After more than 30 years, 15 studio albums, two live albums, several best-of/rarities compilations (with another on the way), and more than 80 million albums sold worldwide, R.E.M. has announced that they're officially finished. Though the band will be no more, they have left a legacy that will be unparalleled with any artist or band that has come before and since. Sure, contemporaries like U2 had become mega-stars while others like the Smiths lasted for a few years. Yet, R.E.M. was a band that did things the hard way to fame and glory while proving themselves to be one of the world’s greatest bands.
From college rock favorites to the leaders of an alternative rock revolution, R.E.M. gave the music world something different from the leftovers of 70s rock. If it wasn’t for R.E.M., teenagers and college students from the 1980s would probably still listen to Poison, Loverboy, and all of those phony bands that wore leather pants, spandex, and such that kids couldn’t relate to. R.E.M. was different because they looked like the kind of guys that we know hanging out at record stores (when there used to be those places) and played at garages. They didn’t seek out to be the biggest or the best band in the world but rather just be a band that just wanted to have fun and play music.
After all, when the band released Radio Free Europe and it was played on American Bandstand back in 1983. The kids who were on that show ended up favoring that band over some no-talent ass-clown heavy-metal wannabe named Michael Bolton. Sure, that asshole may be singing dressed up as a pirate on the Emmys but no one is going to listen to any of his bullshit. People will still be listening Radio Free Europe while getting all the lyrics wrong because they have no idea what the hell Michael Stipe is saying.
Today, there’s bands that play with one original member and a bunch of nobodies singing songs that are now being sung on fucking Glee. R.E.M. was a real band that kept things going despite drummer Bill Berry’s departure in 1997. While they added a few musicians to keep things going for their remaining years, the band was at least respectful enough to not officially replace Berry by having some other guy on his drum kit. They decided to become a trio where they showed they had some juice left in them despite not having Berry at the time.
R.E.M. brought hope to young musicians that didn’t want to play just rock music. Michael Stipe was a unique vocalist that sang his heart out while starting off as this young shy guy that mumbled every word that he was saying. Then, he progressed to become more direct and open whether it’s about things he felt politically or what he wanted to say personally. Yet, he wasn’t this overbearing vocalist that wanted to be considered God-like but rather someone who is just like the person on the ground floor or the one at the nosebleed seat in an arena.
Peter Buck gave guitar players the idea that there was more to guitar playing than just the typical guitar solo or the power chord. He definitely had the best right hand in the business because he favored arpeggio melodies and rich arrangements that could be played on an electric guitar. Whether it’s in a song like Finest Worksong or Orange Crush to more delicate songs like Talking About the Passion and Driver 8. His guitar playing is truly his own while the stuff he did on the mandolins for albums like Out of Time and Automatic for the People showed his range as a musician proving that you could still do those same tricks on an acoustic instrument.
Mike Mills is definitely one of the best bass players to carry that instrument. Before people like Mills, Joy Division/New Order’s Peter Hook, and the Cure’s Simon Gallup, there weren’t really a lot of bass players that stood out against the guitar player, the singer, and drummer. Mills, along with his contemporaries, made sure the bass player was as equal to the guitar, drums, and vocals. Mills’ bass melodies in songs like Pilgrimage, South Central Rain, and Drive are integral to the R.E.M. sound while he was also an amazing backing vocalist and multi-instrumentalist providing the somber piano melody to Nightswimming.
Bill Berry is an outstanding drummer that definitely had his own sound. He was a drummer that could do a lot whether be powerful in his delivery of the fills or just keep it down for a simple backbeat in a song like Driver 8 and Losing My Religion. Berry’s drumming is definitely one of the key elements to the R.E.M. sound while he was also a great multi-instrumentalist and arranger that helped shape the band’s songs. Still, it’s his drumming that makes him important as, like Ringo Starr before him, he is defined by the fills that he plays. From the way he doesn’t over-indulge in a cymbal crash by just keeping the beat going or just add a simple bass backbeat to a fill. Berry’s drumming is truly a testament to what great drumming should be.
