Members: Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Michael Stipe
R.E.M. is a rock band formed in Athens, Georgia in early 1980 by drummer Bill Berry, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and vocalist Michael Stipe.
Throughout the 1980s, the band worked relentlessly, releasing records every year from their debut release in 1983 through Green in 1988. They also toured constantly, playing a variety of venues, from theaters to backwoods dives. Along the way, they inspired countless bands, from angle pop groups of the mid-80s to alternative rock bands of the 90s. At the same time, the band was admired for its slow, steady rise to stardom, unique in an industry that grew to expect overnight success.
The band's politics, aesthetics, and hardworking ethos - largely inspired by the early punk and art rock of the 1970s - allowed the band to establish itself as a key element of the burgeoning alternative rock scene of the late-80s. With major label success at the turn of the 90s, the band found themselves able to put forth political and environmental concerns from within a popular music scene that often chose not to take a stand.
R.E.M. formed at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, in January 1980. Discovering they had similar tastes, vocalist Michael Stipe (born January 4, 1960 in Decatur, Georgia) and guitarist Peter Buck (born December 6, 1956 in Berkeley, California) began working together, eventually meeting bassist Mike Mills (born December 17, 1958 in Orange County, California) and drummer Bill Berry (born July 31, 1958 in Duluth, Minnesota). In April 1980, the band formed under the name Twisted Kites to play a birthday party for their friend Kathleen O'Brien, rehearsing a number of garage, psychedelic bubblegum, and punk covers in a converted Episcopalian church. By the summer, the band had settled on the name R.E.M. after flipping randomly through the dictionary. Around the same time, the band met Jefferson Holt, who became their manager after witnessing the group's first out-of-state concert in North Carolina. Eventually, the band members dropped out of school to concentrate on their musical career.
Over the next year and a half, R.E.M. toured throughout the South, playing a variety of garage rock covers and folk-rock originals. At the time, the band was still learning how to play, as Buck began to develop his distinctive, arpeggiated jangle and Stipe ironed out his cryptic lyrics. During the summer of 1981, R.E.M. recorded their first single, "Radio Free Europe", at Mitch Easter's Drive-In Studios. Released on the local indie label Hib-Tone, "Radio Free Europe" was pressed in a run of only 1,000 copies. The single became a hit on college radio and topped the Village Voice's year-end poll of Best Independent Singles. Their country/folk sound was contradicted by a driving bassline and an urgency that suggested The Who in their early mod phase. Paired with the distinctive voice of Stipe and his inaudible and indecipherable lyrics, R.E.M.'s sound was unique in the post-punk era of the early 1980's.
THE I.R.S YEARS 1982-1987
The notoriety of the "Radio Free Europe" single earned the band the attention of larger independent labels. In early 1982, the band signed to I.R.S. Records, and set to work on their debut EP, Chronic Town, again with Easter. The release illustrated R.E.M.'s signature musical style: jangling guitars, chords played in arpeggio, murmured vocals, and lyrics that often avoided the standard topics of popular music. To promote the release, the band flew to California and taped a video for "Wolves, Lower", which largely featured the band synching their performance with the studio recording. Stipe felt he looked foolish, and vowed to never lip-synch in a video again.
To record their debut album, the band was initially paired by their label with producer Stephen Hague, but the band objected after recording only one song. During their session, Hague pressed Berry through countless takes, then added synthesizers to the track once the band finished recording their parts. I.R.S. subsequently agreed to a "tryout" session, allowing the band to return to North Carolina and record "Pilgrimage" with Easter and producing partner Don Dixon. After hearing the track, I.R.S. gave the green light, and the band set to work selecting and recording songs from their accumulated catalog of original material.
The completed album, Murmur, was greeted with wide critical acclaim, with Rolling Stone Magazine declaring it the best album of 1983. The album was warmly received by college radio, and its success there pushed the album to top 30 status on the Billboard album chart. A re-recorded version of "Radio Free Europe" was the lead single from the album, and was distinct from the original version in the use of synthesized drums. Other notable tracks included the piano-led "Perfect Circle", "Sitting Still" (a remixed version of the Hib-Tone b-side), and "Talk About the Passion", which was re-released as a single in 1988. The success of the album scored the band its first national television appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, where they performed a new, unnamed song.
The unnamed song, eventually titled "So. Central Rain", became the first single from the band's second album, Reckoning. The band once again returned to work with Easter and Dixon, resulting in a work not far removed from its predecessor. The band spent a mere twelve days recording the album, allowing their significant road experience to guide the sessions. As with their previous work, Stipe kept his lyrics ambiguous, leaving many fans guessing as to the songs' meanings. One of the clearer songs was second single "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville", written by Mills about a love-interest who was being called back home by her parents after they had gotten wind of her disappointing grades. While mainstream radio deemed the album too uncommercial, college radio embraced it, allowing the band's reputation to grow within the underground.
