R.E.M. is a rock band formed in Athens, Georgia in 1980 by Michael Stipe (vocals), Bill Berry (drums), Peter Buck (guitar), and Mike Mills (bass). Throughout the 1980s, while signed to the independent label I.R.S., they achieved a growing cult status due mainly to Stipe's obscure (and sometimes inaudible and unintelligible) lyrics and the band's sound, most noticeably influenced by The Byrds. By the early '90s, R.E.M. was one of the world's most popular, respected, and influential bands.
The I.R.S. Years (1982-1987)
Their debut EP, Chronic Town (1982), illustrated R.E.M.'s signature musical style: jangling guitars, chords played in arpeggio, murmured vocals, and lyrics that completely avoid the standard topics of popular music - love and relationships. Their debut album, Murmur (1983), is held to be one of the best records of the 1980s. The album is stylistically unified. The jangling guitars, so prominent on Chronic Town, are used more sparingly. The melody is found in the bass notes, and the lyrics are practically indecipherable. The songs on the album blend together. Evocative words are used to create a mood instead of a narrative. The mood is grey - 'Rest assured this will not last, take a turn for the worst', 'martyred, misconstrued', 'Not everyone can carry the weight of the world', 'lies and conversation, fear,' yet the album ends with brighter, more hopeful notes. Arpeggio and jangling guitars return in 'Sitting Still,' and 'Shaking Through', where Michael Stipe asserts that, 'I can hear you' and 'Honor marches on.'
R.E.M.'s second album, Reckoning (1984), explored a variety of musical styles. Song topics include cold weather, a fairy tale of brothers with magical powers, a flood, and five laments of separation. The jangling guitars and beautiful melodies obscure the dark lyrics. The final song, 'Little America,' is written about rural America, and serves as a prelude to the Southern themes on the subsequent album.
Fables of the Reconstruction (1985) explores the mythology of the southern United States. A celebration of an eccentric individual is the subject of no less than four songs on the album ('Maps and Legends,' 'Life and How to Live It,' 'Old Man Kensey,' 'Wendell Gee'). 'Driver 8' is a song about the scenery surrounding railroad tracks. Trains are a frequent topic of Southern music; they epitomize the freedom and promise of an escape from one's home environment. The source of the title of 'Can't Get There from Here' is a curious phrase heard when asking directions in a rural area. 'Kohoutek,' their first song about a romantic relationship, compares the fizzled comet of 1973 to a fizzled romance. By the time this album was released, R.E.M. were critically acclaimed, and the video for 'Can't Get There from Here' was played frequently on MTV. R.E.M. practically defined college rock by this time.
The next album, Lifes Rich Pageant (sic) (1986), takes its name from a Pink Panther movie ('You'll catch your death of cold!' 'Yes, I probably will. But that's all part of life's rich pageant, you know.'). The songs are upbeat, the tempo is fast; this is a fairly hard-rocking album. The lyrics were becoming both more intelligible and more direct, with political themes appearing more explicitly ('Begin the Begin,' 'Flowers of Guatemala,' 'Hyena'). 'Cuyahoga' is about the river in Ohio that caught fire due to pollution. Ironically, the 'hit' from the album, 'Superman,' was a cover song that didn't appear on the original album cover. In many ways, this album marked the end of the first period in the band's history.
Document (1987) was their last album for the indie record label I.R.S., and provided their first major hit with 'The One I Love,' which reached No. 9 on the American pop charts. The popularity of this song of grim satisfaction over the end of an unhappy relationship was due mainly, however, to its misinterpretation as a love song. 'It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)' recalls the rapid-fire lyrical style of Bob Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' and can be described as pre-apocalyptic.
Dead Letter Office (1987) was a collection of B-sides and outtakes. Highlights include three Velvet Underground covers, an Aerosmith cover, an uncommissioned commercial for a barbecue restaurant in Athens, and a boozy version of 'King of the Road.' The CD also has the EP Chronic Town at the end. The album is described in the liner notes as 'A little bit of uh-huh and a whole lot of oh-yeah.' The band's early years are summarized in the compilation Eponymous, released in 1988. The compilation contains several alternative versions and mixes of songs.
Rock Superstars (1988-1996)
In 1988 R.E.M. signed to the major label Warner Brothers and released Green. This was the band's first time with heavy promotion, and they toured stadiums extensively in 1989. Some fans from the I.R.S. days complained that R.E.M. had become too commercial and that the quality of the music had decreased, but the band had now been brought to international attention. In 1990, most of R.E.M. recorded with Warren Zevon as the Hindu Love Gods.
Their next records, Out of Time (1991) and Automatic for the People (1992), were both international hits, despite the fact that R.E.M. did not tour for either album. These two critically acclaimed albums featured hit singles including 'Losing My Religion,' 'Shiny Happy People,' 'Everybody Hurts,' and 'The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite.' Out of Time also includes emotional, contemplative tracks such as 'Belong,' 'Half A World Away,' and 'Country Feedback.' On Automatic, the band developed a reserved, meditative sound that took them back to their roots, and the record's 15 million copies were sold in spite of such melancholy themes as death, suicide, and sexual jealousy.
The band's 1994 release, the grunge-influenced Monster, including 'What's the Frequency, Kenneth?,' proved to be a crossover hit and their best selling album to date, though many critics disliked the band's foray into glam rock. The album was followed by a massive tour during which drummer Bill Berry suffered a brain hemorrhage on stage, which would eventually lead to his leaving the band. While on this tour the band recorded the album New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996), a long, roughly produced and decidedly bleak record which featured, in the seven-minute 'Leave,' perhaps the band's most intense song. Other notable tracks on that record include 'E-Bow the Letter' (a collaboration with the legendary Patti Smith) and the intense western-themed rock of 'Low Desert.'
R.E.M. After Berry (1997-present)
After Berry's departure, the band returned with Krautrock-influenced Up (1998), another long and reflective record, with the lead single 'Daysleeper.' Many tracks contained drum machines, and Peter Buck played guitar only a little. The band was no longer selling well in United States, though in Europe they stayed popular. 2001's Reveal, confirms the return to an even mellower songwriting approach, with songs such as 'Imitation of Life,' 'All The Way To Reno (You're Gonna Be A Star),' and 'She Just Wants To Be' garnering some radio play. The album gained mixed reviews. Recent R.E.M. soundtrack appearances have found them revisiting some of their earliest material, hitherto available only on live bootlegs; their single, 'Bad Day' (2003), was the prototype for 'It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),' with some of the same lyrics. In 2004, the band returned with Around the Sun, which once again met with generally only mild critical praise. Singles from this album include 'Leaving New York' and 'Aftermath'.
The band members picked the name R.E.M. out of the dictionary. They liked the name because it was so ambiguous. They started out as Twisted Kites for the first show they played at a party, but, according to 'It Crawled From the South,' considered Negro Eyes, Slut Bank, and Cans of Piss before settling for R.E.M.
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