When I heard about R.E.M. breaking up, I think my heart stopped for a few seconds. Despite the fact that the band had a very impressive – and very successful – 31-year career, I always hoped that they’d at least be the type of band that reappeared every few years or so after a “hiatus”. But now that the news is official, I think I’m quite proud of the way they decided to part ways. In fact, Mike Mills himself summed it up in a way that made my missing heartbeat return. “We have always been a band in the truest sense of the word. Brothers who truly love and respect each other. We feel kind of like pioneers in this – there’s no disharmony here, no falling-outs, no lawyers squaring-off. We’ve made this decision together, amicably and with each other’s best interests at heart. The time just feels right.”
R.E.M. formed in Athens, Georgia in 1980 and consisted of Mills on bass, guitarist Peter Buck, drummer Bill Berry and frontman Michael Stipe. They started with just a single, ‘Radio Free Europe’, and followed it up with an EP the following year. Their first full album, Murmur, debuted in 1983 and was a gem with college radio. 1987 brought them their first big hit, ‘The One I Love’, which is still a popular song today. In the ’90s, they reached a wider audience, releasing Out Of Time, Automatic for the People and Monster – which garnered massive hits such as ‘Losing My Religion’, ‘Everybody Hurts’, ‘Man on the Moon’, ‘Nightswimming’ and ‘What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?’
The latter served to be a huge impact on my childhood. My sister, Leigh, is four years older than I am – thus, I emulated her every move. While she was starting her CD collection, I became intrigued with what she thought was cool. After all, while I also had a CD player at a young age, my collection consisted of a couple soundtracks. As all sisters do, she eventually banned me from handling her stuff – though I regret putting scratches in a few meticulously-kept discs, I don’t regret my curiosity. When trying to buy my own copy of the “CD I really liked” of hers, I made a big mistake. I picked up Monster by R.E.M, instead of New Miserable Experience by the Gin Blossoms. This has possibly been one of my greatest errors of all time.
I listened to Monster whenever I could. All of my other CDs just didn’t matter to me anymore. Monster served as my window for understanding how great music could truly be. Keep in mind, I was in 5th grade at the time. I was graduating from the DARE program and requesting ‘What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?’ at all of my friend’s birthday parties. DJs thought I was insane. (Rightfully so.)
Four years later, Leigh took me to my first concert – R.E.M. at the PNC Bank Art’s Center in Holmdel, NJ. We were in the seventh or eighth row and I just remember having a smile plastered on my face the entire time. The couple next to us showed us pictures of their dog “Stipey” and everyone sang along to the non-radio hits that I felt somewhat alone with knowing prior to. I even think Michael pointed at me, when I knew all of the words to ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It’ (sidenote: After seeing a ton of concerts since, I don’t think Michael Stipe could even see me from the stage. But the mere thought of thinking Michael acknowledged my existence made being a young teenager just a little bit easier.) I was with my people. In fact, the concert meant so much to me that I sought out cassette tapes of the live show a year or so later and gave a set to my sister that Christmas. In other words, I love this band so much that I made possible shady deals with a stranger on the internet when I was sixteen and naïve. If that’s not love, I don’t know what love is.
New Adventures in Hi-Fi – the band’s last album with Bill Berry and their first on their contract with Warner Bros., unfortunately had a decline of sales from their past releases but is probably my favorite of them all. ‘Electrolite’, the last track on the album, is one of my favorite R.E.M. tracks all together. The simple, beautiful lyrics was just a calming reassurance to me. “You are the star tonight, You shine electric outta sight, Your light eclipsed the moon tonight. Electrolite, You’re outta sight.”
Berry left on honorable terms, claiming that he wouldn’t leave if it meant that the band would be no more. “For me, Mike, and Peter, as R.E.M., are we still R.E.M.? I guess a three-legged dog is still a dog. It just has to learn to run differently,” said Stipe, after the departure was announced. Their follow-up, titled Up, was released in 1998 with a moderate radio hit, ‘Daysleeper’.
R.E.M. released three more albums before their final album, Collapse Into Now, which was released on March 7th of this year. Boasting guest appearances by Patti Smith and Eddie Vedder, Mills claimed the album was “More of a personal record than a political one… Themes here are more universal.” An album that definitely couldn’t push any more limits, in R.E.M’s case. Collapse Into Now has been one of their strongest albums in recent years and they definitely left on a good note.
It’s amazing to see how much influence one band can have over people – whether they be musicians or fans of music. Working at my college radio station, I realized that a large portion of my peers were similarly impacted by R.E.M.’s earlier releases. They notably helped influence bands such as Pavement and Nirvana, just by being honest musicians who truly viewed music as an art as opposed to a method of seeking fame.
As a kid, the band was the first of many things that my sister and I had in common. My love of R.E.M. turned into more than simple sister-worship. Leigh has introduced me to many amazing bands since, but I’d like to credit them as being the first solid experience that her and I could truly relate to.
While my first concert was also the last I got to see them live, I’m just happy that my sole experience was so memorable. Not only did they get me through some tough times, but they were also my gateway band – without them, I never would have discovered Radiohead. Had I not discovered Radiohead, I wouldn’t have had the notion to check out other alternative and indie rock bands, such as Ben Folds Five and Wilco. Music can often be a progressive process and I’m very much in debt to R.E.M. for helping break me of the musical norms and the popular stations, to truly help me identify my character. Being able to figure out what actually spoke to me at such a young age was a lucky break.
If you’re a casual fan, I definitely recommend checking out the full albums. Preferably Out Of Time, Automatic For The People, and as mentioned earlier, New Adventures in Hi-Fi. While the music may have halted, they’ll never be forgotten. Thank you for 31 amazing years.