The latter 70s and early 80s made a bed of fertile ground for the American and British music scenes before REM. Bands such as Blondie, The Clash, the Sex Pistols, The Velvet Underground, Wire, and the Ramones, among others, stand as a few of the most influential musical groups in Rock and Roll history. The fading punk movement brought a new DIY mindset to the young future artists and musicians who lived their teenage years listening to these iconic and talented bands. With the advent of MTV, new popular bands emerged, ranging from synthesizer-fused British post-modern punk like Adam and the Ants and to classic American groups such as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the Cars. REM truly did not fit into any category during this MTV-dominated period, and that is a good thing. Murmur and Reckoning provided a reworking of the punk ethic with a workhorse mentality, then showered over that with Southern American myth, and in this context, REM changed the course of music for the next ten years.
The cover of Murmur is a defining image of REM’s place among the musical stratosphere in the early 1980s. Spindly kudzu surrounding an unidentifiable shelter with forest and light fading into each other in the background. REM’s sound on this release parallels nicely such a mysterious cover image. With Murmur, REM created a masterpiece that they never have come back to, and rightly so. Their music on this album is dark, evocative, and dynamic in a way that other bands of the period could not challenge. What makes the music so pure and addictive is mostly due to the voice of Michael Stipe. Sure, Peter Buck’s guitar work is a calling back to the arpeggios of the Byrds and other notable influences on his style, and yes, the rhythm section of Mike Mills and Bill Berry is solid and intriguing, but Mr. Stipe’s vocals and backing parts on this album are haunting, original, and brilliant. Upon hearing “Radio Free Europe” for the first time, any 1980’s teenager with any musical taste would stop dead in his/her moment to contemplate the beauty of Stipe’s voice. Secondly, the intentional/unintentional blurring mix of the lyrics created a complete sense of evocation and laid the groundwork for many young fans to seek in a frenzy answers regarding what the hell Mr. Stipe was singing about. It’s been stated before, but Stipe’s voice functioned on Murmur as another instrument in a very good band, and the dynamic it created was unlike anything being played on the radio or MTV. The world took notice.
With Reckoning, REM clearly created a record that was more accessible to the public with themes of water and the South more poignantly advanced and noticeable. Gone but not totally lost were non-linear song writing and obscure references such as “Laocoon,” “geisha doll,” and “horae,” and in were more narrative-like vignettes about loss, identity, and sense of place. This change in musical style and writing style fit REM well and it broadened their scope, which laid a foundation for further change, something that REM does very well. Reckoning’s only hit, “South Central Rain,” gave REM a song that became popular with young teenagers and college students along with a national audience, albeit REM’s performances of the song on Solid Gold and David Letterman. Most of Reckoning is tighter and more rhythmic than Murmur, which caused the ever-growing legion of American college radio stations to spin REM more frequently, and spin they did. REM’s intrigue lie in the fact that their Southern roots were still intact on this album. The popular music of the South at the time, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, ZZ Top, and 38 Special, did not sound at all like REM; rather, REM changed the crescent of southern music, and Reckoning’s popularity led to REM’s changing what 80s youths wanted to listen to. REM inspired a sense of intelligence in their followers; thus, the true music fan was drawn to REM and wanted to catch their music, their live show and their milieu in any way possible.
Each successive REM release after Murmur and Reckoning outsold its predecessor up until the 90s with Automatic for the People, the pinnacle of REM’s career. The early 90s were a new period of change in music. Nirvana’s Nevermind blew open that portal. But Nevermind would have never been written if it weren’t for REM’s first two albums. Though the music industry has been greatly altered with downloading and the Ipod Generation, REM’s continued success is due to the potential for growth Murmur and Reckoning stationed for REM. They are classic albums that shifted the course of music in their days, and that was their destiny, coming out of nowhere, maturing like fine wine, and spreading their roots.