Interviews: R.E.M. (1984)

By John Platt

Part 1: “Little America”

“We’re not from Atlanta, we’re from Athens.”
- Michael Stipe on The Tube, November 1983

Driving through America you can go practically anywhere in the world – London, Cairo, Paris, Rome and… Athens. Which as Michael Stipe has just reminded us is where R.E.M. come from, or to be exact where they live, as only one member actually grew up there, but more of that in a moment.

Athens is a college town. The University of Georgia is where your parents send you if you’re middle class in order, as Peter Buck puts it, “to drink it up for four years, get girls pregnant and get in car wrecks. It’s not a serious school.” There does, however, seem to be a thriving community of artists, film makers and the like (not to mention aspiring musicians) most of whom seem to be drop-outs from the college.

There have been bands in the city for at least 25 years. In the early sixties there was a band called The Jesters who, according to Peter, were “a really cool band, did James Brown covers, had crew cuts and wore alligator shirts. They actually put out records, too.” Mid-sixties Athens produced a small but significant number of kaftan-bedecked groups and of course the last five or six years has produced a whole new crop of good bands like the B-52s, the now defunct Pylon, an instrumental group called Tractor, the Method Actors and last, but by no means least, R.E.M.

Peter Buck is the only real native of the area and although he never played a musical instrument before joining R.E.M., he’s been a rock’n'roll fan virtually as long as he can remember. “When I was about five or six I got a little radio that I listened to under the pillow and tuned to whatever AM station I could find. I hand no real knowledge at all. I liked the Supremes and along with every kid in the world I loved the Beatles.” Slightly later he thought that the Monkees were the hippest thing on earth. By 1970, prompted by reading the more astute rock critics of the day, he had started to buy albums – the Kinks, the Move and the Stones and then, perhaps not surprisingly glam-rock in the shape of T. Rex and Slade. All by mail order: “I didn’t like going out of the house.”

Then one day fate took a hand, Peter found a Velvets album in a garage sale. They became his favorite band. In short order he discovered the Stooges and again by accident, the New York Dolls. “The Dolls opened for Mott the Hoople. I was about 14 at the time. Mott were horrible and the Dolls were by any definition wretched, but I thought they were wonderful.” It wasn’t until late ’76 that things really started to knock Peter out on a large scale when he started buying virtually any punk single from England that he could get hold of. “Yeah, I bought anything on the basis that it had to be interesting at the very least. Sham 69, who are they? I’ll try it. Chelsea Right To Work, all that stuff, I bought the lot. It just thrilled me no end that there was something with energy and excitement coming out.”

Most of the interesting bands were from England or New York but eventually Peter discovered one semi-local band worth investigating. “There was an Atlanta band at the time called the Fans, who never made a record as good as they were live. They had 60 or 70 original numbers and the band sounded as though John Cale had joined Roxy Music – really cool stuff. They’d play these cowboy bars where the locals would threaten to beat them up. Them and their ten fans.”

At the end of the seventies Peter found himself working in a “fairly hip little used record store” in Athens. Among his regular customers was a guy who seemed to have pretty good taste. They got to know each other, and Peter started setting records aside for him. His name was Michael Stipe.

To anyone even vaguely aware of R.E.M. and their music it will not come as a surprise that Michael is the most enigmatic member of the group. It has been suggested in certain quarters that this is a purely deliberate creation, part of the group’s “image.” This seems most unlikely to me. I can hardly claim to know the man well but what little I do know confirms his own description of himself )in an article I can’t lay my hands on) which went something like, “I’m basically a shy person by nature who’s trying to be open and friendly.” To be sure, he is far less gregarious than the others (particularly Peter – the amiable chipmunk, etc.) and conversations with him can frequently become serious and pretty intense, nonetheless he comes across a geninely friendly and intelligent person and, like the others, he is incredibly polite to strangers and friends alike. Mind you, when I walked into the Whistle Test dressing room the others were on the far side of the room drinking beer and generally having a good time, whilst Michael was sitting in an alcove reading a book which was upside down.

