“Drive,” that’s the one. I love dozens of songs by R.E.M., but that’s the one, even though it took me 7 or 8 years to start liking it. (Most of the other songs on Automatic for the People took about 12 seconds.) Michael Stipe growls to a crowd of kids who may or may not be there, cowering in the dark. Peter Buck’s mandolin and Mike Mills’ bass count down to doomsday. Tick tock, tick tock. You could complain that “Drive” runs on a little too long, and for that matter, you could complain that R.E.M. did too. But you’d be wrong, because in a way, running on was their whole point.
Thanks for existing, R.E.M.. It’s hard to overstate how much these guys changed everything, creating an entire rock audience in their own image. It was R.E.M. who showed other Eighties bands how to get away with ignoring the rules – they lived in some weird town nobody never heard of, they didn’t play power chords, they probably couldn’t even spell “spandex.” All they had was songs. “Catapult,” “Harborcoat,” “Sitting Still”? The one about Laocoon? The one about the two-headed calf? “Wolves, Lower”? Who else had songs like this? Nobody.
At a time when the term “indie rock” didn’t exist, R.E.M. basically invented it as we know it, more or less overnight. I can’t even count how many of my favorite bands I first heard about from R.E.M.. I tracked down Exile on Main Street because Peter Buck couldn’t shut up about it, back when it was as impossible to find as those out-of-print Velvet Underground records. They invented whole new ways of being a music fan. They also invented “girls who like R.E.M.,” who became my crush genre for the rest of my life.
People love to complain that R.E.M. should have broken up when Bill Berry quit in 1997, to preserve their legacy in a pristine state. Except this misses the fundamental point of R.E.M., which is that rock and roll is something you do, something that’s part of your real sloppy life, rather than a fleeting phase. They decided not to be a “go out in a blaze of glory” band like the Smiths or Husker Du, and they also decided not to be a “blaze gloriously and then kinda fade out so everybody assumes you broke up even though maybe you officially didn’t” kind of band, like Echo and the Bunnymen or the Jesus and Mary Chain. They decided to be a “run it into the ground” band, plowing ahead whether they had the wind at their backs or not.
And they ran it into the ground. That’s an essential part of their greatness.
If all they wanted to do was preserve the legacy, they should have called it quits in 1985, when they’d finished up their great Eighties run. Fun fact: in 1987, when Document came out, my local fanzine reviewed it with the words, “God, I hope this band breaks up before they do any more damage to their previous glories.” A lot of fans felt that way. R.E.M. invited the kind of fan who took pride in feeling that way. Hardly anyone liked R.E.M. who didn’t like them way too much, so part of being an R.E.M. fan meant getting wildly overinvested and then feeling vaguely disappointed by whatever they did next.
For me, that meant being appalled at Lifes Rich Pageant – the drum sound alone was a dire philosophical betrayal, and that was before I got to the lyrics about believing in coyotes. I said my goodbyes to R.E.M. and moved on. It wasn’t that hard. (Run-DMC put out an awesome album that summer.)
What no one knew – not even R.E.M. – is that they were just warming up. Their best music was still ahead of them, with their still-staggering four-album soul roll in the Nineties: Out of Time in 1991, Automatic for the People in 1992, Monster in 1994 and New Adventures in Hi-Fi in 1996. The Nineties were an entire decade of R.E.M.s, and R.E.M. were right there leading the pack they’d inspired. Has any band done a more productive job of tarnishing its own legacy? Break R.E.M.’s career into “Eighties” and “Nineties” halves, and you’ve got two of the best bands that ever existed.
After Berry left, they were a different group. The trio R.E.M. and the quartet R.E.M. don’t even sound that much alike: you’d have no trouble telling them apart in a blindfold test. The three-legged version made one enduringly gorgeous record, 2001’s Reveal, which I never convince anyone else to like at all. (Although that could change if you give “Beat a Drum” a minute or two. Maybe “Beachball”?) Also one real suckbomb, Around the Sun. The others have their moments. (Listened to “At My Most Beautiful” lately? Definitely the highlight of the Never Been Kissed soundtrack.)
I totally get the musical objection to these records: R.E.M. had trouble coming up with melodies, especially after Reveal, which made the albums inaccessible even to listeners who tried hard to like them. And I get the philosophical objection – they went and tarnished the legacy again. But legacy shmegacy. Me, I love that they milked it dry. I love that they didn’t go out on the easy high note. I love how they didn’t settle for “dignity.” I love how they kept pushing in the studio, even when the songs weren’t coming so fast or easy. I love how they kept making records even when they knew the records weren’t making them look too sharp. I love that they tried. I loved hearing them try. And as long as they kept running on, R.E.M. were an inspiration. Tick tock, tick tock.
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• Interview: R.E.M. Roar Back with ‘Collapse Into Now’
• From Art School to Hall of Fame: R.E.M. Tours Through Their Discography
• R.E.M. in the Real World – Rolling Stone’s 1987 Cover Story
• R.E.M.’s 15 Greatest Videos