R.E.M: Perfect Circle
R.E.M officially called it quits this week, which triggered this …
It is May 2001 and I’m walking northward on Yonge Street, the main artery through Toronto’s downtown core, puddle dodging and ears ringing with the lingering sound of R.E.M.’s just completed set. The group, in town to perform a free show in the heart of the city to herald the release of their new album Reveal, had entertained a rain soaked lunchtime crowd of 20,000 drawn to the streets, which had been shut down to traffic for the occasion.
I am en route to a nearby hotel to meet with guitarist Peter Buck for a pre-scheduled, post-gig interview, and as I cut through the throng heading out and away from the performance area, I can see along the street record retailers, both big and small, with outdoor CD displays of Reveal. The hope evidently had been that the performance, which was enthusiastically received (hey, R.E.M. was on fire and it was free, so what’s not to love?), would inspire a little spontaneous shopping. But the sellers didn’t appear to be doing land office business. And SoundScan would tell the tale in the coming days that Reveal was just the latest of R.E.M’s releases that failed to recapture the moment when the group seemed to be at the vanguard of an underground rock insurgency.
In his hotel room, Buck seemed tired but friendly and pleased with the response to the show. He revealed that the group had intended to play a string of similar free shows across North America, but insurance rules and stubborn city councils in every city except Toronto had nixed the idea. Our conversation did not dwell much on Reveal (more by his choice, as I recall, than mine). But with the challenges the music industry was then beginning to confront in 2001 in mind, and with the thought of those unsold copies of Reveal lining Yonge Street, I asked Buck about the future of the major labels.
Clearly, it was a subject that had been on his mind, too.
“We signed to a small label (IRS) in 1982, because we wanted someone to work with us and not expect us to sell as many records as The Police. IRS nurtured us. Admittedly, they didn’t have a lot of money, but they helped us out. Warner has been great too, but we were a big band when we signed. If we had signed initially with Warners, if we were the band we were (at the start) and signed with Warners, forget it. You would never have heard of us.
“I think the major record companies have cut themselves off from good music, because they are run by accountants. I have seen it happen at every single label there is. There is not a good major label left. Some are better than others. In Europe things are different, but over in America, it is all about either getting the new funk-metal band or getting the new teen pop band. There is no such thing as having a career. If you don’t have a hit on your first record, goodbye.
“And that is just an accountants’ way of looking at it. The good news is all the good bands are on small labels. I go see bands all the time and buy records. I see them play in front of 300 people and they sell 10,000 copies. It doesn’t necessarily help the bands. All my friends in bands like that have to have day jobs. There is still great stuff out there.
“The way the labels are working, I think they are destroying themselves. It is almost like they are doing it on purpose. I think it is going to be really decentralized, the business, in the next few years. The majors will have three artists each: one of the Jacksons, a Madonna, one of the teen-pop groups, a funk-metal group. There will be three bands doing a record a year, and then three more the next year.
“I could be completely wrong. I have a weird feeling in the next couple of years, the major labels will begin hemorrhaging money. There isn’t anyone at any label who knows anything about music. They don’t. They really do not. Six years from now? It might be all people doing stuff off their home web page. We have got three more records on our deal. The way we do records, that is probably about six years. In six years, I am not sure there are going to be major labels … I think we’ll be around.”
How prescient. The dilemma Buck predicted for the music business 10 years ago is certainly fully in evidence now. His own band even managed to squeeze past his six-year time limit and make it half-way through 2011. Major labels wish they could have similarly exceeded expectations.
It is difficult to ponder now (or in 2001) how revolutionary and influential R.E.M. had been in the early 80s. Partly that was due to the sound the group made. They took dabs of inspiration from the early Velvet Underground and the Byrds, but let their own strengths and limitations as players define their sound. None of the four members of R.E.M. — guitarist Buck, bassist Mike Mills, drummer Bill Berry and singer Michael Stipe — could be described as a virtuoso. But they forged a bond as friends and then as road mates which alchemically converted those influences into a unique style. For all his onstage shape-throwing, Buck was a studiously unflashy player but he had a knack for crafting the kind of humming, ringing melodies familiar from the best radio pop of the 1960s. Mills’ bass was the source of many of the best hooks in R.E.M.’s best songs, and his vocal counterpoint to Stipe was and remains a defining characteristic of their work. Stipe stood out from the throng of MTV-bred larger-than-life pop figureheads. He was at first willfully enigmatic in both his character, presentation and work. When the murk cleared from his slurry, emotive delivery, his lyrics were inscrutable and thought provoking. If you scratch a contemporary guitar-based band, chances are you will find early R.E.M. prominent in their formative listening.
