Monday, September 26, 2011

West Of The Fields :: R.E.M. 1980 - 2011

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Upon getting the news of the R.E.M. break up we decided we needed to do something to pay tribute to the band that had such a profound impact on us and give thanks for over 3 decades of music. I reached out to my fellow writers as well as some of our friends and bands we admire for some assistance. Below is what they have been gracious enough to share with us on the passing of one of America's greatest bands.

Like many of you, R.E.M.'s decision to pack up their tents and call it a day caught me by complete surprise. I selfishly assumed that the band would continue on recording albums and mounting the occasional tour for years to come. The bands last LP, Collapse Into Now, reignited my passion for the band and reminded me of what drew me to them in the first place.

There's few records that have had the profound impact on me that R.E.M.'s 1983 debut, Murmur did. My older brother brought that LP into our childhood home and changed everything for me. The album is choc full jangly guitars, infectious melodies, and smart song writing, and in my estimation defined not just "college rock" but what we know now as American indie. With Radio Free Europe making the jump from college radio to WBCN and WFNX playlists here in Boston around 84', thanks to a couple wise local program directors Murmur got some well deserved attention. I'd be hard pressed to name my favorite track from that LP, because it changes with each listen. Last week I was reliving my love for Moral Kiosk, but today I am all about Talk About The Passion. Murmur is a flawless debut and an album that continues to shine even after 28 years.

It would be a full 5 years until I managed to catch the band Live, it was 1988 and Green had just been released. The band would play the then Providence Civic Center that spring and my expectations were high especially after the bands album a year pace between Murmur and Green, not to mention the quality of those 5 records, I'm not sure anyone has been able to compete with that extremely fertile time for the band. I remember being completely awestruck with the bands performance, in particular Micheal Stipe's stage presence and Peter Buck's playing, he seemed to be having the time of his life while slashing out chords on his Rickenbacker 360. Walking out of the venue that evening I can remember being overwhelmed with the feeling that I had witness something truly special. I've seen the band sporadically over the intervening years and they always gave passionate performances, but that night in Providence has stuck with me through the years.

Thank you to Micheal Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills , and Bill Berry for the 31 uncompromising years and 15 albums. Apologies for checking out on you between 01-04, that was shitty. You will be missed, we'll always have Providence.
-Bryan Hamill

R.E.M. are one of the (admittedly few) bands you can site in an argument with someone who says they "they just don't make make classic bands/music anymore". You know, those people that say that there hasn't been a classic new band since the hotel-wrecking halcyon days.

Few would argue that R.E.M. were better than the most notorious TV smashers, (The Who, The Stones, Led Zeppelin) but they're better than Cheap Trick and Heart. More importantly, REM's discography contains all the requisite touchstones of a classic band, early critically acclaimed records with a spattering of early hits for fringe fans (Radio Free Europe, Fall on Me), bona-fide pop hits (It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine), Losing My Religion, Everybody Hurts, Man on the Moon, etc), record label moves, personnel changes and at least two come back records.

While this writer prefers Country Feedback to Shiny Happy People, these songs, both coming fairly mid-career from a band who at that point was a known commodity to the indie-kids and pop radio/MTV world, further endeared the band to those separate and discerning fan tiers. Not an easy thing to do, and a problem that all bands would love to have.

Do not underestimate their success. While you include me in that group of fans that can't find a bad song on the first 4 records, and have thoroughly enjoyed their recent deluxe re-issues; Murmur, Reckoning, Fables Of The Reconstruction, and Life's Rich Pageant only achieved RIAA Gold certification. Not until the band's more polarizing mid-career did the band start selling millions of records. Out of Time, Automatic for the People, and Monster all went at least 4X Platinum in US, Canada, and several other European countries, giving weight to my argument of their classic rock status.

I will now spend the next couple of day's working through the band's catalog on Spotify. While I will undoubtedly play more tracks from the band's earlier albums, there was always a track or two on all of their albums, including last year's near return-to-glory Collapse Into Now that are worth a spin. Here's a quick list of favorite track from all of their albums of note.

Murmur- Shaking Through
Reckoning- Harbor Coat
Fables of the Reconstruction- Green Grow the Rushes
Life's Rich Pageant- Swan Swan H
Document- King of Birds
Green- Turn you inside out
Out of Time- Country Feedback
Automatic for the People - Drive
Monster- Star 69
New Adventures in High FI- Ebow the Letter
Collapse into Now- It Happened Today
-Echoes Myron

My thoughts on R.E.M. are best summed up by my conversation with our intrepid
executive editor- the IRS days were pure gold, Green was good, all after was
OK. My favorite all time R.E.M. song is Voice of Harold from Dead Letter Office which is a cover of 7 Chinese Brothers. The liner notes are classic (paraphrased from memory); recorded while drunk, on one take and it was brilliant. R.E.M. was on such a different plane for me that even its drunken, forgotten B-sides could be turned into something important and meaningful.
-Los Gamester

Even if you were a kid who preferred The Replacements and Husker Du to anything on the radio in the mid-80s, Radio Free Europe was the kind of song you couldn't/wouldn't, dismiss. In fact, the more you heard it, the more it drew you in to all that intriguing, swirling, jangling, mumbling! Peter Buck's appearance in I Will Dare pretty much cemented their cred for young, loud and snotty punk me.

