Wednesday, September 21, 2011

R.I.P., R.E.M.

Today, R.E.M. announced their break up after 31 years as a band. Few seemed very shocked by the news, and many, myself included, believe it was overdue – perhaps even long overdue.

Don’t get me wrong, the boys from Athens were great in their day; industry-shaking and authentically artistic. Drawing from rock, country, folk and even punkish influences, they applied their own brand and created a unique sound that has since influenced many others. In fact, matched only by U2 and The Clash (maybe), R.E.M. was the defining rock band of the era – at least in terms of the intersection of artistic merit and commercial success – for my generation (i.e., those in college during the early to mid 1980s).

But the bottom line today is that they have not been a noteworthy or relevant band in the present tense for more than a decade. Peter Buck’s extra-band activities (with Robyn Hitchcock, Tired Pony, The Minus Five and others, as well as guesting on sessions with The Decemberists et al) have been far more interesting than his primary band’s output for quite some time.

On top of that, Michael Stipe has grown increasingly obnoxious and annoying over the years. The consensus seems to be that he was better liked (artistically) as Mr. Mumbles, when no one could understand what he was singing, and (personally) when he just kept his mouth shut. (Ever see Charlie Rose’s interview with the singer and aspiring photographer in 2007? If so, you get my drift on the latter point.)

Nevertheless, several of R.E.M.’s records (Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, Document, Automatic for the People and New Adventures in Hi-Fi) will always have a special resonance for me. And I’m very glad I got to see the band in concert a number of times – from small theaters and large clubs to arenas.

I loved Buck’s approach to guitar. He singlehandedly gave new life to Rickenbacker sales in the mid 1980s – OK, maybe Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers deserve a bit of credit for that, too. And later he made a place for mandolin in rock music not heard since The Face’s “Maggie Mae” and Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore.” As an ever-dreaming indie record-store manager in Athens prior to hooking up with Stipe and forming the band, Buck was a student of rock history from ’60s’ garage bands onward. That enthusiastic scholarship served R.E.M. well, shining through in more than just the Byrds-meets-Velvet-Underground, jangle-pop of the band’s first few recordings.

Meanwhile, Mike Mills was the band’s secret weapon; underrated, but essential, not just as a bass player, but as a keyboardist, arranger and, most of all, harmony vocalist. And then there was Bill Berry, a good drummer and an important contributor to the band’s overall sound. The truth is, the band should’ve called it a day when he resigned in 1997. Nevertheless, that doesn’t diminish R.E.M.’s accomplishments at the height of their artistry, or their legacy. So while they may not really be missed, they will be fondly remembered.

Despite popular perception, not a love song.

My Favorite R.E.M. Releases:
  1. Document (1987)
  2. Reckoning (1984)
  3. Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)
  4. Automatic for the People (1992)
  5. New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)
  6. Murmur (1983)
  7. Life’s Rich Pageant (1986)
  8. Out of Time (1991)

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