R.E.M.

 R.E.M.

 Michael Stipe – circa 1987

 “Hello, I saw you / I know you, I knew you / I think I can remember your name” – ‘Pop Song ‘89’ (Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Michael Stipe)

During sleep, the stage in which dreams take place is characterised by rapid eye movement – or R.E.M.  Beneath the eyelids, the eyeballs seem to move about, taking in some internal projection of images that are vaguely recalled as dreams after consciousness returns.  The American rock band R.E.M. (pronounced as three separate letters, i.e. ‘arr-ee-em’, not ‘rem’) are appropriately named.  At least initially, they are purposefully vague and out of focus.  Their narratives are those of dream logic; they only make sense during the experience.  Dreams are a necessary outlet for the human mind and, for their many fans, the music of R.E.M. is a necessary outlet of a different kind.

The story of R.E.M. (the band) begins with John Michael Stipe, born 4 January 1960 in Decatur, Georgia, U.S.A.  He is the son of a U.S. serviceman so the family travels about a fair bit in accordance with his postings.  The Stipe children include not only the boy, known as Michael, but also his sisters, Lynda and Cindy.  The family resides in Germany and Texas before moving to Illinois.  Michael Stipe attends Collinsville High School in Illinois from which he graduates in 1978.  The family moves on to Alabama, then Georgia.  Michael attends the University of Georgia, studying painting and photography.

Michael Stipe is homosexual.  “[My sexuality] was locked in early on,” he asserts.  “[I didn’t talk about it] with the press, because I thought it was a privacy issue…”

As a teenager, Michael Stipe took an interest in punk rock acts like Patti Smith, Television, and Wire.  As a university student, Stipe hangs about in Wuxtry Records in Athens, Georgia.  It is there, in January 1980, that he meets Peter Buck.  Michael says of Buck, “He was three years older than me; he knew about music; He knew how to take drugs and not die.”

Peter Ernest Lawrence Buck is born 6 December 1956 in Berkeley, California, U.S.A.  However, like Michael Stipe, Buck winds up in Georgia.  He attends Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.  When he meets Michael Stipe, Peter Buck is working as a sales assistant in Wuxtry Records.  Buck is ‘a fanatical record collector’ of diverse tastes, ranging from ‘classic rock to punk to free jazz’ and is also learning to play guitar.  Stipe and Buck bond over common musical tastes.  A mutual friend introduces Stipe and Buck to Mike Mills and Bill Berry, two students of the University of Georgia, who are also music fans.

Michael Edward Mills is born 17 December 1958 in Orange County, California, U.S.A.  His parents are Franklin and Adora Mills.  Mike has a brother named Mitchell.

William Thomas Berry is born 31 July 1958 in Duluth, Minnesota, U.S.A.  His family moves to Macon, Georgia, in 1972.  At the Mount de Sales Academy in Macon, Berry meets Mike Mills.  The two boys begin playing music together as teenagers.  They cruise around the city practicing singing along with the multi-part harmonies of The Beach Boys playing on the car sound system.

The line-up is fixed as: Michael Stipe (vocals), Peter Buck (guitar), Mike Mills (bass, piano, backing vocals) and Bill Berry (drums).  The group debuts on 5 April 1980 at a birthday party for a friend at a converted Episcopal Church in Athens, Georgia.  The quartet goes through a few names: Cans Of P***, Negro Wives, and – most commonly – Twisted Kites.  Eventually, they settle on R.E.M., a name Michael Stipe randomly selects while flipping through a dictionary.

The boys drop out of school to focus on their band.  R.E.M. begins playing gigs through the southern States of the U.S.  Their first show outside of Georgia is in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  One of those who attend the gig is a record store clerk named Jefferson Holt.  He is so impressed, he leaves his hometown of Chapel Hill to move to Athens, Georgia, and become R.E.M.’s manager.

Mike Mills has a relationship with Ingrid Schorr in 1980-1981.

