(This needs finishing, tidying, and all links updated to Spotify. March 2019)
R.E.M. were big in the Eighties, and even bigger at the start of the Nineties - becoming for a time the biggest band on the planet. Their unique selling point (USP) was that they were Indie (or Alternative if you're American). This was a new music genre that emerged in the Eighties after punk had settled down. Indie bands were what pop bands were in the Sixties. They weren't R&B bands like the punk bands. Nor were they experimental bands, hard rock bands, heavy metal bands, soul, funk, folk, reggae, or synthpop. They were melodic and often quite thoughtful pop bands. Signed to small - independent - labels. They picked up on the melodic pop bands of the Sixties - the Byrds, the Beatles, the Hollies, etc, though giving their music and lyrics a topical feel. And they were, above all else, "authentic". Fans bought into the image. Indie bands stood for things that the fans felt gave them a recognisable identity. R.E.M.'s USP was that they were not crass and commercial. They believed in what they were doing. They were hip, veggie, and left wing. R.E.M. and The Smiths grew up together. But at the end of the Eighties, as The Smiths broke apart, R.E.M. signed to a major label (breaking the barrier between Indie and Commercial), brought their fans with them, and hit it Big. They had smoothly developed as a band, and were able to deliver shiny happy pop music that felt "authentic". Their first major label albums, Green, Out Of Time and Automatic For The People, broke the barrier. People believed in them, and liked the songs, and each major label album got bigger than the previous, until the peak of Automatic. After that, they couldn't get any bigger, and couldn't maintain the progress, and started to fall back until they broke up in 2011.
I became aware of R.E.M. in the mid Eighties, when they were still a non-mainstream or "underground" act. I was aware of the praise they were receiving, and was checking them out. I had a bootleg tape of a 1984 concert they played in Britain.* I remember feeling quite hip owning such a tape, but not quite getting the appeal of the music. I kept trying because the music wasn't ugly - it wasn't aggressive punk or heavy metal, so it was quite listenable, but like, say the music of The Hollies, it wasn't something that I really got into. Adequate songs, adequately performed. Later, I liked the big hits. "Shiny Happy People" and "Everybody Hurts" are my favourites. I am, some years later, still curious about the band, and their wide appeal. So, I'm now going to delve into the albums and discover a bit more....
* I can't find that bootleg. My hazy memory is that it was a concert at Liverpool (or Manchester) - but that may be because my stepson Jacob, who introduced me to the band, was at Liverpool University. Anyway, the closest I can find on YouTube, is this video of a concert in Germany in 1985. Ah, here's a video of a US concert in 1984. And some Old Grey Whistle Test performances from 1984: Old Man Kensey, and Pretty Persuasion.
R.E.M. were an indie rock band formed in the Southern state of Georgia in 1980 by drummer Bill Berry, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist/backing vocalist Mike Mills, and lead vocalist Michael Stipe. The band were noted for Buck's ringing guitar style (in which he played the notes of a chord one at a time–arpeggio–rather than all together), and Stipe's distinctive voice combined with obscure lyrics. R.E.M. released their first single, "Radio Free Europe", in 1981 on the independent record label Hib-Tone. The single was followed by the Chronic Town EP in 1982, the band's first release on I.R.S. Records. In 1983, the group released their critically acclaimed debut album, Murmur, and built a reputation over the next few years through the support of college radio. R.E.M. achieved a mainstream hit in 1987 with the single "The One I Love". The group signed to Warner Bros. Records in 1988, and began to espouse political and environmental concerns while playing large arenas worldwide.
By the early 1990s, when alternative rock began to experience broad mainstream success, R.E.M. was viewed by subsequent acts such as Nirvana and Pavement as a pioneer of the genre. The band then released its two most commercially successful albums, Out of Time (1991) and Automatic for the People (1992), which veered from the band's established sound and catapulted it to international fame. R.E.M.'s 1994 release, Monster, was a return to a more rock-oriented sound, but still continued its run of success. The band began its first tour in six years to support the album; the tour was marred by medical emergencies suffered by three of the band members.
