How a post-punk band from Georgia changed rock 'n' roll forever.
The world in which R.E.M. was created and came to artistic prominence was a much different one from today. They were a post-punk band, to be sure, but they sounded like the Byrds more than X. Their musical roots were in Americana (a genre that hadn't been recognized yet), the static psychedelia of the Velvet Underground, and to some extent Nick Drakian dreamfolk, but philosophically they were inculcated in punk and its discontents. Issues like integrity, self-determination, and aesthetics were involved in talking and thinking about the band in a way that's quite foreign now.
In the 1970s, a lot of the fury of the punk movement came from dismay at the limp and patently compromised work of artists like Rod Stewart or the Rolling Stones, or the flatulent excesses of art rockers like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, or Yes. From those negative examples, and from the punks that confronted the issue head on, R.E.M. took a commitment and awareness of what appropriate rock-star comportment might be.
The band, which announced its breakup yesterday after 31 years together, came into the world with a corrosive single, "Radio Free Europe"; a debut EP, Chronic Town, and a full LP, Murmur, that introduced their sound: lyrically murky, musically open-eyed, and, importantly, invigorated. Their dreamy origins were always confronted by a enlivened musical attack. The (very strong) rhythm section of Mike Mills and Bill Berry laid a foundation for Peter Buck's playing, by turns plangent and driven. (Back in the day the band could electrify a small venue, as you can see from this cramped but exciting early clip from Letterman, and for many years, even in bigger halls, the band's shows were mass dance concerts.) Michael Stipe's resonant voice and mysterious warbling made the songs at once unfathomable and compelling, with this or that phrase—"Gardening at night," "Please find my harborcoat," "We could gather/Throw a fit," etc. etc.—floating up to confuse us further.
Similar to any era, you can make the case for the '80s' musical brilliance or its musical deficiencies. But it's certainly true that there was a decided move away from authenticity, from the rise of drumless bands like Depeche Mode or Pet Shop Boys to a general tendency toward artifice from the period's biggest stars, from Michael Jackson to Madonna to Boy George to even Springsteen—remember that the single that kicked off Born in the USA's selling spree was the keyboard-driven "Dancing in the Dark." None of this was bad: I always felt, once the drum machines had made drummers unnecessary, bring on the lead-singer machines.
R.E.M., with its odd progenitors, few of which trafficked in artifice, was a band somewhat out of time from its inception. And, at the beginning, R.E.M. didn't matter. The only way you could hear music was on your local radio stations. (MTV had begun, of course, but cable wasn't as big and college kids, particularly, didn't have universal access to it.) Commercial radio didn't play R.E.M.; program directors at the time were openly contemptuous of them. Commercial-radio playlists were determined by "research," which often consisted of playing listeners 30 seconds of new songs over the phone. Vagueness and dreaminess didn't play well in that context.
But at the same time college radio was coming into its own, and through the 1980s a network of such stations, fanzine kids, rock clubs, and other bands emerged to create an alternative culture. A lot were detritus from the punk worlds on the two coasts, but a lot of other, odder bands from stranger shores (I'm looking at you, Camper Van Beethoven), and even a few as good as R.E.M. (the Replacements, Hüsker Dü) came up as well. Over time they started delivering remarkably strong records. R.E.M. was always the flagship band of this movement. As the decade went on, the band was consistently delivering killer songs like "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)" or "Fall on Me." As R.E.M.'s ever-more-obvious mastery of the rock-record form became apparent, their sales grew somewhat, and the band eventually had a fairly significant radio hit, "The One I Love," while still on the indie label I.R.S. This was a big deal at the time.
Still, in the overheated industry of the period, the band's sales were middling, and it wasn't as though the Replacements were moving product either. It took a few more years, until the rise of a band with a leader who plainly looked to R.E.M. for career if not musical inspiration, before the Amerindie movement could truly assault the industry. After Nirvana's Nevermind, everything changed; those commercial radio stations significantly altered their sounds to allow more idiosyncratic bands in; labels searched grimly for the next regional hotbed; and artists, for better or worse, took much greater control of their work and images.