One of the best bands the American underground kicked up in the Eighties, R.E.M. were a group of arty Athens, Georgia guys who invented college rock and went on to huge mainstream success. They brought a cagey mix of attitude and poetry to an idiosyncratic sound built around jangling guitars and hazy vocals of frontman Michael Stipe. Relentlessly touring clubs around the country for the first few years, R.E.M. consistently refined their sound: They could be dreamy, abrasive, circumspect, mischievous, and eggheaded. Their 1988 signing with Warner. Bros. netted them $10 million dollars for five records. Fortunately for the band and their fans, the same kind of creative gambits that marked their early days were still in place during the 1990s.
Born in 1960, Michael Stipe was an introverted child who spent much of his time hanging out with sisters Lynda and Cyndy. By 1975, he had begun reading articles about Patti Smith and the burgeoning New York punk scene, and while in high school in St. Louis, he joined a short-lived punk rock cover band. In 1978 Stipe enrolled at the University of Georgia at Athens, where he majored in painting and photography. While shopping at the local record store, he met its manager Peter Buck, a native Californian and avid pop fan who shared Stipe's interest in adventurous music. They decided to form a band, and within a year had connected with fellow students Bill Berry and Mike Mills, childhood friends from nearby Macon who had played together in various Southern rock groups. In April 1980 the four formed R.E.M. (named for the dream state "rapid eye movement") and began rehearsing in a converted church. In July the group played their first out-of-state gig in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where they met future manager Jefferson Holt.
Though influenced by punk and the DIY aesthetic, R.E.M. began to develop their own energetic folk-rock style. Their signature sound was a blend of Buck's chiming guitar and Stipe's cryptic vocals. In 1981 the group recorded a demo tape of original music at Mitch Easter's Drive-In Studio in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Two songs from those sessions, "Radio Free Europe" and "Sitting Still," were released as a 7-inch single in July on the homegrown Hib-Tone label. The driving "Radio Free Europe" earned positive notices, and in October the band returned to Easter's studio to record its first EP. R.E.M. signed with the I.R.S. label in 1982 and released the Chronic Town EP to overwhelming critical praise.
The band's first full-length album, Murmur (Number 36, 1983), was an instant classic, containing everything its supporters had hoped for: more layers of ringing guitar, more passionate and vague vocals, more atmospheric melodies and more seductive pop hooks. It also included a new, tighter version of "Radio Free Europe." The follow-up, Reckoning, failed to break new ground but managed to reach Number 27 on the charts, spawning the minor hit "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)" and garnering favorable reviews. The group enlisted London-based folk producer Joe Boyd (Fairport Convention, Nick Drake) for Fables of the Reconstruction (Number 28, 1985), which featured a mildly psychedelic setting. Life's Rich Pageant (Number 21, 1986) took that experiment further, but with more of a sheen, courtesy of producer Don Gehman (John Mellencamp), who encouraged Stipe to sing more clearly; its single was "Fall on Me," whose video was directed by Stipe. R.E.M.'s first major hit, "The One I Love" (Number Nine, 1987), from the band's first Top Ten album, Document (Number 10, 1987), was a song of betrayal that was almost universally misinterpreted as a tribute to romance. The band then signed to Warner Bros. and their debut for the imprint, Green (Number 12, 1988), yielded a hit single, "Stand" (Number Six, 1988), that was the simplest, most hummable song of their career; the album's other single, "Pop Song 89" (Number 86, 1988), was a minor hit that made fun of the music business. Dead Letter Office (Number 52, 1987) is a collection of B-sides and outtakes, and Eponymous (Number 44, 1988) is a greatest-hits album. Following Green, R.E.M. went on a touring hiatus.