Athens, Georgia, as the location of the University of Georgia, ‘is primarily a college town.’  One of the most successful American new wave bands was The B-52’s.  They also hailed from Athens.  The B-52’s started in 1978.  Following on from them, other local acts like Pylon, and The Method Actors drew some attention.  R.E.M. inherits this background.

R.E.M. becomes sufficiently popular to record a single in the summer of 1981.  It is produced by Mitch Easter and laid down at his Drive-In Studios in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  The single is issued on the independent Hib-Tone label.

Michael Stipe and Peter Buck shared a common interest in punk rock.  However, despite continuing pockets of popularity, punk is largely a thing of the past by the time R.E.M. come into existence.  Punk is superseded by new wave, the style identified with fellow Athens, Georgia, act, The B-52s.  Yet new wave too is dying out.  Some describe the subsequent music emerging as ‘post punk.’  However, in the early 1980s what seems to be the dominant genre is synth-pop.  Pale and serious young men deploying portable synthesiser keyboards are the vogue of the day.  “We were the most visible sign that something else was going on,” points out Mike Mills.

R.E.M. is most commonly described as an alternative rock (or alt rock) act.  Alternative rock is sometimes called college rock because its largest audience is amongst U.S. students of tertiary education facilities.  Since R.E.M.’s base of Athens, Georgia, is a college town, they are ideally positioned for this trend.  Alternative rock seeks to provide another choice outside the mainstream of contemporary, chart-oriented rock music.  The alt rockers are happy amateurs doing it for love instead of money.  They have little interest in courting mass appeal, seeking only to earn sufficient funds to allow them to continue.  Alternative rock is aimed at a devoted cult following of young, educated, fans.  Their relative obscurity protects the artistic freedom of these acts.  ‘Selling out’ to a wider audience dooms many an alt rock act whose fans jealously react against ‘their’ bands ‘abandoning’ them.  In a way, while R.E.M. is one of the best known alternative rock acts, they also have a large role in killing off the genre.  R.E.M. does become very famous and very commercially successful – but very few accuse them of ‘selling out.’  R.E.M. stays true to their principles.  What changes is the background.  What was once the freaky lunatic fringe of the music scene becomes the centre.  This is largely a product of the times changing.  The college kids who adore R.E.M. and similar alt rock acts grow up and become adults, radio programmers, record company executives and cashed-up consumers.  Their tastes become the new mainstream and R.E.M. is one of the biggest beneficiaries of this generational progression.

For all their ‘indie credibility’, R.E.M. produces a surprisingly traditional sound.  It may never have been his conscious intent, but Peter Buck’s ringing guitar notes most often bring to mind Roger McGuinn’s work with The Byrds in the mid-1960s.  Buck describes typical R.E.M. songs as “minor key, mid-tempo, enigmatic, semi-folk rock balladish things.  That’s what everyone thinks and, to a certain degree, that’s true.”  The other chief characteristic of the band’s earliest work is Michael Stipe mumbling through the lyrics.  On the rare occasions when the words can be distinguished, they are so vague and opaque as to defy easy comprehension.  This only serves to endear the band to their college fans who pore over the words in search of their meaning.  Michael Stipe warns, “You all know there aren’t words, per se, to a lot of the early stuff.  I can’t even remember them.”  Over their lengthy career, the sound of R.E.M. proves quite pliable and the jangling guitars and chewed vocals are not always defining characteristics.

Officially, R.E.M.’s compositions are the collective work of the band as a whole.  However, it seems an open secret that all, or most, of the lyrics are the product of Michael Stipe’s thoughts.  Musically, Peter Buck most often writes the melodies, but, increasingly as time passes, that role is divided more equally between Buck and Mike Mills.  Additionally, on any given individual song, one member or another of R.E.M. may be dominant.  So, perhaps, it is best just to accept the group composition credits at face value.

‘Radio Free Europe’ is the debut single by R.E.M.  It whips up a punkish energy true to the group’s roots as vocalist Michael Stipe wails, “Calling out – in transit / Radio Free Europe.”  Although it is limited to a pressing of one thousand copies on its release in 1981, it earns R.E.M. a lot of positive attention.

