R.E.M.ember one of the best bands ever with a good look back. You'll have a monster of a time reliving a huge -- and we mean that literally -- part of your childhood. Plus much more.
Remember when R.E.M. was great? A new collection of the band's early years will help jog your memory.
In a 33-year career as a music lover (12 of which I have been paid for my opinion on the matter), there have been only two times that a music video has stopped me in my tracks. The last time, it was Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," in 1991. The first time was in 1986, when I saw "Fall on Me" by R.E.M. on MTV's 120 Minutes. Unlike Nirvana, which came crashing through the television like a battle-ax-wielding tsunami of sound, "Fall on Me" was subtle and mysterious. The video was black-and-white. The images were postindustrial mayhem. It was a working-class manifesto for emerging ecofriendly iconoclasts - and the band was nowhere to be found. I'd never seen or heard anything like it, but it seemed … important.
Of course, those were the hair-metal days. Videos and album covers were basically a vehicle for a band's hairdresser. I went to the record store and found the album Lifes Rich Pageant. More mystery ensued. What was the title all about? Its cover featured a black-and-white shot of drummer Bill Berry (and a herd of buffalo), though he didn't look like any drummer I had ever seen, and since the cover was designed to look vaguely antique, I assumed the photo wasn't of him at all. Who was this strange, faceless band, and what kind of music was this? And what on earth was an R.E.M.? It was so foreign to me, I couldn't even bring myself to buy it.
Fast-forward 20 years, and there are few folks anywhere in the world who don't know what an R.E.M. is. Anyone who doesn't (along with those who do) should check out the band's latest anthology, And I Feel Fine... The Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982-1987, which, in a two-CD collector's edition, features 21 of the band's favorites as well as an extra disc of rarities, live recordings, alternative takes, and previously unreleased diamonds in the rough. It's a starting point, anyway, released to coincide with the band's induction into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. That kind of fame is certainly not something I expected from the band - at least not back when I first picked up Lifes Rich Pageant. I even lived in Atlanta but had no idea the band was from Georgia.
By the time 1987 rolled around, I was still into Bon Jovi, although I had all but forgotten my curiosity about R.E.M. somewhere in the haze of transitioning from middle school to high school. Then I heard "The One I Love." The way in which singer Michael Stipe ushered in the chorus, "Fiiiiiiire ... " had a precious yearning about it. I bought Document, the band's last effort for I.R.S. Records, and pretty much listened to it nonstop for two years.
There was still no band photo on the cover, though. (Didn't these guys have cool haircuts?) But every song on the album was captivating and unlike anything I had ever heard before. It was an awakening. I'm pretty sure I didn't listen to another hair band again until well into my adult life, when hearing Skid Row's "Youth Gone Wild" became kind of fun in a nostalgic way. Of course, we all know what happened next. R.E.M. exploded, thanks to Document. They left indie label I.R.S. Records and signed with a major label for something like $80 million - the largest recording contract in history at the time.
I was off to college in Athens, Georgia, where the band had met, lived, and thrived. I shopped at the same record store (Wuxtry Records), drank at the same coffeehouse (Blue Sky), and even waited on both guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills at a Mexican restaurant, Mexicali, on separate occasions. (I can neither confirm nor deny that credit card receipts were kept as autographed souvenirs.) Bertis Downs, the band's manager, shared office space with the music-promotion company with which I interned. I was in the thick of it.