Before the hits and long decline, R.E.M. remade Southern rock.
Thirty-one years. Myriad charttopping albums and singles. When R.E.M.—the crown jewel of what was, long ago, Athens, Georgia’s indie-rock scene—broke up at the end of summer, the entertainment press issued a unanimous critical reappraisal of the band. Best band in the world, they said, in The Atlantic and in other, more downmarket outlets. And I would’ve agreed with them—if we had a time machine that took us back to the waning days of the Reagan administration.
In that day, R.E.M. mattered as much as any American rock band, for reasons that bear mentioning since they’ve probabdly been forgotten by anyone under the age of 35. In the 1980s, American rock and roll radio was at a nadir. What dominated the charts? Lots of hair metal of the Poison/Cinderella/Bon Jovi ilk. Latin freestyle dance pop, as embodied by long-forgotten acts like Stevie B and Exposé. British pop music—some of which still holds up, like that of the Pet Shop Boys and New Order. But for every one of those timeless acts, there was a Hipsway or a Johnny Hates Jazz to remind the listener that radio served the needs and prescriptions of its corporate masters.
Remember when you couldn’t get away from the deathless classics of Dokken and Chris DeBurgh? If you were unfortunate enough to live in a cultural backwater without a college radio station, then you likely do. The saving grace of college radio—then as now—were indie bands that made their music on shoestring budgets and 4-track recorders. Much of what found its way to college radio, of course, came from elsewhere—Europe, usually. Yet many American scenes represented: punk and post-punk scenes from everywhere from New York to Minneapolis to Southern California. Yet the music that came from Athens, spearheaded by R.E.M., was different.
It was Southern indie rock, an anomalous, vast departure from much of what came out of the South previously, like Molly Hatchet, .38 Special, Lynyrd Skynyrd. It wasn’t country, particularly—despite the fact that R.E.M. often covered songs like Roger Miller’s classic “King of the Road,” a version that was commercially made available on the underrated mid-’80s collection of B-sides and rarities “Dead Letter Office.” It was the sound of something new—the so-called New South, equal parts Faulkner and strip malls, Eudora Welty and subdivisions.
R.E.M.’s early work—until 1988’s “Green,” which changed the game and built on the commercial success of the preceding year’s “Document,” with its iconic singles, the sardonic “The One I Love” and the maddeningly catchy “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”—was released on IRS records, which, like the Rough Trade label an ocean away in London, found a way to bridge immaculate indie cred with mainstream exposure. IRS was the perfect home for R.E.M.; a small label that bucked convention and took risks. And in R.E.M.’s evolution, especially in those early years, many risks were taken.
The early records—”Murmur” and “Reckoning” specifically—found the band using the vocals of Michael Stipe as just another instrument. He sang with a deliberate indistinctness, forcing repeated listens to figure out exactly what was being sung, much as Kurt Cobain of Nirvana would later do to similarly epic effect. Not that the lyrics were particularly deep: the opacity of the vocals made them seem so, however.
By the time R.E.M. recorded 1985’s “Fables of the Reconstruction” the band was clearly staking its claim to a Southern identity. All true Southerners know what the euphemism “Reconstruction” meant in their region; it was much like today’s “Homeland Security,” Reconstruction in the post-Civil War era was a deliberate appropriation of a word to faciliate an unwanted reinvention of a culture. Songs like “Can’t Get There From Here” had multiple meanings, but for those from the South, one meaning stood out. Like his listeners, Michael Stipe and R.E.M. understood what it was like to be from nowhere, a spot on the map with one stoplight and two gas stations.
As the albums progressed, R.E.M. journeyed ever closer to the heart of pure pop. Soon enough the major labels came calling. Warner Brothers in 1988 signed the band in for the “Green” album—a reference to many things ranging from ecology to the pure payoff of going with one of the big companies. The distribution, the heavy rotation radio play, the ubiquity—all this led longtime fans to debate feverishly among themselves whether R.E.M. sold out.
It may be impossible to understand the need for authenticity that R.E.M. fans had at that point. Like the followers of many groups, such as Manchester, England’s The Smiths, R.E.M. fans believed that Michael Stipe sang to them personally. When “Green” dropped with its hit single “Stand,” devotees were left to wonder what had happened to their favorite band. The music was different; aggressively hooky, stripped of the subtleties of the earlier material. Album tracks, like the ultra-obvious “World Leader Pretend,” seemed to make overt plays for the kind of people who would proclaim without a trace of irony that “Earth Day Is Everyday” and “It will be a great day when schools are fully funded and the Pentagon has to hold a bake sale to buy cruise missiles.”
Whether R.E.M. sold out or not, or whether selling out was a good thing for them artistically, is still debatable. But for better or worse the band matured. They may have been indie darlings for the best part of a decade, but Warner Brothers had expectations to be met—commercial success, expansion of the fanbase, and all the nasty things like stadium shows and no longer playing spots like the 40 Watt Club.
And so it was that the old-school fans no longer awaited R.E.M. releases so much as actively dreaded them. By 1991, when R.E.M. unfortunately collaborated with New York rapper KRS-ONE of Boogie Down Productions fame on “Radio Song,” it was abundantly clear to even the most diehard fans of the band’s early work that R.E.M. no longer existed as it did during its IRS days. Later songs like “Nightswimming” and “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”resonated with the public at large, but for those looking for something else as iconic as the band’s first single, the anthemic “Radio Free Europe,” it was all over. Expecting them to go back there would be like hoping for U2 to reprise “I Will Follow” or the Rolling Stones to rediscover the groove that gave them “Brown Sugar.” The guys were the same—more famous, more quotable, more public; they had political consciousness, man. But the moment had passed.
Many appreciations of R.E.M. are written under the presumption that the band was doing vital work up to the end. But that’s not how pop music works, unfortunately. R.E.M.’s verse-chorus-verse style seemed laughably quaint when compared to the real rock music of the last decade. There are those who say, “well, they quit at the right time.” But for others who were with the band as fans, before it became a business, the right time was in fact years if not decades before. For those who loved them first, the band was spent as a creative entity long ago.
A.G. Gancarksi writes and teaches English in Jacksonville, Florida.