A follow-up EP, ‘Chronic Town’, is recorded with Mitch Easter in October 1981.  R.E.M. plan to release this effort on a different independent record label, Dasht Hopes, but it comes out instead on I.R.S. (International Record Syndicate – though its resemblance to Internal Revenue Service [the U.S. tax office] is purely intentional).  I.R.S. is a larger concern, indicating R.E.M.’s increasing profile, but still remains more dedicated to the offbeat than, say, RCA Records, another rival suitor for R.E.M.

Issued on I.R.S. on 24 August 1982, ‘Chronic Town’ is a five-track EP consisting of ‘Wolves, Lower’, ‘Gardening At Night’, ‘Carnival Of Souls (Box Cars)’, ‘1,000,000’ and ‘Stumble’.  The cover image is of a stony gargoyle.  The EP’s title comes from its best track, ‘Carnival Of Souls (Box Cars)’: “Chronic town / Poster torn / Reaping wheel.”  Michael Stipe’s cryptic lyrics bear out “a secret stigma” that he also refers to in the same piece.  Although the chorus directly states, “Box cars / Are pulling out of town” (a reference to a type of railway carriage) the song’s more official title is perhaps borrowed from an odd, unsettling, low budget horror film, ‘Carnival of Souls’ (1962).  The bee-in-a-bottle rhythm of this track elevates it above its nearest rival, the more sedate ‘Gardening At Night’.  At this point, Peter Buck claims R.E.M. are “confident enough to be quietly arrogant about our talents.”

Mike Mills has a relationship with Nadine Aldrich from 1982 to 1984.

R.E.M.’s first full-length album is ‘Murmur’ (1983) (US no. 36, UK no. 100), co-produced by Mitch Easter and Don Dixon.  The cover image is of mounds of kudzu, an invasive, trailing vine that has become a noxious weed in the south eastern U.S.A.  In tandem with the album’s tile, ‘Murmur’, it is emblematic of the band’s sound at the time: Michael Stipe’s vocals sounding (purposefully) smothered, only escaping as a barely heard noise.  Beyond a rerecording of ‘Radio Free Europe’ (U.S. no. 78), ‘Murmur’ boasts tracks like ‘Perfect Circle’ and ‘Talk About The Passion’.  A sad piano accompanies the image of “A perfect circle / Of acquaintances and friends.”  Michael Stipe claims, “That song concerns my old girlfriend, and it was an intensely personal song to me.”  Historically, it is known that Stipe is gay so his allusion to an ‘old girlfriend’ is an obvious piece of misinformation designed to protect his privacy.  ‘Talk About The Passion’ features more typical chiming guitars as Stipe sings of, “Empty breath / Empty mouths / Talk about the passion / Not everyone can carry the weight of the world.”  ‘Murmur’ is critically acclaimed so it may have achieved Peter Buck’s stated aim: “We wanted to have this kind of timeless record.”

‘Reckoning’ (1984) (US no. 27, UK no. 91) is again co-produced by Mitch Easter and Don Dixon.  ‘So. Central Rain’ (US no. 85) has a country piano offsetting the folk guitar and aggressive bass.  As for why Michael Stipe is continually singing “I’m sorry” in the refrain, the song ‘is ostensibly a straight narrative about severe flooding in Athens, with the phone lines down and R.E.M. unable to contact their hometown’ while on tour.  The rollicking country twang of ‘(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville’ is reputedly primarily a Mike Mills composition.  It’s a favourite of the band’s lawyer, Bertis Downs.  Showering ringing guitar notes, ‘Pretty Persuasion’ finds Michael Stipe in energetic form, singing, “She’s got pretty persuasion / Goddamn your confusion.”  ‘Reckoning’ is said to be ‘harder-edged and more song-orientated’ than the group’s debut album.

