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The One We Loved: Remembering R.E.M.

Inthe week when they've announced the end of their working life, it's hard toremember a time when R.E.M. were the kings of alternative rock. In the springof 1989, punk historian Jon Savage interviewed the Athens band - and recappedon their remarkable rise - for the UK's Observernewspaper--Barney Hoskyns,Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

"I COULD TURN YOU inside out! But I choose notto!" R.E.M.'s singer Michael Stipe, back arched, is bellowing into amegaphone. Five songs into their concert at the Onondoga War Memorial Hall in Syracuse,an upstate New York college town, R.E.M. are into their stride. The MemorialHall, built in 1951 and running to seed, is filled with over 8,000 bodies andthis mixed audience of students, rock fans and teens attracted by R.E.M.'scurrent hit single is going gently berserk amid purple and orange light.

Syracuse is the twenty-ninth American date out ofR.E.M.'s eight-month 1989 world tour. The night before, they played to 17,000people (85 per cent capacity) in New York's Madison Square Garden; the nextday, they go to Toronto. Their current single, 'Stand', is at number six. Theirfirst album for Warners, Green, is inthe top 20; released last November, it has sold over a million copies. The weekof the concert, R.E.M. are dubbed "America's hippest band" on thecover of that bastion of American rock values, Rolling Stone. It seems like business as usual.

Except that singer Michael Stipe is wearing make-upand a dress. It's a nice dress: a knee-length affair in red tartan. It coversthe trousers of a baggy, dark brown 1950s suit and is covered by the suitjacket, which is held together with a safety pin. It is not the standard attireof a serious American rock group. R.E.M. are generally upbeat and oftendidactic, but 'I Could Turn You Inside Out' is designed as an all-out assaulton the senses. The transformation that is the hallmark of any powerful popevent is beginning to take place. R.E.M. use surrealist backdrops throughouttheir performance: here, the screen is filled by murky film of fish shoalsmoving with a hypnotic slowness. The lyric examines the power of the performer,whether a pop star, "a preacher or a TV anchorman", to manipulate amass audience. Within this context, the dress has a particular significance: itmarks R.E.M.'s passing from their cult rock-band status to the blurred, warpingworld of pop stardom.

The week of the concert, a big item in the US news isa rally in Washington attended by 300,000 people protesting against possibleanti-abortion legislation. "Causes are fashionable now," says afriend in the center of magazine Manhattan: R.E.M. are well placed to catchthis post-Yuppie mood: they espouse green and specific issue politics. They areidealistic and forward-looking to a degree that might seem naïve.

"I'm over-simplifying," says Michael Stipe,"but I think as a motivating force for change pop culture is still at theforefront. Events like the Amnesty tour brought a lot of attention. Pop cultureis still the one way in which someone who is without power can attain it andbring about a change."

Aged between 29 and 32, R.E.M. represent the coming topower of a particular musical generation in America. As much as the BeastieBoys, they are the final products of English punk, which has taken ten years tofilter into the American mainstream. Like their nearest English equivalent theSmiths, they mark industry and public acceptance of the 1980s independent labelsector. They are also a product of a new force in the American music industry,college radio, the success of which has made a dent in the programming policyof the notoriously conservative American radio networks.

"It's been a gradual build-up all the time,"says Stipe. The group, named after the rapid eye movement of the first, deepsleep, was formed by four college drop-outs in Athens, Georgia, in 1980. Allhad lived in the South for some while: only Stipe had lived outside America, inGermany. If bassist Mike Mills, guitarist Peter Buck and drummer Bill Berryappear straightforward and friendly, Stipe is the changeling of the group,hinting on occasions at the twisted dandyism of other Southern exports likeCapote and Wolfe.

"'Think global, act local' is one of our catchphrases,"says the spry Mills. A town of about 70,000 inhabitants, Athens remainsimportant to the group: they all live there and are involved with localpolitics. The way Buck tells it, the town offered a sheltering bohemia:"It has all the parochial small-town behavior, but then you've got allthe college kids who roar through. It's got the best art school in Georgia,maybe one of the better ones in the South."

