Wednesday, September 21, 2011

REMembering R.E.M.

Today, after 31 years, R.E.M. have decided to call it quits. For me, it's kind of like losing a close friend or family member. To call R.E.M.'s music the soundtrack to my life probably sounds pretty corny and cliche, but it's definitely true. I remember watching MuchMusic as a kid in the 80's seeing these kind of weird, low budget music videos by this seemingly faceless band next to these huge productions by the Michael Jacksons, Madonnas and hair metal bands of the day. But I always really enjoyed the tunes. Even as a kid, songs like "Fall On Me," "So. Central Rain" and "Can't Get There From Here" really made a lasting impact on me. When I saw them in interviews, they just seemed like normal, yet quirky, kind of guys. They definitely stood out from the Tommy Lees and Dee Sniders of the world. In other words, they didn't look like rock stars. However, I was still just a kid so my cassette collection consisted of Poison, Skid Row and such.

By Grade 9, I kind of hit rock bottom with my music collection when I bought Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer albums. Yeah, things got pretty rough. But one day, all this would change. My days of listening to shitty music were over. On a whim, I decided to peruse the local record store with no set plan. I just wanted to find something a bit different. After scouring the store, I ended up buying Spirit of the West's Go Figure and R.E.M.'s Out of Time. Upon first listen, I thought SOTW's album was brilliant* and Out of Time was pure shite. But after a second listen, I was hooked. It seemed like a whole new world opened up to me. In particular, "Half a World Away," "Country Feedback" and "Me In Honey" absolutely flattened me. Grade 9 is a pretty pivotal year for the development of most people so I count myself pretty lucky to be exposed to R.E.M. that year. Within a few months, Nirvana and Pearl Jam broke and the rest is history.

After absorbing Out of Time, I went through R.E.M.'s back catalogue and saw how the band transformed from an underground "college rock" band to become one of the biggest bands on the planet. And looking back, it still seems kind of like a fluke. They've always had great songs, but "Losing My Religion" became the biggest song in the world... a song with no chorus and a mandolin is the main instrument. A fricking mandolin! Very bizarre. U2 have always strived to be the biggest band in the world. The "little band that could" from Athens seemed to accidentally stumble into the position of World's Biggest Band. And then it seemed like they did everything in their power to get out of that position. Eddie Vedder definitely took notes.

Since Out of Time, I have been to the record store the day each new album has come out, from 1992's Automatic For The People to this year's Collapse Into Now. And now I guess those days are over. But I am really grateful to have been exposed to such a vast, rich and diverse catalogue of music. They are the only band I can listen to, regardless of my mood. If I'm in a mellow mood, there's Out of Time. If I want to get pumped up for a run, there's always Monster. Over 31 years, they have dabbled with folk, rock, punk, glam rock, pop, soul, country, funk, ambient and electronica. Yet, it always had that distinct R.E.M. sound: Michael Stipe's unique nasal baritone, Peter Buck's jangly Byrdsy guitars, Mike Mill's melodic bass lines and backing vocals and Bill Berry's rock solid drumming. They were a band in the truest sense of the term, where the whole was greater than the sum of the parts.

Without R.E.M., I wouldn't have been exposed at such a young age to the bands that inspired them: The Velvet Underground, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Iggy and the Stooges, Patti Smith, Television. I also got acquainted with their peers: The Replacements, Husker Du, The Minutemen, Black Flag. Even though their sound wasn't abrasive, they took that whole punk DIY aesthetic and paved the way for the alternative bands of the 90's and today's indie bands. They helped create an alternate version of a "rock star" that people like Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, Thom Yorke and Win Butler could relate to. Basically, they showed that you didn't have to dress in leather pants and act like an asshole to be onstage.

It can be argued that R.E.M. should've called it a day when their drummer Bill Berry retired in 1997. It really can't be disputed that their post-Berry work has been their weakest. They really did lose a bit of confidence after he left. However, the work still holds up. Up and Reveal are still pretty great albums. They hit a low with 2004's Around The Sun, but I would rank their last two albums Accelerate and Collapse Into Now right up there with the likes of Murmur and Lifes Rich Pageant. Both albums have deservedly earned heaps of critical praise as a "return to form" and re-established R.E.M. as a relevant force again. They were even deemed "hip" enough to be on the cover of SPIN for the first time in years and be the first band to play The Colbert Report. So if the boys from Athens want to call it a day, they might as well end on a high note.

So today is a sad day for me, but they left 15 albums and 31 years of musical memories to tide me over. R.E.M., ya done good.

"Radio Free Europe"

"Begin The Begin"

"What's The Frequency, Kenneth?"

"Mine Smell Like Honey"

- JJ REMone

*In retrospect, Spirit of the West's Go Figure stands up as a pretty damn fine album, although the production is pretty dated and tinny.

1 comment:

  1. I love R.E.M. too, and will miss them an awful lot.
    They gave my life a lot of music and memories to treasure.
    It won't be the same without them.

    --Janna ("Yarxy" on Murmurs)