‘Fables Of The Reconstruction’ (1985) (US no. 28, UK no. 35) is recorded in London, England, with Joe Boyd serving as producer.  The album’s title seems ‘a pointed reference to the reconstruction of the defeated South by the North after the American Civil War.’  The reflective ‘Green Grow The Rushes’ is an early example of R.E.M.’s social conscience and environmental activism: “Stay off that highway / Word is it’s not so safe / The grasses that hide the greenback / The amber waves of gain again.”  The bracing charge of ‘Can’t Get There From Here’ (US no. 110) has a horn section added to the final segment of the song.  “If you’re needing inspiration,” suggests Michael Stipe in the lyrics, “Philomath is where I go by dawn.”  Philomath is a small town in Georgia.  Peter Buck’s incisive guitar colours the dense psychodrama of ‘Driver 8’.  In this song, Michael Stipe vows, “We can reach our destination / But it’s still a ways away.”  “It’s the most tense record we’ve ever made,” Buck says of this album.  Michael Stipe expands on the reasons why: “A really terrible personal time for me…I was questioning whether I could be a public figure, whether I wanted to be in a band.  Then I was bulimic, then I was having a nervous breakdown…I’d just reached the point when I could be a sexual adult, and AIDS happened.”

On 22 March 1986 R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry marries a woman named Mari.

‘Life’s Rich Pageant’ (1986) (US no. 21, UK no. 43, AUS no. 73), released in July, is produced by Don Gehman.  One of the changes here is that Gehman encourages Michael Stipe to make his vocals more prominent and clear.  It’s an ongoing process, but it begins here.  The album’s title is derived from the comedy film ‘A Shot in the Dark’ (1964) starring Peter Sellers.  It’s an attempt to lighten up.  In the movie, Inspector Clouseau (Sellers) brushes off mishaps as all part of life’s rich pageant, so R.E.M. follows suit.  ‘Fall On Me’ (US no. 94) is folk rock that blends together the experiments of the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) (“Bargain buildings, weights and pulleys / Feathers hit the ground before the weight can leave the air”) and environmental concerns (“Buy the sky and sell the sky”).  ‘Cuyahoga’ obliquely addresses the slaughter of Native Americans in the U.S.A.’s past (“This land is the land of arrows / This river runs red over it”).  An undertow of bass troubles the melody of ‘Cuyahoga’ like a guilty conscience.  Anyone hoping for an insight into Michael Stipe from a song titled ‘I Believe’ probably goes away disappointed from such wacky sentiments as, “I believe in coyotes / And time as an abstract.”

‘Dead Letter Office’ (1987) (U.S. no. 52, UK no. 60) in spring is a collection of ‘B sides and rarities’ which includes the contents of the ‘Chronic Town’ EP.

In 1987 Peter Buck marries Barrie Greene, the female owner of the Athens, Georgia, venue The 40 Watt Club.

Michael Stipe is romantically linked in the press with the likes of Jane Pratt, Natalie Merchant (vocalist of alt rock band 10,000 Maniacs) and actress Christina Ricci.  Although Stipe may have known all these women and been on good terms with them, as a homosexual, they were clearly not his lovers.  Remember, at this time, Stipe is still not openly known as gay.

‘Document’ (1987) (US no. 10, UK no.28, AUS no. 47) in September is the first of six consecutive albums co-produced by R.E.M. and Scott Litt.  This is the longest serving production deal in the band’s history.  Michael Stipe comes up with the name ‘Document’ for this album because it documents the most recent year in the band’s life and the world around them.  ‘Document’ is R.E.M.’s best album.  It captures them at the crucial point at which they transition ‘from cult band status to mass popularity.’  As such, it has the best of both worlds.  Largely responsible for their commercial breakthrough is ‘The One I Love’ (US no. 9, UK no. 16, AUS no. 84).  A powerful, focussed rock song, it also seems like R.E.M. are directly expressing romantic sentiments for the first time.  However, on closer examination, the object of the narrator’s affections is disdainfully brushed off as “A simple prop to occupy my time.”  This is probably lost to the new listeners the song’s accessible arrangement attracts; they are still attempting to make sense of the chorus in which Michael Stipe repeats the word “fire” in a distended manner.  “The work ethic is really intrinsic to American thought and that has a lot to do with this LP,” Stipe says and this is articulated in the thudding inevitability of ‘Finest Worksong’ (UK no. 50): “I’m talking here to me alone / I listen to the finest worksong.”  Again, the chorus varies from the theme, changing to “Your finest hour.”  ‘The best-loved fan favourite’ is ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’ (US no. 69, UK no. 39).  Michael Stipe babbles the lyrics with great urgency, his ravings including references to comedian Lenny Bruce, music critic Lester Bangs, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev and orchestra conductor Leonard Bernstein.  For contrast to the chaos, Mike Mills yelps, “Time I had some time alone.”  ‘Document’ also includes some of the band’s most overtly political material such as ‘Welcome To The Occupation’ and ‘Exhuming McCarthy’ (Senator Joseph McCarthy led the 1950s anti-communist crusade in the U.S.A.).

