Janglin’ U.S.A. — R.E.M. Contest entry
“I saw R.E.M., and they were just a bunch of dirty hippies!”
– an early-’80s college memory from my sister Peg.
I personally fell in love with R.E.M. after hearing “Can’t Get There From Here” many times on a local coffeepot FM station in 1985, while working dreary second and third shifts. And then it was “Driver 8,” and then I bought an LP of “Murmur” and cassettes of “Reckoning” and “Fables…” for the car and before you could say “Seven Chinese Brothers” I was scouring Goldmine ads and used record stores and doing three years of catch-up in a few months to buy every extant piece of vinyl of theirs I could find. Seven- and 12-inch singles with strange cover art, and oddball cover songs and instrumentals as B-sides, were the totems of my new love.
Right before I heard R.E.M. for the first time, I was a Springsteen, Elvis Costello, NRBQ and Dave Edmunds/Nick Lowe fan. Well, mostly.
When “Fables of the Reconstruction (of the Fables)” came out in ’85, I was 25. But this new thing was akin to a teenage quantum leap from in-crowd to a greater cool – like, forget the track team, I’ve fallen hard for the weird girl who wears too much eyeliner.
I was charmed by “Murmur” and deeply moved by “Reckoning” – possibly my favorite LP to this day. The band’s taste in covers also led to my enduring love of the Velvet Underground and Roger Miller; their associations led me to more love: Steve Wynn, Don Dixon, Flat Duo Jets, Pylon, Marlee MacLeod (via a Flagpole Christmas album) and many others. I’m sure others have the same story, being turned on to so much by one band like R.E.M. (Yo La Tengo and Wilco both come to mind.)
By the time “Document” arrived in ‘87, their I.R.S. days of independent innocence were numbered, and fame and mass appeal and cries of “Sellouts!” were lurking in the near distance. But for a few short years, they were all mine.
Which very likely explains the appeal of R.E.M. in college dorm rooms everywhere in 1983-84. The mystery of Michael Stipe’s lyrics had a lot to do with it – they were mumblecore long before it ever had a name. But even more significantly, the band sounded raw and fresh, and so immediate — and they inspired an intimate feeling of connection among those who yearned for something to cure the bad hangover of arena rock-induced cynicism.
R.E.M. was a welcome alternative to REO Speedwagon and whatever else was on the radio in the post-punk, post-disco aftermath of the ABBA-, Elton John- and Fleetwood Mac*-ridden ’70s — and a TRUE alternative to everything then being foisted upon us by MTV – i.e., a lot of acts that were more surface than substance.
(*Acts I stress to say I do not hate, but never felt very close to either. I will admit I was smitten with the songcraft of Elton John and Bernie Taupin for a while as a teenager, but they never got into my head like the David Lynch feeling I got from R.E.M.’s music.)
The guitar jangle and muffled harmonies of the songs on “Murmur” also dovetailed nicely with the angular, synth-heavy, and improbably commercial postpunk sounds of the growing storm of early-‘80s bands from the UK and Australia, such as (coincidentally letter-named) XTC and INXS, then coming to prominence in America via MTV, which was new then and once played music videos.
Back in the States, R.E.M.’s impact was huge, and their reach wide. The dB’s, Guided By Voices, 10,000 Maniacs, Mission of Burma and especially The Feelies could all point to R.E.M. as an influence, along with the bands from the Paisley Underground scene in L.A., particularly The Dream Syndicate, True West and The Three O’Clock. All of these acts would open for R.E.M. on tour in the 1980s.
Then there was the cover art – the kudzu-covered mounds and railroad trestle pictured on “Murmur,” and visionary/outsider artist Rev. Howard Finster’s coiled-snake (or is it a river?) / map / whatever on “Reckoning.” Stipe art-directed, as he still does today.
“It Crawled From the South,” indeed. A regional scene used to be defined by regional hit singles – NRBQ’s “Get That Gasoline Blues” and the Wildweeds’ “No Good to Cry” come to mind, from a decade earlier. By the early ’80s – the “VJ” era – visuals and music were fully integrated, and R.E.M. took part, thanks to Stipe’s art-school ambitions and a well-connected sense of Southern iconography; all 100 percent Georgian. R.E.M. is a model of an original community-minded collective, no matter the nastiness that surrounded them after their eventual hometown fame.
Fuzzy photographs of rural scenes or blurry shots taken out of moving car windows would become a staple of alternative-country and indie cover art for at least the following 16 years. (Maybe Springsteen was there first.)
Finster, who died in 2001, would become even better known thanks to a Talking Heads album cover a year after “Reckoning,” but R.E.M. first led legions of fans and the curious to his Paradise Gardens.
R.E.M. had an avuncular role in the alt-country movement as well. In 1992, they were enjoying their monster success on Warner Bros., and Peter Buck not only had all the velvet smoking jackets and 13th Floor Elevators records he wanted – he had enough leisure time to take up the mandolin on “Out of Time” and “Automatic for the People.” No coincidence, then, that Buck produced Uncle Tupelo, who came to Athens to record their acoustic, traditional folk-heavy third album, with John Keane engineering. (My friend Mike Callahan walked into Keane’s studio the week after March 16-20, 1992, to record his band Three Walls Down with Mike Mills as producer. As Callahan tells it, Keane was playing “Sandusky” over the monitors and was rightly proud of what had just transpired there, and Jay Farrar’s tin of chewing tobacco was still sitting on the console.)
“Pack the van … We’re goin’ back to Athens.”
— Todd Snider
The concluding lines of Snider’s “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues” – a hidden track on his 1994 debut, “Songs from the Daily Planet” – are a reminder of R.E.M.’s influence and reach in the “college rock” era, and how it intertwined with the early career of one Matthew Sweet.
Much like “Can’t Get There From Here” did for me, their very first release, “Radio Free Europe” b/w “Sitting Still,” a 45 on the Hibtone label, made a fan of a high school kid way across the country in Nebraska. Sweet was a Mitch Easter fan who responded to an ad in New York Rocker – a newsprint music rag and his ticket in the heartland to the hip music he wanted to hear – and ordered the single, produced by Easter. He later said he played it over and over, and especially liked the B-side.
Sweet met the band when they played Lincoln, gave Stipe a tape, and promptly moved to Athens after graduating from high school in 1983 – although his family likely believed it was to attend the University of Georgia, the Athens music scene was the real draw.
In Athens, he joined Stipe in the short-lived side project Community Trolls and then sister Linda Stipe’s band Oh-OK, before forming the Buzz of Delight. He later moved to New York for his next step, a major-label solo career. When he became famous himself, he was derided by many in Athens as a carpetbagger, but in truth R.E.M. bore Sweet no hard feelings, and you can hear echoes of both “Murmur” and “Reckoning” on his eventual work, particularly on the layered-guitar sound of his breakthrough album, 1991’s “Girlfriend.”
A lot of this was written from memory – that’s how ingrained a lot of R.E.M. lore has become for me. (OK, a little Wiki and REM-fansite research on the side; and I brought a copy of my least-favorite R.E.M. bio to work with me today, WTF?) … I’ve seen them live a few times, notably with Wilco, a tour that later spawned another collaboration with Scott McCaughey and Buck in the Minus 5 (Hello Chicago, and hello again, Seattle!)
R.E.M. has given us so much. Here, I’m giving a little back. Thanks, boys. (And Bill? We miss you. Those of us who know, know that you were more than a drummer… here’s hoping you get off the Berry farm someday and sing those high harmonies again.)
— Dan Aloi