Part 2: Calling out in transit (Chronic Town to Reckoning

Part 2: Calling out in transit (Chronic Town to Reckoning

“[Peter Buck] initially didn’t even want to be in a band because he said, ‘All guys in bands are assholes, and I don’t want to be an asshole.’ And I was like, ‘We don’t have to be assholes. We can be the non-asshole band.’” —Michael Stipe on Behind The Music, 1998

Due to a combination of age, experience, geography, and media access, I didn’t get into R.E.M. on the ground floor. By the time I became a fan, R.E.M. was already about seven or eight years old—still on an upswing, but already a known quantity. It was a platinum-selling, mainstream band, with songs on the radio and videos on MTV. It belonged to everybody, or at least those people who liked popular music and wanted something beyond Appetite For Destruction, Hysteria, Bad, and Licensed To Ill. I can’t legitimately claim that I “discovered” R.E.M., at least not in the way that discovery was defined in the pre-Internet world, when it still seemed possible to put police-tape around little, unknown worlds and keep them sequestered from the media’s glare for a while. When I found it, R.E.M. was just there, as close as the nearest living room, with the same level of accessibility as Hulk Hogan or Who’s The Boss? 

For those who did get in on the ground floor with R.E.M., it must’ve felt like something had been stolen from them. Because they were there first, they likely felt some sense of ownership over R.E.M. that (in their minds at least) didn’t extend to latecomers like myself. But the reality is that R.E.M., like so many great bands, was to go through a series of career cycles that can be likened to movies in a franchise. These periods were connected, but also distinct from each other. Early ’80s R.E.M. is a separate entity from late ’80s R.E.M., which varies greatly from early ’90s R.E.M. and is barely on speaking terms with late ’90s R.E.M. Hardcore fans were obliged to stick around for the whole thing, and insist that you had to do this in order to get the full story. But many others were intent to hang in for only an installment or two. Certainly, enjoying one period did not ensure that you’d like the subsequent one. And once a period ended, that version of the band was lost forever. After R.E.M.'s second album, 1984's Reckoning, those early fans were left to grasp in vain at something that suddenly no longer existed. 

It’s difficult for me to write about the early days of R.E.M. without taking on a biblical tone: “In the beginning, in the year 1980 A.D., there were four men who assembled to play music in a house of our Lord for a gathering of drunken college students. And the sound was rich, and powerful, and it was good.” This period of R.E.M. remains elusive for me; everything seems a little bigger and more romantic than it should be, because my mind won’t stop adding layers of significance to everything R.E.M. did back then. Of course I love the records from this period—1982’s Chronic Town EP, 1983’s full-length debut Murmur, and Reckoning—but this is an R.E.M. that exists only in my imagination. My knowledge is not first-hand; it’s cobbled together from books, magazine articles, and bootleg recordings, as well as those first three releases. 

Early R.E.M. seems more down-to-Earth in a regular-guys-playing-in-a-little-band kind of way, but also more mythic. The details of R.E.M.’s first gig on April 5, 1980, are hardly auspicious: It was a birthday party held at a dilapidated church for the band’s friend Kathleen O’Brien, who was responsible for introducing recent record-store pals Michael Stipe and Peter Buck to boyhood friends Bill Berry and Mike Mills, and giving them something to rehearse for after they spent several weeks fruitlessly screwing around as a newly formed band. There were a couple hundred people in attendance, and R.E.M. played covers like “Secret Agent Man” and The Monkees’ “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone” along with a smattering of originals. R.E.M. did well—the band supposedly went through its entire set twice—but the performance didn’t exactly hint at future greatness. But this story has, in hindsight, become incorporated into the pages of rock history. And in the process it’s become a kind of fiction, a real tale, transcending the mundane reality of whatever actually happened. 

It brings to mind the Peter Buck quote that became the title of R.E.M.’s recent greatest hits collection: “R.E.M. is part lies, part heart, part truth, and part garbage.” Parsing out the lies, heart, and garbage in order to get to the truth of R.E.M.’s early days seems like an impossible task for someone who’s never heard those early albums without the benefit of perspective. I’ve never been able to hear Murmur strictly on its own terms; I arrived at it after traveling through the band’s subsequent records, in order to find out how it all got started. I had my own lies, heart, and garbage wrapped up in those records, and sometimes it’s hard to get past that stuff, and find what’s truth and what’s not. 

