Friday, August 19, 2005

The world’s finest band
How R.E.M. went beyond the American Dream

No-one comes close to REM for the mantle of the world's finest band in the nineties. That, by the way, is one-fifth of pop history.

Think about it. Popular music, as we know it, is in its 5th decade. Every decade has had one or two artists who defined it with path-breaking music of a consistently high quality. Elvis in the fifties, The Beatles and Bob Dylan in the sixties, maybe Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd in the seventies, Sting and U2 in the eighties; the nineties have seen Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Beck, Radiohead, even U2 has sparkled…but nobody's output comes close to R.E.M.'s. There have been 5 albums from R.E.M. in the nineties. Each one of them is superb, all different from each other, yet with a quintessential R.E.M. touch.

The interesting thing, however, is that R.E.M. really is an eighties band. Their story began in 1979 in Athens, Georgia - a small southern American college town. Peter Buck (guitar), who was working in a record store, used to set aside his favourite albums to keep for himself. An Art student, Michael Stipe (vocals), regularly sauntered in to ask for the very records that Buck was holding for his private collection. Sparks flew and they soon became roommates. After much convincing from Stipe, Buck picked up a guitar and the pair started a band with fellow-students Mike Mills (bass) and Bill Berry(drums). They called themselves R.E.M. (Rapid Eye Movement) which is the physical indicator of the deepest state of dreaming. Pretty arty, huh?

Punk had just died and amidst the early '80s new wave bands, R.E.M. brought melodic guitar-pop back to the American underground. The band began by playing shows in an abandoned church and soon moved up to local bar audiences. Those who hated them would never return and those who loved them passed on the word and became die-hard fans. Then the band recorded a rough single "Radio Free Europe", which became a hit on college radio stations around America. Combining a punk attitude, a dance beat and American roots rock, R.E.M. were creating a new style of music that would soon be called Alternative Rock.

Their first full-length album Murmur (1983) won them outstanding critical acclaim. It was Rolling Stone magazine's best album of the year, beating out mainstream biggies like Michael Jackson's Thriller and Police's Synchronicity. Murmur really set the "R.E.M. sound" in concrete. Mature, intricate, yet very tuneful, it had songs like "Catapult" about childhood memories and "Talk About The Passion" about the country's nose-in-the-air" attitude to the homeless. Demonstrating that the group was not, from the beginning, afraid to be personal or political. "Shaking Through" was an imaginative mixture of pop melody and country twang. The sound was that of a band looking optimistically at the road ahead. If ignorance is bliss, Murmur is its soundtrack.

R.E.M. had arrived and the anthemic "So Central Rain (I'm Sorry)" from Reckoning (1984) further expanded their cult status. The first slew of bands began imitating their sound and R.E.M. gladly supported them. Then came Fables of the Reconstruction (1985). Recorded in London, this is till date the darkest album in the R.E.M. catalogue, even though it has splendid, pop-friendly songs like "Driver 8" and "Can't Get There From Here". With Life's Rich Pageant (1986), they cleaned up their sound which once again brought them tremendous critical acclaim and an increase in audience. There was a song about acid rain ("Fall On Me"), environmental pollution ("Cuyahoga") and even America's covert political actions in Central America ("The Flowers of Guatemala"). But it was really with Document (1987) that R.E.M. got its first taste of mainstream success. "The One I Love" (written because Stipe was determined to use the word "love" in a song) was misinterpreted just like Springsteen's "Born In The USA" in 1984. Many thought this was a classic love song as it began with: "This one goes out to the one I love". Then came the twist - the lover was described as " a simple prop to occupy my mind". The famed R.E.M. touch again. The commercial implications were fortunate. The song became R.E.M.'s first Top Ten single and the highly praised album sold reasonably well too. Warner Bros now signed them up for a massive contract and R.E.M's last eighties album - Green (1988) further accentuated the band's strength as songwriters and music icons.

