It started with a Macon, Georgia, high-school band that by all rights should never have existed. Bill Berry played drums, Mike Mills played bass, and the combination was unlikely – because Mills and Berry openly and unequivocally hated each other's guts.
At the time, Berry was a budding hoodlum who'd just moved to Macon from the Midwest (he was born in Bob Dylan's home town of Hibbing, Minnesota); Mills was a Georgia native and a self-described "goody-goody." "I hated him from the first time I saw him." Berry says with a laugh, "'cause he had that same kind of nerd appeal that he has now, and I was just starting to experiment with drugs and stuff. He was everything I despised: great student, got along with teachers, didn't smoke cigarettes or smoke pot..."
But an unknowing mutual friend invited Berry to sit in with a band that included Mills. Berry wanted to storm out but couldn't because his drums were too heavy for effective storming; instead, he decided to endure Mills, and before long the two were best friends. Together, they moved to Athens to attend the university, where Berry wanted to study law and become a music-industry lawyer and manager. They'd all but given up music by then – but heartened by the first wave of Seventies punk bands, they took instruments with them to Athens.
Before long they met Peter Buck and another Georgia student, Michael Stipe, who had met each other in the record store Buck managed. Both had spent their childhoods traveling extensively; army brat Stipe, the youngest R.E.M. member (now twenty-seven), developed a keen interest in painting, photography and medieval manuscripts, while Buck, the oldest at thirty, grew up spending all his free money on records (the Velvet Underground, the Move, the Raspberries, the Kinks) and books (Jack Kerouac, Thomas Wolfe).
"My parents were pleased that I was well read," Buck says. 'But the fact that I was well read and also listened to Iggy and the Stooges was kinda ... well, they ended up being supportive. Much later."
Athens was full of new rock 'n' roll bands, from the B-52s to Pylon to the Method Actors. R.E.M. wasn't looking to be the next big thing; the four formed a band to have fun and play a few first parties. They also moved in together, taking up residence in an abandoned church that, says Buck, "has been romanticized beyond belief. It was just a rotten, dumpy little shit hole where college kids, only college kids, could be convinced to live."
Their early shows were mostly covers: "Needles and Pins," "God Save the Queen," "Secret Agent Man," "California Sun." "We just tended to play everything loud and fast," says Mills. They made $343 at one of their first shows; Berry still remembers standing under the stage counting the money, which seemed like a fortune.
They began writing their own songs: "Gardening at Night" came very quickly, and "Radio Free Europe" followed shortly thereafter. And when they did their first out-of-town show in North Carolina, pan-time booker Jefferson Holt was impressed. "They'll hate me for this," he says, "but to me the first time I saw them was like what I would have imagined of seeing the Who when they first started. They blitzkrieged through some incredibly pop covers, then they had some of their own songs that were real pop but also some stuff that wasn't pop."
Jefferson Holt soon became their manager. Another friend from Athens, a young lawyer named Bertis Downs IV, helped them handle the legal side of things: he persuaded them to incorporate, even though their only asset was a $1250 van, to form their own publishing company and to trademark the band's name – a precaution Downs says he took because two other R.E.M.'s, one REM and one Rapid Eye Movement, had already come and gone. (Downs is still the band's lawyer.)
It wasn't long before gigs got in the way of classes, and Berry was asked to leave the university; the rest of the band decided to drop out, made an independent single ("Radio Free Europe"/"Sitting Still"), toured incessantly and began to pick up college airplay, critical raves and major-label interest. "The thing is," says Holt, laughing, "the great reviews and the Top Ten lists didn't change the fact that we were in a '75 Dodge Tradesman lugging all our gear ourselves and still showing up and playing to eight or nine people."
I.R.S. signed the band and agreed to release the already-recorded EP Chronic Town, provided the band re-record "Radio Free Europe" and "Sitting Still" for their first full-fledged album. Chronic Town got some attention; the album, Murmur, was an instant college radio and underground rock classic.
Reckoning, in 1984, was more of the same – and suddenly it seemed as if the regional American rock scene was full of jangling, guitar-based bands that sounded like R.E.M. and toured like R.E.M. "I think maybe what we did," says Mills, "was give people a touchstone. As an alternative to the synthesizer-dominated electronic music that was being made, we were the most visible sign that something else was going on. It doesn't mean that we were the best, and we certainly weren't the first. But perhaps we were the most accessible and the most visible."
Visible and accessible and influential as they were, the members of the band went through one of their periodic dark spells when they went to London to record their third album, 1985's Fables of the Reconstruction. "A lot of things were catching up to us," says Mills. "We didn't realize we were going to be asked to do certain commercial kinds of things, and we thought, 'Is this what we really want to do?' It was, maybe, a crisis period, just an overall feeling of unease."
"Fables sucked," says Berry bluntly – though others in the band are somewhat happier with the moody, atmospheric record.
"It wasn't the best time in my life, either," says Fables producer Joe Boyd, who adds that despite R.E.M.'s inner turmoil at the time, "they seemed to get along better than most groups I've worked with." He also found mixing the record to be a singular experience. "When you mix a record, traditionally the singer wants his voice louder, and the guitar player says, 'Turn up the guitar,' and the bass player says, 'Can't you make the bass parts punchier?' With R.E.M., everyone wanted themselves turned down."
But the next time around, the band turned it up: Life's Rich Pageant was clearly designed as a hard-edged response to Fables. By then, though, another complaint sometimes crept into R.E.M.'s once unanimously positive reviews: the idea that the band mapped out their musical territory on the early albums and wasn't changing it or challenging its audience.
"We're not so versatile that there's not going to be something in common in all our records," says Berry. "I think we've developed a little more now, to where we can get away with doing a 'King of Birds' on a record, and break it up a little bit. But that's still not going to stop 'Heron House' from sounding a little bit like 'Gardening at Night' slowed down. We try to diversify as much as possible, but a lot of our stuff does tend to sound the same. That's one of our weak points, I'll admit it."
And their strong points?
"I think we've kept our integrity intact pretty much," Berry says. "I'm not doing anything today that I'll be ashamed of in ten years. And we've all aged pretty well. I think we all weigh the same as we did. And we get along, which is pretty rare. I'm not saying we haven't had our flare-ups, but I've had more fights with my wife in the last two years than I have with any of these guys in the last seven years." He shrugs. "Amazingly, our chemistry hasn't broken down yet."
"Hi, My name is Michelle, and I'll be your waitress today."
Michael Stipe looks up at the perky Ramada Inn waitress standing above him and grins shyly. "I'm Michael, and I'll be your ..." His soft, deep voice trails off. "Um...your customer, I guess."
Stipe, certainly, is R.E.M.'s resident oddball, a shambling, simultaneously intense and spacey conversationalist who's apt to interrupt the talk by pulling a couple of pressed leaves out of his pocket or by pointing at an interviewer's hand and saying, "You've got hair on the side of your hand, too." Some of the behavior is clearly due to what Peter Buck calls Stipe's "very weird sense of humor, which is actually two senses of humor. One is very Laurel and Hardy – we can watch Animal House, and he'll laugh at the stuff where I'll think, 'He can't possibly like that.' And then there's the other part of him, where I can barely tell that he's saying something funny, and people around him can't tell at all."
Some of the eccentricities may be inherited: Stipe says his father has been hoarding bottles in his basement for years. "Now he's decided to build this extension onto my parents' house, made out of bottles," says Stipe. "And he's a math wizard. He and I had this discussion about Vietnam, and he went on for two and a half hours explaining a lot of his ideas about it, and about the draft, and about America and American foreign policy, and somehow it wound up working into rock 'n' roll and how I fit into it."
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