The point of all this is that very little is known of Michael’s background – a subject he prefers not to discuss in any detail. “That’s all in the past” he will tell you. The little that is known is still quite interesting. It seems that Michael is from a military family (his father is an army officer) and grew up in all kinds of places, including Germany.

Prior to living in Athens, Michael lived in Illinois where he fronted a garage/punk band around ’76/77. He claims it was no great shakes, but the people he was hanging out with at the time had a large influence on him, particularly in terms of music. They introduced him to the Velvets and the Stooges, which added to his taste for Patti Smith and Television amounted to pretty much his entire musical interests. Prior to that he’d taken little interest in music, beyond his parents’ tastes which ran to Gershwin and a little gospel. In ’78 he moved to Athens to go to college and in due course started hanging around the record store.

Although the Illinois band had been no big deal, Michael must have caught the bug, because soon after meeting Peter he started proposing the idea of a new group that would involve Peter. Oddly, Peter had always resisted the idea of playing, “I thought it would be an arrogant thing for me to do, sort of, so I never did.”

In the space of 6 months Michael convinced Peter otherwise, and they started looking for other musicians. By luck or otherwise they met two guys at a party who were friends of friends who fit the bill (if you pardon the pun).

Bill Berry and Mike Mills both grew up in Macon, Georgia, and both went to the same high school and have known each other all that time. They weren’t always friends, as Bill relates: “We were arch enemies until the 10th grade (about 15) when a mutual acquaintance organized a Southern Boogie-style jam session. It turned out to be in the basement of the bass player’s parents’ house. In walks the bass player and of course it’s Mike, but it worked out real well and we’ve been friends ever since. Right through the remainder of high school we were in bands together. Usually top-40 cover bands playing school sock hops. Making good money, too. For a while we were called Shadowfax, and later we were known as the Back Door Band. We played mainly originals plus a few Freddie King numbers and a couple of Meters songs. Never went anywhere or did anything but it was OK.”

According to Peter, the Shadowfax/Back Door Band’s biggest moment was playing the South Eastern Music Hall – “a hippie hang-out where the top local bands played.” Apparently a tape exists (which may or may not be this gig) comprising various covers plus “one horrible original their guitar player wrote, in 6/8 time. The worst thing you’ve ever heard.”

Mike and Bill also found time for other, quite unrelated musical activities. Bill, for example, played percussion in the local theater orchestra two years running, performing in such extravaganzas as Fiddler on the Roof and Guys and Dolls. Plus, at various times, Mike and Bill were in “a lounge trio” led by their music teacher. Bill: “We’d dress up in suits and ties and play country clubs, weddings and the like. Hell, that was good money, too. I was 17 years old and making 60 bucks a night. That’s when I became addicted to playing.”

Their highlight, without question (!) was playing in the high school marching band. Both dressed up in those silly double-breasted military jackets now worn by Michael Jackson. However, Mike ultimately switched instruments and, consequently, outfits. “I started out on a sousaphone but switched to electric bass, which is how I came to play one at all. The switch also meant I had to wear this awful leisure suit. The change of instruments came about because it became the rage in the three big Macon high schools to have an electric bass. Whenever we had a football game against a rival school it became a contest as to who could turn up their amp the loudest. Oh yeah, and for some reason we used Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ as our marching song. So it was Da Da Da Da Dum Dum – ‘Go Go Go.’ And for the half-time parade we had to get guys to carry the enormous [speaker] cabinet across the field.” Apparently their team was so awful that all the band did was have cross-stadium battles with the opposing rival band. On one occasion they were having the shit kicked out of them by the team that went on to be National High School champions. So Mike’s band, in desperation, struck up War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends.”

