Friday, September 23, 2011

R.E.M. - Begin the End

R.E.M. during Monster era (AP/Warner Bros.)

History will show that on a Wednesday in mid September 2011, R.E.M, the most consistently good rock and roll band of their generation, matter-of-fact-ly announced their retirement. It was done in much of the same unassuming manner in which Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry conducted their professional careers. It was a fitting end to the best American rock band most of us have ever known. They didn't go out with a bang or a whimper. Even when announcing their retirement they still seemed to strike the right balance and timing. Given this news and how it was a announced with such little fanfare, their title of their swan song album, Collapse Into Now, seems eerily prescient.

I first heard of R.E.M. like I suppose many other people my age did. I was 13 years old in the summer of 1987 and my family had just gotten cable TV.  For those reading this who are not from the Philadelphia area, getting cable back then was a BIG DEAL. Mayor Wilson Goode (yes, the mayor who dropped a bomb on a city house AND then got re-elected) basically ran for re-election on, among a few other things, finally getting the city wired for cable. Anyway, that summer the videos for "The One I Love" and "It's the End of the World...." were in fairly heavy rotation. They seemed weird and the band members weren't even in the video for the latter, so I didn't know what to make of them. Was that teenager who was hanging out in the empty house in the band or what?  I had no idea. It forced you to focus on the music, rather than the band's hair or clothes. The songs were kinda catchy though. And in between Madonna, Whitesnake, and George Michael videos, they were a revelation. But I still wouldn't become a big fan until a few years later.

I never would have been interested in checking out the Soft Boys, the B-52's, the Velvet Underground, or Patti Smith until R.E.M. name-checked them. And playing the Seven Degrees of Peter Buck would lead you to find out other interesting tidbits - like he played lead guitar on the Replacements' classic "I Will Dare." Buck also produced March 16-20, 1992 - Uncle Tupelo's 3rd album. It took a mere 5 days to record it as the title suggests.  

Buck played in the Minus 5, one of the numerous bands of former Young Fresh Fellows frontman, Scott McCaughey. McCaughey also has been a touring member of R.E.M. off and on since the mid 90's. Of course the Minus 5 have also recorded with Jeff Tweedy and Wilco. And the Young Fresh Fellows played the wedding of Paul Westerberg, at his request. So it all gets a little incestuous after awhile. And now Buck, Mike Mills, and McCaughey are involved in The Baseball Project.

I suppose for a band who was around 31 years with a recording history spanning 28 years and 15 proper studio albums, they managed to touch rock fans of many eras. If you're a fan of rock music between the ages of say 30 and 55, at some point in your life you probably liked an R.E.M song or five. And while much of their early work during their indie label years rightfully gets the most praise, for me I always appreciated their 90's recording output almost as much, if not more than their 80's output. 

The two records that meant the most to me at the time they were released were Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Of course, of the 10 albums they released with drummer Bill Berry over that amazing 13 year period, I'd objectively say neither of these rank higher than 7th out of 10. But that just goes to show the quality of albums the band released. You could argue that 7 of their first 10 albums were great, not just good. Great. Think about how hard it is for a rock bank to make 1 great record. Guns N' Roses made 1, then a few more really good ones, and then imploded. Try making 7, mostly consecutively year after year?  Murmur (1983), Reckoning (1984), Fables of the Reconstruction (1985), Life's Rich Pageant (1986), Document (1987), Green (1988), Out of Time (1990), Automatic For the People (1992), Monster (1994), and New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996) represent an astounding string of greatness, probably unmatched in rock history by any artist since the 60's and early 70's. 

And you may never find a more perfect song than "Fall on Me." Whenever that track plays on an iPod playlist, I will almost always play it a 2nd time. It perfectly represents the band as well: Slow melodic intro, great chorus, great hook with an angular jangly guitar sound, great backing vocals by Mills, and a song that addresses a particular issue they cared about (pollution, the environment). That in a nut shell was R.E.M. - smart, poetic, and able to somehow navigate the rough seas between art and commerce, while doing it their way, and able to subtly dispense a socio-political message if they so chose.

But getting back to Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi, both of those records always held special meaning for me. Monster came out at the height of the 90's alt/rock era in the fall of 1994. For many people that era ended the day Kurt Cobain decided he couldn't deal any more and took his own life that April. Now it seems a pretty obvious demarcation point, but at the time hardly anybody realized that it was the beginning of the end. And the movement limped along another 2-3 years before rock-rap and Nu metal eventually ended it. Monster just filled that huge void for me at the time. There's never a time when I listen to Monster now that I don't think about 1994-1995 and what was going on in my life. I can picture the college campus and other creature comforts I enjoyed then. I picture my former co-worker who I helped get into R.E.M. And it was a sizzling rock record. After a few mellow albums, they decided to "rock" again and their timing was perfect. It tapped into the zeitgeist of that year and the post-Cobain hangover in rock music. It'd go on to be a hugely successful album, spawning a handful of hit singles and huge worldwide tour. 

