The Athens, Georgia-based quartet released a five-song EP (Chronic Town) in 1982 -- then followed with five superb albums -- one per year -- Murmur, Reckoning, Fables Of The Reconstruction, Lifes Rich Pageant, and Document.
For me -- in my early 20s, a music addict with a college radio show -- guitarist Peter Buck was the epitome of indie rock cool. The one-time record store clerk was a font of knowledge and trivia about American music, praising and promoting other bands like Jason and the Scorchers, the Replacements, Hüsker Dü and the Minutemen, as well as older influences like Big Star, in interviews.
The 1980s was a tremendously creative period for American rock music -- and REM was one of the bands that set it in motion. Here's a clip of the band from October 6, 1983 playing "Radio Free Europe" on the David Letterman Show (their national TV debut).
For their second song that night, REM opted for a song so new, it was still untitled. They had played it live for the first time only three days earlier. Gutsy choice for a new band, but they clearly knew what a gem they had, since it's one of the best songs of their career.
After their amazing indie run, REM left IRS for Warner Bros. and their creativity flagged. The band gained tremendous mainstream success (everyone has probably heard 1991's "Losing My Religion") but subsequent recordings were hit and miss, rarely touching the genius of their early days. After drummer Bill Berry left the band in 1997, they struggled mightily to find their creative edge as a trio. Their three albums without him seemed like an attempt to distance themselves from their past -- to explore new musical ideas and not fall back on being the rock band they once were.
REM's 14th studio album -- Accelerate -- will be officially released next Tuesday. The band has been streaming the entire thing online and it's been uploaded to many mp3 blogs. I found a copy a week or two ago. I had heard bits of the recordings of their five nights of "working rehearsals" in Dublin last July -- held while they were recording the album -- but I never expected to hear the band sound like this again in the studio. One word:
Glorious, loud, buzzy, insistent, slashing, snarling GUITAR! Put that together with Mike Mills's propulsive, muscular basslines and the return of his wonderful harmonies and a fully engaged Michael Stipe spitting out lyrics that mine his political anger while struggling to rise above the sonic maelstrom and you get: Holy shit!
Accelerate's first three songs -- Living Well Is The Best Revenge, Man-Sized Wreath, Supernatural Superserious -- constitute the strongest start to an REM album in 21 years -- a kick-ass cacophony that blazes by in a mere nine minutes. Indeed, the band wastes little time on this record: five of the 11 songs clock in at: 2:05, 2:07, 2:18, 2:33, 2:39 -- and the entire CD lasts about 34 minutes.
The rest of the album cannot maintain that furious kick start, but it's pretty damn good. Since 1987's Document, only Automatic For The People (1992) and New Adventures In Hi-Fi (1996) can even think of holding a candle to this album.
Check comments to listen to some early REM.