For its third album, Fables of the Reconstruction, the band decided to change direction completely. After considering such wide-ranging possibilities as Van Dyke Parks, Elliot Mazer, and Hugh Padgham to produce the record, the band eventually settled on Joe Boyd, perhaps best known for his work with cult favorite Nick Drake. The band travelled to England, arriving just in time to enjoy a cold and rainy London winter. The band found the sessions unexpectedly difficult. Tensions emerged, later blamed on the weather and homesickness, and the band reportedly came close to breaking up. The gloominess surrounding the sessions ended up providing the context for the album itself, influencing an album darker and drearier than the band's previous efforts. Lyrically, Stipe began to emerge from his shell, creating storylines in the mode of Southern mythology, noting in a 1985 Melody Maker interview that he was inspired by "the whole idea of the old men sitting around the fire, passing on ... legends and fables to the grandchildren".
While Fables's singles were again mostly ignored at mainstream radio, the band found their audience at college radio continuing to grow. Four years of relentless touring began to return significant dividends, with the band finding themselves performing at larger and larger venues as the tour progressed. By the turn of 1986, R.E.M. had emerged as the quintessential college rock band.
For the ensuing album, the band decided to aim for a hard-driving rock album. They enlisted John Mellencamp producer Don Gehman to helm the sessions. The result, Lifes Rich Pageant, was later cited by the band as the marking post for the second stage of their career. Without intending to be more commercial, the band's music became more accessible, with Stipe's vocals finally coming to the forefront. Buck discussed the difference in a 1986 interview with the Chicago Tribune: "Michael is getting better at what he's doing, and he's getting more confident at it. And I think that shows up in the projection of his voice."
At the same time, Stipe finally decided that he had something to say. In a 1991 interview with MTV, Stipe related that if his vocals were to be out front, he might as well talk about what was on his mind. Over the course of Lifes Rich Pageant, Stipe's lyrics touched on a wide variety of themes, with a greater emphasis on politics and the environment. "Fall on Me" covered the concerns of air pollution, while "Cuyahoga" touched on the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, a river so polluted that it famously caught on fire in the late 1960s. The album also featured a cover of The Clique's "Superman", sung by Mills, which became a popular single at college radio. The album continued the trend of each album outselling its predecessor, and eventually peaked at number 21 on the Billboard album chart.
Following the success of Pageant, I.R.S. issued Dead Letter Office, a compilation consisting of numerous tracks recorded by the band during their album sessions, many of which had either been issued as b-sides or left unreleased altogether. The album featured numerous covers, including three Velvet Underground songs ("There She Goes Again", which was nearly included on Murmur, "Pale Blue Eyes", and "Femme Fatale"), Aerosmith's "Toys in the Attic", and "Crazy" by fellow Athens band Pylon. The album concluded with an "alcohol-soaked" run through an uncommissioned commercial for an Athens barbecue restaurant, which devolved into a cover of Roger Miller's "King of the Road". Of the latter, Buck joked in the liner notes: "If there was any justice in the world, Roger Miller should be able to sue for what we did to this song." For the CD release, I.R.S. added Chronic Town, its first issuing in the format. Shortly thereafter, I.R.S. compiled R.E.M.'s music video catalog (save "Wolves, Lower") into the band's first video release, Succumbs.
For their last album for I.R.S., the band entered what would become a decade-long relationship with producer Scott Litt. Again eager to make a hard-driving rock record, the band eliminated many of the elements that had played so prominently on their first albums, including Buck's arpeggios and Stipe's mumbling vocals. Reacting to the conservative political environment of the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan, the album featured some of Stipe's most openly political lyrics, particularly on "Welcome to the Occupation" and "Exhuming McCarthy".
The completed album, Document, began the band's rise into the mainstream.
Document's first single, "The One I Love", caught on at Top 40 radio. In the ensuing months, listeners who misunderstood the song's meaning made the song a popular radio dedication to loved ones, relying on the main lyric, "This one goes out to the one I love." However, they missed an ensuing line: "A simple prop to occupy my time"; the song was not particularly a love song. Stipe related to Rolling Stone, "I've always left myself pretty open to interpretation. It's probably better that they just think it's a love song at this point."
became the band's first major single, reaching number nine on the Billboard singles chart. The album's second single, "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)", was a pre-apocalyptic rant reminiscent of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues". While not a particular success on mainstream radio, the video for the song became a popular favorite at college radio and on MTV's 120 Minutes.
The band's I.R.S. years were summarized in the 1988 compilation Eponymous. The release included most of the band's singles as well as a number of rarities, including the original Hib-Tone version of "Radio Free Europe", a version of "Gardening at Night" with Stipe singing the song full-voice rather than the more subdued version from Chronic Town, and a version of "Finest Worksong" with horns, which Buck thought might have made Document "had instinct prevailed at the time".
