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R.E.M. is the American U2.

No, Michael Stipe’s no Bono…and, for that matter, Bono’s no Stipe…but the comparisons are obvious: a lead singer who’s not afraid to get political, a guitarist who generally stays out of the spotlight yet still manages to inspire a generation of kids to pick up his instrument, and a bassist and drummer who are rock solid but whose names you generally can’t remember unless you’re a real fan of the band, plus a back catalog full of albums stretching back to the ‘80s that, even now, critics can’t stop raving about. What set R.E.M. apart from the crowd when they first emerged was Stipe’s enigmatic lyrics and muffled delivery, though Peter Buck’s trusty Rickenbacker was quick to establish its presence as well. Nowaways, Stipe enunciates and you never know what the music’s gonna sound like…but, somehow, you can still spot an R.E.M. song a mile away.

It’s been a long time since the band’s first single, “Radio Free Europe,” and it hasn’t been the same since they started including their lyrics with their albums, but the band still keeps on keepin’ on…


R.E.M. came into existence in 1980 in Athens, GA, a college town already known to the music community for having introduced the world to the B-52s. Bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry had gone to school together in Macon, but lead singer Michael Stipe was a soldier’s son who’d moved around for most of his childhood, eventually ending up attending the University of Georgia at Athens; Peter Buck, meanwhile, was a native Californian who, somehow or other, found himself working at Wuxtry Records in Athens. Buck and Stipe teamed up with each other independently of the other two, but the foursome finally came together via a mutual friend and formed a band to play for that friend’s birthday party. Their all-covers set – performed under the guise of The Twisted Kites – took place in a venue that was once an Episcopalian church. An auspicious beginning, perhaps, but, hey, every story has to start somewhere.

A few months later, The Twisted Kites had changed their name to R.E.M., learned a few more covers as well as having written some originals, and were touring up and down the South. By 1981, they had entered the studio and released that aforementioned first single, “Radio Free Europe,” on indie label Hib-Tone Records. They only pressed 1,000 copies, but, rather like the myth that everyone who bought the Velvet Underground’s first album went on to form a band, it seemed as though every copy of the Hib-Tone single made it into influential hands; it became a college radio hit, topped the Village Voice’s list of Top Independent Singles, and was the impetus for the band to be signed to I.R.S. Records. Soon came the band’s debut EP, Chronic Town, followed in rapid fashion by their full-length debut, Murmur, which Rolling Stone named Album of the Year in 1983. (There is no truth to the rumor that Rolling Stone has not made a hip decision since.)

The band’s 1984 follow-up, Reckoning, kept the ball rolling for R.E.M., resulting in their first mainstream radio airplay with “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry).” It was also right around this time that the band’s influence was beginning to be seen in the other bands riding the college radio charts: the Long Ryders, Green on Red, the Three O’Clock, the Dream Syndicate, and the Rain Parade, to name just a few. The next album, Reconstruction of the Fables…or is it Reconstruction of the Fables?...found the band in darker terrain, but the follow-up, Lifes Rich Pageant, was arguably their most mainstream release to date, which might explain why both “Fall on Me” and “Superman” became radio hits. It was the band’s 1987 album, Document, which would prove to be their commercial breakthrough, courtesy of “The One I Love” and “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”; it would also prove to be the band’s swan song for I.R.S. Records , as R.E.M. shifted to the home of Bugs Bunny (a fact which the band claimed was why they signed to the label in the first place), Warner Brothers. They closed their career at IRS, however, with their first best-of: Eponymous.

The band’s WB debut, 1988’s Green, resulted in many cynical jokes about how it was named in tribute to all the money they saw as a result of “selling out” and signing to a major label, but it was a tremendous success, thanks in no small part to the mindlessly bouncy pop single, “Stand.” Next up was 1991’s Out of Time, which became the band’s biggest selling album to date, due in no small part to “Losing My Religion,” with its award-winning video, and “Shiny Happy People,” a song so relentlessly cheerful that even Denis Leary loved it…except, of course, his version was called “Angry, Gun-Toting, Meat Eating People.” From there, it was on to 1992’s Automatic for the People, which is generally mentioned in the same breath as Murmur as being one of the definitive R.E.M. albums, thanks to singles like “Drive,” “Man in the Moon,” and the sympathetic lament, “Everybody Hurts.”

After that, however, things started to get weird.

1994’s Monster was an uneven attempt at “rocking out,” but one which still debuted at the top of the charts in both the US and UK. Unfortunately, during the tour behind the album, Berry suffered a brain aneurysm, surviving the experience by the skin of his teeth, Stipe had to have a hernia removed, and Mills had abdominal surgery to remove an intestinal tumor. (It is unconfirmed as to whether Buck looked toward the heavens and said, “Nyah, nyah, you missed me!”) Despite these setbacks, they eventually finished the tour and even had a new album out in 1996: New Adventures in Hi-Fi, recorded in various places around the world, rarely in actual studios. It was a commercial failure, however, without a hit single to its name.

In 1997, Berry left the band…and, to the surprise of their fans (and despite years of claiming that if one member left, that was it for the band), R.E.M. decided to keep going; they bought a drum machine and, in 1998, released the experimental Up, which was a real downer. In response to the general indifference to their new sound, 2001’s Reveal was more or less back to the traditional R.E.M. sound, resulting in another hit single with “Imitation of Life.”

The most recent studio album from R.E.M. was 2004’s Around the Sun, which came and went with the least fanfare of any of the band’s albums to date...a bit surprising, since they were coming off the success of their first WB best-of and its token new track, “Bad Day,” the video which scored a great deal of MTV airplay. Will they ever return to the heights of their past glories? And, furthermore, do I really have to wrap up by indicating that only time will tell, or is that a given…?

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R.E.M. on the Web

The band’s official site - features news, fan club info, videos and tour information.

R.E.M. Rock
This fan site includes a trackography, band news, lyrics, and a chat room and forum.

A fan site consisting of news, reviews, gigographies, blogs and an R.E.M. online store

Michael Stipe and Bruce Springsteen
Stipe and Springsteen perform Because the Night during the Vote for Change tour in 2004. Check out the video and enjoy Stipe's dance moves.

It's Not the End of the World

Michael Stipe on starting his career in music:
“The whole punk ethic was do-it-yourself, and I've always been very literal, especially as a kid. When they said that anybody can do this, I was like, 'OK, that's me.'”

Michael Stipe on Top 40 music:
Super casual music listeners. That's most of the people in the world. And you have to understand, that's why Top 40 radio exists. It's not there for people who seek out music and who love music.

Michael Stipe on the 2004 Vote for Change Tour:
We wanted George W. Bush the fuck out of the White House and we wanted John Kerry in. And it didn't work.

Peter Buck on the band:
We can all make music individually. But we are smart enough to know that the music we make together is far better.