006If this is the sound of R.E.M.  making their move then it’s small wonder that we offer some first rate anthologies and collections. Eponymous is a true gem and doesn’t simply cash in on the familiar. Different mixes, the original Hib-Tone version of “Radio Free Europe” and an alternate “Gardening At Night”  for instance, make this a must-have for completists. The Best of R.E.M. is a very handy précis containing 16 sparkling tracks while R.E.M.: Singles Collected compiles all the A and B-sides from 1983 to 1987. Of course there’s no point in pretending that the band wouldn’t go onto world domination status for a while hereafter – albums like Green and Automatic For The People are monster multi-Platinum affairs and we’re happy for that but then as they might say themselves, you can’t get there from here (without starting somewhere).

These early albums, with all their extra adornments, epitomize the charm and freshness of R.E.M. as they grew up in public, before they became a radical sort of household name

This is where it all begins and it is a terrific body of work. Talk about the passion…
Words : Max Bell

ESSENTIAL ALBUMS

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