With these four ingredients, there is exactly of what is needed to be in the sound of R.E.M. while additional credit should go to producers like Don Dixon and Mitch Easter for their first two albums to Scott Litt who would work with the band from 1987’s Document to 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Their role in shaping those albums that R.E.M. made would provide the template of what records should be without going into the kind of studio trickery that is evident in a lot of the trends that most producers would delve into. While Jacknife Lee and Pat McCarthy should be noted for keeping the band going following Berry’s departure, it’s really the work that Dixon/Easter and Litt did that served as what the band could do in terms of creating an album.
Throughout the 15 studio albums the band made, there is a lot the band did as musicians. My personal favorite album is Automatic for the People because it’s the record that really shows R.E.M. delving into a darker yet more atmospheric sound that is based on organic instruments. It’s a mood record that I don’t play very often except on full rainy days. Not when the day has rain and there’s sun but a full-on rainy day where the skies are gray for the entire day and the rain is happening whether it’s hard or soft. Other favorites include Murmur and Reckoning for those early years when the band was just starting out and showed the range they could do in this wobbly, jangly post-punk sound. Life’s Rich Pageant and Document are also favorites though I more lean towards the former for Don Gehman’s more direct production as well as the range of songs from upbeat, fast songs to more mid-tempo pieces like Cuyahoga.
New Adventures in Hi-Fi is another favorite because it’s the album where the band fire in all directions from noisy rockers like Leave and Wake Up Bomb to more ballad-driven material like Electrolite, New Test Leper, and my favorite song on that record, Be Mine. Post-Bill Berry albums like Up, Reveal, and Accelerate are records that I really like. Up for its experimental yet moody song while Reveal was a sunnier yet exotic album that is a great summertime album. Accelerate was a band going back to basics while proving that there’s still life in them. Collapse Into Now is an album I’ve only listened to once so far as I have nothing compelling to say about nor Around the Sun which I’m unfamiliar with as the songs I’ve heard were very boring.
Fables of the Reconstruction is a record that I really like though it’s very murky and, at times, in-accessible while Out of Time is an album that I like though there’s a few songs that aren’t great including the much-maligned Shiny Happy People. Monster might be a lot of people’s least-favorite album but it’s an album that I like because it’s got a lot of fuzzy guitars, a heavy rhythm section, and some songs that really shows that the band could just kick ass.
For my favorite song, it’s Nightswimming as it’s just this gorgeous piano ballad with reflective lyrics and an amazing string orchestra that is arranged by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin fame. It is the centerpiece of Automatic in terms of the themes that the album delves into as well as being a song that exudes the innocence of swimming in night in the South. There’s so many songs that the band has done throughout their career that people love but this is their best song.
Now that R.E.M. is ready to leave a void that is definitely going to be unfulfilled. The legacy they’ve left is truly one of the greatest stories of rock n’ roll for a band that came from a small college town like Athens, Georgia to become one of the best bands out there. The reasons they decided to end it now is another reason why they stand out among all the bands out there. They’ve done enough to create a legacy that bands will want to follow while making enough music for the world to enjoy. What is there for them to do? Another album, another tour and for what? More money? They don’t need it. Record sales don’t really do anything anymore.
They could at least do one more shows for the fans just to say goodbye and give the money away for charity. Yet, it would be best if they did it with Bill Berry so the band could give everyone a proper farewell and only reunite for charities. That’s what a great band does. Do it for the right reasons and not cheat the people out of their money so they can buy a stupid car or a mansion. R.E.M. is already one of these great bands. Them leaving is going to give new bands or bands on the rise the chance for them to make their own mark. Since R.E.M. was able to do it, so can these bands as long as they do it for the joy of playing music and having fun.
So to Michael, Peter, Mike, Bill, and all of the people who helped the band whether it’s in business, making the album sleeves, being the extra musicians, being a roadie, making their videos, or just supporting them. Thank you very much for the music and the memories. We will miss all of you so thank you.
© thevoid99 2011