After graduating from high school, Bill, at least, got fed up with playing in top-40 bands and/or Capricorn Southern-style boogie bands and sold his drum kit. Bill: “I went to work for the Paragon Booking Agency who booked all those Capricorn bands plus they had a great R’n'B rooster. I was just the gopher but after about 6 months Ian Copeland started working there, and he brought in all these great new British bands like the Police, Gang of Four, Chelsea and the Motels. It was great because you never heard those bands in Macon. One guy in the whole town liked Bowie. Everyone else listened to the Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker. Really stagnant.”

After about a year, MIke and Bill decided it was time to go back to college. So they headed off to Athens where they enrolled and, in short order, found themselves at the party.

Just prior to this fortuitous encounter Peter had moved out of a “hideous concrete place” and had taken the lease on a converted church – a now legendary dump that will go down in history as the birthplace of R.E.M. Peter: “The guy I was working for said I could lease it, so me and about 18 other people moved in. It was really cheap for that reason, about $30 each per month, that was at the end of ’79.”

It was indeed an old church, but an enterprising developer had stuck a rectangular box inside, with two stories, so that for the most part you didn’t know you were in an old church. However, if you went through the false wall at the rear, there was plenty of space behind it, big enough to throw parties and, should you so desire, rehearse a band.

The whole place was, of course, a real slum but needless to say a slum with romantic, bohemian overtones. Peter: “At one time or another we all lived there. Mike didn’t pay rent, he just slept on the couch. It was a great place to rehearse, which we did, a great deal. We used to set up on the stage, get real drunk and play. We had so many parties the place was finally condemned after we moved out. The law still wants me because my name was on the lease!” Just to keep the chronology straight, they wer in fact only there for a few months – the band formed around March 1980, and they moved out during the summer – but legends aren’t overly concerned with exact time-periods.

They were, of course, still (in theory at any rate) students. Peter, although working in the day was (more often wasn’t) at night school. Bill – whose grade point average had dropped alarmingly after moving into the church – was about to be asked to leave college, and Mike was undeclared as to his major, which meant he would have dropped out sooner or later. According to Peter, Michael is the only one who would have graduated had he been left to his own devices. He wasn’t.

Almost immediately people started offering them money to play, which they thought was pretty miraculous – $200, hell, yes we’ll do it! For whatever reason they were popular right from the start, drawing really big crowds. Having fun was (and it still is) of primary importance. Peter: “It was really loose, we’d get drunk, I’d fall off the stage, but people liked it. We started doing weekend dates in the Athens clubs, which was quite prestigious. Places like Tyrone’s which is basically a large bar. Anyway we thought, well, if we can do it here we can do it somewhere else.”

It seems that “punk” had never caught on in the South but suddently, in 1980, all these places that had steadfastly refused to book punk bands started having “new wave nights.” Peter: “We were always the first band to play these places. We did that in almost 200 bars, most of which closed immediately afterwards. Really strange places some of them; usually biker bars or pizza parlors, all over North and South Carolina. Some places we did go back to and it was OK even if the first time half the audience had hated us and threatened to kill us!”

They did that for about 8 months, begging bar owners to let them play – usually to three people and a dog. But they enjoyed it all, sleeping on the floor of the bar or in the homes of people who they’d just met. Peter: “Usually these ‘tours’ lasted three days and we thought, ‘Let’s enjoy ourselves’ which meant we generally didn’t bother to sleep at all.”

These trips, and their lifestyle, obviously placed a strain on their “other” lives. Mike and Bill quit college straight away (too soon really, according to Peter) but Michael and Peter continued to work and/or study right up to the end of ’81, when they all became full-time musicians.

Success for R.E.M. has come, relatively speaking, gradually and was not something they ever courted. In true sixties fashion they slogged around the States, gradually getting better and better reviews. Sensibly, they postponed playing New York until quite late on, waiting until they thought they were ready. Playing live is what they enjoy most and, basically, that’s what they’ve done for the last 3 1/2 years – playing to more people in more places. That time has not, of course, been without its significant moments. I could fill the next four pages with anecdotes about life on the road but such anecdotes could apply to any band. Instead I’ll recount just two which will stand for all.

