I became an R.E.M. fan for all the wrong reasons. I bought Monster when I was 11 because of the one big single on it. I also liked the other one, and I had heard their great big hits as well. I knew it was the sound of colleges right then and as a grade school kid, I thought that was the coolest thing ever. That orange cover, the multicolored CD, it was all unbelievable to me. I didn’t even know they had been around since the early eighties and I was mad that Everybody Hurts was played at my sixth grade dance. I knew of their other singles – who doesn’t remember It’s the End of the World… and Losing My Religion – but didn’t really care. When I finally made it to college I bought Green and New Adventures in Hi-Fi. I finally understood they wrote for social change and acted on it – just see the video of World Leader Pretend. But I winced thinking about the buzzing guitars from Monster and was disappointed.
I guess I didn’t get it.
After time I explored the back catalog and found Murmur. I was hooked to the tune of dozens of plays. The lyrics were from another planet. Stipe mumbled endlessly, providing the name for the record by not speaking clearly once. Bill Berry would lightly shift the rhythm on almost every verse. Mike Mills brought a crushing bass line over Peter Buck’s delightfully clean guitars. I listened to Pilgrimage for two months straight, marveling its spiritual and post punk nature. It is still one of my favorite songs ever. The staccato of 9-9 was only heightened by the surrealist, frustrated poetry of We Walk. Only later did I learn that Rolling Stone called this album the best of 1983, the year Thriller and Synchronicity were released. It was so punk because it was so anti-punk. Clean guitars instead of distortion, verses instead of guitar solos and melodies in the bass. In a great interview, Peter Buck revealed some of its secrets.
“On We Walk, Michael [Stipe] had his vocal mic in the hallway – he never found a vocal booth that he liked – and the hallway was connected to the pool hall. Bill and Mike were playing pool and the noise of the pool balls leaked into the mic. Mitch and Don turned the tape backwards and slowed it down, and the result is this threatening rumbling sound.”
Wow, dude. Just wow.
I preached to many of my friends about how fundamental this record was, how it encapsulated the idea of college rock better than any band. Few cared and I trudged through the Chicago snow in massive headphones singing along to Radio Free Europe. Quite frankly, there was no college rock before Murmur. I drove to Santa Barbara with my girlfriend and the only song she really liked was Perfect Circle, not understanding my obsession with the rest of the record. But, like most things, she hit the nail on the head. It is a nostalgic, circular song about crystallizing memories, and in the process, has crystallized her for me.
As Bill Berry retired in 1997 after a brain aneurysm a year before, it appeared the conclusion was on the wall. The band rolled on for fourteen more years after that with the pace of a car with a flat rear tire. Stipe, Mills and Buck could still write great songs but that creative spark that drove them to write some of the best records and songs of the eighties was gone. That’s not to say they did not record great music without Berry. But as a band reaches the twenty year marker, it is hard to get new fans and placate the old ones without pissing off either one. Do you stay innovative, hopelessly dated by your age, or do you rehash your classics? The band had already seen the top of the mountain, but how much higher could they climb? Regardless, this performance of E-Bow the Letter will always give chills. A young Thom Yorke given a chance to talk about the passion alongside his idols. It’s a special moment to see the kings of alternative rock play with the young prince.
It’s a shame, then, that I was too young to hear them at their best. A lot of us digital kids saw them as an alternative rock giant. Yet Athens, Georgia, is the unofficial home of the music we listen to today. They were innovators of the gap between punk and pop, creating alternative and college rock at the same time. I feel lucky that curiosity led me back around. I reckon you should listen to the first few records for that inimitable country, punk and rock sound. Don’t go back to Rockville.