"We were conscious that we were making a record that really wasn't in step with the times," says R.E.M.'s Peter Buck of Murmur, the group's enchanting first album. "It was an old-fashioned record that didn't sound too much like what you heard on the radio. We were expecting the record company to say, 'Sorry, this isn't even a record, it's a demo tape. Go back and do it again.'"
For the most part, I.R.S. Records liked Murmur a great deal, and so did an audience that embraced R.E.M. as one of the most significant new bands of the Eighties. From the mysterious photograph of a kudzu-covered train station on the jacket to the intriguingly off-kilter music within, Murmur quietly broke with the status quo and mapped out an enigmatic but rewarding new agenda. There is nothing obvious or superficial about R.E.M.'s songs or the way the band chooses to play them. Meanings are hidden in a thicket of nonlinear imagery, with mumbled or distant vocals from Michael Stipe. Elliptical language occasionally jumps out in terse phrases such as "conversation fear" (from "9-9") as Murmur bypasses logic and goes straight for the subconscious — a state of altered awareness not unlike the rapid-eye-movement stage of dreaming from which the band took its name.
The members of R.E.M. incorporated elements of folk and country music into pop that was, by turns, bright and murky. Theirs was a quasi-traditional yet boundary-breaking sound that served as a blueprint for alternative bands throughout America for the rest of the decade.
Initially outcasts on the arty-party band scene spawned by the B-52's in their hometown of Athens, Georgia, the members of the group profess to draw more inspiration from Velvet Underground and the Byrds than from any of their contemporaries. They also claim to have learned a lot from Gang of Four and the English Beat, with whom they toured early on. "They taught us about what a rock & roll band could be, idealistically," says Buck.
Though the individual members weren't extraordinary technical musicians, the balance of personalities within R.E.M. made for a startling chemistry. "It was a unique combination of people, where there was enough tension and enough cohesiveness," says Don Dixon, who produced and engineered Murmur with fellow North Carolinian Mitch Easter. "There was a tremendous amount of energy and a lot of real subtle things going on." Buck's rhythmic strumming allowed Mike Mills to play melody lines on the bass and freed drummer Bill Berry from mere timekeeping. Drawing from his fertile imagination, vocalist Stipe launched R.E.M. into a whole other dimension.
The four organized the band in Athens in 1980, traipsing across the South to play anywhere that would have them and cutting one single ("Radio Free Europe") and a five-song EP (Chronic Town) at Easter's garage studio in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. For Murmur they moved eighty miles south to Charlotte's Reflection Studios, a twenty-four-track facility whose principal client was Jim and Tammy Bakker's PTL Club. (Stipe, in fact, left Charlotte with a souvenir PTL license plate and an autographed Tammy Bakker single.) The group balked at recording elsewhere. "We wanted to do it in the South with people who were fresh at making rock & roll records," says Buck. "In Charlotte we could sit up all night and mess around, have ideas and not worry too much."
R.E.M. had chosen and sequenced the material for Murmur, most of which was written in 1980 and 1981, before entering the studio. Producers Easter and Dixon provided technical expertise and offered opinions. "They were instrumental in teaching us how to use the studio," says Buck. Very little was done by the book. Stipe, for instance, generally recorded his vocals in a darkened stairwell off to the side. Although his vocal approach was unusual for rock, Easter and Dixon had no intention of altering his style. "I was not about to go in and say, 'Oh, Michael, I can't quite understand your line about the placenta falling off the end of your bed,'" says Dixon. "We were dealing with a fragile sort of art concept and trying to bring in a little pop sensibility without beating it up."
If anyone at I.R.S. had reservations about Murmur, the band didn't want to know. "The people that heard it were like 'God, this is a really good record, but...,'" says Buck. "And we'd go, 'Sorry, see you later.' Because once they start saying but and you listen, you're in trouble."
The band added a lot of quirky, experimental touches to the basic tracks in the overdub stage. "We spent most of our time finding interesting ideas and sounds," Buck says, "like laying down ten acoustic guitars, a lot of vocals way low in the mix, strange percussion things, banging on table legs, tearing up shirts. I'd play acoustic guitar and then take the guitar off and leave the reverb on with the delay, so that it was ghostly and strange."
"We did have some rules," says Dixon, "in that if you were going to fly something in backwards or fly in hunks of music triggered off a drum by James Brown, you could only do it one time, and you couldn't go back and try to get something to work." The band members also had talismans, of sorts, to which they became attached: Two plastic dinosaurs purchased by Buck at a Salvation Army thrift shop across the street, marked L for left and R for right, were placed atop the studio speakers. "The reason our records are so good is the dinosaurs," Buck says. "They've been on the speakers for every album we've ever made."