Michael: “We once played in Nashville, in this big circus tent. There was no real stage, we had to stand on tables. They had these amazing psychedelic lights that they must have dug out from someone’s basement. It was really fine. Looked like something out of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.”

Peter: “That was the time I smashed my guitar. Every time I turned round something broke off my guitar. So I finally stomped on it, and it made this great sound; I then threw it into the audience.”

Michael: “That was also the gig where the girl stood in front of you wearing a see-through plastic shirt. This is in Nashville, mind you. It was very hard to concentrate on music.”

The other story concerns Alex Chilton, who by a circuitous route (Mitch Easter and the dB’s) can be said to have connections with R.E.M.

Peter: “At one point we were in Memphis and I said to some locals, ‘Will Chilton come and see us?’ and they said, ‘What hotel are you staying at?’ I told them and they said, ‘Oh you’ll see him’ and I said ‘Why, does he hand out at the hotel?’ and they said, ‘No he drives a cab and will probably be dropping by to pick up fares.’ So I spent the whole evening looking for weird cab drivers.”

Well that just about wraps up this section except to say that for the foreseeable future the band have no intention of leaving Athens. None of them would feel comfortable living in a large city and, really, it’s a case of either New York (which they like, but only for brief periods) and L.A. (which they loathe).

It’s now time to look at the band’s musical history, so roll on Part 2.

Part 2: “Carnival of Sorts”

Despite their predilection for doing strange cover versions, none of the band had wanted R.E.M. to be, essentially, a cover band. For Bill and Mike it was simply that they’d been through all that, but for Peter the reasons were altogether different. “When the band started no one was really sure what instrument I was going to play. Mike could play guitar better than me, and I knew I wasn’t going to play the drums. It was suggested that I play bass, but I could never work it out, so in the end I became a guitar player.

“I couldn’t learn the simplest songs: ‘Gloria’ was just about all I could manage – three chords and a cloud of dust. So we just started writing our own. Some were OK, most were horrible. We wrote about three in a week, a load of songs that, thank God, the world will never hear. There’s probably about 60 floating around on tape which we’ll never play again which makes me happy. There’s about three songs from our early demo tape from that period that we still do from time to time. They may end up as B sides or something. I’ll throw one in the set occasionally, and we won’t remember how to play it. We’ll be looking at each other wondering what comes next.”

The band’s method of writing hasn’t changed much since their inception, so it’s worth mentioning at this juncture. Basically, they all play instruments to some degree and they all come up with ideas; anything from two notes to a whole song.

Not surprisingly, Michael writes most of the lyrics, although the band often give him ideas, which he then works on. Michale had this to say about his writing: “I’d never written before R.E.M. was formed. The first song we wrote was outside the church at about 6 a.m. after a party.

“The early songs were all really skeletal and the lyrics were like simple pictures but after about a year I got really bored with that. So I started experimenting with lyrics that didn’t make exact linear sense, and it’s just gone from there. However, more recently I’ve been doing things like writing love songs using the first person, which I wouldn’t have done a year ago. I guess I made up my own rules which I’m now breaking. The new songs, although not strictly less abstract, are more pared down. I use less words but I don’t think I’ve ever made a concise statement in my life. Unlike Peter, who is the king of the concise statement.”

This is also the time to discuss Michael’s influences (although he denies any direct ones). At times they seem obtuse to the point of randomness and full of odd juxtapositions and, consequently, various people have brought up the William Burroughs/Brian Gysin cut-up method. This involves cutting up bits of existing text and fitting the pieces together in a random fashion. Michael is certainly aware of Burroughs and had this to say about the technique: “I think that it’s a really interesting method of writing, but I don’t do it at all. I think that it takes a much more brilliant person that I am to do it properly. Also it leaves it all to chance, and if you’ve only got four minutes to get an idea across you can’t really use chance that much. So my lyrics aren’t stream of consciousness or cut-up at all.” I would mention that another member of the band, unprompted, suggested something quite different – that when stumped for ideas, Michael writes phrases onto bits of paper and throws them into a hat, then pulls them out at random and fits them together just as they come.