The only time I ever saw R.E.M. play live was in fall of 1995 at the Spectrum on the final leg of the Monster tour. It was mostly a "90's setlist" but it was an incredible show, with most of Monster getting played.  R.E.M. was a band who usually played the hell out of the latest album on every tour even when they were playing arenas and charging lots of money. If you showed up expecting to hear a lot of fan favorites form 10 years before, you'd be disappointed. That's what they always did. That's what artists (as opposed to entertainers) do. They didn't tour much after that until the 00's and I regret missing them in 2008 at the Mann Music Center (when Eddie Vedder was in town and joined them onstage for the encore on "Begin the Begin"). 

The story with New Adventures in Hi-Fi is a bit different. I was on the 5+ year college plan so when this album came out in fall 1996, I was finishing up school (finally!). Looking back at what else was popular around the time of this release (Garbage, Stabbing Westward, etc) and seeing what was just around the corner, you could argue that this album was really signaled the end of that alt/rock era (either this release or maybe the Foo Fighters' The Colour and the Shape from mid 1997 was the last gasp). "Leave", "Departure", and "New Test Leper" hold up well next to their best work. And the album had a certain immediacy to it as the songs were all written during rehearsals while they were on the Monster tour. Again, when I hear this album I think of 1996-1997 and everything going on in my life then - graduating from college, entering the workforce, and how I moved to the next phase in my life, ending that era. And as fate would have it this was the also the end of the original R.E.M. lineup, as drummer Bill Berry retired in late 1997.

Everything R.E.M. did after that was always viewed derisively by most music snobs. You hear the "they should have all retired then" comments frequently.  But practically speaking, they had just signed an $80 million deal with Time Warner for x-amount of albums. At the time it was the biggest recording contract in history, which would seem like a ridiculous sum to pay for anyone a few years later after Napster was invented. So, they had a choice - carry on as a 3-piece, or probably lose their life savings in court fighting with Time Warner for the next decade. It's easy for us to say what they should have done when it's not our money and mortgage payments. And I think by that point in their careers, they had enough credibility earned and saved up, that it was tough to argue with any decision they would make, even if it initially seemed to be based more on monetary concerns. 

So they did what they know how to do and made a series of mostly pretty good records over the next 14 years. Up (1998) was an artistic statement of sorts with Buck and Mike Mills switching instruments to keep things interesting, while they muddled through with drum machines and session drummers. Joey Waronker from Beck's band eventually became a semi-permanent member as the new drummer and the show went on. "At My Most Beautiful", "Daysleeper", "Why Not Smile", "Falls to Climb", "Sad Professor", are just achingly beautiful songs, the kind of songs a talented group writes when they lose their drummer and aren't sure if they can "rock" again. Re-listening to parts of this album now, you hear where perhaps artists like Radiohead, Beck, Wilco, Grandaddy, and others drew their inspiration for releases 2-3 years later. Once again, R.E.M. was there helping to blaze the trail. 

Albums like Reveal (2001), and Around the Sun (2004), were seen as missteps. They had their moments though - "Imitation of Life", "Beat a Drum", and "Leaving New York" to name a few are great tunes. So they returned a few years later and ended with 2 fairly strong releases - Accelerate (2008) and this year's Collapse Into Now

The former was more akin to Monster and the latter sounded like a combination of different eras of the band. You had the quieter Out of Time/Automatic For the People songs combined with rockers that would fit comfortably on either Monster or even Life's Rich Pageant

Looking back you could say from 1983-1989 they were a guitar band (perhaps even more Buck's band) with jangly pop/rock music and sometimes unintelligible mumbled lyrics. But starting around 1990 they became Michael Stipe's band and that continued on as they aged. More of the songs got a little slower and softer and his vocals got louder, clearer, and better. To this day he still has an amazing unique voice that had perhaps become the band's most enduring and familiar instrument.

The most amazing thing is that after 31 years together, you really have to rack your brain to find any examples of members of R.E.M. embarrassing themselves, (like, ahem, these 2 guys
or this) . Well, OK, Peter Buck had that arrest for drunken air rage on a flight a few years back. And that's about it. They never released a bad album, they never jumped on a trendy bandwagon and made an album that sounded fresh for 3 months but then sounded painfully dated forever after. No awful collaborations with the pop star du jour.  No tours sponsored by department stores or soda companies. They just continued on in a dignified manner, releasing a new album every year or two. 

Where I'll miss R.E.M. the most is probably what their mere presence represented to me. Being a diehard fan of the Replacements, I've always sort of lived vicariously through R.E.M's success at thoughts of what could have been if the 'Mats had been a little more professional and consistent (but of course then they wouldn't have been "the 'Mats"). Both bands started around the same time with similar influences and built followings in similar ways. But R.E.M. was just a little more savvy when it came to the business end of it. They waited a few years longer before making the jump from Indie label to Major.  And their timing was perfect, so that they were peaking in commercial appeal just as the alt/rock revolution was beginning. Whereas, by the that same point the Replacements were exhausted and were ready to call it quits. 

R.E.M. was basically the band every music nerd and indie rock fanboy whose dream would be to have a long career in music wishes they could have been in. Smart, successful, and full of integrity to the end.

So I guess this is where the story ends for 4 regular guys from a college town in Georgia. They really aren't going to reunite in 4 years, are they? God, I hope not. Let it be now and forever. But thanks for 3 decades of unforgettable music, guys. 

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