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R.E.M: Their Life and How They Lived It

 article about r.e.m history
2004-04-26 09:44:26
They crawled out of the southern United States twenty-four years ago,
three men and their mumbling lead singer. Later hailed as
Anti-Reaginites and THE voice of their troubled generation, they were
really just a rock and roll band. This is the story of R.E.M, their
life, and how they lived it.

All four members- Bill Berry, Mike
Mills, Peter Buck, and Michael Stipe- were in their early twenties when
their first indie single was released in 1981. Now, they are in their
early forties, firmly in middle age. Having released their 'best of'
collection last year, marking fifteen years with Warner Brothers, one
is left to ask: is R.E.M still relevant in todays music industry? Can
they still appeal to the youth, a contemporary audience that is no
longer of their generation?

R.E.M's importance in the eighties
and early nineties cant be denied. As Gina Arnold quite superbly put it
in her acclaimed work Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana, they
galvanized the entire subculture and made it into a community. They
alone defined 1980s US Indie rock. In the post-punk world, they played
the game by their own rules. They toured relentlessly, but only when
they wanted to. Quite oddly, their greatest absence from the live stage
was when they were at the peak of their commercial success.



This was the complete opposite of what went before them, but they
helped to make it the archetype. In 1984, Milo Miles noted the band's
avoidance of "scattershot hatred, mordant hectoring, and wan ennuiIts
plain the band respects earthy thinking and empathizes with daily
struggles." And Avers Arnold: "Their niceness stood in bright relief
against the scary world of angst and pain the rest of rock 'n' roll
celebratedThey were our mirror, put on earth to reflect what we were,
in case we didn't know. And what we were, it turned out, was sick of
anger, ugliness, and 'anti-everything' cant."

Although
still on the indie label IRS, the band's fifth studio album "Document"
shot to platinum, largely due to massive radio play of the single "The
One I Love." After signing a major label deal with Warner Brothers in
1988, the multi-platinum "Green" followed. The next four years saw the
release of what was arguably R.E.M's finest major label material and
certainly their most critically acclaimed: 1991s Out of Time and 1992s
Automatic for the People. "Out of Time" exceeded all expectations,
going four times platinum in the US and five times platinum in the UK.
New Adventures built even further on the success. Grammy awards, world
fame, and critical acclaim followed. With an estimated 30 million
albums sold between 1991 and 1994, it seemed that the world had gone
mad for R.E.M. All of this was achieved, quite amazingly, without any
major tour. This asserted R.E.M as the biggest band in the world,
certainly rivals to U2's throne. However, disaster struck in the mid
1990s.

A shocking revelation came in October 1997, one that
sent tremors around the pop music world. Drummer Bill Berry, with the
band since its inception, announced his retirement. Bill Berry, amongst
other members, was the victim of numerous health scares in the recent
past, including a brain hemorrhage on tour in 1995. The band decided to
carry on their careers regardless, as a three-piece band. A three
legged dog is still a dog, said Stipe.

Unfortunately, their
first album as a three piece, Up, flopped badly in the US. Sales
totaled only 117,000 copies in its first week of release. Almost a year
after its release, in the summer of 1999, US sales figures stood at
around 600,000 copies ("Out of Time," their best selling album in the
US, had sold over 4 million in this period). Eventually, sales reached
two million worldwide. Although these sales figures may have worried
Warner Brothers, R.E.M themselves didnt seem concerned. As guitarist
Peter Buck said, Im way past the age when selling records means
anything to me. In fact, it never really did mean anything.

Despite
such failures in their native country, R.E.M continues to maintain
strong sales throughout the rest of the world. Their next album
"Reveal" would also reach number one despite a strong week of releases,
including those by ex-Spice Girl Geri Halliwell and Bon Jovi. Glowing
reviews of "Reveal" appeared throughout the music industry press. Last
year's 'best of' compilation "Out of Time" also proved a major hit,
reaching the top spot in its first week of release.



All this would suggest that whilst the stature of R.E.M may be
dwindling in the US, where as the millennium approached youngsters
would turn to a musical diet of rap-rock and manufactured pop, this
certainly isnt the case elsewhere. If you go to a live show in Europe,
you will see the arena packed with people of all ages, from young hip
crowds to middle-aged dads who were there in the beginning. (Watch
their latest live DVD Perfect Square and the look of ecstatic delight
on the faces of the substantial German crowd).

Perhaps the
reason for their apparent decline in the US is apathy amongst youth who
don't care to listen to and understand a band that became increasingly
experimental in the latter half of the last decade. Fans are left to
never quite catch up with the latest sound until the next one comes
around.

Perhaps its overexposure. After eight years in the
underground, 16 years on a major label, 12 albums, not to mention
compilations and their first E.P, R.E.M have saturated the American
music industry.

Out of step and lovingly original at its
inception, R.E.M. is trying to find its feet as a three piece in the
ever changing popular music scene. So, are they existing just to exist,
or are they still a great band?

"Reveal," released in 2001,
is the band's most recent studio album, and it suggests the latter.
Lush tones and a freshness that hasnt been with the band for a decade
all give positive signs. Nevertheless, the listener cannot help feeling
that at times it is a tired album; perhaps an album made by a band
running out of ideas. Ultimately, this sets up a great problem for
R.E.M and their next album, scheduled for release in the one year. Do
they want to make an experimental record, pushing themselves in
directions not seen before, at the risk of further plummeting sales in
the US? Or shall they just stick out a re-working of their early
nineties' material, and perhaps see their sales figures grow once more
in the US?

Shall they be R.E.M, or an R.E.M cover band? The decision is theirs.





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