Last week, I read an article on the early days of R.E.M. in Athens, GA, based on a new book about the band, Begin the Begin: R.E.M.’s Early Years, by Robert Dean Lurie.   I hadn’t really listened to R.E.M. in years, and the band itself broke up in 2011.  But I listened to their early oeuvre on IRS Records, covering a time period from 1982’s Chronic Town ep through their commercial breakthrough, 1987’s Document.  After that album, with their deal with the indie IRS up, the band moved onto bigger and better things with Warner Brothers and global superstardom.

In order, these recordings are:

  • Chronic Town ep, 1982
  • Murmur, 1983
  • Reckoning, 1984
  • Fables of the Reconstruction, 1985
  • Life’s Rich Pageant, 1986
  • Document No. 5, 1987

Remember when bands could do this, record and release a new album every year?

The legend about R.E.M. is that they became increasingly accessible the closer to Document we get.   This is largely due to the enigma that is frontman Michael Stipe who, even today, all these years the band packed it in, remains as enigmatic as ever (and yes, I used enigma in that sentence twice by design).  He was standoffish in interviews and onstage, he sang in riddles, he changed his lyrics, and he mumbled into the microphone.  If you listen to any of the gazillions of bootlegs from R.E.M.’s early years, this is particularly true live.  On record, though, I’m not so sure.

Stipe aside, though, R.E.M. were a straight ahead rock band.  The legend is they were deeply indebted to the Byrds at the outset.  I can see that, but it also sells them very short.  R.E.M. were never mere revivalists.  Taking their cue from post-punk, Mike Mills’ bass guitar drove the rhythm, and drummer Bill Berry filled in the gaps whilst guitarist Peter Buck could either duel with Mills or soar above him.  In a lot of ways, R.E.M. invented a new way of playing rock’n’roll, even more so than many of their contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic.  This is what made them so compelling in the 80s, they were their own thing.  U2 only slowly evolved away from postpunk into their own sound by around The Unforgettable Fire, their fourth album.

As for Stipe, certainly, on both Chronic Town and Murmur, his vocals are mumbled, buried in the mix and his lyrics are obscurantist.  In a lot of ways, he simply sounds like a frontman who was unsure of his abilities.  This can especially be seen on  ‘Gardening at Night,’ the single from Chronic Town and ‘Radio Free Europe,’ the first single from Murmur.  In both cases, while we can certainly tell that it is Michael Stipe singing, his voice does not sound like his voice, he does not sound like we imagine Michael Stipe sounding.  His voice, which became so powerful and strong is here if not exactly weak, muted.  He sings in a different timbre.  That was gone by Reckoning.  His lyrics remained obscurantist in many ways, and he did occasionally mumble, but by then, it was his style.

As I listened to these albums, in order the first time, and then focussing on my long-time favourites (Pageant and Reckoning), I realized that R.E.M.’s reputation for obtuseness was almost entirely due to 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction.  This one is obtuse, from the opening, distorted, riff of ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull’ onwards.

Certainly, their ear for melody never deserted them, but this album almost seems as if it was difficult by design.  This was the first time R.E.M. travelled outside of the United States to record, settling in London, with Joe Boyd manning the control deck.  Boyd was a legend, having worked with the major players of the late 60s British folk scene, most notably Fairport Convention and Nick Drake.  He was an obvious choice when thinking about the larger concept of the album, which was constructed around a Southern Gothic idea, exploring the language and mythology of the South.  This is most obvious on the track ‘Can’t Get There From Here,’ which speaks to the somewhat difficult road system of parts of the South, especially the closer you get to the mountains (I once lived in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee, oftentimes it would take 40 minutes and 25 miles by road to get to some place 10 miles away as the crow flies).  Fables also includes one of my favourite R.E.M. tracks, ‘Driver 8.’

It’s also worth noting that whilst Reckoning improved on Murmur’s chart position, reaching a high of 27 on the Billboard Top 100, as compered to Murmur’s 36, Fables actually went backwards, peaking at 28.  But, all three are certified gold albums in the US.

And, as I noted, it’s on Reckoning where Stipe really gains his feet as a frontman, perhaps most clearly on the beautiful ‘Seven Chinese Brothers’ and ‘Time After Time (Annelise)’.

Ironically, however, this was Stipe at his most miserable, worn out and burned out he was from the heavy touring the band did in response to Murmur and its positive reception.  And IRS was pressuring the band to become more refined, to sell more records.  By that, I mean IRS was pressuring Stipe.  And yet, Reckoning was a creative peak for the band, with guitarist Peter Buck reporting that they were pumping out two good songs per week and their early demos revealed 22 songs for contention for the album.

Pageant marked a whole new direction, again.  And this is where I stepped into R.E.M., I saw the video for ‘Fall On Me’ on MuchMusic in 1986 and was transfixed.

