Collage 2021 07 25 21 22 50

Farewell R.E.M. : Twenty-five ‘lesser’ played R.E.M. songs

I was kind of puzzled and kind of a touch upset at much of the reaction to the parting of R.E.M. yesterday. Crawling from the South of Anthens, Georgia, they have been one of the most like-able, consistently engaging bands of the last thirty odd years. If you remember them for the diminishing returns of their last ten years then sure I agree that the time was right for them to go. But the vitriol and sweeping generalisations directed at their entire career kind of hurts because they were a band that managed that all but impossible trick at the time, moving from a successful college rock band into the arenas on the back of quality songwriting and a burgeoning of their combined talents. I agree they were past their ‘creative peak’ by the time the 00s rolled around. Yes the last few albums in particular(Around the Sun, Accellerate, Collapse into Now) have been particularly patchy, with only the odd moment worthy of note and yes it was diminishing returns thus their decision to part was probably overdue in some ways. This drop in quality alongside the overplay of their biggest most immediate(sometimes too sentimental) hits may lead passing listener to believe that they were merely another bunch of pompish emotionally vacant stadium rockers in it solely ‘for the money’ like say their Irish contemporaries. But that would be a sweeping, unfairly damning conclusion on their long and fine back catalogue. Comparing them to U2, and Coldplay is lazy in the extreme, their good run of albums lasted for almost twenty years, a feat that not many other outfits can hope to match. For all the online carping of the past few days the truth is the way the music industry is now, we may not see their like again.

Stipe, Buck, Mills, Berry, a band of University dropouts, formed in Athens, Georgia in 1980, and have been a backdrop to much of our editor’s life. A young, shy looking Michael Stipe emerged blinking into the spotlight head full of curly hair, hiding under his fringe awkwardly babbling out barely decipherable lyrics. He was backed by three ordinary-looking ‘good’ guys – Peter Buck a guitarist with an ear for classicism, Mike Mills a bassist with innate rhythm and a golden vocal, and Bill Berry a drummer with both the solid chops and musical appreciation that saw his role grow in future years. Early on they expertly melded the psych-jangle of the Byrds with the edgy post-punk of the late 70s and throughout the 80s R.E.M. were one of the most important college rock bands influencing those that would go on to produce alternative and grunge in the late 80s and early 90s. Graduating into the big league with the mixture of styles that was the long-player Out of Time that placed the most tongue in cheek pop songs against some of their most captivating and soaring melodies.

Cards on the table, R.E.M. were one of my favourite bands growing up. Sure, they had graduated to stadium hood by the time I was entranced by their major label masterpiece Automatic for the People – a record full of haunting quality songs with Stipe’s voice at once bruised and comforting. Some splutter at the overplayed mawkishness of ‘Everybody Hurts’ but sometimes a simple message(about hanging on through the tough times) is a powerful one, and it took on extra significance in the mid-90s during the wave of suicides. This was placed effortlessly alongside entrancing cuts like ‘Drive’, ‘Star Me Kitten’ and utterly infectious ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps tonight’.  It was this shift in tempo and towards a more universal yearning acoustic sound that is thrown into sharp focus by the yearning gorgeousness of ‘Night Swimming and ‘Find the River’ – two songs that held the themes of the album the uncertainty of mortality and fame, were unsurpassed on any album in the nineties.

By the time Automatic… had burrowed its way into my head, I’d long since gone back in time, delving into their bewilderingly good back catalogue, the urgent, beguiling almost indecipherable mysterious sounds of their mysterious cult classic debut Murmur (unfairly renamed Mumbles by some due to Stipe’s ‘interesting’ early vocal style). Through Lifes Rich Pageant and Fables of the Reconstructed – both albums that cemented Stipe’s enigmatic vocal style distinctive yet open to interpretation, a knack for classic melodies, tight rhythmic shifts, and Buck’s trademark Rickenbacker jangle. ‘Fables…’ as it was known in my house, was a particular favourite, discordant guitar notes sat at peculiar angles as a bewitching Stipe spoke in haunting tongues of the deep south mythology. From the angular twitches of ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull’ and the insistent beat of ‘Driver 8’ that clattered across American heartlands, and more heart-tugging moments like ‘Good Advices’ with its effecting communal refrains “When you meet a stranger/Look at his shoes.”

By the time of Document with its political, and personal you could see the first glimmers of R.E.M. mark two, a more direct Stipe, whose voice and emotionally bracing metaphors could pierce the coldest hearts, and a musical force on top form shifting the ‘alternative rock’ sound into the charts for the first time. Take the ‘The One I Love’ that’s bitter imagery and chiming Buck licks, took on a new life and meaning as a love song through its powerfully towering chorus lines. R.E.M. were now a band that would go on to dominate stadiums and airwaves for the next twenty-odd years. Other albums of note included the sharp bubblegum new wave and political and personal voyages of Green, the fuzz box riffage, seductive vocals and sleaziness of Monster, and the sun-kissed classicism of Reveal. Each time R.E.M. possessed that ability to surprise the listener a trait that one-time support band and friends Radiohead would pick up in later years. New Adventures in HiFi was pinpointed by many latecomers as their favourite R.E.M. album. Mainly recorded on tour this sprawling record harked back to the mix of rock out numbers and more tender movement, that characterised their best mainstream long players. Its an urgent record with depth and breadth that offers something different every time you listen to it, but it was sometimes a little underworked, saved by its vitality and the addition of classic R.E.M. moments. By the time drummer Bill Berry(he wrote the melody for Everybody Hurts you know?) left they seemed somewhat lost. Up is quite unheralded as their first post-Berry album but contains some interesting experimental moments perhaps inspired by Stipe’s fragmented almost disheartened, lyricisms, alongside the use of new instrumentation and a drum machine. Their last three records may have been patchy but each still contained moments to savour, they also knew when to bow out, to preserve their legacy rather than to trade on it. It wasn’t just their anthemic sound that allowed R.E.M. to foster a sense of community and belonging in their fans and fellow musicians.

Most of you casual readers probably know about heavily played cuts like ‘Man on the Moon’, ‘Shiny Happy People’ and ‘Everybody Hurts’, ‘Losing My Religion’ But what of the lesser known cuts? Here are some of my personal favourites, more under appreciated(by non fans) efforts by the band that will always have a special place for me in my heart each of their songs taking me back to a place in time. A mini secret History if you will of thirty one years of R.E.M. and perhaps a first glimpse (for some of you) into one of the most important alternative rock bands there has ever been.

It was the right time to go. But so long and thanks for the fond memories R.E.M.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.