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One of the most important and influential rock bands of the post-punk era, R.E.M. was a key component in the rise of alternative music from the college radio scene to the mainstream, paving the way for underground groups like Sonic Youth and Nirvana to enjoy their own chart success, while wielding considerable influence upon a generation of independent-minded rock bands. Blending the sonic bash of punk rock with a roots-driven mix of garage, folk and even country music, R.E.M. charted a musical course in direct opposition to the synthesizer-driven sound of New Wave that was both fresh and immediately reminiscent of established rock music. In doing so, they appealed to both classic and alternative rock fans, which helped to elevate the band from cult favorites to one of the biggest groups in the world by the early-1990s. The sheer wear and tear of touring and recording took its toll on the group in the years that followed, resulting in the loss of drummer Bill Berry and a general decline in sales that prompted rumors of an inevitable split. R.E.M. soldiered on until 2011, enjoying a brief revival before ending their three-decade run on a positive note. As fans mourned their passage, the music industry...
One of the most important and influential rock bands of the post-punk era, R.E.M. was a key component in the rise of alternative music from the college radio scene to the mainstream, paving the way for underground groups like Sonic Youth and Nirvana to enjoy their own chart success, while wielding considerable influence upon a generation of independent-minded rock bands. Blending the sonic bash of punk rock with a roots-driven mix of garage, folk and even country music, R.E.M. charted a musical course in direct opposition to the synthesizer-driven sound of New Wave that was both fresh and immediately reminiscent of established rock music. In doing so, they appealed to both classic and alternative rock fans, which helped to elevate the band from cult favorites to one of the biggest groups in the world by the early-1990s. The sheer wear and tear of touring and recording took its toll on the group in the years that followed, resulting in the loss of drummer Bill Berry and a general decline in sales that prompted rumors of an inevitable split. R.E.M. soldiered on until 2011, enjoying a brief revival before ending their three-decade run on a positive note. As fans mourned their passage, the music industry could not help but notice the changes that their success had wrought, including the seemingly impossible feat of spawning a sea change from blues-based rock to their own eclectic sound.
R.E.M. emerged from the vibrant music scene in Athens, GA, a college town that also produced such alternative rock icons as the B-52's, Indigo Girls, Matthew Sweet, Neutral Milk Hotel and the Drive-By Truckers. Michael Stipe and Peter Buck were University of Georgia students who bonded over shared musical tastes, including such punk forebears as the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith, at Wuxtry's, a record store that employed Buck as a clerk. Both had spent time in bands prior to their meeting, and soon decided to form their own group. With the addition of Mike Mills and Bill Berry, high school friends who had also logged time in various Athens-based acts throughout their teen years, the quartet began rehearsing a set list comprised of garage and psychedelic covers before making their debut at a friend's birthday party on April 5, 1980. At the time, the band was billed as the Twisted Kites, but changed their moniker to R.E.M. after Stipe randomly selected the term from a dictionary.
The quartet soon dropped out of school to tour throughout the South, honing a sound that combined the jangling guitar and propulsive beat of '60s-era pop-rock with the vibrant spirit and low-fi production sensibilities of '70s punk. These elements found their first showcase in "Radio Free Europe," R.E.M.'s debut single, which, despite an initial pressing of only 1,000 copies, managed to generate considerable acclaim from major press outlets like the Village Voice and regular airplay on college radio. The band soon signed to I.R.S. Records, which released the EP Chronic Town in the spring of 1982. The five-song record established another important element in R.E.M.'s sonic mix: Stipe's arcane lyrics, which were further obscured by his half-mumbled, half-shouted delivery. With their sound now firmly established, the band released their first full-length record, Murmur in 1983. The groundswell of support for Chronic Town by college radio helped to usher the LP to No. 36 on the Billboard albums chart. Critical reaction was equally rapturous, with Rolling Stone declaring it the Record of the Year over Michael Jackson's multi-platinum behemoth Thriller.
R.E.M.'s second album, Reckoning, captured some of the energy of their live show in harder-edged material like "Pretty Persuasion" while retaining the subdued tone of Murmur in its lead single, the plaintive "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)" and "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville," a country-ish tune which featured bassist Mike Mills on vocals. The record surpassed its predecessor on the charts, reaching No. 27 and firmly establishing the band at the vanguard of the growing college radio scene. By 1984, R.E.M. had largely set the tone for alternative/independent music groups, as evidenced by such "jangle pop" bedfellows as 10,000 Maniacs, The Feelies and The Church. Unfortunately, with the acclaim and influence also came increased pressure from their label to break into the mainstream, which ran contrary to the band's own objectives.
Those pressures were clearly underscored during the making of their fourth album, Fables of the Reconstruction (1985). Recorded in England with producer Joe Boyd, whose previous work included records by musical iconoclasts like Pink Floyd, Fairport Convention and Nick Drake, the album was a decidedly darker effort than their previous efforts, a mood brought on by the label's desire for a pop-friendly hit as well as the band's exhaustion from endless touring. The recording sessions were so fraught with tension that the group appeared on the verge of breaking up, but the struggle was well worth the effort: Fables became their best-selling album in America to date. Efforts were made to acknowledge the R.E.M.'s growing presence in the mainstream with its follow-up, Lifes Rich Pageant (1986). Producer Don Gehman, who had overseen several John Mellencamp records, delivered a more polished sounding record, with Stipe's vocals more comprehensible than ever before. The change proved beneficial, as the album was their first to achieve gold sales status, while its lead single, the melancholy "Fall on Me," reached the lower end of the Billboard Hot 100.
