Friday, September 13, 2019

Spotlight on R.E.M.

R.E.M. photo by Anton Corbijn, courtesy Warner Bros. Records
R.E.M. photo by Anton Corbijn, courtesy Warner Bros.

R.E.M. Select Discography

Reckoning EP (I.R.S. Records, 1982)
Murmur (I.R.S. Records, 1983)
Reckoning (I.R.S. Records, 1984)
Fables of the Reconstruction (I.R.S. Records, 1985)
Lifes Rich Pageant (I.R.S. Records, 1986)
Document (I.R.S. Records, 1987)
Green (Warner Bros. Records, 1988)
Out of Time (Warner Bros. Records, 1991)
Automatic For the People (Warner Bros. Records, 1992)
Monster (Warner Bros. Records, 1994)
New Adventures In Hi-Fi (Warner Bros. Records, 1996)
Up (Warner Bros. Records, 1998)
Reveal (Warner Bros. Records, 2001)
Around the Sun (Warner Bros. Records, 2004)
R.E.M. Live (Warner Bros. Records, 2007)
Accelerate (Warner Bros. Records, 2008)
Live At the Olympia (Warner Bros. Records, 2009)
Collapse Into Now (Warner Bros. Records, 2011)
Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions (Rhino Records, 2014)
R.E.M. At the BBC (Craft Recordings, 2018 box set)

R.E.M. mini-bio

For almost three decades, from 1983 until their break-up in 2011, R.E.M. was one of the biggest and most beloved bands in the world. Formed in Athens, Georgia in 1980 by singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and drummer Bill Berry, the band would grow beyond its status as college radio superstars to become one of the leading progenitors of 1990s-era “alternative rock.” Over the course of their lengthy career, R.E.M. would release 15 studio and four live albums, selling better than 85 million records worldwide, and inspiring artists like Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus. Unusual, for a band with such a large commercial presence, R.E.M. also enjoyed significant critical support through the years.

R.E.M.'s Chronic Town EP
As the legend goes, Michael Stipe met Peter Buck in 1980 at Wuxtry Records in Athens, where Buck was working at the time. The two hit it off, discovering that they had similar taste in music, both favoring artists like Patti Smith and the Velvet Underground. Stipe and Buck were introduced to Mike Mills and Bill Berry by a mutual friend, and the four decided to make some music together. They quickly developed a unique musical style based on Stipe’s distinctive vocals and obscure lyrics, and Buck’s jangly guitar sound. They would record their first single, “Radio Free Europe,” along with a handful of other songs, at producer Mitch Easter’s Drive-In Studios in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. They originally used the four-track demos to promote the band, but would release “Radio Free Europe,” with the B-side “Sitting Still,” as a single on the local indie label Hib-Tone.

The single’s first pressing quickly sold out, and popular demand forced the label to press thousands of additional copies. R.E.M. returned to North Carolina to record songs that would be featured on their Chronic Town EP. Originally planned for release by the band’s manager’s label, I.R.S. Records signed R.E.M. on the strength of their demo tape and released the five-song Chronic Town in 1982. The band followed it up less than a year later, recording their full-length debut album Murmur with producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon. The album would inch into the Top 40 of the Billboard magazine charts, mostly due to early support by college radio and the band’s constant touring and electric live shows. Although clearly inspired by 1960s-era rock ‘n’ roll, Murmur’s enigmatic sound and texture – based on Stipe’s often-incomprehensible vocals, Buck’s unique guitar playing, and Mills’ melodic bass lines – was unlike anything released by any other band at the time. The album was eventually awarded a Gold™ Record for better than a half-million units sold.

R.E.M.'s Reckoning
R.E.M. returned to North Carolina to record their sophomore album, Reckoning, working once again with Easter and Dixon. The album sported an original cover by Georgia “outsider” artist Rev. Howard Finster, whose association with R.E.M. would bring his work to a much wider audience. The album would receive almost universal critical acclaim and would peak a few notches higher on the charts than its predecessor, at #27 on its way to Gold™ Record status. For their third album, Fables of the Reconstruction, the band traveled to England to work with famed producer Joe Boyd, who had worked with British folk legends Nick Drake and Fairport Convention. The band hated the experience, and nearly broke up over it, and while Fables of the Reconstruction stumbled a bit commercially in comparison to its predecessor, it actually grew the band’s audience in the U.K.

In an effort to take their record sales to the next level, R.E.M. enlisted John Mellencamp producer Don Gehman to record Lifes Rich Pageant at Mellencamp’s Belmont Mall Studios in Indiana. Gehman sanded down some of the band’s rough edges and provided them with a tougher, harder-rocking sound but ultimately the album charted only slightly higher (#21) than the band’s previous two efforts. Still searching for something that they probably didn’t know they needed, R.E.M. hooked up with producer Scott Litt for what would be the band’s last album for I.R.S. Records, 1987’s Document. Litt had worked with artists like Ian Hunter, the dB’s, and Matthew Sweet as an engineer and producer and his efforts on behalf of R.E.M. would ensure not only his own career but that of the band.

