This is mainly a fitness blog, but I had to write about this.
R.E.M. was literally THE first “alternative” band I was ever into. I put that word in quotes because no one is really sure what it means anymore. It used to mean that a band’s music was an alternative to what you would hear on mainstream radio…also known as college rock because college campuses were the only places where you were likely to hear R.E.M. back in the day. But then in the ’90s, what was alternative BECAME what was on mainstream radio…and, oddly enough, one of the first bands to do that was R.E.M., starting a little before the ’90s when they had a hit single in ’87 or ’88 with “The One I Love.” Then there was “Stand” from the album GREEN (more on that in a minute), and finally coming to a head when they released OUT OF TIME.
I had heard of R.E.M. many years before they hit it big because my friend Nicole’s brother Billy was big into all that “college rock” stuff, the kind of music that won critical acclaim but didn’t have much to speak of in the way of sales. They had music videos for “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” and “The One I Love.” Although I liked the songs, my interest in them didn’t ignite until I heard the song “Stand” in 1988. I was only twelve years old, but already my musical tastes were…rather eclectic. At that time I listened to things like the Beatles (my first “favorite” band), Guns and Roses (who had just released APPETITE FOR DESTRCUTION), and Run D.M.C. (The only album I ever owned by them was RAISING HELL, but man…what an album!)
Then along came “Stand,” and something about it made their music finally click with me. The next time I went to a record store, I bought that album (GREEN), but what amazed me the most was how many MORE albums they had! I knew they had at least one more (DOCUMENT), but their history went back much further than that. I asked Nicole about it, and it turned out her brother had all those albums.
I immediately set about copying them. This was back in the day when radios were equipped with two tape decks: one was for playback only, and the other could be for recording OR playback. She dubbed all their old albums for me. The first one of these was LIFES RICH PAEGANT. (It wasn’t until years later, when I got it on CD, that I learned she had recorded the album out of order. My dubbed copy started with the song “Flowers of Guatemala,” which is actually supposed to be the halfway mark of the album.) On the flip side, Nicole recorded Echo and the Bunnymen’s 1987 self-titled album, which was their final…for a while.
At this point we are getting to the summer of 1989 because I remember listening to their albums constantly when I went with my mom to Forest Lake Campground. (Back then she used to make extra money by cleaning people’s cabins for them.) I listened to them non-stop. Later on that year, I became obsessed with their second album RECKONING. To this day, listening to that record brings back memories of riding up to Ballston Spa and the Northern Pines Trailer Park with my dad for my weekend visits with him.
R.E.M. hit it big only about three years after I became a fan of theirs with OUT OF TIME. While I didn’t mind that album, I was hoping they would get back to their more politically charged stuff with the next record. It didn’t happen because the next one was AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE. I just wasn’t ready to appreciate the album at the time, although I find it highly enjoyable today. (In my opinion there are still about three tracks that keep it from being the masterpiece everyone says it is, but it IS a good album.)
After that, R.E.M. returned to their guitar sound on MONSTER. While I absolutely loved the lead single (“What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”), the overdriven guitars struck me as their attempt to cash in on the “grunge” sound so popular at the time. The ironic thing is that R.E.M. was an inspiration to a lot of those bands (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins) but, instead of leading music in a new direction, R.E.M. was following their followers! Just like AUTOMATIC, I don’t feel the same animosity toward MONSTER that I did back then, but at the time I remember being mad that they had sold out.
NEW ADVENTURES IN HI-FI came next, and this marks the period where I started to lose interest in them. With every new single announced, I was hoping to get the same old thrill that I got from the period of ’82-’88, but it just never happened. The worst had to be AROUND THE SUN, which was universally despised by critics and fans alike.
Then, at long last, a return to form came with the album ACCELERATE. Again we have the overdriven guitars, but something about it sounded new…invigorating. They had references to the past (in “Sing for the Submarine,” Michael Stipe sings “Feel gravity’s pull,” a reference to the first track off FABLES OF THE RECONSTRUCTION), but not once does the band sound like they are ripping themselves off. Not only is this their finest album since drummer Bill Berry left, but it may be one of the finest of their career.
As soon as I heard “Mine Taste Like Honey” off COLLAPSE INTO NOW, I meant to buy that record…but before I had a chance, the announcement came that R.E.M. was breaking up. I said to one of my coworkers, “I think they are quitting because they had this one album AROUND THE SUN that absolutely sucked, but then they came back strong with two really great records. Maybe they feel they have redeemed themselves and want to go out on a high.” From what I have read of their interviews since the announcement, I found out this pretty much was indeed the reason.
So what can I say? How does their split make me feel? Well, I’m not naive. Once a band forms, it is inevitable that they will break up. People cannot see eye to eye on what kind of music to make together forever. Still, it is rare for a band to last as long as they did. It’s been 31 years since the release of their first single, and about 23 years since I became a fan. I will miss them. They were a large part of shaping the direction my musical tastes have followed, ever since I first purchased GREEN and moved on to their back catalog. Without them, I wouldn’t be who I am…and I don’t think I could think of a better way to explain how much their music meant to me (and still does) than that.