R.E.M. — superheroes to lost souls


R.E.M. — superheroes to lost souls

They were the best band in the world between 1991 and 1993. Let us not forget that, writes KERNEELS BREYTENBACH.


WHEN you think of alternative rock music, you think of R.E.M. Not of the Irish sellouts U2. In 1983, the year dominated by Michael Jackson's Thriller, and Duran Duran and Tears for Fears making their breakthroughs, Rolling Stone magazine named R.E.M.'s debut album, Murmur, the rock album of the year.

​Today, that decision boggles the mind. Murmur was different but there's no way you can ignore the fact that R.E.M. were a group of students still learning how to do things.

​For instance, Michael Stipe couldn't sing. Muttering is not a voice register. Peter Buck's guitar skills were barely above school dance level. 

​The group was founded in 1980 by four students from Athens, Georgia. Stipe, Mike Mills, Bill Berry and Buck resonated with each other thanks to a shared admiration for Tom Verlaine's Television, Patti Smith and The Velvet Underground.

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For the next two years they performed in church halls, at student dances and in random obscure venues, with the occasional single to mark their progress. The group you hear on Murmur are pedestrians.

They made minimal progress with each new record after that, mainly thanks to their producers. Don Dixon and Mitch Easter helped produce Murmur and 1984's Reckoning; the Svengali of Fables of the Reconstruction (1985) was Joe Boyd, who in the Sixties worked wonders with the records of Nick Drake, Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention. Stipe continued to mutter into the microphone, this time with songs that he says evoke the tradition of old men sitting around a fire and telling stories.

Up to this point, R.E.M.'s story had been one of producers making a bunch of stubborn underachievers sound better than they were. But their concerts were enigmatic and energetic and earned them a cult following.

With Lifes Rich Pageant (1986) the new producer, Don Gehman (of John Cougar Mellencamp fame), succeeded in making Stipe sound like a singer — enormous progress. That earned R.E.M. their first gold record.

Gehman advised the group to hire Scott Litt as their producer — and Litt is the man who made Document (1987) their big international breakthrough. It was an album that thrived on the growing popularity of the new medium, the CD, and it was anti-Reagan in the background and more deliberately political in the lyrics (Exhuming McCarthy).

For all major turning points in popular culture there is always an economic matrix. In the late 1980s, record companies were losing direction and power. The transition from vinyl and audio cassettes to CD was not welcomed everywhere, but with the arrival of iTunes still 10 years away — and Napster just a little later on — record companies experienced an uncomfortable time with music artists.

After Document, R.E.M. gave their record company, IRS, the boot and signed a contract with Warner Bros. Green (1988) was recorded in Memphis, Tennessee and consolidated the breakthrough of Document with the hit Stand.


Then came the two albums through which R.E.M.'s members were elevated to superheroes, Stipe became the übermensch of antiheroes and R.E.M. took over the banner as heralds of the bright new future from Bono and the other meatheads of U2: Out of Time (1991) and Automatic for the People.

Out of Time's position in the history of popular music is unique. In 1991, Nirvana made their breakthrough with Nevermind and the song Smells Like Teen Spirit. Grunge was on everyone's mind — Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and many more changed rock's profile.

However, Out of Time's songs Losing My Religion (goodness, a hit without a refrain and with a mandolin as solo instrument!) and Shiny Happy People better captured the zeitgeist, the latter due to the vocals of the B52s' Kate Pierson. Pierson sings backing vocals on County Feedback, as well as a duet with Stipe on Shiny Happy People and Me in Honey. While Green required four additional musicians for the recordings, there are a total of 18 on Out of Time. It's a great effort and won three Grammy awards.

The video of Losing My Religion catapulted Stipe into the stratosphere of rock icons. It made him someone who is both actor and singer, who could be weirder than David Byrne of the Talking Heads in the video of Once in a Lifetime.

Automatic for the People is an even grander effort, although one can't help but laugh at Buck's statement that it was inspired by the sense of loss and mourning you experience when you turn 30.

​The album has 17 additional musicians, including Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, who arranged the string orchestra's music for Drive, The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite, Everybody Hurts and Nightswimming.

It remains one of my favourites because it contains R.E.M.'s strongest compositions, the sound is more dynamic than ever and Stipe sings as if he knows this will be the peak of his career.

The aftermath is perhaps more predictable. All the success began to annoy Berry and it was no secret that he began to lose interest in the band and its music. Buck had gone through a divorce and hit the bottle hard — he attended the 1992 Grammys in his pyjamas.

Mills, the only bachelor in the group, rotated his mistresses faster and Stipe underwent a radical transformation. He refused to do interviews and limited his social life to people he considered his equals — Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, River Phoenix and Morrissey. There was no other person on the planet who epitomised cool and, dear heavens, meaningfulness in its fullest sense than Michael Stipe. He kept everyone guessing about his private life but could spill volumes about the world and our experience of the times, you know mos. Stipe was an activist for everything under the sun, from animal rights to preserving the South American forests.


Before Automatic for the People, R.E.M.'s career was one of a long, timely build-up. After that, it was a long downward unravelling until they folded in 2011. Monster (1994) swerved stylistically in a new direction and produced a hit (What's the Frequency, Kenneth?). But it was not a smash hit and the Grammy for best album of the year went to the Rolling Stones' Voodoo Lounge.

The group promoted Monster with a tour, as they did with all their albums. During a concert in Lausanne, Switzerland, Berry collapsed on stage after suffering a stroke. A few weeks later, Mills was operated on for an intestinal nodule and Stipe for a hernia.

New Adventures in Hi-Fi was their last album with Berry in their midst. He announced his retirement afterwards. 

R.E.M. were never the same again. As a trio, they didn't sound the same to themselves or to their admirers.

The rest of the group's career is one of three lost souls frequently trying to redefine their musical identity, without notable achievements. Up (1998), Reveal (2001), Around the Sun (2004), Accelerate (2008) and Collapse Into Now (2011) only helped to pay the bills. Spectacularly alone in the all-pervading boredom it evokes.

R.E.M. were the best band in the world between 1991 and 1993, let's not forget that. Their music from those years is one of the building blocks of the culture of the 1990s. You only have to listen to Drive at full volume to realise that.

Michael Stipe's greatest moment:

Play lists:

Spotify playlist

Apple playlist

♦ VWB ♦

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