FREM could perhaps lay claim to
being the most important rock band of the Eighties. even when the hyperbole is removed and the facts are examined. Emerging from Athens. (ieorgia. they began as a high school band. featuring all the current members — Michael Stipe (vocals). Billy Berry (drutns). Peter Buck (guitar) and Mick Mills (bass) — and began life in earnest with their debut single. ‘Radio Free Europe'. which was released on the llib 'I‘one label in .luly 1981.
l-‘our studio albums of varying quality made REM into the darlings of the American college radio stations and the Iinglish music press. while sales of the records remained fairly insubstantial relative to their current status. The turning point was Document. their fifth (not including compilations) album. which was released in 1987. The album contained the first of their two top ten hits in the LISA. "I‘he One I l.ove' and subsequently Rolling Stone magazine declared them ‘America‘s Best Rock ck Roll Band' on the cover of their 3 December l‘)t\‘7 issue.
(‘oupled with their move from IRS to Warner Brothers alter the release of the retrospective album. li/nmymous. the band has successfully made the transition from being a major cult underground band in the LISA to being a major band. full stop. However. it is a level ofsuccess that has not been matched in the LJK. despite the band's following. with the most recent album. (ireen. making a fleeting one week appearance in the lop 'l‘hirty. Nevertheless. their first extensive l'ls' tour since 1985 has sold out. and that. along with the release of their new single. ‘()range ('rush'. could provide the launch for more UK success. 'l‘heir success is something that has reached the stage of students making pilgritnages across the LISA to Athens. yet strangely enough it is something towards which their conversation suggests a cool indifference: ‘I suppose “'I'he One] Love" was much more palatable to radio programmers than our previous singles.’ says Buck. ‘but before that we had never had hit singles at home and it didn't really matter at all. We make the records that we want to make. and if people like them then that is great. As for Britain. 1 find it hard to tell what happens here. as although our sales aren't huge. we seem to be well respected by the press and whatever. which is nice.‘
"l‘hc fact that “The One I Love" got played on mainstream radio was great in that a hit single definitely means that you sell more albums.‘ reflects Bill on a similar theme. ‘For us. all the records up until Document had sold roughly the same amount. and we were quite happy with that. We never expected to have hit records. as we never could. or would. sit down and write songs that we thought were going to be hits. The down side of being successful is that some of the longer-term fans feel that we have sold out.‘
'l‘he other main piece of armoury
8'I'he List 19 May— 1 June 1989
REM. ‘America's best roek‘n‘roll band‘ swoop in for their first major British tour for five years. John Willamson watches everything go green.
used in the ‘sell out‘ argument. was the band‘s signing to Warner Brothers last year. a deal which inevitably was rumoured to involve a large financial incentives. given the band’s status at the time. lfsigning to Warner Brothers did constitute a sell out — and it is seems dubious to this writer that Warners are any more ideologically unsound than Miles (‘opeland‘s lRS — then it certainly did not show in the first result of the collaboration. (ireen is REM‘s finest moment to date. incorporating a mixture of acoustic-based songs like ‘You Are The Everything‘ with their most direct pop rock tunes to date in the shape of ‘Pop Song 893 ‘Stand' and ‘()range (‘rushf
‘In signing to Warners. we were just doing what we felt was right for us.. explains Bill. ‘We felt when our contract with IRS came to an end that we needed a record company that was as big as us. It wasn't a particularly big bucks deal with Warners. as we wanted to maintain
NEW , ATHENIANS
the same artistic control that we did with IRS.
‘We just felt that the people at Warners were the best for us. We like a lot of them as professionals and friends. and we share the same tastes in music. which is good. We narrowed the choice down to two or three companies. and just went round and hung about their offices for a few days to see what they were like. Warner Brothers just seemed a lot tnore relaxed than the others. and their offices were messier. which seemed to be more like us.
‘lt was quite hard leaving IRS. but we were disappointed in their inability to break the band overseas. They were all hard—working. dilligent people. but the machine was not big enough to give us the promotion that we felt was needed. It just sort of became obvious that we needed a biggerlabel . . .‘
In the period preceding the release of (ireen various REM members became involved in other projects.
with Peter Buck working with Robyn Hitchcock. Stipe producing various acts (including l lugo Largo) and all the band collaborating on Warren Zevon's 1987 album. .S'entt'mental Hygiene. The outcome of these side projects and the change of label was that. despite using the same producer as on Document (Scott Litt ). (ireen has more depth and diversity than its predecessor. something that Bill puts down to a change in the writing technique: ‘For this album. we have written a lot of the songs round the mandolin. We each took the mandolin home for a couple of days and catne back with our ideas and worked on them as a unit. That was something we used to do with the guitar. but this time we were all involved using different instruments. which I think helped it to sound different.‘
When they last visited the UK on the release of Document they only managed one London date. but this time round a tnorc complete tour has been planned as part of a year's solid touring across the world. I lard work on the live front is not something that the band are unused to — but how does Peter adapt to it'.’
‘When you are travelling all the time you get bored very quickly. but we make a point ofchanging the set for each show to keep it interesting for ourselves. Basically. it is playing that saves the day for me. lfl can play guitar for five hours each day. whether it is in hotel rooms. dressing rooms or in a bus. then I am okay. I think I am basically an adrenalin junkie. and I always like to be working on something. and often working with other musicians outside the band is a good way of gaining new knowledge.’
Apart from their current album. REM have a huge back catalogue of quality tracks to call on for their live set. with Buck choosing ‘l’eeling (iravity‘s Pull‘. ‘Perfect (‘ircle’. ‘So (‘entral Rain’ and ‘Finest Worksong‘ as his favourites. while the drummer is happiest with "l'he ()ne 1 I.ove'. ‘Begin The Begin‘ and "l’alk About The Passion.’ Iiponvmous gives sotne clues to the best of REM. but the truth is that all their albums. with the partial exception of the disappointing and slightly depressing Fables oft/1e Reconstructton have plenty to recommend them. from the derivative raw energy of Murmur through to the lyrical and musical sophistication of ‘World Leader Pretend‘ on (ireen. The new record deal leaves them in a strong position commercially. while retaining their artistic integrity. suggesting that their best work may still be ahead of them. So any hints towards the future‘.’
‘I have always said that the band should last for ten albums.‘ concludes Peter. ‘We are getting there. and I think that. as friends. it is unlikely we will split up. It is much more likely that we will take a couple of years off at some stage and then get back to work again.‘
R EM's‘ Scottish dates, Edinburgh Plavliouse Theatre on 'I'uesday 23 and Glasgow Barrow/and Ballroom on Wednesday 24 are both sold out.