Next week marks the 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones. Believe me when I say I believe they are the greatest rock and roll band of all time. No band has ever matched the successive greatness of “Beggars Banquet,” “Let It Bleed,” “Exile on Main Street,” and “Sticky Fingers.” It’s hard to believe that those landmark albums came one after another in the years 1968-1972. I would argue that “Some Girls” (1978) and “Tattoo You” (1981) are first among the second rank of Stones albums, which makes them great, or at least almost-great.
But boy, how I wish they had broken up after “Tattoo You.” They have been creatively spent for 30 years. It’s sad that they’re nothing but an oldies act now. At least REM, having said great things — “Murmur,” “Reckoning,” and “Fables of the Reconstruction” (1983-1985) represent the same achievement in my generation as the great Stones run from ’68 to ’72 do in the previous — but with nothing left to say, bowed out gracefully, if anticlimactically, after 31 years. Their last great album was “Automatic For the People” (1992), so yes, like the Stones, they hung on long past their time. But at least they were recording new, if decidedly subpar, material up until the end, including six albums over the past 15 years. The Stones have released only five albums of new material in the past 25 years, none of it memorable.
But they still pack ’em in at the stadiums. A wildly popular oldies act is still an oldies act.
Incidentally, I commend to you A.C. Gancharski’s critical essay on REM, which ran on this site after the band announced its demise recently. Excerpt:
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.
Well, again, I loved “Automatic for the People,” and think of it as the last great REM album. But I concede the general point.