The band R.E.M., who has died aged 31, was one of the prototype American alt-rock bands, who released 15 albums with total sales of around 70 million.
They influenced countless bands, most notably the Strokes, The Futureheads and Nirvana. As well as influencing bands musically, their career path was a prototype for achieving success without selling out your values. They will always be fondly remembered as the underground rock band that showed other alt-rock (AKA indie – or college-rock) bands the way to the mainstream with dignity.
R.E.M. was born in April 1980, three months after Michael Stipe met Peter Buck in a record shop in Athens, Georgia where the latter worked. It turned out they shared the same taste in music and they recruited fellow University of Georgia students Mike Mills and Bill Berry. The name came later, chosen at random by Stipe from a dictionary.
The band’s career came in three stages. The first was the early years with the I.R.S. record label (1981-1988) which culminated in their first big single and album hits, respectively ‘The One I Love’ and Document. Their early sound appeared to have been influenced by 60s folk rock, with Buck’s distinctive picking guitar style, and Stipe’s wailing voice and indecipherable lyrics (which he later admitted were mostly nonsense).
The second was their peak with Warner Bros. (1989-1992) which saw ever escalating commercial and critical success, particularly with 1992’s multi-platinum Automatic For the People and the single ‘Losing My Religion’ from its predecessor Out of Time. Stipe’s lyrics and singing were by then clearer and more political, and the band’s sounds encompassed a wider range of acoustic instruments. The result was more melodic and clearly had a wider appeal.
The third stage is their long gradual decline ever since. Every subsequent album was not as good as its predecessor. Even so they managed to get their Warner Bros. record deal renewed in 1996 for a reported 50 million pounds. But in 1997 Berry left the band and the other three soldiered on for another five albums.
By the turn of the millennium, new album sales had dwindled from platinum to gold and eventually to a solitary silver (in the UK) for Collapse of the Now released in March this year. Similarly, R.E.M.’s live reputation as stadium gods suffered in 2008 when a scheduled concert in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium was downgraded to the International Arena due to poor ticket sales.
The band finally died on 23 September with the statement: “As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening.”
R.E.M. should be remembered, first, musically for its pioneering early career to 1992. Without R.E.M., a form of indie music might still have flourished (thanks, largely to the Smiths) but in a softer, more whimsical manner. Their generosity of spirit is also important. They contributed as much to good causes, but with much less hype, than their peers U2, including the potentially credibility-sinking donation of one of their few big singles ‘Everybody Hurts’ to Simon Cowell to help victims of the Haitian earthquake in 2009.
R.E.M., indie-pioneers, born April 1980; died 23 September 2011. The band is survived by: The Strokes, The Futureheads and countless other indie acts; 70 million albums (including a lot of unsold copies of their last Collapse into the Now); and unending karaoke royalties from ‘Losing My Religion’.