R.E.M.'s Document
Document would be the first of six exceedingly successful albums that R.E.M. would co-produce with Litt, their initial collaboration resulting in a Top 10 hit single in “The One I Love” and minor hits with “Finest Worksong” and “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” earning the band its first Platinum™ Record for over one million units sold. The release of Document fulfilled the band’s contract with I.R.S. Records and, frustrated that the label’s distributor didn’t consider R.E.M. a priority, they left the label. Shopping around, R.E.M. took less money to sign with Warner Bros. Records in exchange for total creative freedom. Some fans saw this move as “selling out,” an accusation that was soon rendered moot by the 1988 release of Green, the band’s major label debut.

An authentically-eclectic mix of songs, Green benefitted from the better distribution and marketing muscle afforded the band by Warner Bros. and resulted in a Top 10 hit in “Stand” and Modern Rock chart hits in “Orange Crush” and “Pop Song 89,” the album eventually achieving Double Platinum™ sales status. Unlike many of their contemporaries, who were overwhelmed by the steamroller that was “grunge” in the 1990s, R.E.M. weathered the commercial tsunami created by an “alternative rock” movement that it helped create. The band’s 1991 album, Out of Time, would propel R.E.M. to international stardom, yielding three hit singles in “Losing My Religion,” “Shiny Happy People,” and “Radio Song.” Out of Time would earn the band three Grammy® Awards and go on to sell better than four million copies in the U.S. (over 18 million worldwide), topping the charts stateside and in the U.K. as well as in new markets like Canada, Italy, Holland, and Austria.

R.E.M.'s Automatic For the People
A little more than a year later, R.E.M. returned with Automatic For the People, another chart-busting effort that, fueled by radio hits in “Everybody Hurts,” “Drive,” and “Man On the Moon,” would also sell over four million copies in the U.S. and over 15 million worldwide. Much as they did with Out of Time, however, R.E.M. decided not to tour in support of the album. They would switch gears again for 1994’s Monster, delivering a louder, less complex set of songs that nevertheless resounded with audiences, topping the charts in the U.S. and the U.K. on the strength of hit songs like “Crush With Eyeliner” and “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” and selling over four million copies stateside. The band launched a worldwide tour in support of Monster, their first in six years, with Sonic Youth and Radiohead as opening acts.

Although shows on the Monster tour sold out consistently, the tour wasn’t without its obstacles. Three of the four band members experienced serious health issues over the course of the year and underwent surgery, sidelining the band for months at a time. R.E.M. used their time on the road widely, though, writing and performing a number of new songs. They taped shows on an eight-track recorder and based their 1996 album, New Adventures In Hi-Fi, on those recordings. Although the album was moderately successful, it sold a quarter of the band’s previous three blockbusters, which was attributed to alt-rock fatigue on the part of audiences. It would be the last album with founding member Bill Berry, who left the band on good terms after its release, and it was the last they’d record with producer Scott Litt.

In the interim, R.E.M. re-signed with Warner Bros. for a reported $80 million, a contract that included the band’s early, and still consistently-selling catalog of albums. Carrying on as a three-piece without Berry, and enlisting friends like drummer Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees) and Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows), R.E.M. closed out the tumultuous decade with 1998’s critically-acclaimed album Up, produced by the band and Irish producer Patrick McCarthy (The Waterboys, U2). McCarthy would also work with the band on 2001’s Reveal and 2004’s Around the Sun albums as well as the soundtrack to the 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic Man On the Moon. Although the band’s commercial peak was clearly in the rear-view mirror and the recording industry was undergoing drastic changes, two of the three studio albums that R.E.M. recorded with McCarthy would achieve Gold™ Record status.

R.E.M.'s Accelerate
The band released the hard-rocking album Accelerate in 2008, recorded with Irish producer and punk rocker Jackknife Lee. The album was deemed “a return to form” by many critics, and would top the charts in several countries (peaking at #2 in the U.S.). Bookending the band’s 14th studio album was 2007’s R.E.M. Live (a collection of 2005 performances) and 2009’s Live At the Olympia (capturing a 2007 performance). The band’s swansong would come with 2011’s Collapse Into Now, co-produced by the band working again with Lee and recorded in Berlin, Nashville, and New Orleans. The album fulfilled the band’s contract with Warner Bros. and the three band members decided to call it a day.

R.E.M. had considered hanging up their spurs years previous, after the lukewarm critical and commercial response received by Around the Sun, but decided to continue, Mike Mills telling Rolling Stone magazine’s David Fricke “we needed to prove, not only to our fans and critics but to ourselves, that we could still make great records.” R.E.M. has continued to live on through a series of deluxe reissues, live album releases, and various compilation albums and their influence extended beyond the 1980s-era bands that rose in their wake like Dream Syndicate, Sonic Youth, and the Smiths to include ‘90s-era rockers like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Coldplay, among others. Finishing on a high note, R.E.M. left behind a catalog of music of unparalleled artistic quality that, for a brief shining moment, managed to balance commercial and creative success unlike any band before or since.

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