Live in Raleigh circa 1982
My gateway drug was the Chronic Town EP (1982) and my anticipation for their debut LP, Murmur (1983), was such that I made a traveling cassette of the record so swiftly, I reversed the running order. (To this day, I refuse to accept that the album does not begin with “Catapult” and end with “Perfect Circle” as per my flawed tape). R.E.M. had the good fortune and good sense to connect with producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, who seemed to intuitively grasp that their music required a soft focus, that the listener would be drawn in to the sound if they eschewed typical rock production flourishes. Reckoning (1984) seemed to reflect their growing strength as a playing unit, a confidence wrought by the marathon touring they’d undertaken for Murmur. Fables of the Reconstruction (1985), recorded in trying circumstances in Britain with producer Joe Boyd, has earned a reputation as a challenging slog. But the integration of atonal guitar noise, spooky strings and even more opaque lyrical turns of phrase from Stipe (seriously, who else would reach back to kahoutek as a metaphor?) marks it as an important evolutionary step for the group.
Life’s Rich Pageant (1986) and Document (1987) saw the band drifting toward a more conventional rock sound; the demos for the former, which were included on a deluxe edition, are to my ears superior to the finished album. And by the time R.E.M. parted ways with IRS Records to nestle with Warner and springboard into the mainstream with Green (1988), Out of Time (1991) and Automatic For The People (1992), I already felt estranged from the group.
My first R.E.M. show had been a gig at a small hockey rink in Montreal around 1986 on the tour for Life’s Rich Pageant, and it is still an indelible memory. When I listen to “Pretty Persuasion” to this day, my mind flashes to Stipe that night, shimmying out of a heavy sweater without using his hands and without missing a vocal, even as he passed the garment over his head, and finishing the night with a cover of Television’s “See No Evil” and then a bare bones rendering of “South Central Rain,” with Stipe silhouetted onstage by a projection photo of a rusty power pylon. Jump ahead to a show from the Green tour at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, and Stipe seemed eager to become a very public figurehead. But something seemed to be lost in translation to the mainstream.
R.E.M., circa 1985 in Germany
That my diminishing affection for R.E.M.’s music correlates to their mainstream ascendency is, I think, only partly the early adopter’s resentment of broader popularity. The very things that drew me to the group — the introversion, the vagueness, the insularity and enigma — seemed to be increasingly abandoned in favor of a new accessibility, particularly on the part of Stipe, who seemed comfortable settling into newfound celebrity. Opacity had been replaced by transparency. That’s okay, people change. What cannot be diminished is the quality of the music they made together and to this day I can still lose myself in those early records.
More so than the sound, R.E.M. was revolutionary in the way they took the egalitarian ideals of punk rock — the idea of taking down the barriers between spectator and spectacle — and applied it to music that seemed to hold the potential for broader commercial impact. As portrayed in their early magazine interviews (and before the internet, that’s how we music nerds learned about the groups that mattered), they came across as unassuming music lovers who — less by force of will than by luck — found themselves onstage with instruments, playing to a crowd that was initially composed of friends, but quickly became a cult phenomenon, and then an arena attraction. Even after all the available evidence suggested R.E.M. had transformed into something quite extraordinary, they still managed to present as music enthusiasts first and foremost — one of us fans.
Back in that hotel room with Peter Buck, my appointed time was up. As I got up to leave, I remembered that I had brought a gift for him — a bootleg of Andy Paley’s unreleased sessions with Brian Wilson. A friend had advised that Buck was a prodigious collector, and his eyes lit up as he scanned the track list; I recall him telling me Paley was an acquaintance and he looked forward to quizzing him about his collaboration with the Beach Boy. Another journalist was waiting in the hall, but we stood there talking about the Beach Boys for another 10 or 15 minutes.
Just an R.E.M. fan trading enthusiasms with another music fan, who happened to be in the band.
One of us.