How a post-punk band from Georgia changed rock 'n' roll forever.
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Mills and Berry, as I said, were the group's secret weapon; in addition, Mills was an underappreciated songwriter. Stipe's lyrics, while often an almost random assortment of words, nevertheless managed to inspire analysis rather than frustrate it. But my favorite part of the band was always Buck. He was a record-store geek, older than the other members of the group, who understood deeply how rock bands operated and how their fans consumed their work. His guitar style was received, sure, from Roger McGuinn and, um, not too many others, but he nevertheless enlivened American rock-guitar playing for a decade, at least until the grunge boys took over. At the same time, he reveled in the band's complex discography—notably the blur of B-sides, covers, and nonalbum tracks on the myriad single configurations of the time—and the orthographical idiosyncrasies and busy nomenclature on R.E.M.'s albums.
Before the band went to Warner Bros. for the album Green, it took the time to record its greatest song, "It's the End of the World as We Know It (But I Feel Fine)," which combined Buck's popscrew guitar, a rush of a rhythmic onslaught, and Stipe's most inspired found lyrics. On Warners, with an international record company behind them, the band's sales and prominence grew, and the songwriting became more sophisticated, creating gorgeous songs like "Losing My Religion." It was a shock to realize that that song's album, Out of Time, had sold nearly 10 million copies worldwide a couple years after its release. Stipe's interest in film allowed the band to hold its own among video innovators of the time, from the relatively abstract accompaniment to "It's the End of the World" to the lush dreamscapes for "Losing My Religion." Live, the band gracefully moved out of clubs and theaters and delivered its music, suddenly chock-a-block with radio hits and the sound of something like the rock establishment, to fans in arenas and sheds around the world.
R.E.M. was always a band of six; besides the musicians there was a manager, Jefferson Holt, and a lawyer, Bertis Downs IV. Downs was their first business adviser and remained with the group to this day. Holt, a not-insignificant figure in the alternative-rock scene of the 1980s, left the band's employ, abruptly, in 1996; there were reports at the time that it had something to do with sexual harassment, but nothing formal was ever said, so it seems unfair to Holt that that story has persisted. On the other hand, something happened, given the curtness and suddenness of the split. Drummer Bill Berry, who suffered a brain aneurysm on tour in Europe in 1995, left the group shortly after the Holt affair.
In 1992 the band had released Automatic for the People, arguably its best and most deeply felt album, and putting them in that rare category of bands (a distinction you felt Buck at least appreciated) that could claim to have put out an unquestionably great album that far into their career. On the album Stipe's lyrics come down to earth enough to convey meanings but also resonate abstractly the way they always did. The high point is an aching and erotic fantasy called "Nightswimming" that Stipe sings movingly over a lovely Mills piano track.
After Automatic, however, R.E.M. began a slow decline, as bands always do. Monster had some rocking songs, sure, but I have to confess, as a lifetime fan who still viewed each new album with some anticipation, it's hard to conjure up much enthusiasm for the ones that followed. As the band's songwriting prowess faded, R.E.M. was canny enough to muscle together a persuasive song to kickstart the release of each new release—"Imitation of Life," on Reveal, "Leaving New York," on Around the Sun, "Supernatural Superserious," on Accelerate. But I can't have been the only fan disappointed, on release after release, to find there wasn't a second good song. Another sign of decline: Successive four-star reviews in Rolling Stone kept praising the band for a return to top rock 'n' roll form, a surefire sign its time had passed.
Their last record, Collapse Into Now, didn't even have one good song. The band ostentatiously had video directors create videos for each of the record's dozen tracks; all of the ones I looked at were mind-numbingly tedious.
So in the end, R.E.M. bowed out gracefully. Given the world into which they were born, all of the band members must have been conscious that, however big their tour income, they weren't putting out significant albums anymore. What idealistic post-punk wanted to be that cliché? Instead they chose to cap off a career with as much grace and integrity as any other I can think of. The band never sold their songs to a soft-drink company; they never tried to do larger-than-life stadium tours like U2. Artists from Kurt Cobain to Warren Zevon to Uncle Tupelo to Patti Smith have found them generous with their time and influence. R.E.M. left behind six or eight albums that rank with the best of their era, and the members got to do what few can claim: watch an artistic revolution they helped spark change the world. Not bad for a goddamned '80s band. Watch R.E.M. fans try not to mangle the lyrics to the band's most challenging song: