How R.E.M. Brought Indie Pop Into Daylight
It's been five years since R.E.M. last toured, six since the band's Warner Bros. debut, Green, made Michael Stipe, Pete Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry into international pop stars. They haven't quite been idle years for the band, who released two more enigmatic-yet-accessible albums, 1991's Out of Time and 1992's Automatic for the People (both on Warner Bros.), and scored two more chart-busting singles ("Losing My Religion" and "Everybody Hurts"). But compared with everything else that's been going on -- Lollapalooza, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Green Day -- R.E.M.'s Grammys, their acclaimed MTV Unplugged special, their double- and triple-platinum sales figures all seem as inevitable as they were insignificant. Yeah, inevitable because by the end of the '80s they already had stored up more momentum, both commercially and artistically, than any other band on the planet with the possible exception of U2. And what with grunge exploding, Top 40 radio crumbling, punk returning, and indie rock on the rise, were a few hundred thousand more R.E.M. CD sales really that significant? No. By the end of the decade, their quirky 1987 hit "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" was starting to make literal sense. R.E.M. had already done more than any other band to usher in a new era. The multi-platinum sales were an anticlimax: these guys had already changed the world. R.E.M. have returned to active duty in 1995 with their most outgoing album in years, if not ever (Monster), and a tour that promises to be one of the biggest of the summer. They're no doubt loathed by many who equate selling albums with selling out, and loved by many more who never knew the emotional highs and lows of caring about a band like R.E.M. when nobody else seemed all that interested in buying in. But painful paradoxes and delicate ironies come with the territory. Just ask Eddie Vedder, Billie Joe, or the ghost of Kurt Cobain. It's something that R.E.M. have wrestled with since the beginning of their career. They've dealt with the problem of maintaining artistic vision and credibility in the face of commercial success better than just about anyone else in their league. And though I don't always like to admit it, there's probably no band better suited to fill the vacuum left by Kurt Cobain's suicide and Eddie Vedder's reluctance to lead. Alternative rock is pretty much R.E.M.'s fault. They're the ones who proved that a college radio band could sell records back in 1983. And they're the ones who had the nerve to go out and do it. The very existence of R.E.M. in the '80s suggested to countless would-be musicians and music fans the possibility of an alternative to the polarized and equally stale options of straight mainstream commercial success and insular underground obscurity. The charts were filled with uninspiring dreck from all sides, but it was the stylized British dreck typified by bands like Duran Duran, A Flock of Seagulls, and Culture Club that stood most conspicuously in the way of meaningful music made in the USA. And the punk underground was calcifying into a staunchly reactionary realm where it had become increasingly uncool for a band to sell records. R.E.M. emerged as the leader of a scene that fell somewhere in between. They weren't alone. On the West Coast the so-called Paisley Underground spawned bands like the Dream Syndicate, the Three O'Clock, the Bangles, and the Long Ryders. The New York/Hoboken scene was home to the dB's, the Bongos, and the Feelies. The Twin City trio of Huesker Due, the Replacements, and Soul Asylum sprang up in the Midwest. And there were countless other pop-oriented underground acts emerging throughout the country through a loose network of college radio stations, independent labels, fanzines, and clubs. Ultimately R.E.M. became the first of those bands to succeed outside the confines of their cozy scene -- and that might have been the end of the story. Some bands make it and some bands don't. That's just the way it goes. Most of the ones who make it squeeze in at the top and do their thing, which is exactly what U2 have done quite well over the years. But every once in a while the success of a band catalyzes something bigger, something that alters the balance of power and extends beyond the confines of record sales and chart positions and into the intangible realm of pop culture. Throughout the '80s R.E.M. helped shift the focus away from industry centers like London, New York, and Los Angeles and onto out-of-the-way locales like Athens, Minneapolis, and Seattle. Their success didn't just open people's eyes and ears to a great band from Athens; it exposed the best-kept secret of the Reagan/Bush era: the teeming American underground-rock scene that they'd helped create. Almost every time I saw R.E.M. in 1985, Mike Mills was wearing a Huesker Due T-shirt. The next year they took Hues Due on the road with them. Pete Buck played on the Replacements album Let It Be (Twin Tone) and mentioned the band in print whenever he got the chance. Huesker Due and the Replacements are just two of the of dozens of underground bands who got a direct start from R.E.M. along the way. Even Robyn Hitchcock's career was raised by Buck's attention. By the end of the '80s the damage to Corporate Rock had already been done. R.E.M. dug into their beachhead and stayed out of the way as a sea change in cultural values washed away old landmarks and created a new shoreline out of alternative rock. The dam didn't break until Nevermind broke in 1991, but it was just the culmination of a process R.E.M. had set in motion a decade earlier. As Gina Arnold puts it in her Nirvana-inspired memoir Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana: "The success of college radio, the Amerindie scene, the formation of alternative-music departments at record companies, the International Pop Underground, Nirvana. Ultimately, you can lay it all at R.E.M.'s feet, as if the whole damn subject were a dead mouse or a bird or something equally unsavory." Arnold ends her chapter on R.E.M. on a humorous but telling note: "Ladies and gentlemen, I give you R.E.M." As if R.E.M. ever belonged to her or anybody else. But that's how this band made you feel back in the mid '80s. If you believed in them, then you could have them as your own source of inspiration. The lyrics were ambiguous enough, the melodies evocative and inviting enough, the band's regular-guy charm down-to-earth enough. R.E.M. didn't just blaze a trail into the mainstream for themselves; they brought fans like Gina Arnold and bands like the Replacements and Huesker Due along for the ride. They also ushered in the era of the gritty Arican guitar band, an idea that's still in vogue. Pete Buck's arpeggios and power chords, which sound perfectly at home on the radio today, were totally out of place next to the synth-pop and pop-metal hits of 1983. Just about everything about R.E.M. was wrong, from Mitch Easter's '60s-style low-fidelity production on Murmur and Reckoning to the ambiguous, understated drone of Michael Stipe's vocals, from Buck's conspicuous lack of guitar solos right down to Bill Berry's muted drums, which didn't resonate with the digital reverb sheen that was standard back then. R.E.M. didn't play dress-up in leather and spandex, and they didn't dress their music up either. As normal as all that may sound today, it was aberrant behavior back then. If there's irony here -- and there's always got to be irony -- it's that R.E.M. weren't by a longshot the most influential musical outfit of their time. You won't find many traces of the muted jangle and strum of Murmur in today's crop of alternative rockers. In fact, you won't find much of it on R.E.M.'s latest album. Post-hardcore punks like Huesker Due and Black Flag, with their big, overdriven guitars, laid the musical foundation for most of today's grunge and alternative rock. And R.E.M. didn't produce any generational anthems either. The closest they came was with "Radio Free Europe," a song that doesn't appear to be about anything in the traditional sense. R.E.M.'s contributions came on a more fundamental level. They led by example, not through words or musical invention. Pete Buck was a self-taught guitarist of limited ability who depended on taste rather than chops and found beauty in simplicity. Michael Stipe was a vocalist of limited range early on, but he used his voice in an idiosyncratic, attractive manner. It was a powerful example of punk's DIY ethic at work in songs that were based more in folk rock than in punk. And through their reliance on minimalist pop-song structures, R.E.M. did a lot to resurrect Big Star and the Velvet Underground as influences on the underground rock scene. None of the countless jangling R.E.M. clones that Murmur spawned ever amounted to much (remember Other Bright Colors? Kilkenny Cats?). But as idealistic novices skilled in their own distinct style and unswayed by the forces of convention or trend, R.E.M. made good on the indie-rock dream of success without undue compromise. Yeah, it's been five years since R.E.M. last toured, and a lot has happened in those years. Alternative rock seems to be stalled somewhere between commerce and art. It's a crossroads R.E.M. have arrived at before, and they've always prevailed by being themselves, making good records, and not getting bogged down in the ethical dilemmas of fame and fortune. The band always made it seem so damn easy. It's just too bad Kurt Cobain couldn't have waited around for his newfound friend Michael Stipe to pass on the simple yet elusive secret of R.E.M.'s success. Whatever that may be.