‘Document’ concludes R.E.M.’s stay with I.R.S. Records.  Their new, more commercial profile puts R.E.M. in a good bargaining position.  They sign with a major label, Warner Brothers, but only after securing an ‘assurance of total creative freedom.’

‘Green’ (1988) (US no. 12, UK no. 27, AUS no. 13) is R.E.M.’s debut for Warner Brothers.  The title points to both the band’s novice status on the new label and their environmental concerns.  The single, ‘Orange Crush’ (UK no. 28, AUS no. 15), is R.E.M.’s best individual song.  It has as powerful a riff as ‘The One I Love’ but its stirring, if oblique, narrative appears to address the plight of Vietnam War veterans exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange.  Peter Buck is less certain: “I still don’t know what the f*** it’s about.”  Its military motif and “We are agents of the free [world?]” line seems to be the biggest hints beyond the title.  It’s this classic mix of great melody and a puzzling lyric that makes this the definitive R.E.M. song.  ‘Stand’ (US no. 6, UK no. 48) and ‘Pop Song ‘89’ (US no. 86) both bring some light relief.  They are catchy, carnival, bubblegum hits.  Peter Buck claims that ‘Stand’ is “The stupidest song we’ve written.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing though.”  Or, as Michael Stipe puts it, “Rock ‘n’ roll is a joke.  People who take it seriously are the butt of the joke.”  ‘Turn You Inside Out’ (US no. 39) is a fuzzed-up behemoth, while ‘You Are Everything’ and ‘World Leader Pretend’ have themes relating to, respectively, ecology and the cold war tensions between the U.S. and Russia.  By the time of this album, Stipe’s vocals are much more to the fore of the mix.

Mike Mills becomes a father in 1989 when his son, Julian, is born.  The identity of the child’s mother has never been publicly disclosed.

Michael Stipe starts to go bald around 1990.  “I was really self-conscious about my hair thinning,” he admits.

After a longer break than usual between albums, R.E.M. returns with ‘Out Of Time’ (1991) (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 4).  It features ‘Losing My Religion’ (US no. 4, UK no. 19, AUS no. 11), a song lent unusual power through Peter Buck strumming a mandolin, imparting a high, reedy sound to the rhythm.  “Life / Is bigger / It’s bigger than you / And you are not me,” sings Michael Stipe in the head-scratching lyrics.  Such conundrums do nothing to spoil the song’s commercial impact.  “I genuinely never thought it would be anything,” claims Stipe.  “It’s such a weird song.”  Peter Buck comments that, “Before ‘Religion’…we were still considered kind of minor league…Afterward…at least for a couple of years, [we] were one of the biggest bands in the world.”  Mike Mills concurs: “if you want to talk about life changing [events], I think ‘Losing My Religion’ is as close as it gets [for this group].”  ‘Shiny Happy People’ (US no. 10, UK no. 6, AUS no. 19) features Kate Pierson from The B-52’s singing along with Stipe and Mills as the vocal gets passed around.  Latterly, R.E.M. has difficulty accepting this song, despite its success, because it is such a silly novelty piece.  Michael Stipe describes it as one of “our fruitloop songs!”  He says that, “It’s just a little embarrassing that it became as big a hit as it did!”  ‘Out Of Time’ is also home to a blockish slab of sound entitled ‘Country Feedback’.