Michael does, however, admit to using the Lou Reed method of writing whereby you write down things people say and use them more or less verbatim in a song. A good example is “We Walk” from Murmur. Michael: “I used to know a girl who lived on the second floor of this house and every time she walked up the stairs she would say, ‘Up the stairs, into the hall.’ She didn’t get a credit, but I did say thank you.”

Actually I’ve always thought that “We Walk” had a distinctly nursery rhyme quality to it (more specifically A. A. Milne). There’s a great danger, however, of turning into a Weberman over Michael’s lyrics, especially as there is a good chance that you’ve got them wrong anyway. It’s not quite the same thing, but on one occasion Michael mentioned, in an interview, that he likes the Inkspots. The writer then wrote the whole piece on the basis that R.E.M. in general and Michael in particular were incredibly influenced by the Inkspots. He even described the band as “an Inkspots, for the nineties.”

Whilst we’re on the subject, one major criticism of the band is that most of the time, even on record, you can’t work out the lyrics. Michael’s only comment is: “It’s just the way I sing. If I tried to control it, it would be pretty false.”

I did venture one question about a particular lyric, although I’m not much wiser even with the answer. The song in question was “Laughing” (from Murmur). Michael: “The first line is about Laocoon, a Greek mythological figure who had two sons, all three devoured by serpents. It was a popular theme in Renaissance painting. It’s also like the photo you see of the women in Nazi Germany. You know, the woman with the shaved head clutching her baby, running from all these people who are laughing at her. But that’s a real expansive definition of the song. There’s also John Barth’s novel End of the Road where a statue of Laocoon features heavily. Oh! I did change the gender in the song from a man to a woman.”

Well, that’s really a help Michael. I checked out Laocoon, both the myth and in the Barth novel – which was fine, but I still couldn’t work out what any of it had to do with the song.

So much for lyrics, but what about the music? At this point you’re probably expecting me to start going on about sixties’ influences: the jangle of the Byrds, the Velvets’ textures and lyrics, etc., etc., and, indeed, whether the band admit it or not, they are there. In the end, though, R.E.M. has so much else going for it that those things, while not irrelevant, are only part of something I find totally contemporary. If anything they’ve struck a perfect middle ground between the linear melodic qualities of sixties’ music and the more abstract and angular qualities of the avant garde ’76 bands, for whom melody was not of primary importance. Michael summed it up thus: “One part of the band will be doing this very rhythmic or melodic type of thing, and then someone else will come in and do something that’s the exact opposite. The bass may be carrying the melody, and then the vocal might come in and do something without any resonance or melody at all. I’m really pleased with that!”

According to Peter the band all have floating parts: Mike changes his bass lines, Bill can alter his drum parts if he feels like it, Michael constantly alters lyrics on stage. Oddly Peter himself is the most stable.

I’ve always been very reluctant to discuss musicianship since the danger is always to think in terms of form rather than content – i.e., the great God Technical Expertise – but I must say I can’t fault R.E.M. in any department. The interplay between the instruments is extraordinary: Mike and Bill form the best new rhythm section I’ve heard in years, and for someone to play the guitar as well as Peter with so little experience is uncanny. He is not, as someone suggested, “the best guitarist in the world,” but he’s probably unique.

To return to the notorious sixties’ influences, there is the whole question of the 40 or so cover versions they perform, about which Peter had this to say: “Some of them are horrible. Most we haven’t sat down and actually listened to the record, so the lyrics are wrong, and we don’t know the bridge. We’re too lazy to sit down and learn them. A lot of these songs we really like; some we do because they are silly and fun. We did ‘In the Year 2525′ about six times. Not one of the world’s great songs but not a bad version. We do several Velvets songs, Them songs, a Troggs songs, even an Abba song, ‘Does Your Mother Know.’ A really cool song.”