After releasing an album of unreleased tracks called Dead Letter Office (1987), R.E.M. entered the second phase of their careers with Document (1987), their first million-selling album. Their fan base had grown from a small cult of college radio listeners to mainstream rock radio audiences, which helped to propel the lead single, "The One I Love," into the Top 10. By 1988, no less of an authority than Rolling Stone had declared them "American's Best Rock & Roll Band." That same year, R.E.M. severed ties with I.R.S. Records, which subsequently released Eponymous, a best-of collection featuring several alternate versions of their most notable songs. The band signed with Warner Bros., which released Green on Election Day in 1988. The record found the band experimenting with a varied sonic palette, from the upbeat pop of "Stand" to harder-edged rock on "Orange Crush" and "Turn You Inside Out," while eclectic acoustic instrumentation dominated others. Green would surpass all expectations by reaching double platinum status, which spawned the band's biggest, most elaborate tour to date.
The Green tour, which brought R.E.M. to stadium crowds for the first time, was a draining experience for the band. An extended hiatus followed its completion, during which Buck, Berry and Mills teamed with Warren Zevon for a one-shot band called Hindu Love Gods. They reconvened with Stipe in 1990 for Out of Time (1991), a quieter affair that hewed closer to the acoustic material on Green. Its Top 5 lead single, "Losing My Religion," propelled the record to the top of the charts upon its release, selling some four million records while netting three Grammy Awards in 1992, including Best Alternative Album. The artistic, somewhat disturbing music video became one the most requested of the year on MTV. A second major hit, the ebullient "Shiny Happy People," featuring Kate Pierson of The B-52's, reached No. 10 on the charts. R.E.M. promised a more upbeat effort for the next release, but Automatic for the People (1992) was a decidedly somber affair, driven in part by string arrangements by Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones. Though it repeated the chart success of its predecessor, debuting at No. 1 and producing three Top 40 singles, including "Man on the Moon" and "Everybody Hurts," the band also failed to tour behind the record, as had been the case with Out of Time. Though the exhausting Green tour was given for their reluctance to return to the road, rumors circulated that the tours had been canceled due to Stipe, whose gaunt, tonsorially clean look was reportedly due to HIV, which the band was forced to combat in the press.
In 1993, R.E.M. began work on Monster, their first "rock" record since Green. The record was plagued by a number of problems, including the tragic deaths of Stipe's close friends River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain within months of each other, and Berry and Mills' illnesses. The constant delays put the record behind schedule, which exacerbated growing tensions within the group; by the time the album was in its final mixing stage, the individual members were no longer speaking to one another. Monster proved to be another major hit for the band, generating three Top 40 hits, including the glam-influenced "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" But the troubles that had surfaced during the recording of the album appeared to follow them once R.E.M. set out for their first tour in six years. On March 1, 1995, Berry collapsed on stage from a brain aneurysm during a show in Switzerland. Though he soon recovered, the incident was the first of several medical issues suffered by the band during the tour: Mills underwent abdominal surgery in July, while Stipe had an emergency operation to repair a hernia just one month later. Somehow, the tour proved an incredible success, and helped to draw the band together to record material for a new album.
In 1996, R.E.M. renewed their contract with Warner Bros. for a reported $80 million shortly before releasing Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996). Though the new release debuted at No. 2 on the albums chart, it failed to generate any hit singles and quickly descended into the lower depths of the Billboard 200. It ultimately proved to be the band's lowest selling album since Document. The band dove into side projects, most notably Stipe's film production company, Single Cell Pictures, before reuniting in Hawaii to record demos for a new album. However, Berry announced that he was leaving the group, citing his growing disinterest in the music business. His decision threw the band into chaos as it attempted to re-assert itself as a three-piece band. Recording sessions began again in 1998 with drummer Joey Waronker, but they soon collapsed under the weight of in-fighting between members. An emergency meeting with management soon provided the group with a forum to sort out their issues while completing Up (1998). It proved a dismal failure, selling just 90,000 copies in the United States. R.E.M. then recorded their first soundtrack album for Milos Forman's "Man on the Moon," a biopic of the late comedian Andy Kaufman that had taken its title from their song. A new single, "The Great Beyond," underscored the band's declining fortunes in their native country by reaching No. 57 on the charts, as well as their growing popularity overseas, where it reached No. 3 on the U.K. charts in 2000.
R.E.M. recorded at a steady clip between 2001 and 2005, though the results, which included 2001's Reveal and 2004's Around the Sun, fared only moderately well in America. A number of place-marking compilations appeared between album releases prior to their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, where they were feted by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and joined onstage by Berry. After releasing their first concert album, R.E.M. Live (2007), the band enjoyed an uptick in their fortunes with Accelerate (2008), their first Top 5 studio album since Monster. Collapse Into Now (2011) followed suit, reaching No. 5 on the albums chart. The record also completed their contract with Warner Bros., which spawned rumors that any subsequent CDs would be self-release. However, R.E.M. announced in 2011 that they were amicably disbanding, surprising longtime fans. The band had discussed ringing down the curtain for several years, but wanted to prove to themselves that they had at least one more great album in them before doing so. With the back-to-back successes of Accelerate and Collapse Into Now, the band decided that the time was right to go their separate ways. A career overview compilation, Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011 was issued in late 2011. Stipe and Mills would take part in a brief promotional tour that served as the final word on the group, as both musicians confirmed that reunion plans were not in the works.
By Paul Gaita
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