R.E.M.'s eighties work had helped shift the focus to where rock 'n roll was headed. They had challenged the corporate shackles on the music business like no-one else. R.E.M. never compromised on their vision, they never went to success, success came to them. They inspired numerous later-to-be rock superstars away from the superficial mainstream music of the eighties to the intricate, meaningful, do-it- yourself sound that the world couldn't appreciate till the nineties came along. Through optimism, naiveté, and the adventurous, imaginative spirit of youth, R.E.M. produced a catalogue of music in the eighties that is touching, yet awe-inspiring. They had realised their "American Dream" by becoming America's greatest band in the eighties, by constantly growing artistically, yet gradually increasing their audience. The amazing thing, in retrospect now, was that R.E.M. had just begun to hit its stride.

Primarily, R.E.M's format in the eighties had been guitar, bass, drums and voice. Even though they created magic within it, with their brand of "jangle 'n mumble", there was ultimately a "sameyness" to the sound. But, almost as if on cue, they started the '90s with a fairly radical departure.

In Out of Time (1991), they accommodated strings and harpsichord, mandolin and organ in some songs, there was even a slight nod to rap in "Radio Song". The album had a curious instrumental track with Stipe humming along ("Endgame"), an interesting ramble ("Belong") and a downright ironic duet with Kate Pierson of B-52's ("Shiny Happy People"). But the real magic happened on the tracks that had the distinctive "R.E.M touches" - "Losing My Religion" "Near Wild Heaven" and "Me In Honey", yet sounded different somehow. There was a newfound lightness-of-touch in the songs that clearly made the album more accessible than anything they'd done before. Out of Time became the first R.E.M. album to reach Number One on the Billboard charts. It was also huge hit internationally and suddenly the band was world-famous. The boundaries had been pushed. The world had finally caught on.

R.E.M. sweated over their next album. They stayed off the road and recorded in various studios around the country. When Automatic For The People (1992) finally came out, it was instantly recognised as an all-time-great album. Its soulful melancholy and gentle tone make it one of the most tasteful albums ever recorded. The arrangements were largely acoustic and subtle, the playing innovative, the singing sharp yet compassionate. Songs like "Everybody Hurts", "Try Not To Breathe", "Find The River", "Nightswimming" and “Man On The Moon” are genuine pop masterpieces. This is an album that touches people of any musical taste - I've seen Classical Music purists and Hindi film music buffs appreciating Automatic. Lyrically too, there was more clarity. R.E.M. songs had always had obscure lyrics before. Here, without ever losing the sophistication, there was an emotional directness that made the songs that much more accessible.

Not long before he died, Kurt Cobain stated that R.E.M. was his favourite band. Considering how different Nirvana's musical direction seemed to be from R.E.M.'s, this seemed to be a strange admission. Actually it was symptomatic of how R.E.M. had bridged the gap between alternative and mainstream music. Cobain went on to say that it was his ambition to do an album like Automatic - "quiet and acoustic". Unfortunately, he committed suicide before achieving his goal. What followed was ironic.

Kurt Cobain and the actor River Phoenix were among Michael Stipe's closest friends. Their deaths, within months of each other, affected him deeply. As it was, R.E.M was having trouble with the next album. Doing a follow-up to Automatic no doubt would be intimidating for any band, even if they were as accomplished as R.E.M. The next album was bound to be compared with Automatic and likely to fall short - great albums like Automatic happen once-in-a-blue-moon. Maybe that's why they decided to go to the other end of the spectrum - to avoid that very comparison. From a quiet, restrained acoustic sound to a loud, in-your-face, electric sound; from the ambit of folk-rock to something very close to heavy grunge-rock. Kurt Cobain had wanted to move towards the shimmering beauty of Automatic. Instead, the creators of Automatic had gravitated towards Kurt Cobain's soundscape. It was a perverse thing to do, commercially speaking. Their two nineties albums had got them lots of new listeners, while strengthening the old fan-base. Now, with this new album, they stood to alienate a significant part of their audience, people who basically expected to hear acoustic gems (shades of Dylan going electric in 1965 ?).