What’s interesting about Murmur is that, as far as I can tell, it’s always been elusive, even for people who heard the album without years of baggage. “Murmur was, and is, about not understanding things too quickly or too assuredly,” wrote critic J. Niimi, who called the album “indisputably mythological.” Even the album’s cover—all blues, grays, and browns, with its image of over-grown kudzu plants evoking the untouched, alien-like terrain of backwoods America—invites open-ended interpretation while offering no concrete message or solution.

Murmur’s mysterious air has been attributed mainly to Stipe’s famously indecipherable vocals. Stipe sang like he was trying to single-handedly upend the stereotypes of Southern-rock vocalists. The bluesy affectations, the beer-soaked bravado, the leering machismo—Stipe rejected all those conventions and turned them inward, letting his lyrics dribble out in a subliminal, shapeless monotone that nonetheless carved out a riveting presence at the center of Murmur. Stipe acted like he didn’t want to be noticed, but the reality was that you could not miss him. It was a brilliant execution of an old show-business trick: When you whisper, people will strain harder to hear you—and Stipe made this kind of straining seem almost spiritual.

When Eddie Vedder inducted R.E.M. into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2007, he told a familiar story about listening obsessively to Murmur (1,260 times over the course of one summer, by his count) because “I had to know what he was saying.” But the real power of Murmur comes through in how the record sounds, rather than the content of Stipe’s lyrics. The sound of Stipe’s voice conveyed a depth of knowledge and feeling that listeners like Vedder could apply in any number of ways. It was a medium that listeners could supply with their own message. As Vedder says in his induction speech, Stipe “can be direct, he can be completely abstract, he can hit an emotion with pinpoint accuracy, or he can be completely oblique, and it all resonates.” It all depended on which Michael Stipe the listener wanted.

When I first heard Murmur, I wasn’t crazy about it for a pretty superficial reason: My favorite member of R.E.M. was and always will be Peter Buck, and Murmur is one of the least guitar-centric albums of R.E.M.’s career. It is distinguished primarily by Stipe’s vocals and Mike Mills’ basslines, with Bill Berry’s drumming providing valuable support. (See the weird ska-like rhythm he gives to “Laughing.”) Mills and Buck essentially swap jobs in the usual rock-band configuration, with Mills taking lead and Buck providing shading and accents. 

I’ve since come around to Murmur in a big way; it remains one of the most staggering and preternaturally assured debut records ever. Murmur doesn’t quite fit with Chronic Town or Reckoning, which are much closer to R.E.M.’s live sound at the time. I can imagine a young, inexperienced band entering a studio and making those other records; with Murmur, however, the loose threads and stitched-together pieces aren’t as easily discerned. It’s as if R.E.M. aged several years after Chronic Town, and then regressed before recording Reckoning. Those records seem like they were made; Murmur seems to have been conjured. 

The fact is, Murmur didn’t appear out of thin air; it was made under fairly normal conditions in a Charlotte, N.C., studio utilized mostly by soul and gospel acts. It was recorded cheaply, with a budget of about $15,000, and rather quickly in the early months of 1983. R.E.M. typically needed only a few takes to get through each track, as the band had road-tested the material and was very well rehearsed. They were not arty musos handing down profound and philosophical puzzle-pieces in four-minute increments from up on high. R.E.M. was a working band, living gig to gig, with only as much money in their pockets as they could raise from their frequently meager live audiences. 

In contrast to the austere sound of Murmur, the members of R.E.M. were true rock ’n’ roll dirtballs in the early ’80s, spending most of their time crisscrossing the country in a blue van with no seats in the back, so they could haul their gear from one out-of-the way club to the next. When they stopped at hotels, one guy always had to stay in the van while the other three members shared beds inside. In R.E.M.’s Behind The Music episode, Buck recalled (without a hint of rose-colored romanticism) that the band rarely showered during this period, only getting to wash up in the scum-covered sinks of whatever rock club they were playing that night. During the making of Murmur, conditions were somewhat more luxurious, as they all got to stay inside at a ratty Charlotte-area motel in a single room, two to a bed, for several weeks. 

