R.E.M. America’s greatest band.

September 21, 2011

Today three middle-aged men I have never met dissolved a business relationship on the other side of the Atlantic. So far, so prosaic. Yet when I found out about it, it felt like a chapter of my life was over. I’ll admit that must seem fairly odd to most people. But these three men (and a fourth, for a time) had inspired, entertained and taught me for all my adult life and most of my youth too.

This is going to be a subjective blog (although if you disagree with the sentiment in the title, you’re just plain wrong). It’s also going to be an emotional one.

But I’m in danger of disappearing up my own backside here… What made R.E.M. great was that they wrote fantastic pop songs. Everybody Hurts, Losing My Religion and Man On The Moon won’t make my top ten (see below) but they were undeniably superb pop records. DJs agreed, journalists agreed, but most importantly millions of people across the world agreed. They bought R.E.M.’s music in droves.

Massive sales don’t make great music, of course. So what gave the band from Athens, Georgia the title of America’s Greatest Band for me? Well, maybe it was the track Texakarna, which was on one of the earliest compilation tapes I heard and fell in love with. Maybe it was the Bulgarian bootleg album my mate Pete had in is car which we all listened to on repeat when we were 17. Or maybe it was one of my first arena gigs in 1998, where they blew me away with the power of What’s The Frequency Kenneth? and the subtlety of Try Not To Breathe.

I’m sure all those experiences have a lot to answer for. The personal experience of a band can never be taken away from the link we have with them. I adore the Smiths, but never had the joy of seeing them live, so a part of my appreciation of that band will never be complete.

But R.E.M. were exceptional, not just because I enjoyed their music while I was coming of age…

For a full history and thorough analysis of the band’s music I would recommend the peerless book Fiction by David Buckley. But here are just a few thoughts about why R.E.M. stand above all other US bands.

1) The Music. Sounds obvious eh? But the revolutionary style of early-80s R.E.M. can’t be overstated. Yes, they were influenced by Gang of Four, Wire and Pylon. But this was a band which arrived with a fully-fledged and unique sound. Buck’s jangling guitar, Berry’s driving rhythms, Stipe’s sensational voice and other-worldly lyrics and Mills’ inventive bass playing became so much more than the sum of their parts.

Then in the 1990s they wrote smash hits without ever conforming to what the record industry wanted them to do.

By the time of Up, Reveal, Accelerate and Collapse Into Now they were making esoteric, yet life-affirming music. This was a band who experimented and took their fans with them.

2) The lyrics. They may have started as indecipherable nonsense, but by the time the band hit its mid-1980s peak, there was a treasure trove of lyrics on every record. Songs about obscure Southern characters mixed with damning indictments of US foreign policy. Which other band offered so much? Astonishingly they didn’t write a proper love song until 18 years into their career. When they did it contained such gorgeous lyrics as this: “At my most beautiful, I count your eyelashes, secretly/With every one, whisper I love you/I let you sleep, I know you’re closed eye watching me, listening/I thought I saw a smile.”

3) The activism. My favourite bands tend to be those who inspired me to do more than just listen to pop music. And R.E.M. never let me down. Their politicking was never as obvious as that of their good mate Billy Bragg or The Clash, but their subtle guiding and prompting was every bit as essential to my political and social awareness. The activism was separate from the music, but also featured heavily in it. Who could fail to be moved by Flowers Of Guatemala, be enraged by Orange Crush, or be moved by Final Straw? How ironic that these great supporters of liberal causes should announce their split on the same day their home state of Georgia executed a man who was most probably innocent.

4) The aesthetic. Yes it’s a cliché, but the image of a band really matters. Not necessarily what they look like but the whole package. From their enigmatic record covers in the early days to Stipe’s androgynous image in the later years, there was always something compelling about the band’s visual presentation. Even the tickets to their gigs which I treasure to this day have carefully designed artwork. These things matter to music fans and Stipe knew that intimately.

5) The influence. It’s not an overstatement to suggest alternative music would not exist in its current form without R.E.M. There are massive acts like Radiohead and Nirvana who were directly influenced by them, but their inspiration spread far and wide. Bands as diverse as Pavement and Idlewild were cited as descendents of R.E.M. and even today I received a tweet from Andy Mort of Atlum Schema describing them as “soundtracking his whole life.”

Yes, maybe they should have finished when Bill Berry quit in the 1990s. Maybe they should have been more transparent about exactly what caused the fracture in their relationship with Jefferson Holt. Undoubtedly they made a couple of dud albums (Monster and Around The Sun very rarely make it to my speakers). But today let’s remember R.E.M for what they truly are. America’s greatest ever band. Cheers for everything guys…

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So here, in chronological order, are my top ten R.E.M. tracks:

1) Radio Free Europe.   Their first single – astonishingly good.

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2) Harborcoat.   What’s it about? Not a clue, but listen to those harmonies!

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3) Begin The Begin.   One of the greatest opening tracks to an album ever.

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4) Cuyahoga.   One of the most marvellous choruses I’ve ever heard.

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5) Welcome To The Occupation.   A superb didactic pop record. Who’d have thought a damning indictment of the CIA could be so catchy?

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6) Texarkana.   Lovely,  lovely song.

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7) It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).   Need I say more?

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8) Leave.   The longest R.E.M track. Hypnotic and utterly brilliant.

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9) At My Most Beautiful.   Just a gorgeous track.

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10) The Great Beyond.   R.E.M.’s biggest-selling UK single.

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4 Responses to “R.E.M. America’s greatest band.”

  1. You missed out Orange Crush, one of my first singles and a great track!

  2. Great post. Here’s my favs:
    Radio Free Europe
    Leave
    Carnival Of Sorts (Box Cars)
    Can’t Get There From Here
    World Leader Pretend
    Near Wild Heaven
    Losing My Religion
    Try Not To Breathe
    Monty Got A Raw Deal
    How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us

  3. christine said

    I came here after googling pictures of early REM to show a co-worker from India because she wanted to know what songs were my favorite when i was her age (i’m 46 and she is 22). we had a long talk about how they’ve evolved and their look over the years. she’s listening to Life’s Rich Pageant now. we’ve got a convert.

    thanks for this beautiful post. they were such a part of my college years and my young marriage and my singing to my babies. ah me.

    • andywaltonbolton said

      Hey Christine. Thanks for your comment. And well done for spreading the news of R.E.M. I’m envious of people such as your colleague who have so much joy yet to discover in their music.

      Andy

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