Our High School music high priests/cognoscenti having duly given their stamp of approval to Chronic Town and then Murmur, and Reckoning, those discs became a big part of our soundtrack in those 80's years. And listening together with Evan at a party, or in someone's bedroom twiddling along a bit on guitar, perhaps, or simply whacking on any convenient percussive surface. I can't deny that those records were a part of the multifarious musical weather system that fed directly into the early Lemonheads.

And next, The One I Love kinda lost me, Stand brought me back, Losing My Religion (for better or worse) cemented my lack of interest for the next score of years, but at least I'm told that there's amazing stuff aplenty in the later catalog for me to discover.Thanks, guys. Sorry we lost touch.
-Ben Deily: Varsity Drag/The Lemonheads

R.E.M. were the relatable Gods. We had a crush on them the first time we heard them in 7th grade and quickly fell in love. Smart, daring, mysteriously arty. All across everywhere we unwittingly joined a club and nodded appreciatively to one another while tapes were traded and t-shirts were worn. They were ours. Metal was for the olds, pop was for the princesses, rap was for the jocks and these guys were ours. We knew every lyric and learned every chord and traveled from NY to Athens in 10th grade in a Malibu with friends to see what made their hometown so magical. We stole bricks from the dilapidated steeple on Oconee St. as keepsakes and loitered outside Wuxtry Records in desperate hopes that we'd get some insight into what made them different, or they'd show up to where we were by chance, see some potential and adopt us. What they liked we liked and what they said we said. And that went on for a really long time. Until, everyone else found out how good they were. At first we were surprised, then felt entitled to their legacy and protective, and finally resentful that we had to share them. An iconoclast is only as good as the quarry he chooses to target, so we turned our backs. And they found new people to love them and we found new people to love and everything was amicable. Now that they are gone we feel like dickholes. Because we realize that they were more than the gateway drug we played them off as to impress hip girls at art swaps. Our relationship meant something to us. They never walked away from us, we left them. We acted like we didn't need them anymore, but we did, to comfort us and make us smile. They continued to work while we got jaded and dismissive. Why? Because they were giants, not bad, just big and we were trying to knock them down. In fact, there was one time, only a handful of years ago, after one of our Athens' shows when we saw Michael Stipe walking down the street in front of the club and we almost convinced our manager to don the gorilla suit that we kept in the back of the tour van and chase him down the street. We had no plan should he catch up to him. We assumed he'd grunt and get all gorilla-y around him, I guess. But after all this time apart, we still secretly adored them and wanted their attention. It's creepy. They were the best and we can't help but feel that over the last few years we let them down by taking them for granted. They were the first and we should have been better to them. We should feel disgusted by the way we treated them after how good they were to us.But... that's all in the past now, it's over and they seem pretty cool with the whole thing. So, I don't know, if they're cool with it, we're cool with it. You never get over your first love, I guess.
- Cameron Keiber : Eldridge Rodriguez/The Beatings
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I had my first beer in the parking lot of an R.E.M. concert. Obtained Murmur at a high school CD swap and found it very mysterious and appealing. I was worried by the mossy bridge on the back cover. I didn't understand all the hatred towards Monster. That's some great songwriting. Stipe once introduced Losing My Religion as their cover of an old folk song. Great lie. Stipe said that if the album Up "fell from the sky from a band no one had ever heard they'd be fawning over it." I think he was correct and that's a fun thing to say. Automatic For The People is the great diplomat of modern music.
-Ryan Walsh: Hallelujah The Hills

When I started playing in bands in junior high R.E.M. was one of the bands we covered. Don't Go Back To Rockville was one of my favorites to play. For me they always felt relevant and in tune with the times. They were one of those bands that had a very strong connection with each other and there was a very pure attitude. There are so many bands that over think things and a very formulaic and they never struck me as one of those bands. One neat memory I have personally was when I was working at a music pavilion in VA in the mid 90's I spotted Michael Stipe on the lawn hours before the show. My brother and I went to talk to him and he was very generous. We chatted for a bit and at the end we asked for a picture and he said how about I take a picture of you guys and put it in my scrap book? We said uh...ok. So he took our disposable camera and snapped a picture and kept the camera. That was a pretty cool experience for me in high school.