R.E.M. had to make something great with Murmur, if only to justify the hell it was putting itself through. Not that R.E.M. didn’t have receive ample encouragement along the way; as Buck observed on Behind The Music, “we were kind of famous the very first day” after that initial church gig—in Athens, anyway, though a bigger following wasn’t that far behind. By the end of 1980, just about six months or so after its first show, R.E.M. scored a plum spot opening for The Police in Atlanta. R.E.M.’s good fortune continued when it started putting out records. The band’s first single, “Radio Free Europe”/”Sitting Still,” garnered enough demand to warrant a pressing of 6,000 copies, though Buck hated the mix so much that he smashed one of the records and nailed it to a wall in his house. The single helped R.E.M. get a deal with I.R.S. Records in May 1982—just over two years after the birthday party show—and by the end of that summer, Chronic Town was released. 

Recorded with Murmur co-producer and North Carolina power-pop luminary Mitch Easter at his home studio, Chronic Town arguably has more “R.E.M.-ness” than Murmur does. The record’s jangly guitars, snappy and proudly Southern-sounding rhythm section (which bears traces of Mills and Berry’s experience playing together in Allman and Skynyrd-style boogie bands as teenagers), and Stipe’s enigmatic brooding would influence countless bands who tried to rip off R.E.M.’s signature sound for the next several years. 

Chronic Town also gives a better indication of what made R.E.M. tick as a live unit in its youngest days. First and foremost, this was a party band, with music made for drinking and dancing. Chronic Town was invariably described as “smart” by music critics, but the songs also swung hard and had an unmistakable groove to them. Robert Christgau of The Village Voice—which ranked Chronic Town as 1982’s second-best EP in its annual Pazz & Jop critics’ poll—described R.E.M. as the “wittiest and most joyful of the postgarage sound-over-sense bands.” R.E.M. was a group out to give the audience a good time, even if it happened to be a Tuesday night in some bumblefuck town where nobody cared what the Village Voice thought.

R.E.M.’s early success with rock critics culminated with Murmur finishing second (right behind Michael Jackson’s Thriller) in the ’83 Pazz & Jop poll, and Rolling Stone—to the audible shock of many observers, not least of all R.E.M.’s own label I.R.S.naming it Album Of The Year. But this acclaim shouldn’t necessarily be confused with acceptance; with its home base located far outside the music-industry establishment strongholds in New York and Los Angeles, R.E.M. remained an outsider. Even Christgau, who had expressed enthusiasm for the band’s early records, couldn’t help displaying his prejudice toward flyover-country when talking about R.E.M.’s “corn quotient” in comparison to the band’s more urban, East Coast contemporaries, New Jersey’s The Feelies, when reflecting on the early years of both bands.

Its textures thick with lyrical underbrush, its vocals soaring past drawl into the sonic haze, R.E.M. was the most luxuriantly Southern of the Athens bands; from their Passaic County fastness, the Feelies imbued nerdy suburban goofiness with spare downtown cool, rocking out all the while.

It’s not hard to tell which quality—R.E.M.’s earthy Southernness or The Feelies’ “downtown cool”—Christgau prefers. But R.E.M.’s outsider status served a vital function, preserving the band’s original goals to never be in debt (Athens was a cheap place to live) and always be in control of its career. (Athens was so far away from New York and L.A. that it was practically invisible.) While the wisdom of R.E.M.’s conscious opting-out of industry hotspots seems apparent, it’s worth remembering that the concept of “independence” in rock music was still in the process of being invented when R.E.M. started making records. As Niimi observes, Chronic Town came out before “indie rock (or college rock)” was even a thing, “so the irony may be lost now that back then the easiest and most direct way to make a record was to get a major label contract, not to be so quixotic and dumb as to try and make one yourself.” 

The other irony of R.E.M.’s first several records is that I.R.S., at times, was far more intrusive on the creative process than the band’s eventual major-label patron, Warner Bros., who explicitly stated R.E.M.’s independence from any potential meddling in the multi-million dollar contracts it handed the group in the late ’80s and mid-’90s. It was I.R.S.’ idea for Murmur to be produced by Stephen Hague, who made his name working with British synth-pop groups like New Order and Pet Shop Boys. R.E.M. recorded one song, “Catapult,” with Hague, who took the track and added synth parts without the band’s permission. The band hated the results so much that it demanded to work with Easter and engineer Don Dixon, and took a hard-line against any modern or trendy window-dressing on what became Murmur. While I.R.S. wasn’t crazy about Easter and Dixon—Easter later recalled in Johnny Black’s 2003 book Reveal: The Story Of R.E.M. that the label demanded a “test” recording of eventual album cut “Pilgrimage,” and gave it a “very lukewarm” reaction—but it went along with R.E.M.’s wishes anyway. 

