photo & text by nacrowe
its hard for me to overstate how foundational the music of R.E.M. was for me as a music listener, as some of my earliest memories of experiencing new music was both the OUT OF TIME (WARNER BROS, 1991) and MONSTER (WARNER BROS, 1994) albums. ironically it was the former record that got me interested in playing guitar as a first grader. its ironic because that was the specific album in their discography where guitarist PETER BUCK essentially abandoned the instrument in favor of mandolin.
i think with those initial OUT OF TIME singles like "SHINY HAPPY PEOPLE" and "LOSING MY RELIGION" there was a sense of both pop abandon and real pathos in the LYRICS, MANNERISM and VOCALS of singer MICHAEL STIPE. its interesting that he was one of my earliest introductions to a 'rock singer' given his AMBIVALANCE to fame and his highly IDIOSYNCRATIC presentation that showcased a COMPLICATED figure with strong ideas and a seemingly UNDEFINABLE sexuality, this in addition to his obvious INTELLIGENCE and CHARISMA. STIPE was (and still is) a real MERCURIAL and COMPELLING figure, especially for a curious seven year old.
when MONSTER came out the tone was more SOMBER and AGGRESSIVE with singles like "STAR 69," "BANG AND BLAME," "WHAT'S THE FREQUENCY, KENNETH?" and "CRUSH WITH EYELINER." all the guitar feedback and lyrics about DISLOCATION, strained relationships and potential VIOLENCE was a world away from "SHINY HAPPY PEOPLE" and was more in keeping with the NIRVANA, SOUNDGARDEN and PEARL JAM songs i heard on the radio station 106.7 FM KROQ out of nearby LOS ANGELES that bordered ORANGE COUNTY where i lived growing up. both visually and aurally, MONSTER was a major record for me growing up and was somewhat of an introduction to the aggressively REFLECTIVE and SELF-DISPARAGING aesthetic of ALTERNATIVE ROCK much as OUT OF TIME was an introduction to the PLAINTIVE, direct songwriting stylings of INDIE ROCK.
whats interesting to me as an adult looking back is how arguably the STRONGEST R.E.M. record ever made, AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE (WARNER BROS, 1991), which came out between OUT OF TIME and MONSTER, was not in the mix for me during that period. until discovering it later in my late teens i had no memory of the record whatsoever. back in the early and mid 1990s there was no SPOTIFY or YOUTUBE, just the tail end of a national cassette trading network that i was not privy to at that age. i was literally only aware of what was on the radio and what my parents, usually my father, added to their CD collection. getting compact discs was a REVELATORY ritual up until the birth of MP3 trading and disc burning that began when i was in high school in the late 1990s and later the adoption of the iPod that came about a few years into the new millennium. prior to such i was TRANSFIXED to the ARTWORK and details of PACKAGING and their connection to musical content. that experience with OUT OF TIME and MONSTER was as TRANSCENDENT an experience as the music itself in many ways. that eye to visual ICONOGRAPHY, TYPOGRAPHY, LAYOUT and GRAPHIC DESIGN vocabulary in general was an education in and of itself and my earliest VIVD memories of experiencing such, again are probably those two records (as well as LIVING COLOUR, SOUNDGARDEN and PEARL JAM releases from that same period).
i find it more than amusing that since i began parodying album covers in an effort to promote my regular DEER GOD RADIO show at nonprofit radio station MAKERPARKRADIO.NYC, the only pushback i ever got back was from 'angry' R.E.M. supporters. i was told on INSTAGRAM by a random person that STIPE didnt take kindly to people stealing from him and would sue me to oblivion. my hope and expectation is that if he did discover my promotional parodies he would be delighted by them as a LOVING homage to a band i ADORE and have respected since childhood. i certainly make no money from such and nor does the station. all that being said, R.E.M. please dont sue me.
embedded below is a DEER GOD RADIO episode from the spring of 2022 on nonprofit internet radio station MAKERPARKRADIO.NYC dedicated to the music of R.E.M. from throughout their extensive catalogue. enjoy!
photo manipulations by nacrowe
R.E.M. BY MTV (VIACOM, 2014) is a pretty straightforward documentary cobbled together from, you guessed it, archival interview and performance footage of the band on MTV from throughout their career. the result of which is a surprisingly intimate narrative that for the most part is told in first-person from the band's perspective, as well as a sprinkling of record producers, record executives and the like.
the value of this documentary for me had nothing to do with their biography (of which i will spare you any plot summary), but rather the mysterious alchemy that was their songwriting process and how it was affected over time by external factors. in a sense their process was very pure as their was a communal ethic to their process. each brought in material and as a group they would mold it into shape. importantly this was concept was buttressed by the business decision to split publishing royalties evenly, which might sound like a boring detail but you'd be surprised how many bands have fallen by the wayside due to this important decision. over their career there was a sense of group ownership of their material which only deepened their trust in each other as financial incentives were not an issue.
when i think of guitarist PETER BUCK and his sound it very much reminds me of what JOHNNY MARR termed in his memoir as a "anti-Rockist" approach. like MARR, he tends to have a RICKENBACKER sound that can be at times clean and precise in an almost traditional FOLK sense and then impressionistic with suspended chords drenched in reverb. with R.E.M. there is a definite contrarian streak throughout their career and BUCK's guitar approach reflects such. his use of mandolin on OUT OF TIME (WARNER BROS, 1991) and the incorporation of sounds based in electronic music on later albums in the wake of drummer BILL BERRY's departure being prime examples. fundamentally his work, along with the rhythm section sets the tone that singer MICHAEL STIPE reacts to in his lyrics and vocal approach.
obviously STIPE is an iconic and celebrated singer who both popularized the COLLEGE ROCK / INDIE ROCK of the 1980s as well as helped usher in and very much participated in the ALTERNATIVE ROCK explosion of the 1990s. but to consider what it was he actually contributed is much harder to discern. its almost like the HEISENBERG UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE in that the closer you look, the more you are missing the point. taking his cue from the impressionistic sound of his band, there is an intuitiveness to his lyrics and voice. he almost seems to revel in ambiguity, especially early in his career. songs were more about presenting an emotion rather than delivering an idea. the fact that songs are gender neutral only adds to this ambiguity. only after their initial run of albums did he alter slightly his approach to address the bigger crowds at their shows.
what interests me about STIPE's career is how his writing and stage persona tackled this problem while maintaining his credibility. given his greater platform and the vapidness and skullduggery of dealing with the press, he consciously addressed issues he was passionate about including AIDS awareness, animal rights, gun legislation, LGBTQIA issues, etc. maybe this was influenced by his allies in PATTI SMITH, BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, ADAM YAUCH, EDDIE VEDDER and KURT COBAIN, all who similarly fearlessly addressed such matters without fear of blowback, almost inviting it. some find this kind of outspokenness pretentious. some find STIPE's opaque lyrics in general pompous as well. as immortally stated in SPINAL TAP, "its a fine line between stupid... and uh, clever." luckily despite such external pressures, STIPE is the type that of artist that has a strong sense of self and follows his own trajectory.
and for me that sense of purpose is the legacy of R.E.M. even years now after their breakup. they are a great example of not compromising artistically and being commercially viable. and that art vs. commerce balance is quite the tight-rope act.
just the idea of listening to yourself is empowering. thats what i take from R.E.M.