I had prepared a list of all the covers that R.E.M. have been known to do, but listing them now seems a somewhat fatuous exercise. I will, however, say this: Personally I like the fact that R.E.M. aren’t really conversant with said material for two reasons. Firstly it is, in a way, more authentic. If asked, most of us could not recite the lyrics of songs we have heard thousands of times. What you get with R.E.M., therefore, is an aural representation of those songs as you actually remember them, thus putting the band totally outside the “human jukebox” style of revivalism. Secondly, the fragmentary nature of the covers fits more easily with the more fragmentary nature of their own songs. Does that make sense? I’m buggered if I know.

I think it’s now time to look at the band’s recordings to date and some of the stories behind them.

Their earliest “real” recording was done in an 8-track studio in Atlanta in late 1980. The songs were as follows: “Dangerous Times”; “I Don’t Want You Anymore”; “A Different Girl” (narrator, Jacques Cousteau); “Just a Touch”; “Baby I”; “Mystery to Me”; and “Permanent Vacation.” Peter had this to say about the recording: “We did the songs in two hours, we didn’t know what we were doing. Inept, but on reflection not that bad.”

The most obvious thing about these songs is that they sound very much like ’64/’65 garage band songs. Sort of naive but punky. They played all of them live for well over a year and, as Peter said earlier, one or two still crop up. Basically, none of them are a patch on their later material.

Around this time they acquired the services of an old friend, the affable Jefferson Holt, as a manager. He didn’t like the tape at all and contacted Peter Holsapple of the dB’s (an old friend from Chapel Hill) to suggest a sympathetic studio and producer. He mentioned Mitch Easter, who had played in various bands with Chris Stamey and had just opened a studio. Peter recalls, “We made the original ‘Radio Free Europe’ single with Mitch which ended up getting mis-mastered and sounds really crummy! The single came out on the Hib-Tone label and, to everyone’s surprise, was a critical if not commercial success.” It does sound a little weird – Peter actually went so far as to ceremonially break it and tape it to his wall. After the single came out they figured they’d form their own label. They (a) wanted no truck with a major and (b) it was doubtful that a major would be interested in their sort of band. So they went back to Mitch’s in October 1981 and recorded a bunch of songs with the idea of releasing a record themselves. This time they recorded “1,000,000″; “Wolves, Lower”; “Ages of You”; “Gardening at Night”; “Carnival of Sorts”; “Stumble”; “Shaking Through”; and “White Tornado.” The other intention was to learn how to use a studio. Peter: “That’s why it’s so over the top. Every trick we’d ever heard of we wanted to try. Backwards guitar? Sure, why not. ‘Let’s tape some crickets and synch them in time with the music.’ We even used kitchen utensils as percussion instruments. We recorded it, mixed it, mastered it and were going to release it on – I can’t remember – something like ‘So what’ records. However, we’d just been approached by I.R.S., probably the only company we’d have signed with, the biggest anyway.”

As it happened I.R.S. weren’t wild about the tape but the band didn’t want to wait another year without a record, so the deal was signed and the tape, minus three tracks, came out as the Chronic Town 12″. Of the remaining three, “Shaking Through” was used on Murmur, “White Tornado” is the surf-style instrumental that they still perform (they did it at the Lyceum in December ’84), and third is “Ages of You,” and excellent song that has nearly been on both the albums. Some of the band would like to see it out, but for various reasons they no longer perform it and for the same reasons it probably won’t be released. But you never know. There was another track recorded at about the same time that is generally not regarded as part of the same tape. Peter: “It’s a 10-minute noise tape which we did just for fun when we were drunk one night.

“Partially, it’s me making guitar feedback onto which we synched a drum tape and overdubbed some Hawaiian chanting. Plus there is Michael reading from a Playboy article from 1957, about the jazz scene. So you can hear all these Bohemian phrases over the top. It’s really terrible, and I challenge anyone to listen to the whole thing.”

