R.E.M. Look Back

From art school to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in their own words

March 22, 2007


"We're so bad about looking backward," says R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe. "We're too excited about what we're going to do." But on the eve of their Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction (with original drummer Bill Berry), Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills look back in fondness at these images from their first quarter-century as one of America's greatest modern rock bands.

1 Athens, Georgia 1980
[ Photographs by Sandra-Lee Phipps ]

Buck: This is our first show, in the church in Athens, Georgia, where Michael and I lived. The church had been falling apart for years and had been a party spot since time immemorial. I used to get letters for a guy named Purple Haze. We were supposed to do one set that night, but everybody was bombed and wanted to dance, so we did a second one. I remember Michael crawling on his hands and knees through the crowd. We played the first ten or twelve songs we'd written – "Just a Touch" [on Lifes Rich Pageant, 1986] was the only one we recorded. The thing with most new bands is, they can't think of anything to say lyrically. Our first twenty songs were like that. But as time went on, our songs reflected more of who Michael was.

Mills: I don't remember much about that show. But I remember one of our first practices. Peter's guitar style had so much melody, and I immediately knew Michael's voice was worth hearing. I thought, "Whatever else happens with this band, this is going to be fun."

Stipe: We never intended to put out records. But to get into clubs, we had to have a record. That's how "Radio Free Europe" [R.E.M.'s 1981 debut single] happened. But at first, Peter said, "Let's not make records. Let's just play."

2 Athens, Georgia 1983
[ Photograph by Laura Levine ]

Stipe: That was my house on Barber Street – 248B. And that's my accordion. That was my first instrument, in third grade. The house was a mess. There was a hole in the kitchen floor that went right down to dirt. It didn't have very good heat, either. Before we went to London to record Fables of the Reconstruction [1985], I had three weeks to write lyrics. I remember sitting in this house, huddled in front of a space heater, peeling lead paint off the fireplace and writing the lyrics. And I got them all done. Three weeks – that's a record for me.

3 London 1984
[ Photograph by Tom Sheehan ]

Stipe: Obviously London. I look great [laughs]. I had these incredibly tight jeans. And those were my dad's boots. He bought those in Vietnam. I had conjunctivitis for a while and wore dark glasses all the time because I couldn't afford to buy a real pair of glasses. Everyone thought I was a real asshole.

Mills: I remember Bill's white boots. He had some interesting fashion ideas throughout the Eighties. He vacillated between a Duran Duran thing and a riverboat gambler. But he was a good balance, a counterweight to Peter and I. He was more grounded, a little more serious about things.

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