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R.E.M.: They Set the Pace

September 23rd, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Part of the passion of music is that it doesn’t die, and often in our most vulnerable moments is when it pops its ugly head. You know you are afflicted if you can play a song over and over again in an endless loop and the song to speaks to you. Then sometimes it becomes more than just one song but several.

The madness started with Seven Chinese Bros. The opening guitar intro was the hook and well the lyrics kept me coming for more. From there it just went downhill.

For me, the last quarter century has been situated around a band by the name of R.E.M.  and for me they became the band that mattered. I have questioned whether or not I would be the music fan that I am if there was never that moment of discovery. Would another band have taken its place? Before this point, I heard music but it never resonated with me. R.E.M. provided the colors.  Their songs became a personal experience. There was never a moment of loneliness with an R.E.M. album in hand. It would fill the void and talk to you in a manner that a person could never share. There was a reason that fans of the band were sometimes referred to as destiples.

I think that every fan has his or her own story to say regarding R.E.M. Our murals are all a bit different but they have been on our collective conscience for some time that their mentioning of breaking up feels slightly like abandonment. We could still count on a release. Speaking to a friend a couple months ago he remarked that a new R.E.M. album is still a new R.E.M. album. Well outside of what we can expect to see various retrospectives of their careers over the next several years, there will not be any new albums to speak of. No tours, singles, promos. That time has moved on.

R.E.M. wove a tapestry of Kudzu in our brains exploring the nuances of what defined us. They were a thinking mans band that required the upmost attention. Fans have created numerous conspiracy theories about their music, the albums and their packaging.

It was never about being the biggest band. They did not flaunt like U2 did but rather launched one of the quietest revolutions in the history of Rock and Roll.

In their early days, they were not an overly talented bunch. Peter Buck could barely play guitar, Michael Stipe was always off key, Bill Berry didn’t always keep a constant beat but they knew what they wanted, they had a bit of luck coming their way and they reached heights nobody expected them to reach.

Ego? This is a band that would go into a studio and try to make their parts quieter than their band mates. Their songs are co-written by all band members sharing equally. They handled their music and their careers democratically.  They broke rules. Their videos were odd and unlike anything you saw on MTV at the time.

They not only helped put Athens, Georgia on the map but also kept America as being relevant during a time when British Music was invading the airwaves.   They carried the torch for bands like the Replacements, Husker Du and the Minutemen helping to promote rock’s image in the states and create a grassroots groudwork for other bands to follow. R.E.M.’s success was a major turning point for the industry realizing that smart rock and roll sold.

They became godfathers to their successors, bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Radiohead coming to the aid of these bands when stardom waved their ugly finger at them. Although unsuccessful, Stipe tried to save Kurt Cobain and was directly responsible for Thom Yorke writing “How To Disappear Completely”.

They cared about their predecessors listing the likes of Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, New York Dolls, Television, The Feelies, just to start. Peter Buck was a rock and roll encyclopedia that if he was not in a rock band would have been selling records and making snide remarks about them.

They stood up for causes they believed in, treating the rock and roll concert as an event not just of entertainment but education. It was commonplace to see R.E.M. on a benefit release or having them announce during a show to visit a local charity organization that had a table set up at the venue.  They continue to support causes publicly and privately both globally and locally.

Every indie rock performer can thank R.E.M. for creating the blueprint for their careers.  There was talent and some luck but plenty of hard work. They toured incessantly in the early years playing at pizza joints and wherever else would have them with every audience member converted into a fan before they left.  They

They relied more on their fans to campaign on their behalf.  Even in the 80s it was common to see fans traveling up and down the east coast to check out multiple shows. They treated their fans with respect and admiration at times letting them travel with them in their early days. Their fanclub has always been receptive and I believe in existence for close to 27 years if I am not mistaken.  Over that time they have never changed their membership price (being 10 dollars a year).

There have been many remarks that R.E.M. should have broken up {Insert Number of Years} ago, and to that response I would offer some thoughts. Yes, it is true that R.E.M. is not the same band that it was but how many bands can you name that have shown the highese level of quality over 31 years? I do not think there is a band on the planet that can make that same claim.  Personally, their string of albums from Chronic Town to Up is unmatched. While their last 4 albums (Reveal, Around the Sun, Accelerate and Collapse into Now) have not matched their predecessors, part of their problem is they were going up against a legacy that was unattainable.

The IRS years (Chronic Town through Document) is a starting point for anyone wanting to discover the college rock scene back then. The first half of their Warner’s Contract showed a band that was in the mainstream still making music that made you think. They came out with two acoustic-driven albums in Out of Time and Automatic for the People and then created a Monster that was more Iggy Pop, T-Rex and Bowie than grunge.  New Adventures is still a solid effort and for the record I play Up just as much as any of their prior works.

But for 2 decades they were as strong as any band out there and I am not sure how their legacy should be tarnished. They have bowed out the way that they should have and while I am shocked and slightly saddened to see them go, I am also happy for them to be able to reflect on their careers and start the next part of their life.

My personal opinion has been that this has been in the works for some time. I believe that Collapse into Now was intended to be the last album and that the band had fully intended to break up unless something drastically changed. There was never a need for a farewell tour; they are not the Eagles.

The band’s last album, however, ‘Collapse Into Now” does deserve another listen. I think there is no doubt this was written as a final group of swan songs and taken in that context it creates a nice conclusion to the story of R.E.M.

For me, this has been one of the more bittersweet posts to write. I do not think you can encapsulate a eulogy in a couple paragraphs for something that has been so important in my life for 31 years.  I have to be honest there have been moments where I was afraid I was going to lose it. Thinking of a certain lyric or listening to a song and yes, the eyes begin to water up.

One of the first songs that R.E.M. wrote was a little ditty called ‘Just a Touch’. While the song never made it onto a proper release until their 4th album, the song is about the day that Elvis died.

I remember heading down to Athens several years back to check out an early video of R.E.M. that surfaced from 1980. We sat in the auditorium and watched as a very young R.E.M. was performing Just a Touch.  I remember someone in the audience had thought that Stipe’s performance was very “Elvis-like” which shocked me because this was an event of the Athens Historical Society and not hardcore rock fans. Part of the gift of being a band for 31 years is that there are plenty of songs for fans to choose from. I figure that this song is that moment for me.

You set the pace of what was to come
I have to carry on now that you’re gone
A day in the life well nobody laughed
Look to the days how long can this last

In closing, I want to thank R.E.M. for the last 31 years.  For most of that time I have been thinking of your music trying to figure it all out and your decision to call it quits will not stop that. It’s easy to say that you have been the most influential band over this period of time and you will be missed.

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  1. Sam
    September 23rd, 2011 at 05:00 | #1

    Nice dude. Well written and, obviously, I share a lot of the same feelings. Now, the real question is, what would the gentlement of http://www.thelifting.com have to say about this development if it still existed.

  2. September 25th, 2011 at 14:10 | #2

    Nice blog you’ve got here, I’ll bookmark and check it out again…

    Here’s a good retrospective from a guy who’s known ’em since way back when…


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