The early 1980s were a great time to be living. Punk rock started to blend together with other musical elements, while the synthesizer and electric drums were being tested by bands destined for New Wave greatness.
Then there was this band called R.E.M. that people started to hear about, mostly due to “Radio Free Europe”. While the erstwhile fan already knew about the “Chronic Town” album, most of America was unaware of the potential of this great band.
“Murmur” splashed onto the scene and was nothing like a murmur at all. Although the lyrics were difficult to understand, there was an energy behind the music that was not yet defined. A blend of country, rock, and punk had not been created yet in the music universe, but then there was “Murmur”. It quickly became the “cool” college band with tunes that could be danced to. A mixture of the dance music of the B-52s with the art-noveau of Talking Heads, the band managed to keep its southern roots afloat in the ocean of what “Murmur” was (which is why the band frequently heard requests for “Freebird” at most concerts). “Murmur” proved that small bands could make it…and they did. R.E.M. demonstrated that MTV was not necessary to get known for good music. R.E.M. did a lot of bands proud, including the Byrds. There were no guitar solos, no reason to set things on fire, or to smash the guitar into an amp. The music was complex, yet very simple.
The blend of those southern roots was even more evident on the next release called “Reckoning” (well, I reckon). Before R.E.M. bowed to the pressure of MTV with their video set called “Succumbs”, “South Central Rain” could be found at almost any college radio station across America. Here was a band singing about Americana. Everyone seemed to have a “Rockville” in mind. Even the last song was called “Little America”. In a time when there was apathy across college campuses, Reaganomics was looming large, and the Soviet threat seemed very real, here was a little band trying to succeed in America. Not yet the political juggernaut, here were four men that you could listen to that were not wearing “guyliner” or spandex. They weren’t singing about doom and gloom…just honest lyrics. Of course they also needed the catchy rhythm behind them when you couldn’t decipher the lyrics. That is why R.E.M. caught on. Most kids growing up at that time didn’t even know their “Chronic Town” EP existed, yet the trifecta of “Radio Free Europe”, “Pretty Persuasion”, and “So. Central Rain” cemented the relationship with their fans, as well as the casual listener.
What made the music so great was that it went relatively unnoticed until the band began making a political statement. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and alt-country bands were to spring up almost a decade later. They were doing what no one else was, and were still able to survive in the sheen and glitz of the 80’s…No devil music or headbangers here.
R.E.M. provided two beautiful albums that would revolutionize the “Alternative” movement. They did it their way without any frills, and that is one of the reasons why they were able to stand out.