The (R)Evolutions & (Re)Visions Of R.E.M.

* After 31 years, R.E.M. decided to call it a day last night. Read about it here http://bit.ly/qYSXu5 Reminiscing, this was something that I wrote about the band 10 years ago (originally published in July 2001 issue of TONE magazine)

May 15 might turn out to be the most important date in 2001’s music calendar. The Beatles no longer exist, Kurt Cobain is still dead, Rage Against the Machine are in pieces and Limp Bizkit are old news. Nothing stands in the way of cementing the importance of the day Reveal, REM’s 12th album, was released worldwide. The anticipation began in February and has gained momentum amongst fans and critics alike since. After all, it’s been more than three years since their last studio album Up (which was anything but). You could feel the sense of urgency in fans frequenting record stores asking about the album and critics trying their best to get advance copies.

In Malaysia, the first single Imitation of Life made it into the Top 10 on the daily populist chart Hitz.fm Top 30 the very next day after its release. If that song (which is not quite the best track on Reveal can kid around effortlessly with Powderfinger’s My Happiness and Lifehouse’s Hanging by a Moment, Reveal surely looks promising. So when the preview copy reached us in early May, it was played repeatedly throughout the day and it has since become the song to sleep to for some of us here.

R.E.M in 2001

EVERYONE’S AN REM FAN

When Thom Yorke of Radiohead decided that they were going to put out the iconoclastic Kid A, without any promotion, tours or radio to back it up, he surely had REM’s frontman (and Yorke’s personal hero) Michael Stipe in mind.

In 1988 after the release of Green, REM decided not to tour for six years. All REM albums have always defied the expectations of their fans and critics (take Up for instance). Eddie Vedder openly cites REM as the main reason why he took up music. U2’s Bono recently told USA Today that REM have always been the toughest challenges for the title of ‘the best band in the world’.

As for the critics, no matter how many albums they put out or how bad they might sound, REM will always remain one of rock’s most compelling, enigmatic and engaging ensembles.

Murmur (1983) was a slap in the face of then-fashionable post punk, 1988’s Green was a middle finger to fast-growing alternative music while their latest Up (1998) was simply a test of patience for even the most diehard fan.

So, what’s the deal behind Reveal? “It picks up where Up left off. It sounds pop to me, but so did the last Fugazi record. We are just completely out of step with what’s happening,” said Stipe last August as a preview teaser. And he wasn’t lying.

Like U2’s back-to-basics Grammy-winning All That You Can’t Leave Behind, Reveal sees REM revisiting roots from the underground days of 1982’s Chronic Town

EP to 1991’s more accessible Out of Time. But unlike the straightforward U2 effort,

REM deliver Reveal as a comfortable trio who have dealt with the loss of their 17-year long-serving drummer Bill Berry, as well as their million-selling status. Also, rock stardom seems to have eased the ambiguity: Stipe’s lyrics are more direct, dealing with love, fame and er, the weather.

FROM ZERO TO HERO

“I had this goal when I was 15. I decided I was going to be a singer and would be playing in a band. It sounds mythological, but that’s the way it happened.” – Stipe in

Esquire Magazine

To escape boredom, Michael Stipe, Mike Mills (bassist), Peter Buck (guitar) and Bill

Berry (drums) formed Twisted Knife in April 1980. Their first ever show was at a friend’s birthday party at an abandoned church where Buck and Stipe lived. Prior to the release of their Radio Free Europe single, the band changed their name to REM (Rapid Eye Movement).

As Stipe recalls the name change in the band’s biography From It Crawled the

South: “… and we just got completely drunk and rolled around the floor. We had all this chalk, and we took every name anyone could think of and we wrote it on the wall in the living room. When morning rolled around, we pointed and erased, and it was between REM and Negro Eyes, and we thought that probably [the latter] wouldn’t go over too well outside our immediate circle of friends.”

Released by local indie label Hib-Tone, Radio Free Europe received heavy airplay on college radio and quickly became a cult hit. On May 31, 1982, the quartet moved on to IRS (International Record Syndicate), spreading their wings across the American underground by putting out five albums in five years, Chronic Town EP (1982), the seminal Murmur (1983), Reckoning (1984), Fables of Reconstruction (1985), Life’s Rich Pageant (1986) and Document in 1987.

The importance of REM to college kids then was not unlike Nirvana’s influence on “Generation X-ers” in the 90s. Stipe and Co. were regarded as folk heroes, thanks in part to their reputation for being generously supportive of the thriving back-to-the-garage movement – they broke a lot of new bands like Game Theory and the Rain by inviting them to open for their shows and dropping names during interviews. The grassroots origins set the tone for the resolutely independent REM attitude that’s often followed by young bands who want to pursue creative success without succumbing to tired and pre-fab formulas.

If today’s rock is all about post-grunge Creed’s full-of-despair I-feel-the-way-you-feel voice, rap-rock Tom Morello’s part-human, part-turntable guitar riffs, wannabe Papa Roach’s simple take on trends and post-Cobain Dave Grohl doing guitar, in the 80s, it was all about REM. Stipe was the wayfaring vocalist and lyricist whose sweeping sonic layers communicated warmth and yet kept an artistic distance in ways not immediately obvious. Buck was the guitarist who possessed a gift of edgy candour, which has come to embody REM’s honesty of vision and purity of execution in his jangly licks. Bassist Mills, himself an emerging spokesman, was also the band’s instrumentalist and arranger, while Berry was the soft-spoken backbone of the band, the rocker/the visual artist and the quintessential gentleman.

