Two days ago it was announced that R.E.M. had split up. R.E.M. will go down in rock history as an important band for a number of reasons, not just because of their success.Although it is some years since I paid them much attention, I have fond memories of some of their earlier music. The first R.E.M. track I ever heard was probably in 1984-85 and it was the haunting ‘South Central Rain’, a single from their second album Reckoning. There was something about the plaintive wash of A minor on the chorus coupled with the slightly distant vocal saying ‘I’m sorry’ that sounded as though it had come from a different world. This led me to buy that album and I loved it. The bright Rickenbacker guitar tone and the idiosyncratic and melancholy lyrics reminded me a little of The Smiths who were also on the rise at that time. In many ways R.E.M. were a kind of U.S. version of The Smiths. Both bands showed that rock music could speak about the real and the everyday and the small triumphs and tragedies of life and somehow transform these things into the beauty of song – in marked contrast to the often absurd pumped-up testosterone-fuelled pantomime of many rock bands – fun, no doubt, but a pantomime nevertheless. Peter Buck and Johnny Marr both showed that the arpeggiated guitar style which had been central to mid-60s folk-rock could still speak.
In the summer of 1985 I saw R.E.M. pretty much unknown in the U.K. play a short set at the Milton Keynes Bowl supporting U2. It rained and after awhile they retired, somewhat dispirited. I enjoyed them.
A year or so later I was in a record shop and heard Life’s Rich Pageant over the speakers. I bought it and it became one of my favourite rock albums, a delightful balance between the rough eccentricities and introversions of their first three albums and the slicker communicativeness of the later. From that I bought the first album Murmur and the third album Fables of the Reconstruction, then Document, Green, Out of Time, Automatic For The People, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, and Up, as they appeared. I also got Reveal and found that rather thin. The others I don’t know.
The decision to split didn’t surprise me because I think the band had taken their sound as far as they could and were now caught in the dilemma which so often afflicts rock bands who stay together long enough: either break your mould and do something very different (in which case you get criticized for not being you) or attempt to self-consciously recapture a sound you best executed unselfconsciously many years before (in which case it is said to be not really a return to form). For me, the quintessential R.E.M. is that of the albums they made with IRS (nos 1-5) and if you want an introduction to it try either Life’s Rich Pageant or the Collected Singles CD (20 tracks). Although they made some good, occasionally great music when they went to Warner for Green and gained a much bigger audience, it doesn’t quite have the same character. The departure of Bill Berry was obviously a critical blow also. None of the Warner albums engage me as albums, though I like some tracks on each. I think ‘I Remember California’ is an astonishing track – a doom-laden slice of Pacific apocalypse all the more striking because in it R.E.M. seemed to step beyond their own emotional range so powerfully. ‘Electrolyte’ is very touching – that line about ‘C20th go to sleep’ gets me every time.
I don’t agree with the frequently-expressed rock critic view that Automatic For The People is their best album; I think that’s over-rated, as are songs like ‘Losing My Religion’ and ‘Everybody Hurts’. Given the choice between those two and ‘Perfect Circle’ and ‘South Central Rain’, I’ll take the latter. In some ways Automatic occupies a similar position in their career as Born In The USA does in Springsteen’s (the R.E.M. album is better, mind).
A two-disc greatest hits is apparently on the way in November.