From 1992 to 1998 Douglas A. Martin is Michael Stipe’s boyfriend.

‘Automatic For The People’ (1992) (US no. 2, UK no. 1, AUS no. 2) is one of R.E.M.’s most successful outings, but hardly their most typical.  “It doesn’t sound a whole lot like us,” warns Peter Buck.  This is a ‘largely acoustic [set] with string parts arranged by [British heavy metal legends] Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones.’  In a strong line-up, the highlight may be the aching clockwork of ‘Everybody Hurts’ (US no. 29, UK no. 7, AUS no. 6).  In a fragile voice, Michael Stipe urges, “Don’t let yourself go / ‘Cos everybody cries / Everybody hurts / Sometimes.”  Mike Mills puts his finger on the appeal of ‘Everybody Hurts’: “It’s a universal song.  It managed to touch a chord that everybody relates to.”  The sad, yet soaring, ‘Man On The Moon’ (US no. 30, UK no. 18, AUS no. 39) is a tribute to Andy Kaufman, the late American entertainer who took an unusual approach to comedy, redefining what is funny.  ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’ (UK no. 17, AUS no. 99) uses part of The Tokens’ 1961 hit ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ which itself is a translation of a South African folk song called ‘Mbube’ a.k.a. ‘Wimoweh’.  ‘Automatic For The People’ also includes the moody ‘Drive’ (US no. 28, UK no. 11, AUS no. 34) and the piano ballad ‘Nightswimming’ (UK no. 27, AUS no. 71).

R.E.M. does not go on tour to support ‘Automatic For The People’.  Coupled with Michael Stipe’s hair loss and gaunt physical appearance, rumours circulate that the singer is H.I.V. positive.  This also gives rise to the first suggestion that Stipe may be gay.  The band denies the rumours.

In 1994 Peter Buck divorces Barrie Greene.  In June of the same year, he becomes the father of twin girls, Zelda and Zoe, by Stephanie Dorgan.  Buck and Dorgan marry in 1995.

In 1994 Michael Stipe tires of his thinning thatch and shaves off all his hair.  “I kind of went crazy,” he says sheepishly, “and it’s a lot better.”  From this point on, he retains a shaved pate.

‘Monster’ (1994) (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 2) in September swings the musical pendulum in the opposite direction to ‘Automatic For The People’.  Mike Mills explains that their thinking on this recording was, “We have guitars, we have amplifiers, let’s make a rock record.”  The results can be heard in the mauling and abrasive ‘What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?’ (US no. 21, UK no. 9, AUS no. 24).  The title is derived from an incident that befell U.S. television news broadcaster Dan Rather.  He was assaulted by an apparently disturbed man who kept shouting at him, “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?!”

The 1995 tour supporting ‘Monster’ is plagued by health problems.  The first and most serious takes place on 1 March 1995 when drummer Bill Berry collapses on stage in Lausanne, Switzerland.  It is discovered that the cause was a brain aneurysm.  He promptly undergoes surgery to remedy the problem.  Then, in July 1995, Mike Mills has to have surgery to remove an intestinal adhesion.  In August, Michael Stipe follows the parade into hospital for an emergency hernia operation.  In Stipe’s case, rumours again flare about the vocalist’s sexuality and the rumours of AIDS resurface.  Finally, in 1995 Michael Stipe publicly describes himself as ‘queer.’

‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’ (1996) (US no. 2, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1) sports a cover image of a bleak landscape.  The shot is taken by former photography student Michael Stipe.  This album vaults back and forth from the hushed and harsh textures that, individually, characterised R.E.M.’s last two albums.  The quieter songs are perhaps the more effective.  ‘Electrolite’ (US no. 96, UK no. 29) is supported by a rickety piano and name drops Hollywood, Mulholland Drive (a roadway in that area of California) and the actors Martin Sheen, Steve McQueen and Jimmy Dean (better known as James Dean).  One of R.E.M.’s early inspirations, Patti Smith, lends backing vocals to the mournful ‘E-Bow The Letter’ (US no. 49, UK no. 4, AUS no. 23).  ‘Leave’ benefits from a spooky, atmospheric sound.

