Who was the best rock band of the '80s?

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Nov. 9 2006 10:18 AM

R.E.M. vs. U2

Who was the best rock band of the '80s?

You can tell a lot about a band by how they tell their own story. This fall, R.E.M. released And I Feel Fine, a collection of songs from their early years, 1982 to 1987. The deluxe two-disc edition comes with liner notes in which R.E.M.'s four founding members relate stories of the band's early years. As a one-time devoted fan, I devoured these 11 short pages of storytelling—a tiny window into the songs I'd spent so many hours rapturously listening to, obsessing over, and decoding.

In weighty contrast to this slim text is the just-released U2 by U2, a $40 coffee-table book that exhaustively recounts—in 352 pages of interviews—the birth, struggles, and modern-day megasuccess of U2. Now that U2 has become America's spokesband for human dignity, it's difficult to remember that R.E.M., the quiet Georgians with the elliptical lyrics, once competed with U2 for the title of world's best rock band. With U2 triumphant and R.E.M. fading into near-obscurity, And I Feel Fine reminds listeners that R.E.M., not U2, made the most memorable music of the 1980s.

Dan Kois Dan Kois

Dan Kois is Slate's culture editor, co-host of Mom and Dad Are Fighting, and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

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Throughout that decade and the early 1990s, a fierce rivalry existed between R.E.M. and U2—not in real life, mind you, but in my head. Among certain floppy-haired music nerds in that era, you were either an R.E.M. person or a U2 person, and this R.E.M. person has spent the last five years in agony, watching my one-time heroes release several drab albums, while U2 famously announced they meant to matter again—and succeeded.

It's hard to imagine R.E.M. making a similar pronouncement, given the determination with which they pursued their off-center, Southern muses for so many years. For all of their ambition, in the 1980s, R.E.M.'s music was willfully obscure. Much has been made of Michael Stipe's mumbly lyrics, but it wasn't that you couldn't make out the words of early R.E.M. songs—you just didn't know what the hell they meant. Neither did the band. "I still have no idea what that song is about," Stipe writes about "Pilgrimage," and bassist Mike Mills says the same about "Gardening at Night" (while drummer Bill Berry claims it's based on a euphemism for peeing along the side of the road during an all-night drive). The lyrics could mean anything, and therefore they meant everything, weighted as they were with mystery, resonance, and passion. "It's not necessarily what we meant," writes Mills, "but whatever you think." A friend once gave his sister, for her birthday in 1988, a complete collection of R.E.M. lyrics, painstakingly hand-transcribed from repeated listens to the songs. Were they right? It hardly mattered.

Even R.E.M.'s "political" songs of the era, like "Fall on Me" or "Exhuming McCarthy," are tricky to parse. " Fall on Me" could maybe be about acid rain, or maybe air pollution in general, or maybe, uh, missile defense? Whereas U2's political songs of the 1980s are a little easier to work out: "Pride (In the Name of Love)" is about Martin Luther King Jr., for example, and "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" is about Bloody Sunday. Stirring as those songs are, there's very little a listener can bring to them; they are Bono's take, not yours, unlike "Fall on Me," which, for me, in 1987, was a deeply personal song about the crushing whatever of existence.

When U2's songs weren't on-the-nose political anthems, they were vague but heroically uplifting—filled with signifiers but signifying nothing. Whereas R.E.M. songs, drenched in Southern detail, allusive and elusive, sounded like fables or folk wisdom, U2's majestic uplift often felt like the outtakes of a melodically gifted youth-group minister.

There's a charming modesty in R.E.M.'s liner-note stories of how they learned to create these songs. Mills devotes paragraphs to explaining why it was fun to play bass within the framework of Peter Buck's guitar. And in the notes on the collection's best new track, a slowed-down version of "Gardening at Night," the band explains how, struggling with the song in the studio, they tried playing it slowly—to see if, in Mills' words, "it might hold up well with a softer treatment." Unlike most previously unreleased demos, this version is a treasure: The intricacies of Mills and Buck's interplay at a slower pace—overlaid by Stipe's falsetto and supported by Berry's expressive drumming—reveal new beauty behind the familiar drive of the original.

In the studio, R.E.M. was tentative and exploratory, while U2 was as straightforwardly ambitious as a band could be. "We're going to make the big music," says Bono, in U2 by U2, about the band's mindset leading up to the recording of 1984's The Unforgettable Fire. "That's who we are. ... Big ideas, big themes, big sound."

Live, the two bands were markedly different. U2 By U2 is filled with stories of Bono climbing the stage rigging and leaping into the audience at shows. Contrast that willful courting of—and connection to—an audience with Stipe hiding behind the drum kit on David Letterman's show in 1983, or, in 1987, telling a story about the origins of "Life and How to Live It" that just adds to the song's curiosity.

"There's nothing like being at Number One," Bono says in U2 by U2. "It's just better than Number Two." In the early 1990s, both bands were Number One: U2 with Achtung Baby and "One," R.E.M. with Out of Time and "Losing My Religion." By the late 1990s, both bands were in career lulls: U2's dabbling in electronica with Zooropa and Pop had turned off many hard-core fans. R.E.M.'s Berry had amicably left the commercially floundering band after suffering an aneurysm onstage during a concert.