ROCK SUPERSTARS 1988-1996
In 1988, R.E.M. signed for a 5-album contract to the major label Warner Brothers Records and released Green. This was the band's first time with heavy promotion, and they toured large arenas worldwide in 1989. Some fans from the I.R.S. days complained that R.E.M. had become too commercial and that the quality of the music had decreased, but the band had now been brought to international attention, with radio hits like the top 10 "Stand," and continued their political interest with the anti-war anthem "Orange Crush". In 1990, a mid-'80s side project between Berry, Buck, Mills, and Warren Zevon, the Hindu Love Gods, had a record of blues covers released by Giant Records without the R.E.M. members' consent or participation; a cover of Prince's 1985 hit "Raspberry Beret" received some modest radio airplay.
R.E.M. reconvened in mid-1990 to record their seventh album, Out of Time, which was released in the spring of 1991 and became the band's first chart-topping album in both the U.S. and U.K. A lush pop and folk album, Out of Time boasted a wider array of sounds than the group's previous efforts, and its lead single, "Losing My Religion", became the group's biggest pop hit, reaching number four in the U.S. The band also scored a Top 10 hit with "Shiny Happy People," one of two songs on the album to feature vocals from Kate Pierson of fellow Athens, Georgia band The B-52's. Two songs featuring Mills on lead vocals, "Near Wild Heaven" and "Texarkana," received considerable airplay as well, the latter becoming a hit on album-oriented rock radio. Since the band was exhausted from the Green Tour, they chose to stay off the road. Nevertheless, Out of Time became R.E.M.'s biggest album, selling more than four million copies in the U.S. and spending two weeks at the top of the charts.
After spending some months off in 1991, the band returned in the studio quickly to record their next album. In autumn of the following year they released the dark, meditative Automatic for the People (1992). Though the group had promised a harder-rocking album after the softer textures of Out of Time, Automatic for the People was slow, quiet, and reflective, with many songs graced by string arrangements by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. Most of the acoustic sound of the album came from the influence of Peter Buck's production of Uncle Tupelo's March 16-20,1992. Like its predecessor, Automatic was a quadruple-platinum success, generating the Top 40 hit singles "Man on the Moon," "Drive," and "Everybody Hurts", written by drummer Bill Berry. It sold 15 million copies worldwide in spite of such melancholy themes as death, suicide, and sexual jealousy.
After piecing together almost two albums in the studio, R.E.M. decided to return to being a rock band. Though the record was conceived as a back-to-basics album, the recording of the grunge-influenced Monster (1994) was difficult and plagued with tension. The single "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" proved to be a crossover hit and Monster their fastest-selling album to date, debuting at the top of the U.S. charts, but many critics disliked the band's foray into glam rock.
Experiencing some of the strongest sales and reviews of their career, R.E.M. began early in 1995 their first tour since Green, beginning several collaborations with famed stage and lighting designer Willie Williams. Two months into the tour, Bill Berry suffered a brain aneurysm while performing; he had surgery immediately and had fully recovered within a month. R.E.M. resumed their tour two months after Berry's aneurysm, but his illness was only the beginning of a series of problems that plagued the Monster Tour. Mills had to undergo abdominal surgery to remove an intestinal adhesion in July; a month later, Stipe had to have an emergency surgery to repair a hernia.
Despite all the problems, the tour was an enormous financial success, and the group recorded the bulk of a new album while on the road. Shortly before its release, which was going to fulfill their contract, the band re-signed with Warner Brothers in 1996 for what was, at the time, the largest recording contract advance in history: a reported $80 million for five albums. New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996), a long, roughly-produced and decidedly bleak record, unleashed sentiments regarding the problems during Monster. The album featured the seven-minute "Leave," the band's longest, and perhaps most intense, song to date. In light of such a huge contract sum, the commercial failure of New Adventures in Hi-Fi was particularly surprising. Though it received strong reviews and debuted at number two in the U.S. and number one in the U.K., the album failed to generate a hit single in the U.S. where it merely went platinum after its three predecessors went quadruple platinum. Other notable tracks on that record include "E-Bow the Letter" (a collaboration with the legendary Patti Smith) and the western-themed rock of "Low Desert."
In 1996, R.E.M. parted ways with their long-time manager Jefferson Holt, allegedly due to sexual harassment charges levied against Holt by a member of the band's home office in Athens. The group's lawyer, Bertis Downs, assumed managerial duties.
