Before they released their first single, REM almost lost its name. It turns out another new wave band was about to release its first single under the name REM, and the two bands duked it out in a “winner keeps the name” concert. By the time I got into them, REM was already at their apex, but their work in the 80s is the stuff of lore. They pounded the college radio, indie scene album after album, with truly marginal increases in commercial success, weird appearances on Letterman. It was a format that finally paid off. The breakthrough singles “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” and “Stand” whetted the world’s appetites for Out of Time, a true barn-burner of an album that sold millions and turned REM into international stars.
I was immediately drawn to “Losing My Religion”, the album’s hit single. The tune put together an incredible series of runs in my personal music tournaments, and though it never won, it lodged the seventh most quarter-final appearances of all time (after Bad (U2), Thunder Road, Walls, One, Rock the Casbah, Don’t Stop Believing).
Out of Time was followed by Automatic for the People, a great name for a great album. “Drive”, “Nightswimming” and “Man on the Moon” fill out a dextrous track-list that’s headlined by “Everybody Hurts”, which brought the house down at the 1993 MTV Music Awards. (I had the link ready to go, but the audio is disabled thanks to Viacom. I’ll provide a kick-ass Jane’s Addiction performance instead.)
When Monster came out with its crazy distortion pedals, I was not a fan. Peter Buck, the guitarist, was apparently obsessed with the pedal, and while it made for a few cool tracks, it remains a tough album to listen to from start to finish. But “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth” remains one of the most delightfully odd song origins of all time. Dan Rather was on his way to work when he got jumped by two thugs who beat him down- one of whom later explained that he targeted Rather because the media was trying to control him through the airwaves. As they slugged him they yelled, “Kenneth, what’s the frequency? Kenneth, what’s the frequency?”
Speaking of Monster, this video is kind of a gem. It’s REM hanging out on Sesame Street, doing their new song, “Furry Happy Monsters,” which is, of course, a cover of “Shiny Happy People.” While we’re on the subject of covers (this being the lead-up to the Covers Tournament, after all), I’d be remiss not to give a shout out to the Hindu Love Gods. They are Buck, Mills and Berry backing up the legendary Warren Zevon. The group jammed together in the late 80s, and recorded a cover of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret,” which I almost nominated for said tournament. Like most old school rockers, REM has a true appreciation for covers- check out this lovely version of U2’s “One”.
I finally saw REM live during the New Adventures in Hi-Fi tour. Nick Z., my Kramer-like buddy, had our tickets, but he was so late that I was forced to listen through the gates as the show began. In an era before time, when I had no cell phone and he only a pager, this was a devastating set of circumstances. Eventually a scalper who had given up on unloading the rest of his tickets took pity on me, and I soon found myself in the fifth row. That concert was also the first time I ever saw Patti Smith, who just killed it (starting at about 4:30).
Now, this next clip is a parody, not a cover. It’ Corky and the Juice Pigs from MAD TV (remember that show?) doing their best imitation of life, with “REMember.” Stipe is pretty easy to impersonate, even though Corky looks nothing like him. Being parodied on a late night show was, and still is, a sign that you’ve made it.
By the late 90s mass support for REM was fading. It was kept alive by the epic combo of Andy Kaufman and Jim Carrey, with “Man on the Moon” featuring as a prominent title track to that most awesome movie. But even then, the new single “Great Beyond”, seemed to be grasping. They seemed like they were out of ideas. Up was their last impactful album, “Bad Day” their last memorable single. In 2003 they released their Greatest Hits- never a good sign. I bought it and played it often. From that point on, REM was pretty much over for me.
They were of a certain time. Their mega record deal in 1996 was an exceedingly poor investment from the label, and one of the last of its kind. Michael Stipe’s focus on Tibetan Freedom, still an issue to this day, seems dated as far as cause-celeb activities go. Peter Buck’s guitar playing, like The Edge’s, is subtle, simple and consistent, but it just seems to work. In fact, you could say that for the rest of the band as well. There was never a question that the bands they were often compared to in their prime- U2, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, the Chili Peppers- were all way more talented than they were. But like gritty athletes, they dug in, never stopped touring, never stopped recording, never stopped believing. Until now. Now they’re calling it quits. It would be disingenuous to say that most of us will miss them. But we will always appreciate and respect them. Don’t go back to Rockville- and waste another year.