Formed in 1980, R.E.M. was one of the first indie or alternative rock bands that benefited from college radio. For me, R.E.M. was a high-speed, trippy folk-rock band. Transformative bands bring a unique sound, they up the game.
Fifteen albums, six platinum albums, 90 million albums sold, multiple world tours, Grammy Awards, and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction – not a bad career.
- Murmur (1983)
- Reckoning (1984)
- Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)
- Life’s Rich Pageant (1986)
- Document (1987)
- Green (1988)
- Out of Time (1991)
- Automatic for the People (1992)
- Monster (1994)
- New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)
- Up (1998)
- Reveal (2001)
- Around the Sun (2004)
- Accelerate (2008)
- Collapse into Now (2011)
In the 1980’s, the band was mostly on a small, independent label, IRS, which was fitting for their indie rock style of music. Again, it was college radio stations that found R.E.M. and gave them exposure.
It all started with “Radio Free Europe” in 1981, with the album Murmur appearing in 1983. “Catapult“ was another doing that helped define their style.
Below, their first national television appearance, on David Letterman.
On their next album Reckoning came the singles “South Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” and “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville.” It’s had to think of a more R.E.M. song than “Rockville.” Without much national exposure Reckoning sold more than 500,000 copies and nosed up to number 27 on Billboard, a tremendous achievement.
Fables of the Reconstruction came out the next and achieved the same level of success as the previous album, sales and chart position. “Cant Get There from Here” and “Driver 8” were the singles, with “Driver 8” getting to number 22.
R.E.M. was gaining a loyal following among college students but still weren’t breaking into the mainstream.
Lifes Rich Pageant (1986) began to gain them that audience. The had yet another producer, Don Gehman, who worked with John Mellencamp, and he toughened up their sound. “Fall on Me” and “Superman” were the charting singles. Both got into the top 20 of Billboard Rock Tracks, which is where they wanted to be. “Begin the Begin” was also a popular, non-single on the album.
Dead Letter Office (1987) was a collection of unreleased songs, covers and b-sides of singles.
Document again had a different producer, Scott Litt, who would continue to work with the band through a career uptick. “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” announced the band with more swagger and continued the tougher sound. Document was also their first platinum selling (over one million copies) album.
Green was their first album on Warner Bros. which signed the band to a huge ($80M) contract. Four singles were released: “Orange Crush,” “Stand,” “Pop Song 89” and “Get Up.” The approach to this album was different as the music was written in major keys and intentionally did not sound like R.E.M. The album reached number 12 on the charts and sold two million copies.
Out of Time became their most successful album to date, number one on Billboard, four million copies sold in America and three Grammy Awards. Four singles released with “Losing My Religion” being the most successful.
Automatic For the People reached number two on Billboard and sold 18 million copies worldwide. Six singles were released: “Drive,” “Man on the Moon,” “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,” “Everybody Hurts,” “Nightswimming” and “Find the River”. Automatic For the People reached number two on the chart and many top albums of the year.
According to various interviews with member of R.E.M., they now set out of make albums with a harder rock and roll sound but the music tended to shift directions during recording.
On Monster, the music intentionally used different guitar tunings and a more raw sound. It was hard to disguise the R.E.M. sound although the band started mixing in more acoustic and oddball instruments. On this album the sound was harsher and had a bigger guitar sound. “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” and “Bang the Blame” were two of the five singles from the album. “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” came from a crazy man who accosted newsman Dan Rather on a New York street, yelling, “Kenneth, what’s the frequency?”. He said radio waves were being beamed into his brain.
The band toured to support the album, the first in several years. As the band got more successful, the tours got longer and more tiring.
New Adventures in Hi-Fi signaled a shift in the band and their sales success. The album did reach number two on the charts but failed to sell a million copies in America. It was an album of sprawling style, parts acoustic, folk and hard rock. Much of the album was recorded on the road, during their tour, and then supplemented with studio recording. The intent was to capture the looseness of the band performing live. Four singled were released with “Bittersweet Me” as the most successful of the four.
Up was the first album without original drummer Bill Berry who left the group. Longtime producer Scott Litt was also gone. Up reached number three on the chart but sold even less well than the previous album. Four singles were released but not charted very high. The music on the album was also a shift away from their more familiar sound, and a full-time drummer. Drum machines, sonic textures and loops just wasn’t the R.E.M. sound. The emphasis was on atmosphere, not good songs.
Man on the Moon was the soundtrack to the film about comedian Andy Kaufman, with music/lyrics mostly written by members of R.E.M.
Reveal returned to a more traditional R.E.M. sound. Three singles were release but only “Imitation of Life” charted in America, although it was not a hit, but the reviews were generally positive. Critics said it was a much better record, not as good as their best, but on the right track.
Around the Sun was their least successful album in America since their early days. If failed to even reach Gold status. Four singles were released but not charted in America.
Accelerate was intended to sidestep the sound and approach of Around the Sun. The music was written to be faster and punchier guitar-based songs. The recording was done in a more disciplined fashion to avoid any missteps. The reception was much more positive, with higher sales, more positive reviews and charting in the Billboard top ten. “Supernatural Superserious” was the best charting of the four singles.
Collapse into Now was the final studio album released by the band. Discussions started on the previous tour about the band’s future. Eventually, it was mutually decided this would be the last album and to deliver a superior product. The style of songs is “more expansive” as they described the recording effort. The album reached number 5 on the charts and was positively reviewed by critics. The band decided there would be no tour, but videos were created for each song on the album.
On the Accelerate tour, they had an offer to extend the tour with more, very profitable shows, but they couldn’t agree on it. When they regrouped to record what would be their last hour they acknowledged it was over. Guitarist Peter Buck said, “We got to the point where we wanted to go our own ways. We didn’t want to keep doing 20-year-old songs.”
R.E.M. lasted thirty years and survived the loss of one of their original members. They brought a fresh sound in the early 1980’s, different from the synth-pop from England, the gnarly post-punk from the coasts, or the industrial soul being manufactured for radio. R.E.M. originated from Athens, Georgia, a laid-back, electrified folk sound, with Michael Stipe’s confessional and quirky lyrics. As the band became successful the more pressure they felt to keep raising the bar and sounding new. Whenever they departed from their familiar sound, the audiences either chose to go along, or fall away. In the last decade together, the band struggled with trying to freshen their sound to poorly received results. In the end, they gave the fans one last album and retired. Thirty years was a great run.
Below, Michael Stipe reflects on R.E.M.