When I heard that REM had split I was surprised at how sad I felt about it. After all, I hadn’t purchased one of their new albums for close to two decades and, like most people, I had little expectation of them releasing another great album. The truth is that there are few bands that had as big an impact on the development of my musical appreciation as them and, having reached a certain age, I’ve lost that wonder you get on discovering a great new band and I’ll never feel the same about one as I did when I first heard REM in 1987.
I first heard REM, as many people did, when Document and ‘The One I Love’ propelled them into the big time. The first album I owned was the IRS compilation, Eponymous, in 1988 and many an evening was spent dancing in my bedroom to ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)’. I soon picked up their debut album Murmer and then their new release Green and loved them both, despite them demonstrating such different sides to the band.
I loved all their albums, from the near perfection of Lifes Rich Pageant to the mixed bag b-sides and covers collection Dead Letter Office. I watched the video collections, the live video and became fascinated by the whole scene and the excellent Athens G.A. Inside Out documentary.
The band got more and more popular, and the release of Out of Time and Automatic for the People cemented them as one of the biggest acts on the planet and completed their ten year transition from an alternative act to a certified stadium phenomenon.
It is the opinion of most that it was after 1992 that the band started their slide with each album less interesting than the last, and their is some truth in that. Looking back though I don’t think that Monster is anywhere near the disaster that people make out, and in ‘What’s the Frequency Kenneth?’ it contains one of their best singles. New Adventures in Hi-Fi is also a decent album and, if it had been released straight after Automatic for the People I believe it would have been received better and not seen as part if the band’s decline.
Beyond that I feel less than qualified to comment as I didn’t buy or even properly listen to any of their subsequent releases. I enjoyed the single ‘Imitation of Life’ from 2001, but I am guilty of condemning their latter output without listening to it, I let the reviewers do the listening for me. Part of the reason for this is that REM stopped being an essential part of my musical life shortly after Out of Time was released. The ubiquity of the singles and the stadium concerts started to alienate me, I was an elitist indie kid and sharing the band so broadly took much of the magic away however brilliant the albums were.
Now they have split I can look back with a lot of affection at one of the most important bands, a band who gained huge success, remained essential for over a decade and brought together the alternative and mainstream music scene like few other bands have managed (in fact, only Nirvana and Radiohead spring to mind). I am also pretty certain that their forthcoming best-of collection will show their whole career in a kinder light than people might expect.
My colleague Joe has posted a fine selection of his top ten REM tracks and below are my picks. Six of the songs are by the band and four show the bands broader influence, few bands having as big an impact on the broader music scene as they did.
This track from Murmer is a bit of a lost classic, and this early live footage is great viewing.
Feeling Gravity’s Pull
A great track from one of the band’s more maligned early albums, and one of my favourites.
It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
If you don’t like this song you don’t like music.
Swan Swan H
A beautiful version of this song taken from the Athens G.A. Inside Out film.
What’s The Frequency Kenneth?
One of their best singles taken from the disappointing Monster album.
Pop Song 89
The first song I heard from the first new REM album I ever bought.
Pylon – Crazy
Fellow Athens residents and one of the big influences on REM, who covered this song.
The Fatima Mansions – Shiny Happy People
Michael Stipe supposedly walked out of a Fatima Mansions gig in disgust, this was Cathal Coughlan’s response.
Pavement – Unseen Power of the Picket Fence
Another college rock success story play their tribute to Stipe and co.
Billy Bragg – You Woke Up My Neighbourhood
The Bard of Barking goes country with the help of Buck and Stipe.
By Dorian Rogers