In 1996, R.E.M. re-signed with Warner Bros. for a reported $80 million, at the time the most expensive recording contract in history. Their 1996 release, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, though critically acclaimed, fared worse commercially than its predecessors. The following year, Bill Berry left the band, while Stipe, Buck, and Mills continued the group as a trio. Through some changes in musical style, the band continued into the next decade with mixed critical and commercial success, despite having sold more than 85 million records worldwide and becoming one of the world's best-selling music artists of all time. In 2007, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in their first year of eligibility. R.E.M. disbanded amicably in September 2011, announcing the split on its website.
R.E.M. marked the point when post-punk turned into alternative rock. When their first single, "Radio Free Europe," was released in 1981, it sparked a back-to-the-garage movement in the American underground. While there were a number of hardcore and punk bands in the U.S. during the early '80s, R.E.M. brought guitar pop back into the underground lexicon. Combining ringing guitar hooks with mumbled, cryptic lyrics and a D.I.Y. aesthetic borrowed from post-punk, the band simultaneously sounded traditional and modern. Though there were no overt innovations in their music, R.E.M. had an identity and sense of purpose that transformed the American underground. Throughout the '80s, they worked relentlessly, releasing records every year and touring constantly, playing both theatres and backwoods dives. Along the way, they inspired countless bands, from the legions of jangle pop groups in the mid-'80s to scores of alternative pop groups in the '90s, who admired their slow climb to stardom.
This album emerged the same year as Echo & the Bunnymen's third album, Porcupine, U2's War, B-52's Whammy! (The B-52's are from the same town as R.E.M.), Aztec Camera's debut High Land, Hard Rain, The Waterboy's debut, and The Chameleon's debut album Script of the Bridge. Most of these albums, it will be noted, have a similar sound influenced by the jangling guitar style of the Byrds, and informed by the pop and pop-folk bands of the Sixties. The Smiths debut album, The Smiths, was recorded in '83 but not released until '84. R.E.M. have said they were influenced not directly by The Byrds, but by bands such as The Soft Boys and Big Star, who were picking up the sound of the Beatles and the Byrds in the 70s. The Soft Boys' Underwater Moonlight was released in 1980, and Big Star's Third was released in 1978. R.E.M.'s music fits in with those other "indie" type jangly pop bands. It's not groundbreaking, but it is competent and in the right mood it can be compelling.
I think debut albums are interesting. They are the moment when a band presents an extended body of work to the public for appraisal. They can often give indications of what a band will become, and may in some cases be the very best a band will do, or close to it. The Sex Pistols, The Doors, The LA's, The Stone Roses, The Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, etc. Murmur certainly has all the hallmark R.E.M. sounds. Buck's jangly guitar and Stripe's nasal drawl which Kurt Cobain would copy. Tight, melodic pop songs. Pleasant and inoffensive, without too many gimmicks. The lyrics hint at meaning - staying just outside of rationality, they suggest ideas which the listener can fill in. It's quite appealing. "Radio Free Europe" is the standout track, and was released as a single which caught people's attention. The rest of the album is not quite at that level, but is quite acceptable. It is, to be fair, fairly typical moderate interest guitar based pop-rock, and slightly below par for creativity and interest. One would say the band show promise based on "Radio Free Europe", but the album itself is nothing special. Porcupine, for example, is a much better album. That said, most critics rate this album very highly, seeing it as the start of Indie rock. And, it's growing on me.....
Rolling Stone (May 1983)
It's the second album. It's not as good as the first. There are no standout tracks. If you like R.E.M., you'll like it, but not as much as the debut. There is little to be learned here, except that the band are developing slowly.
Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)
Oooh, this is more interesting. This feels like the band are attempting to make a serious album rather than throw together a few unambitious songs. There is some ambition here - the band moved to London to record, and set about developing a British folk rock album around some Gothic stories of their home state, Georgia. Largely ignored by fans and critics, REM's third album was recorded in England by Joe Boyd, who coaxes a deeper, richer sound out of the band. The band were unhappy during recording, and, initially, that unhappiness and general dissatisfaction (which feeds into the album's lyrics and sound) led them to dismiss the album, which fans and critics picked up on. But over time the band members have praised the album, feeling that it is their best Eighties album, and for some it is their personal favourite. It is a magnificent album, rich in Gothic experience, with music and lyrics combining to create a disturbing and fascinating piece of art.
Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)
|Dead Letter Office (1987)|
Not officially regarded as a regular album, this is a gathering of material previously released only as B-sides of singles. A later release also contains the Chronic Town EP. This is patchy but fun, and always entertaining. Free from the blinkered earnestness of the album material, this is a breath of fresh air, and is more to my liking than the standard REM album at this period in their career.
Score: 4 1/2
|Out of Time (1991)|
|Automatic for the People (1992)|
(Regular album )
The band's big album. There is a good feel to this right from the start. Well produced. Well constructed. A proper album of good songs. This tends to rank as most people's (and critics) best R.E.M. album - but it does struggle to hold that place with the band's debut album, Murmur.
|New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)|
|Around the Sun (2004)|
I'm curious about this, because on Best of REM Albums lists, this album always comes last! I'm listening, and I'm not quite getting the hate. It sounds like a well made REM album. Clearly I've not quite got, yet, what REM are about.
Reviews: AllMusic; Pitchfork; NME; PM; BBC; DiS; Sputnik; MetaCritic
Well, the reviews tend to revolve around the same thing - it's a pleasant, well made album of decent enough songs, but for all the listeners there is something missing. It's not that it's a bad album, it's that it hasn't got the special quality that made REM so loved by millions.
Hmmmm. It sounds the same to me!
OK, well maybe not the same. I liked the first track, and hated the rap in the third track, and then got bored. I have actually been impressed by the other REM albums I've listened to so far. And, roughly speaking, each one on from the debut has impressed me slightly more than the last until Automatic. I have a soft spot for the ambition of Fable, and wonder why it's not liked more, but I can see it's not an accomplished album. At the moment Fable may be my second favourite REM album. Which is, I suppose, an odd thing to say, as it's not really like REM.
Anyway. While the first track lured me into feeling this was another REM album, I am at this point 3/4's in feeling what others are feeling. There's something a little desperate here - a band trying to grab something of the magic they once had perhaps. At least, that's the general viewpoint, and maybe I'm being persuaded into it.....
|Collapse into Now (2011)|
Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)
Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)
Out of Time (1991)
Automatic for the People (1992)
New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)
Around the Sun (2004)
Collapse into Now (2011)
* REM website
Best albumI have given scores for the ranking from several websites. 10 points for a #1, 8 for #2, down to 1 for #6-10, 0 for 11-14, -1 for #15. Websites used are linked below.
Automatic for the People (1992) 81
Murmur (1983) 79
Document (1987) 48
Lifes Rich Pageant (1986) 33
Reckoning (1984) 29
Out of Time (1991) 22
Green (1988) 20
New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996) 17
Fables of the Reconstruction (1985) 13
Monster (1994) 11
Chronic Town 10
Accelerate (2008) 4
Reveal (2001) 1
Collapse into Now (2011) -1
Around the Sun (2004) -8
What is clear from that survey is that Automatic for the People, the album that came at the band's height, and is probably the band's most famous, is regarded on pretty much the same level as the band's debut album, Mumur. It's notable that albums after Automatic, are held in low regard, and Around the Sun is pretty universally disliked. I am surprised that Out of Time and Green, the other two albums from R.E.M.'s height, are generally regarded as lesser than the band's mid Eighties independent output, and are not seen as on a par with Automatic. I'm also slightly disappointed that one of the band's more ambitious early albums, Fables, is not appreciated a little more.
1029 March 2019