R.E.M AFTER BERRY 1997 - PRESENT
R.E.M. had always maintained strong band unity, sharing writing credits among its four members and generally seeking unanimous consensus on band decisions. In interviews over the years, Michael Stipe and others had stated repeatedly that the departure of any member of the band would likely lead to their breakup. This was tested on October 30, 1997, when Bill Berry announced his wish to leave the group, citing exhaustion and the mental fatigue of touring and promotion. In consultation with the band, Berry said he would not depart if it would lead to the group's breakup; according to Stipe, he even offered, if the others wanted, to continue drumming on studio recordings, though it would likely depress him. Stipe said: "I just love the guy too much to see him sad." Acquiescing to Berry's wishes and relieving him from the guilt of triggering a breakup, R.E.M. announced that it would continue as a three-piece.
The remaining members of R.E.M. convened in Hawaii to begin preliminary work on their next album, Up. The previous album pointed the band in some new artistic and musical directions, but without one of their creative wheels, the band struggled to redefine their sound as a threesome. The recording process was again plagued with much tension and the group came close to disbanding completely. Now a three-piece, the band decided to reinvent their sound, and parted ways with their decade-long producer Scott Litt. They commissioned Patrick "Pat" McCarthy, who oversaw a lush production (McCarthy has remained in the producer's chair ever since). While there was no replacement drummer, ex-Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin contributed to sessions. Many tracks contained drum machines, and Peter Buck played very little guitar, with Mike Mills assuming much of the guitar and keyboard duties on the album. Released in the fall of 1998, Up offered a synth-heavy, Krautrock-influenced sound and was another long and reflective record, widely touted as R.E.M.'s most experimental recording in years. Led off by the single "Daysleeper," Up debuted in the U.S. top 10 but sank quickly, only going gold and producing no major radio hits. In Europe, however, the group remained popular.
A year after Up's release, R.E.M. contributed a song, "The Great Beyond," to the soundtrack of the movie Man on the Moon, which starred Jim Carrey in the life story of comedian Andy Kaufman and was itself named for the 1992 R.E.M. hit that referenced Kaufman in the lyrics. A major U.K. hit and a minor U.S. hit, "The Great Beyond" garnered greater radio airplay than any of R.E.M.'s singles from Up.
Reveal (2001) confirmed the return to a mellower songwriting approach, with songs such as "Imitation of Life," "All the Way to Reno (You're Gonna Be a Star)," and "She Just Wants To Be." Again, popular and critical response varied on either side of the Atlantic: Reveal garnered mixed reviews in the U.S. but was critically feted in Britain, receiving generous praise from many popular music magazines including Uncut, Wired, NME and Q.
Recent R.E.M. soundtrack appearances have found them revisiting some of their earliest material, hitherto available only on live bootlegs. "All the Right Friends," written in 1980, was featured on the soundtrack to the Cameron Crowe film Vanilla Sky (2001). And the single "Bad Day" (2003), featured on the "best of" compilation In Time - The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003, started out as an unfinished 1986 demo called "P.S.A.", which itself was re-worked into 1987's "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)".
The band returned in 2004 with Around the Sun, which met with the mildest critical praise of any album in R.E.M.'s career. For this record and a subsequent tour, the band hired a new full-time drummer, Bill Rieflin, who had previously been a member of Ministry: "Peter brought him in," says Stipe. "He thought he could pull us in a different direction, and Rieflin really responds to the singer, which is great." Singles from Around the Sun included "Leaving New York," "Aftermath," "Electron Blue" (a radio hit in Britain) and "Wanderlust." While touring behind Around the Sun, R.E.M. took part in two live festivals that reflected the band's sociopolitical interests. In late 2004 the band toured with Bruce Springsteen and Bright Eyes on the Vote for Change Tour supporting U.S. presidential candidate John Kerry. And in July 2005 R.E.M. participated in Live 8. A scheduled R.E.M. concert at the same venue, Hyde Park, London, one week later, was postponed for an additional week in the aftermath of the 7 July 2005 London bombings.
In a recent interview, Buck said that R.E.M.'s next album would be very different from their current sound. Based on the new song "I'm Gonna DJ", played live on the 2004-2005 world tour, fans anticipate another rock album. According to Stipe, the band expects to have around 25 songs to choose from for the next album, widely expected to be released sometime in late 2006 or early 2007, as the band is taking a year off following the Around The Sun World Tour. The band remains signed to Warner Bros., with two albums remaining on their contract.
1983 - Murmur
1984 - Reckoning
1985 - Fables of the Reconstruction
1986 - Lifes Rich Pageant
1987 - Document
1988 - Green
1991 - Out of Time
1992 - Automatic for the People
1994 - Monster
1996 - New Adventures in Hi-Fi
1998 - Up
2001 - Reveal
2004 - Around the Sun
1987 - Dead Letter Office
1998 - Eponymous
1991 - The Best of R.E.M.
1994 - R.E.M.: Singles Collected
1997 - R.E.M.: In the Attic
2001 - Not Bad for No Tour (LIVE EP)
2003 - In Time - The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003