For Reckoning, I.R.S. pushed R.E.M. to make a more commercial-sounding album that would outdo the modest-selling Murmur. R.E.M., in turn, tried to work as quickly as possible, spending long days in the studio that would last until three or four in the morning and start over again a few hours later after the sun came up. “We wanted to have it finished before they showed up to listen to it,” Buck told Black in Reveal. “By the time [I.R.S. president] Jay [Boberg] showed up, it was the last day and we just played him the record. He really didn’t have anything to say about it.” 

Dixon hadn’t seen R.E.M. live before recording the band on Murmur; with Reckoning, his goal was to bring out the jangle in Buck’s guitar and the crisp force in Berry’s drumming. Dixon did this by utilizing “binaural” recording, using two microphones that were raised off the ground roughly at the height of the average person’s ears. The idea with binaural is to create a recording that replicates how people actually hear sound. Reckoning certainly sounds more “live” than Murmur does, though the songs—particularly energetic rock numbers like the album-opening “Harborcoat,” “Second Guessing,” and the incomparable “Pretty Persuasion,” which dated back to R.E.M.’s earliest songwriting sessions—are also a lot more outgoing.  

“Gothic” was a term often used to describe Murmur, but Reckoning was arguably more overtly Southern-sounding, with the Mills-penned country track “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” becoming one of the album’s breakout songs. The best song from Reckoning boasted a guitar intro even more majestic than the opening of Murmur’s “Talk About The Passion”: “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” was rightly picked as the album’s first single, and R.E.M. made a video in which Stipe sang a live vocal while the rest of the band mimed to the recording. Many R.E.M. fans already knew the song from R.E.M.’s national television debut on Oct. 6, 1983, on Late Night With David Letterman, when the band performed “So. Central Rain” before it even had a title. 

R.E.M. actually played two songs on Letterman, kicking off with its “hit,” “Radio Free Europe.” A TV show performance is a far-cry from seeing a band in a club, but as the highest quality live clip of the band during this period that I’ve seen online, this is as close as I’m ever going to get. R.E.M. sounds tight and appealingly not-ready-for-primetime; Buck became the de-facto spokesman during the brief between-song interview after Stipe literally hid behind him, and the rest of the band looks like it just stepped out of the student union. Buck is also the most mobile and “rock star”-like member during the performances, stepping back and forward and wiggling his legs during the choruses, like a young Keith Richards. The songs sound great, but R.E.M. isn’t quite there yet as a total package. On Murmur, it sounded immortal, but on Letterman it was just four young dudes at a high-profile stopover during a never-ending tour.  

R.E.M. was still years away from being a household name, but the Letterman appearance signaled the beginning of the end for the band’s original incarnation. The show was the first step toward people like me finding out who it was. The R.E.M. I came to know was an entirely different band from what R.E.M. started out as. The members were the same, but everything else had changed: They looked different, the records sounded different, and the band represented something different to the people who cared about them.

Incredibly, as R.E.M.’s audience grew, so did its creative autonomy. R.E.M. actually got more independent as it got more popular. Hiding out from the record company, and making albums on the sly so as not to get “caught,” would become one of many things—like the crappy hotels, the washing up in filthy rock-club sinks, and that damned blue van—that R.E.M. left behind. Some of the band’s oldest fans might feel their connection to R.E.M. weaken as time passed, but for the most part R.E.M. banked an unprecedented amount of goodwill by the end of the ’80s. 

For a time, R.E.M. was afforded a kind of rarefied, can’t-lose status few bands have ever enjoyed: It was able to do whatever it wanted, and sell millions of records in the process. The act of making R.E.M. music, no matter what it sounded like, became inherently commercial for about a 10-year period, from 1987 to 1996. It was more than the members of R.E.M. could have dreamed of at the beginning: This little band was in the process of becoming something more, well, monstrous

Coming up: We move forward to R.E.M.’s arena-rock period, which started with the quiet of Automatic For The People and crashed with the burnout of the Monster tour and the bruised sound of New Adventures In Hi-Fi.