In 1996 R.E.M. sever their ties with Jefferson Holt after their manager is charged with the sexual harassment of an employee in the band’s office in Georgia.  Bertis Downs, R.E.M.’s lawyer, assumes managerial duties.

Bill Berry and his wife, Mari, divorce in 1997.

In October 1997 Bill Berry announces he is quitting R.E.M.  In negotiating his departure, one of the conditions Berry insisted upon is that the band carries on.  “I’m kind of ready to sit back and reflect and maybe not be a pop star anymore,” Berry tells the press.  Michael Stipe, contemplating R.E.M.’s future, says, “I guess a three-legged dog is still a dog.  It just has to learn how to run differently.”  R.E.M. continues as a three-piece consisting of Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills.  No one fills Bill Berry’s role.  Although the band employs drummers, they are strictly hired hands; none of them become official members of R.E.M.

This is also the point at which R.E.M. part ways with producer Scott Litt.  Work begins on a new album but, “without Bill it was different, confusing,” comments Mike Mills, the member of R.E.M. who was probably closest to Berry.  ‘Up’ (1998) (US no. 3, UK no. 2, AUS no. 5) is recorded with Pat McCarthy co-producing with R.E.M..  Joey Waronker and Barrett Martin play drums on this set.  R.E.M. begins to display a more contemplative, low-key nature in their music.  ‘Daysleeper’ (US no. 57, UK no. 6, AUS no. 57) is a troubled guitar piece with a “Talk of circadian rhythms” as they chronicle the nocturnal life of a working musician.  ‘Why Not Smile?’ is wistful.  ‘At My Most Beautiful’ (UK no. 10) betrays the influence of Brian Wilson around the time of his group, The Beach Boys’, ‘Pet Sounds’ (1966) album.

The movie ‘Man on the Moon’ (1999) stars Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman.  The title of the film is taken from R.E.M.’s earlier Kaufman tribute song.  The group provides another Kaufman-inspired piece, ‘The Great Beyond’ (US no. 57, UK no. 3, AUS no. 25) for the soundtrack album (by various artists), ‘Man On The Moon’ (1999) (US no. 109).

‘Reveal’ (2001) (US no. 6, UK no. 1, AUS no. 5) has Martin Barrett, Joey Waronker and Scott McCaughey on drums and is again co-produced by R.E.M. and Pat McCarthy.  ‘Imitation Of Life’ (US no. 83, UK no. 6, AUS no. 32) takes its name from a 1959 film directed by Douglas Sirk but, apparently, the name is all it takes, since it seems none of the members of R.E.M. have seen the movie.  “That sugar cane / That tasted good / That cinnamon / That’s Hollywood,” sings Michael Stipe in a track that pits the band against the kind of string section common to a romantic motion picture.  That thematic thread of the illusion of fame continues in ‘All The Way To Reno (You’re Gonna Be A Star)’ (UK no. 24).  As its title implies, ‘The Lifting’ has a graceful, upward musical arc.

Two new songs, ‘Bad Day’ (UK no. 8, AUS no. 22) and ‘Animal’ (UK no. 33, AUS no. 93) are added to ‘In Time: The Best Of R.E.M. 1988-2003’ (2003) (US no. 8, UK no. 1, AUS no. 5).

Bill Berry becomes a father in 2003 when his girlfriend, Cybele, give birth to their son, Owen.  Berry briefly comes out of retirement to play a couple of songs with R.E.M. at a concert in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 2003.  Berry then returns to his new life as a farmer.

‘Around The Sun’ (2004) (US no. 13, UK no. 1, AUS no. 6) receives ‘lukewarm reviews and sells poorly.’  ‘Leaving New York’ (UK no. 5, AUS no. 57) is the single from this album.

When R.E.M. is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bill Berry joins them onstage to perform a few songs at the ceremony in New York in March 2007.

Peter Buck and Stephanie Dorgan divorce in 2007.

