Trying To Get To You

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

R.E.M. - Then & Now

Somewhere along the line, R.E.M. and I parted ways.

I think what started it was the release of Monster and "What's The Frequency Kenneth," the first lead single from them in years that not only did I not love, I didn't even like. And once I parted ways with them, I really parted ways; I can't even name five songs that they've released since 1994. Perhaps I missed some great songs from those albums, but if I had, it seems as though there was no consensus on what those great songs were.

In my teenage years, R.E.M. were the "underground" band that slowly penetrated above ground. I heard about their early albums sometime in 1985, almost like a whisper; "Have you ever heard R.E.M.? Have you heard Murmur? You have to get it." Murmur was different from anything I had ever heard; opaque and mysterious, but completely compelling and unforgettable. It was my first introduction to rock that wasn't either of the classic variety or just straight punk, and I took to it as an opportunity to, well, feel cooler than the kids in my high school, most of whom had no idea who R.E.M. were. And I also genuinely loved the music, and recognized it as something that was uniquely belonging to my generation, which, given my love of soul, Springsteen, the Stones, and 50's rock, was a nice change. It was different, a little weird, and it was a window into an alternative world that I knew nothing about. Through my love of R.E.M., I found out about the Replacements and the Velvet Underground - for that alone I'll always be grateful to them.

The band seemed to grow as I did, hitting their full stride in the late 80's and early 90's, with Document, Green, Out Of Time and Automatic For The People, all albums I enjoyed tremendously (with the exception of Green). And their emergence as a popular band presaged a million "sellout" debates to come: I remember their signing with Warner Brothers in 1988 instigated my first "'Have they sold out because they went to a major label' argument" with some holier than thou, "Maximum Rock & Roll" reading punk. My answer then (as it is now) was "no." (Punks never really got that selling out had little-to-nothing to do with what label you're on.)

So I was a fan, at times a big one, but for me, there came to be something missing. Perhaps the transition from clubs to theaters to arenas left me cold, as R.E.M. isn't exactly the world's greatest arena rock band. Or maybe it was the loss of Bill Berry - the chemistry of a band like R.E.M.'s is a sensitive thing not to be trifled with. The last time I saw them was in on the Vote For Change tour in October of 2004 in Orlando, Florida, when they played with Springsteen. They played well and they played a set of songs filled with songs that once upon a time, impacted me. But a more disturbing thought crossed my mind; maybe they were a very good band, but maybe they weren't as great as I made them out to be when I was a kid looking for my own sounds. I'd like to think that they're as great as I thought they were. Repeated listenings to Reckoning tell me that.

R.E.M. have a new album, Accelerate, coming out on April 1. The lead single, "Supernatural, Superserious" is the first single that's gotten me even remotely excited about a new R.E.M. album "Drive" was the lead single for Automatic For The People in 1992. Mike Mills' background vocals in the chorus make me smile and remember why I loved them. I hope Accelerate is wonderful - the world could use a great R.E.M. album.

Buy R.E.M. albums and songs at the Amazon Mp3 store

Here's a homemade video for "Supernatural, Superserious."


heather said...

i love this post. thanks Ben.

i also love that you have a post label called "sellout argument."


Ben Lazar said...

Thanks Heather. One of these days I'll do a recap on some of the best "sellout arguments" I've had with people. :) I've had some doozies.

Glad you liked the post.

Anonymous said...

Ben, I think that what might have happened is that the band became more "personality' driven versus "musical" and lost their relevence in the exchange. Like you, I stopped listening and caring a long time ago and it paralleled their ascendency in the pop mainstream. U2 suffer from the same malaise in my estimation. Glad to see more stuff on the blog-the Simon Napier-Bell piece was priceless!

Michael Verity said...

I'm inspired to comment to a degree that won't fit into this space. So, I've written my own piece on R.E.M. (and the question of relevance). I hope I'm not violating any rules of blogging courtesy by inviting you to take a look at Fusion 45.

steve said...

Agreed, the world could use a great REM album. Haven't been moved by them much since Bill Berry left, but I still support the "idea" of the band -- successful, but never corporate, I think they've navigated the soul-less landscape of the music biz better than most. I think 20 years from now, they will be as influential for the type of band they were as much as the actual songs -- because, quite honestly, REM inspired a lot of really crappy mid-tempo college rock bands, but their ecological/human rights, etc. ethos seems to be gaining ground.

J.A. Morris said...

Thanks for posting this, not a bad song.
I agree with most of what you said about the band's history. They lost me a few albums later(the first album without Bill Berry sucked,that's where I stopped).
But R.E.M. will always occupy a special place in my musical life. I'll never forget a moment in the summer of '83 at a local pool,someone had a radio and I heard the dj say "here's R.E.M. with 'Radio Free Europe'" I was sucked in for good. Suddenly, the Police & Men At Work seemed boring by comparison. 'Murmur' led me to 'Sorry Ma..', which led me to 'Plastic Surgery Disasters' and eventually setting up local punk/hc shows.
I was lucky enough to see R.E.M.'s acoustic show at Mountain Stage back in '91, one of the best concerts I've ever seen.
I also saw them during the 'Vote For Change' tour. I enjoyed it, but there was something weird about seeing them backed by anonymous touring musicians and without Berry. Their collaborations with Springsteen on that tour(notably 'Man On The Moon' and 'Born To Run') made the show worth while. Sorry for the long post, love your blog.