It wasn’t my intention to go into detail about the meanings of too many of R.E.M.’s songs, but Peter told me this about “Gardening at Night”: “It’s basically a metaphor for the uselessness of everything, but if you didn’t get that I’m not surprised. It’s kind of a confused song. Actually there was an old guy in my neighborhood who would be out gardening at 2 a.m. in his suit and tie. I’d see him when I was out trying to get beer at the Magic Market or somewhere. I told Michael about the guy, and he wrote the song.” Confused or not it’s a wonderful song, although to be fair it is probably their most Byrds-influenced piece. Overall the EP is incredibly strong, especially when compared with the earlier tape, recorded less than a year before. They toured on the strength of the record, and to I.R.S.’s surprise sold about ten times what they had expected.

But I.R.S. wanted them to record an album and, being sensible chaps, the band had already written six or seven of the Murmur songs before the EP came out. As Peter says, “So often bands make one good record and then, for the second, write all songs in like six days – just before recording them. We figured we wouldn’t have anymore time off between that time and recording, so we sat down and wrote a bunch of songs that we could work up on the road.”

At the risk of repeating myself I consider the album some kind of masterpiece. I have no intention of describing it in detail as I suspect that you all own a copy. (You do; don’t you?!) One thing that is of interest is that the cello part on “Talk About the Passion” was not played by a band member. Peter: “We hired this lady from the symphony orchestra, and we paid her $25. We told her roughly what we wanted and she was dumbfounded that we weren’t going to give her a score. But she was great in the end.”

Overall the album is in some ways a continuation of the EP in that the production, outwardly simple, is actually very complex, full of overdubs and strange effects.

Although virtually all the tracks have been performed live at one time or another, including “Perfect Circle,” Murmur is very much a “studio” album and it was generally decided that the follow-up should be much sparser and nearer (in terms of the sound and general feel) to the live act. Bill says: “Reckoning is much more straightforward. We wanted to record as far as possible with all of us, including Michael, playing and singing at the same time. There are overdubs, but mostly they are the same parts doubled or tripled. It’s not such a dark album as the first.”

One of the things I really liked about the EP and Murmur was the air of mystery and enigma – a facet of rock that I felt had been absent for too long. I was, therefore, taken aback by the simplicity of Reckoning. I realized after a few plays that the enigmatic quality was still there but it was more subtle. Added to which, of course, the songs are all gems. Not all of them are new, incidentally. “Pretty Persuasion” dates back to ’81, as does “Rockville,” about which Bill had this to say: “We used to play it as an uptempo rock thing. Our laywer liked the song so much that one night in the studio we decided that we would record it just for him – not release it at all. We thought, let’s give it a real country twang, and it came out really good. So we added a few parts to it, like the piano and the screeching tremolo guitar. We thought it was good, but even then we almost didn’t put it on the album as we thought it wasn’t really representative of us. But then we thought, ‘What the hell,’ so we did; Rockville is in Maryland by the way, a real factory town. Not anywhere you’d want to visit.”

To date, then, R.E.M. have made two albums as good as, if not better, than any new band since the sixties. And if that’s not a biased opinion I don’t know what is. And on the basis of the new songs they’ve been doing, the next album should be great as well. In the end though, they are, like most of my favorite bands, primarily a live act and despite the melodic quality of most of their numbers, a surprisingly dynamic live band. Indeed, they have to be the strongest live act I’ve seen in years. On that point, and as an indication of how healthy their attitude to life is, I’ll leave you with a comment from Bill Berry: “We’re not based on commercial success. It would be foolish to think that it will last forever and get progressively better. You can’t count on it. We all get along still, we keep sane. We are playing the game to a certain extent – as soon as you sign a record contract you’e playing it, even with the likes of I.R.S. We’re not about to sell out but signing with I.R.S. was a move in that direction. Essentially, we make records to get gigs, which is still what we enjoy most.”

Originally published in December 1984 by Bucketful of Brains

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