REM Contest: Doing It Their Own Way
In 1983, when Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and The Police’s “Synchronicity” dominated the airwaves, R.E.M.’s album “Murmur” was chosen as album of the year and best new band of the year by Rolling Stone and by Village Voice. R.E.M. played by their own rules from the very beginning. They sounded like no one else.
After independent releases, R.E.M. was signed to a label, IRS, by Ian Copeland, brother of Stuart Copeland of The Police leading to a spot opening for The Police, at the time, the biggest band in the world…creating a hight level of exposure. The buzz had been created, but the band hated every minute of this brief tour, and they put an end to that rather quickly. It wasn‘t true to who they were … troubadours of a unique brand of southern, mystical, magical, grass roots music that touched the ears and heart and dancing souls of young people who needed something different.
The early 80’s were dominated by pop disco/electronica. R.E.M. was none of that. The albums were even recorded differently from anything we were hearing. Vocals were recorded in hiding places, instruments were recorded using old school techniques – the sound was very organic while the majority of pop music was slick and commercial….with the record companies hands all over it.
While one could argue that R.E.M. was your typical southern bass, guitar, drums and vocal band they had nothing in common with the southern rock we had been hearing all through the 70’s. Although it was drowning in southern themes and overtones, it was nothing like Lynyrd Skynrd or the Allman Brothers or ANYTHING else that had “crawled from the south”. Their southern flavor was more grounded in their own southern folk culture….the land of Howard Finster, gothic beauty, and southern folk tales. It held an appeal for young people who were turned off by the slick, pop-poser acts that MTV touted.
The lyrics were absolutely undecipherable – and there was a reason for that! The establishment tried to change it, to get Michael to annunciate or print lyrics. “ Absolutely not” was the response. “9-9” is a testament to all of this. It’s completely unintelligible, except for the one and only lyric that you can make out being “conversation fear”. This lyric was R.E.M. being true unto itself. It was a nod to Michael Stipe’s fear of general conversation. The songs were NOT about catchy lyrics, they were about the music and the vocals were an instrument in the band- you had no idea what he was singing about anyway, and much of the time the words made no sense whatsoever, but you sure dug that sound and grunted and made up your own words right along with them. Then, every now and then, one gorgeous turn of phrase would pop out at you. Phrases like “Not everyone can carry the weight of the world” and “There’s a splinter in your eye, it reads “react” ”.
R.E.M. reached out to their audience in a more personal way than any other bands of the time. Michael refused to lipsync. Their videos were art shorts, not splashy industry standards. They were not “marketed” to their audience…to the extent they could control that. They presented their audience with art with “Camera“, social commentary with “Talk About the Passion“, and a travelog of the US called “Little America“. There were no slick, record company produced album covers and videos for these guys either. Athens, Peter, Mike, Michael, and Bill all shine through and must be proud of every piece of promotion. The cover of Murmur is pure southern gothic beauty…from the grass roots front and back cover of Murmur with the kudzu and vines so typical of Athens, GA, and the old trestle bridge on the back of it, located just down the street in the city they hailed from. The Reckoning cover with Howard Finster’s painting is one of my personal favorites…. the song titles snake along the serpent’s body – the visual urges you to turn the album over and over and see what else you can see. In a bow to fans who understood what they were doing, they established a fan club with membership dues of an unheard of meager $10 a year and it’s still that way today, a testament to an indie attitude and a grass roots campaign.
R.E.M. went against the norm and put out Murmur at $5.98 as opposed to $7.98, making it affordable to everyone. Instead of enduring the “misery” they were experiencing opening for The Police, they opted to travel the country by van and play anywhere and everywhere they could. Yes, they were signed to a label, IRS, but they did seemed to do nothing IRS wanted them to do. They did things exactly they way they wanted to do things, to the record companies disapproval. They blanketed the USA, playing all over the south and then all over the USA and into Europe, playing everything from college campuses to “holes in the wall with 4 people and a three legged dog”..and yes, at those gigs, they played anyway. They would show up for gigs and be told they will not be paid, and they would play anyway. They had all this “critical acclaim” from the media and yet stayed true to themselves, playing for beer and a place to crash sometimes in the early days. R.E.M. turned down an opening spot for U2 during the years that Murmur and Reckoning were recorded and released. Talk about not jumping on the “Bandwagon”.
R.E.M. established themselves as a democracy from the beginning. All band members made the same amount of money, and were credit equally with each of the songs. They have stayed true to their friends from the beginning, like the fan club staff and Bertis Downs, …And, most importantly, they have stayed true to themselves. True enough to put Bill’s health and happiness before the business. True enough to have their own styles, which are absolutely uncategorizeable. Peter’s guitar playing was uncategorizable. Michael’s lyrics and persona are enigmatic. Millsy, the boy next door, delivers unbelievable harmonies and beautifully written melodic base lines. Bill supplied the backbone and rhythm of a whole new genre of music that in hindsight, earning R.E.M. the legacy of “The Godfathers of Alternative Rock.”
I guess you could say R.E.M taught the music world what it means to be independent, to be creative on your own terms, to be true to yourselves and deliver your art in your own way. Dress as you want. Write what you want. Speak your mind and fuck the establishment.