It took three years for the band to return with the highly anticipated Out of Time, which rocketed to Number One, went quadruple platinum and included both "Losing My Religion" (Number Four, 1991) and "Shiny Happy People" (Number 10, 1991). The video for the former was banned in Ireland for allegedly homoerotic imagery; the latter was a duet with Kate Pierson of the B-52's. Out of Time also featured an expanded instrumental palette of horns and mandolins. The album and its songs won three Grammys that year. The somber Automatic for the People (Number Two, 1992) featured string arrangements by former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. Its hits were "Drive" (Number 28, 1992), "Man on the Moon" (Number 30, 1993), a tribute to the comedian Andy Kaufman, and the mega lament "Everybody Hurts" (Number 29, 1993).
During the latter part of the Eighties, R.E.M. became activists, inviting Greenpeace to set up booths at their concerts and becoming involved in local Athens politics. On his own, Stipe spoke out on such issues as the environment, animal rights and the plight of the homeless. He also ushered other artists into the public eye, including folk painter the Rev. Howard Finster, filmmaker Jim McKay (with whom he set up the film company C-Hundred, noted for its series of public-service announcements), and edgy artist Vic Chesnutt. Stipe also worked with rapper KRS-ONE of Boogie Down Productions and Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs. Meanwhile, Buck produced music by such artists as Kevn Kinney of Drivin' N' Cryin' and Charlie Pickett. In 1990 Buck, Berry, Mills, and singer-songwriter Warren Zevon formed a side band, the Hindu Love Gods, which released a self-titled album on Giant-Reprise.
R.E.M. returned with Monster (Number One, 1994), which combined fierce rock songs featuring guitars with heavy reverb (including that of Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore on one track) and distorted vocals, as well as the band's more traditional-sounding fare. Its first single, "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" reached Number 21, while "Bang and Blame" reached Number 19. Soon after, the band commenced its first world tour in five years. Within two months, Berry suffered a double brain aneurysm onstage in Switzerland and underwent emergency surgery. He recovered, and the shows resumed two months later, but more medical emergencies interrupted the tour when Mills needed abdominal surgery and Stipe had surgery for a hernia. Two weeks after the tour ended, Buck came down with pneumonia.
In 1996 New Adventures in Hi-Fi (Number Two) was released and R.E.M. re-signed with Warner Bros. for a reported $80 million. But the new album, recorded largely on the road during sound checks, was considered a commercial disappointment. In 1997 Berry left the band after 17 years. R.E.M. chose to continue and released the moody Up (Number Three, 1998), recorded with drummers Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees) and Joey Waronker (Beck), along with drum machines, sequencers and tape loops.
By now Stipe was working as a filmmaker, having already appeared as a 1940s hermit in the 1996 film Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day. He then formed a production company, Single Cell Pictures, which enjoyed a critical success in 1999 with the surreal Being John Malkovich. He also released a book of photographs taken of Patti Smith on tour, while Buck began recording with an improvisational side project called Tuatara. In 1999 R.E.M. recorded the score to the Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon, a title taken from the band's own tribute song to the late comedian. The movie soundtrack included a sequel to the original song, "The Great Beyond." The next year R.E.M. traveled to Vancouver to begin work on a new album, Reveal, which debuted at Number Six in 2001.
R.E.M. toured and recorded over the next three years, releasing the compilation In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003, which included two new songs, "Animal" and "Bad Day." In 2004, the band released Around the Sun (Number 13) to mixed reviews, and toured with former Ministry drummer Bill Rieflin. Later that year, the band joined Bright Eyes, Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen on the Vote for Change tour. The band continued performing throughout 2005. The following year, EMI released two collections of the band's pre-Warner Bros. material: the CD And I Feel Fine... The Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982-1987 and DVD When the Light Is Mine: The Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982-1987. In 2007, the band released its first performance album, the muscular R.E.M. Live, recorded in Dublin, Ireland. It shows exactly how powerful they can be on stage.
In March 2007, R.E.M. was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Berry returned to play four songs with the band at the ceremony in New York. The band's fourteenth album, Accelerate, was heralded as a return to form when it came out in 2008, and debuted at Number Two.
Their latest set is yet another performance date, Live At The Olympia. A DVD of the show accompanies the two CDs.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Jim Macnie contributed to this article.