The rise of R.E.M. from cult heroes to superstars during the New Wave era proved that deserving, non-gimmicky American rock bands could still make it on their own terms. R.E.M.’s example of inspiration, hard work and self-belief served as a beacon that illuminated an alternative path for many musicians in the Eighties and Nineties. Without R.E.M., it’s hard to imagine the alt-rock, indie-rock and college-rock movements of the last two decades. The patient, deliberate way in which R.E.M.’s career unfolded could serve as a textbook example on balancing art and commerce without compromise. As David Fricke wrote in Rolling Stone, “R.E.M.’s success has proven to America’s post-punk generation the power of underground virtues in the overground world.” In 2003 Buck told the New York Times, “For us it was always about the music, our music.”
R.E.M. formed in Athens, Georgia, home to the University of Georgia, where all four studied (though none graduated). Bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry were best friends who’d met in Macon, where they’d played in bands during their high-school years. Guitarist Peter Buck was a California emigre whose family settled in Atlanta when he was in his mid-teens. Singer Michael Stipe was born in Decatur, an Atlanta suburb, though he lived in many other places because of his father’s military career.
The group made its debut in 1981 with “Radio Free Europe,” released on the tiny Hib-Tone label. The single became a critics’ favorite, and the group signed with I.R.S., an independent label whose roster featured several bands on the cutting edge of New Wave. The mini-album Chronic Town (1982) and the full-length Murmur (1983) and Reckoning (1984) were all produced in North Carolina by Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, like-minded Southerners who were also musicians. These three releases announced R.E.M. as a band with one foot in the Sixties (the Byrds and Velvet Underground being principal touchstones) and the other planted in more modern territory. Buck described the material on those early albums as being “uptempo folk songs” in which familiar strains of Byrdsy folk-rock were suffused with nervous energy and murky mystique.
Fables of the Reconstruction (1985) was cut in England with British folk producer Joe Boyd (who’d worked with the likes of Fairport Convention and Nick Drake). It was R.E.M.’s most varied and ambitious work up to that point. Next they teamed up with producer Don Gehman (John Mellencamp) for Lifes Rich Pageant (1986), which brimmed with confidence and flirted with accessibility while still maintaining an aura of uniqueness and inscrutability. This paved the way for R.E.M.’s breakthrough with Document (1987), a powerful and coherent musical statement that moved the group to rock’s forefront. Both the album and single “The One I Love” made the Top 10.
At this point, a Rolling Stone cover line proclaimed R.E.M. “America’s Best Rock & Roll Band.” As a group that opened many mainstream ears to alternative music, R.E.M. represented, in Buck’s sly phraseology, “the acceptable edge of the unacceptable stuff.” Document marked the end of R.E.M.’s contract with I.R.S., triggering a bidding war for the group’s services. Yet success can have its drawbacks in the alternative realm. R.E.M.’s stature as indie-rock standard-bearers was sorely tested when they signed a multimillion-dollar deal with Warner Bros. Still, Peter Buck’s production of numerous left-field artists and R.E.M.’s penchant for edgy, hand-picked opening acts—including the Replacements, Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth—helped maintain credibility.
Ironically, R.E.M.’s first album for Warner Bros., Green, failed to chart as high as Document. Still, the album produced another smash single, “Stand” (Number Six). The group undertook a nearly year-long arena tour that raised its profile substantially.
What happened next, however, was surprising even for a band as unpredictable as R.E.M. The group withdrew from the road for five years and became studio hermits, cutting a pair of carefully nuanced and introspective recordings: Out of Time (1991) and Automatic for the People (1992). Despite their reduced visibility, R.E.M.’s popularity scaled new heights when “Losing My Religion,” a mandolin-tinged plaint about spiritual disenchantment, reached Number Four. “Shiny Happy People,” also from Out of Time, followed it into the Top 10, and Automatic for the People yielded a trio of Top 30 hits. Both albums sold more than 4 million copies in the U.S. alone, ushering R.E.M. into rock’s upper echelon.
The logical next step was a loud, rocking album and a return to the road.Monster was, according to writer Anthony DeCurtis, “a noisy, abrasive, postmodern, sexually charged maelstrom.” During the world tour that followed, R.E.M. decided to work on new material at soundchecks, in effect readying their next album, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, while touring the current one. The tour was not without mishap, as drummer Bill Berry suffered a near-fatal brain aneurysm, and other maladies—an intestinal tumor for Mills and a hernia for Stipe, both necessitating surgery— afflicted the band.
Drummer Berry dropped a bombshell in 1997 with the announcement that he would be leaving the band. The group briefly considered disbanding, but the three remaining members decided to continue. They cut Up (1998) as a three-piece, and the results were unsurprisingly atmospheric and understated. “We literally had to reinvent how we made records,” noted bassist Mills of the painstakingly assembled, keyboard-dominated album.
They followed Up with the pastoral, reflective Reveal (2001), which found them more comfortable with the trio format. “The whole experience has been very liberating,” Stipe noted. “We’ve become acclimated to new conditions and potentials.” On the road, R.E.M. expanded its lineup with outside musicians, including drummer Joey Waronker and guitarist Scott McCaughey.
The release of In Time: The Best of R.E.M., 1988-2003 gathered the high points from R.E.M.’s tenure on Warner Bros. The band’s early catalog was given a similar treatment on the 2006 release And I Feel Fine…The Best of the I.R.S. Years, 1982-1987. Both compilations were issued alone and as deluxe packages with a bonus disc of rarities. In 2004 R.E.M. released Around the Sun, its strongest album as a trio. It contained such pensive, arresting tracks as “Leaving New York.” Stipe noted that it covered “the usual R.E.M. territory of identity and memory and dreams and where the real world and the fantastic world come together and overlap.”