CONSISTENTLY INCONSISTENT

Throughout their 20-year existence, REM has a reputation for being consistently inconsistent. Not a single REM album has kept to a consistent musical direction (refer to discography). Outside music, they betrayed their fans that loved them for their back-to-the-garage movement and DIY aesthetic that they used to champion before they signed with Warner in 1988 in a six million dollar deal (the band then renewed for reportedly US$80 million in 1996). Stipe: “The DIY thing … frankly is a load of shit.”

As an individual, Stipe has never really decided whether he’s straight, gay or bisexual. “I’ve always been attracted to, and slept with men and women:’ So one should take his recent revelations with a pinch of scepticism.

Some see him as an international superstar whose celebrity reflects his band’s double-decade longevity and multi-platinum popularity. Some enthrone him as a rock histrionics-free anti-celebrity. Or maybe a photographer and film producer (with Velvet Goldmine, Being John Malkovich and Man on the Moon to his credit). So who is actually the man with ice blue eyes, unfeasibly long eyelashes and a Martian skull behind REM?

ROCK KING STIPE

“He’s just like God. Untouchable.” – a fan.

No one really complained when Stipe expressed his fascination with glam rock, coming on stage with make-up and layers of androgynous clothes. “As a teenager it [glam rock] meant the world to me. I mean, exploring my sexuality and trying to figure out who the f**k I was;’ he says.

When the rumours broke that Stipe was suffering from AIDS (fuelled by the sight of his skeletal frame) in the early 90s, people were sympathetic. When he kept to-ing and fro-ing ambiguously on his sexuality, claiming to be an “equal opportunity lech”, rather than getting the knives out, everyone wished him the best in the quest to find his perfect soul mate.

Three days prior to the release of Reveal, Stipe casually declared to TIME magazine that he was gay and had been in a relationship with a man for the last three years. The fans were unfazed and pre-orders on Amazon.com jumped up to an all-time high. Even Courtney Love once wrote in her diaries that one of the best ways to becoming famous is to “become friends with Michael Stipe.”

That’s Stipe the rock god. Stipe the person is an artist who, besides singing in the world’s most influential rock band, is an alumni of University of Georgia with a degree in Art/Drawing and Painting, who produces films, write books and tends to every aspect of the band’s public presentation. Having 12 films to his credit (mostly, according to Stipe, under-the-radar independent New York films), he co-founded the film company C-Hundred in 1987 and owns Single Cell Pictures. “I remember editing one in the darkroom all by myself and thinking it was really sexy,” says Stipe about editing his first movie.

WE ARE REM: YOU LIKE US NO MATTER WHAT

“We never entered this [music industry] for a career, but now that we’re here, we want to give as many people the opportunity to hear us.” – Peter Buck on their move to Warner in a 1988 interview with Rolling Stone.

That particular move arguably popularised the (now meaningless) term ‘sell-out’ in the American underground. Fans were taken aback by the decision. But like a true icon, Stipe defied all by refusing to even acknowledge the protests: “From the beginning it’s been clear that this particular band [REM] plays by its own rules.”

The re-christened fans shot the major label debut Green to success, with songs like Stand and Pop Song 89 switching places in dominating the American charts. Chart-addicted music listeners found a new lease of life and REM became an American institution.

When Out of Time was released in 1991, America and Europe collectively lost their religions, and the lyric “That’s me in the corner” became subject to various interpretations. Just on their name alone, Automatic for the People, the 1992 follow-up, sold eight million copies without any major promotion.

Then they toured to all corners of the world with Monster (remember the Singaporean gig?) throughout 1994-95. When sales of New Adventures in Hi-Fi were noticeably lower, the band responded by being even more difficult, putting out the “very not REM-sounding” electronica-driven album Up in 1998 without even bothering to find Berry’s replacement (he left the band in 1997 to work in his soyfarm back in Athens after a health scare).

And now, as their reluctance to promote Reveal shows, REM have settled in their comfortable rock icon clothes, assured of an audience who remember Stipe as one of rock’s would-be messiahs in the 80s – not arrogant, just confident. As Stipe says optimistically, “If I can do something that challenges me, then I know there is going to be an audience for it somewhere. Somebody’s gonna get it.”

CODE NAME: OPERATION REVEAL

It’s early days yet to pass judgement on a work of this depth and complexity. Though from the first synthesiser swirls of the opener The Lifting onward, there’s nary a dud to be heard on Reveal. Such is the resonance of a band that’s beyond feeling the need to change or to prove themselves to each (or any) generation. It’s traditional enough to win back long-time enthusiasts who might have had trouble keeping up with the changes of direction in the last three pressings, and experimental enough to win over a younger audience weaned on Radiohead.

If Bono once claimed that U2 has lasted this long because they’re still able to communicate on the level of mass media and if Pearl Jam’s chosen to concentrate on their cult audience, REM are an institution that sits somewhere in between. It would seem that Reveal will go unchallenged on the critical front, and it would be wise for all other rock bands to forget about winning that Grammy next year. After all, if Santana did it in 1999, and ditto U2 in 2000, just imagine how much more relevant Reveal, REM and

Michael Stipe would be in 2001 and 2002 and 2020?

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