Some songs that I love: Half A World Away, So. Central Rain, Try Not To Breath, Me In Honey, Hope, Fall On Me, Belong, and many more.
-Paul Sentz, Slowdim

This is terrible news for many reasons. Most of these reasons are completely selfish, and involve the fact that we will never get a chance to see, meet, nor play with one of our all time favorite bands. I have to admit that I have been a lazy fan lately,not exactly following their every move. Still, the recent work that I've heard holds up sturdy as all get out. This is pretty depressing news indeed. It was a bummer when stick man Bill Berry left in the late '90s, but at least they were going to soldier on. I had hopes that Bill would get tired of planting corn, and want to rejoin the band because farming seems a little duller than sound check.

My favorite R.E.M. song shifts almost daily. Lately, as a band, we've been enjoying the finer points of Monster while on the road. It feels like I'm back in 8th grade every time I hear that record. Matty even bought a Rickenbacker guitar recently, and you can probably guess why. What the fuck, Peter Buck? Quite often, we talk about covers, but can never narrow it down because there are too many great songs. I'm a drummer, so I play guitar the way a drummer does: pretty piss-poor. Even so, I managed to figure out Driver 8, or something close enough. Fall On Me? Are you serious, guys? That song is gorgeous. This break-up feels like the sky just fell on me a little bit, and it hurts real, real bad.

After 31 years as a band, I guess we should all be thankful that they gave us that much music. As a side note, Michael Stipe has blazed a trail for all of us shy, balding, queer guys out there. I guess we should just say Thank you to all of them. I just wish that U2 had thrown in the towel first; God, how I wish that!
Brian Hill, The Soft Pack

In 1989 I went to eight concerts, 3 of which were R.E.M. Two were in April (Worcester of April 9th, then The Boston Garden on the 16th) the third as at Great Woods/Tweeter/Comcast on September 16th. The support (in reverse order now) was Throwing Muses, Drivin and Cryin' and the Indigo Girls.

The shows were great, and the set lists at the time I'd love to bottle up and listen to all the time. Of the run of shows the biggest memory of all came from the April 9th show, and it wasn't even during R.E.M.s set. The Indigo Girls were on the large stage, Emily on one side, Amy on the other. Just two women and their acoustic guitars. I had no idea who they were at the time, and this was before Closer to Fine took off. As their set continued they began the song Kid Fears. Now, I worked at a local record store at the time and I knew that Stipe sang backing vocals on the track. Sure enough as the song gets to towards the end a small figure arrives on stage, but way over to the side, hardly coming off the steps leading to the stage. Then it hits, the few thousand that were in their seats immediately heard the vocals and knew it was Stipe. He never waved, never acknowledged the audience, nothing. He just sang his part and left, allowing the Indigo Girls their moment on stage.

As time went on the band saw a lineup change for the first time every with Bill Berry leaving and the band worked to find themselves once more. The last two records seemed like a good return to form and I wished they'd have toured for Collapse Into Now, but alas they did not.

I have been a member of the R.E.M. fan club for many years and I look at the limited vinyl records that would come near the holiday and always think every band I love should do this. Sadly, few do.

Easily a top 10 band of all time for me, a top 10 male vocalist, a favorite bass player of mine too. The band may have hit some bumps but always stayed true to their craft and even in disbanding did so with little doubt and lots of class. They will be missed.
-Todd Harrington, Forgotten Disc Friday/ March To The Sea

I was a teenager in the early nineties so R.E.M.'s cool, college rock phase was before my time. But before Nirvana blew up and changed everything completely REM were important to me as one of the only bands on mainstream radio that seemed to have an indie sensibility and some credibility. They made it seem possible to dream big for people writing arty pop songs with things like violin and harpsichord, bands that didn't sound like Aerosmith or U2. They were the original anthemic indie rock band, where now there are bucket loads of indie bands who can aim for stadium fame. They don't really get their due for breaking through and expanding possibilities like that.

If I'm honest with myself, and despite my simultaneous Cure obsession, I imitated Michael Stipe's vocal style shamelessly at a certain point like a lot of other 16 year olds. May those demo tapes remain forgotten in my parents attic for years to come!

I lost interest in the band through adulthood until more recently. Through their 80s catalogue, which I really dig, you can appreciate them as an important link in an American folk rock tradition that began with bands like Love and The Byrds, which they gave a fresh punk spirit and energy. Peter Buck made guitars sound exciting again without running through a Marshall cranked to 11. That guitar sound is a big part of The High Dials, even if it's an indirect influence. Good luck to them, guess we'll never get to open for them in a stadium now!
Trevor Anderson, The High Dials

Superchunk's Jon Wurster on R.E.M.'s Final Bow at Spin.

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