However, Monster (1994) was a masterful album. Right from the wonderfully jumpy "What's The Frequency, Kenneth", the 12 songs demonstrated all the exquisite songwriting qualities associated with R.E.M - only the format had changed. Buried under the urgent-sounding electric guitars, the song-lyrics commented on the problems of personal identity and the media onslaught on it - obviously something clearly affecting R.E.M. Not a very accessible album, Monster still had songs where the old magic showed up instantly, like the beautiful "Strange Currencies" and the gut-felt ode to Kurt Cobain "Let Me In". The playing, too was fantastic - Peter Buck's guitar-work, Mike Mill's melodic bass lines, Bill Berry's crisp, decisive drumming…interestingly, this was R.E.M.'s edgiest album ever. A state-of-mind that almost resulted in R.E.M. breaking up. They reached a stage where they weren't even talking to each other. Though they sat down and sorted things out, a spate of medical emergencies threatened their existence next. Stipe, Mills and Berry all landed up in hospital within weeks of each other. Berry, in fact, almost died of a brain aneurysm. Characteristically, they survived this too and went on a world tour to support Monster.

They planned to create their next album while on-the-road, by recording their sound-checks, jam-sessions and even some live performances. The resulting album New Adventures In Hi-Fi (1996) was perhaps their most spontaneous, even though it sounded like a well-crafted studio album. It was also more varied than any former R.E.M. album - with a languorously moody track (the terrific "How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us"), enigmatic chant-like talk-songs (the superb collaboration with Patti Smith "E-Bow The Letter"), raucous rockers ("The Wake-Up Bomb"), the familiar REM sound ("Bittersweet Me") and the ethereal Automatic feel (the fantastic "Electrolyte"). This was yet another sensational album. The album ended with Stipe singing, "Your eyes are burning holes through me/I'm not scared/ I'm outta here". Words that would soon prove prophetic for Bill Berry.

After 16 remarkable years with R.E.M. Bill Berry decided to call it quits. He was finding it difficult to cope with the pressures of continuously creating music of such high quality and the rigors of touring had also exhausted him. How would the world's most accomplished band manage without their drummer? Well, they've much more than just managed in Up (1998). Just like a newly blinded man suddenly finds his hearing power enhanced, R.E.M. have discovered facets to their music they'd never consciously deliberated on before. They've reinvented their sound yet again, with a more layered and orchestrated sound that seems influenced by Radiohead's OK Computer. In fact, lots of influences seem somewhat recognisable for the first time on an R.E.M. album. Leonard Cohen in "Hope", The Beach Boys in "At My Most Beautiful", David Bowie in "Lotus", Bryan Ferry in "Suspicion" and the '60s folk-rock band Love in "Walk Unafraid"…their spirits are all recalled here, yet without R.E.M. ever losing their individuality on the songs. The superb "Daysleeper" is the only vintage REM song in the album. "Diminished" is an excellent story song, "Why Not Smile" is as romantic as Stipe's ever got, "You're In The Air" (originally titled "Bombay" till Stipe rewrote it) is enigmatic, "Falls To Climb" is resonant and memorable. "Sad Professor" is a masterpiece - the most beautiful cry of despair you'll ever hear. In fact, all the songs in the album are about personal crises of different individuals, introspective moments you feel you're eavesdropping into. Stipe brings a variety to his singing for the first time ever, with enthralling results. Up is a truly great album…with the promise of even greater music to come.

Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe have always been low profile and non-controversial, very unlike rock stars. They've always made creative and financial decisions democratically and their songs have always been credited to all four of them, a very unique thing indeed. Now, even without Berry (who Stipe revealed as the one who wrote "Everybody Hurts"), R.E.M. still continues to stride upwards, breaking new ground, creating a body of work that'll stand the test of time (all their '90s albums and a few of the '80s ones are available in India; their '80s work till Document is nicely compiled in The Best Of R.E.M.). Indeed, for being able to do their best work without ever compromising on their artistic integrity, they are worthwhile role models for people in any field, artistic or otherwise. In 1986, REM had said they'd split up on 31st December, 1999. Thankfully, they were just joking. At the rate at which they're going, the first decade of the 21st century should also be theirs.

Jaideep Varma
(with Debika Chaterjea)

April 1999


Anonymous Anirudh said...

Very engagingly written.

5:52 PM  

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