‘Accelerate’ (2008) (US no. 2, UK no. 1, AUS no. 13) is produced by Jacknife Lee and has a ‘faster, more guitar-driven sound.’  Lee also produces ‘Collapse Into Now’ (2011) (US no. 5, UK no. 5, AUS no. 15).  Released in March, this set has Bill Rieflin on drums and offers ‘a more expansive sound.’

On 21 September 2011 R.E.M. announce via their website that they are “calling it a day as a band.”  Why do they take this decision?  “Because it was time,” contends Mike Mills.  “You just know it’s the right thing to do.”  Mills also points out that, “We were as on top of our game as we could be after thirty-one years, and we said [to ourselves, we should] walk away on our own terms.”  With a mixture of bitterness and resignation, he acknowledges that, “It was impossible for people to see new records in their own light…The band that you loved when you were 16 to 28 is never going to affect you in the same way when you’re 45 to 50.”

‘Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage: 1982-2011’ (2011) (US no. 55, UK no. 19, AUS no. 71) is a compilation that includes the last three new songs recorded by R.E.M.: ‘Hallelujah’, ‘A Month Of Saturdays’ and ‘We All Go Back To Where We Belong’.

On 1 June 2013 Peter Buck marries Chloe Johnson.

Assessing the legacy of R.E.M., Michael Stipe offered, “We managed to do something and not ever feel like we were compromised by external forces…Not give in to the industry or the market…”  Restating the alternate rock ethos, Mike Mills concluded, “We were never in this business to sell records.”  But, of course, R.E.M. did sell records.  It is estimated that the group had ‘over forty million records sold.’  R.E.M.’s career can be divided into three parts: (1) a climb (1981-1986); (2) time on top (1987-1996); and (3) a descent (1997-2011).  It wasn’t all plain-sailing and good times but, in their ‘finest hour’, it must have all seemed a bit hard to believe…a bit like something from a dream experienced during the rapid eye movement stage of sleep.  R.E.M. ‘combined ringing guitar hooks with mumbled, cryptic lyrics and a do-it-yourself aesthetic borrowed from post-punk [allowing them to] simultaneously sound traditional and modern.’  ‘The group succeeded almost entirely on its own terms.’

Sources:

  1. wikipedia.org as at 4 November 2013
  2. Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 4 November 2013
  3. Internet movie database imdb.com as at 6 January 2014
  4. thequietus.com – ‘Michael Stipe’s Last Stand – an R.E.M. Exit Interview’ by Jude Rogers (17 November 2011)
  5. allmusic.com, ‘R.E.M.’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 4 November 2013
  6. mikemillsfan.com as at 4 November 2013
  7. ‘In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003’ – Sleeve notes by Peter Buck (Warner Bros. Records Inc. 2003) p. 4, 9, 10, 14, 18, 38
  8. whosdatedwho.com as at 4 November 2013
  9. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 139, 160
  10. ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Up From Underground’ by Tom Sinclair (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 676, 677, 678
  11. ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 235
  12. ‘The Best Of R.E.M.’ – Sleeve notes by Tony Fletcher from his book ‘Remarks – The Story of R.E.M.’ (Omnibus Press) (I.R.S. Records Ltd., 1991) p. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
  13. azlyrics.com as at 4 January 2014
  14. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 57, 73
  15. ‘Melody Maker’ (U.K. music newspaper) – quoted in 12 (above) p. 6
  16. sonicnet.com, ‘R.E.M.’ – uncredited, as at 21 August 2001
  17. baldingcelebrities.com/2010/03/michael-stipe.html as at 8 January 2014
  18. ‘One to One – Weekend Special 1’ (U.S. television program, VH1 cable television network) – Michael Stipe interview conducted by Anthony DeCurtis (1995)
  19. ‘R.E.M. Goodbye Interview’ (Norwegian television program, NRK Network) – Interview with Michael Stipe and Mike Mills (2011)
  20. ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 65

Song lyrics copyright Night Garden Music (1981-1987), Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp. BMI (1988-2001)

Last revised 28 January 2014

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