City Limits was the ‘alternative’ show on Much, hosted by the interminably annoying Kim Clarke Champniss. This is where I got most of my music from, but ‘Fall On Me’ was on regular Much, not consigned to 11pm on Friday night  I got myself to the local Sam the Record Man in Coquitlam Centre and scooped the album.  The guy in the store told me if I was into this band, I should get their last album, too, so I walked out with Fables as well.  I listened to them both back-to-back and continuously when I got home.

By 1986, I was discovering my own musical tastes, independent from my metalhead friends, who were into the likes of Iron Maiden, Aerosmith, Poison and so on.  I had discovered The Cult (Love was the first album I bought with my own money) and The Cure, Sisters of Mercy, and the Mission. U2 were still alternative in those days.  R.E.M. fit into this continuum beautifully.

Compared to FablesPageant was a brand new bag. Working with Don Gehman, perhaps the most mainstream producer they ever worked with (he was most famous for his work with John Mellencamp), this was rock’n’roll.  Buck turned up the guitars and Mills and Berry responded in kind.  Stipe’s voice took over, in all its beauty.  His lyrics didn’t necessarily become easier to entirely decipher, mind you.  Check out the words for ‘Begin the Begin’:

Birdie in the hand for life’s rich demand
The insurgency began and you missed it
I looked for it and I found it
Miles Standish proud, congratulate me
A philanderer’s tie, a murderer’s shoe
Life’s rich demand creates supply in the hand
Of the powers, the only vote that matters
Silence means security, silence means approval
On Zenith on the TV, tiger run around the tree
Follow the leader, run and turn into butter
Let’s begin again, begin the begin
Let’s begin again like Martin Luther Zen
The mythology begins the begin
Answer me a question I can’t itemize
I can’t think clear, you look to me for reason
It’s not there, I can’t even rhyme here in the begin
A philanderer’s tie, a murderer’s shoe
Example, the finest example is you
Birdie in the hand for life’s rich demand
The insurgency began and you missed it
I looked for it and I found it
Miles Standish proud, congratulate me
A philanderer’s tie, a murderer’s shoe
Let’s begin again, begin the begin
Let’s begin again
The very album title was obscure, to be sure, taken from a Pink Panther movie, Shot in the Dark, where Inspector Closseau’s witty response to some comment about death is ‘Well, it is all part of life’s rich pageant, you know.’  At any rate, this album is, quite simply, utterly brilliant from that opening squall of feedback on ‘Begin the Begin’ through to the excellent cover of The Clique’s ‘Superman,’ with Mills on lead vocals.
In a lot of ways, Pageant also foreshadowed R.E.M.’s mid-90s trip into heavy guitars and loud rock’n’roll, beginning with 1994’s Monster.  I remember my friends being stunned by this shift, especially after the gentleness of their last album, 1992’s Automatic for the People.  Me, I was less stunned, in large part because I loved Pageant.

And then Document came quickly, just 13 months later.  This is what launched them into the stratosphere, but what is often overlooked with respect to this album is that it was also utterly brilliant. I can still see the video for ‘The One I Love’ in my mind’s eye.  This was their first big single.

But, for me, it’s the deep cuts, most notably ‘Oddfellows Local 151′ that caught my attention.  Starting with a simple riff and another squall of feedback, before Mills’ bass kicks in and Buck’s guitar roars, Stipe sings about PeeWee and the local lodge of the Odd Fellowship.

It was their first Top 10 album, and their first platinum album in the US (Pageant had gone platinum in Canada).  The music kept the edge that Pageant first introduced, and Stipe’s voice maintained its place up in the mix.

Ultimately, Document was very much the end of a period for R.E.M.  Beginning with their major label début, 1988’s Green, their sound became richer and fuller, whether rocked out on a track like ‘Orange Crush’ or more countrified, such as  on ‘You Are the Everything.’

And so Green brought a new R.E.M. sound.  I was in a record store recently and the clerk was playing an R.E.M. playlist.  And ‘The One I Love’ played right after ‘What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?’ (from 1995’s heavily rocked out Monster).  ‘The One’ seemed almost quaint next to the muscled ‘Kenneth.’  It was clearly the same band, and not just because of Stipe’s voice, even if the guitars and bass were distorted and tremelod within an inch of their life, it’s still obvious it’s Buck and Mills.  Maybe it was a question of budgets, as Warner Bros. certainly had a lot more money than IRS did, maybe it had something to do with an evolving artistic vision.  Either way, this was a decided shift in the band’s sound.

I’m not going to get all music criticy and declare the IRS era the ‘pure’ R.E.M.  Not at all, but it was of a time and of a place, before they were one of the biggest rock bands in the world, one of the many 1980s college rock bands who became big.  And they made brilliant music.