Like countless others, R.E.M. were inspired by thepunk style and attitude that spread from New York and London in the mid-to-late1970s. "I heard Patti Smith and Television when I was 15," saysStipe. "I'd found something that was dirty and exciting and sexy and smart. I realized that I was an outsiderand I felt separated from most people. This music made the separation worse butit gave me an ace in the hole because I had something they didn't have."

"I was the manager of a rare and used recordstore in Athens," adds Buck, "so I used to play records I hadn'theard all day long. In Georgia you were so far away from everything that theSex Pistols were just the same as Ultravox. For two years, 1977 and 1978, we'dbuy everything that came out. Punk filtered down to us; it meant that you didn'thave to follow the rules."

R.E.M. began playing in an Athens bar called Tyrone's -"a good mixture of preppies and hippies," says Berry - and soon beganan extended period of playing any possible venue, from top 40 bars to gay bars.After their first single, they were picked by Miles Copeland's IRS Records forthe first of seven albums, Murmur. Marryingthe utopian jangle of the 1960s Byrds with the new forms of song constructionilluminated by punk, R.E.M. soon emerged as the best of an often mundane packof new American rock bands.

"We've played with each other so long that we canintuit chord changes," says Peter Buck, and this musical closeness hasbeen an R.E.M. hallmark: songwriting credits are equally split between allfour. "The neat thing about us is our harmonies," says Mills."We have three people who can not only sing but make up their own ideasabout what to sing, instead of building a song on 1-3-5 harmonies." Thegroup have also been marked by Stipe's buried vocals and cryptic, allusivelyrics. "In Television's songs, I never knew what they were singing abouthalf the time," Stipe says. "But it doesn't matter because it soundsgreat. Some songs are written in one stroke but others are prepared for monthsand months. I have these notebooks: I'll pick a topic and run through the notesand say: 'This applies and this applies.' The moment of inspiration isextemporaneous but it's all been prepared before."

This approach resulted in a sequence of songs thatdefines a new America. Albums like LifesRich Pageant and the remarkable Fablesof the Reconstruction captured the sense of space and possibility that lieswithin America, allied to a strong sense of loss and dreams betrayed."There's a lack of history here which would be the American version ofCatholic guilt," Stipe says. "I think that's a big flaw in theAmerican dream. You're not taught about the annihilation of the entire cultureof the Indians whose land this was."

Boosted by constant touring, superior material andcollege radio support, R.E.M. finally broke through to the US mass market with1987's top 10 single, 'The One I Love'. During the 16-month lay-off that endedwith the start of this tour, the group signed to Warner Brothers Records forseveral million dollars. The group's belief in the mass market inevitablyrequired mass distribution. Says Stipe, "IRS's distribution had gone asfar as it could and it was time to move on to someone who could get the recordsout world-wide."

"Touring is a great pressure," he adds, andat Syracuse fatigue is beginning to set in. The normally good-humored Berryruns out of the photo session, while the night before Buck had broken a toe ina fit of frustration. All are coming to terms with the alienation of themainstream music industry while attempting to retain their ideals andcloseness.

Outside the hall in Syracuse, a strong wind blowsgusts of snow through streets that to a European seem empty even when peopled.What R.E.M. offer their audience inside is a sense of community: theirperformance is a careful balance between raw feeling and downtown rigor,between outright didacticism and the dream state implied by their name. Their rewardis a crossover appeal to intellectuals, rock fans and regular high-schoolstudents.

Perhaps what they react to is the transformationimplicit in Michael Stipe's and androgynous performance. As he dances,dervish-like, in the flicker of a strobe, or throws his head back and roarslike a preacher, he dramatizes R.E.M.'s triumph at finding their own power.Unlike other groups, who use this power to dazzle, R.E.M. deliberately seek todraw the audience in, to offer a positive approach. "Hope is important,"says Stipe. "It's an intrinsic human emotion, to think there is some kindof light at the end of the tunnel."

 

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