R.E.M. were feeling a little restless when they began recording Green, in 1988. During the previous seven year they’d gone from a complete unknown college rock band to genuine pop stars, even scoring a top ten hit with 1987’s “The One I Love.” The success of that song helped them land a great deal with Warner Bros, but they were determined to not merely repeat their past successes. “We didn’t want to write traditional REM songs,” says bassist Mike Mills. “We were all about having fun and trying to do something different.”
The band even experimented with switching around instruments. “Peter [Buck] was tired of the electric guitar and wanted to move into different sounds,” says Mills. “We all wanted to shake things up, and we were starting to enjoy more acoustic things as well as rock stompers. The ‘Hairshirt’ mandolin riff is actually Bill Berry’s.”
The new songs that emerged varied wildly in quality, from the sunshine pop of “Stand” to the anti-war “Orange Crush” to the radio-friendly “Pop Song 89.” “Our feeling was, ‘We take the best songs,'” says Mills. “We knew there would be enough unifying themes to make it hold together. You have Michael’s voice and the one producer. That keeps things in the ballpark, and it gives you a freedom to have a lot of different kings of songs, different tempos, different instrumentations, and things still hold together as a piece.”
Many of the songs sounded unlike anything else in the R.E.M. catalog, particularly “Stand,” which received a second life a couple of years later when it became the theme to the cult Chris Elliott sitcom Get a Life. “Peter [Buck] brought in most of that song,” says Mills. “I threw in that stupid riff in the verse. I said, ‘Okay, let’s do a quasi-Zeppelin riff here.’ Michael took that and ran with it in a way that comes off as a bit simplistic, but it’s actually a pretty serious theme of, ‘Be who you are and accept what you have.’ Things like the toy piano give it a little air of frivolity.”
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Green hit record store shelves on November 7th, 1988, one day before that year’s presidential election. “When you realize you have a voice, it was kind of exciting to to be able to use that voice,” says Mills. “We wanted to try and make a difference since we were really concerned about the direction the country was headed. We did everything we could to sound the alarm, but unfortunately, we were in the minority.”
R.E.M. supported Green with a nearly year-long tour that played to huge audiences around the world. “There could be a case made that the tour might have been one leg too long,” says Mills. “It got us to a lot of places we hadn’t played before and wouldn’t have played otherwise. I had no regrets about the length, although it did take its toll.
On the second-to-last night of the tour, R.E.M. played in Greensboro, North Carolina. “We were really tight that night,” says Mills. “It was well-recorded and it’s our best sounding show from that era. After playing for almost a year we really knew what we were doing.”
The 25th anniversary edition of Green is coming out on May 14th, and the complete Greensboro show is included as a bonus disc. The entire original album has been remastered and will be released in a hard clamshell box with four postcards and a foldout poster.
Check out an exclusive live video of “World Leader Pretend” from the Green tour and a live recording of Orange Crush.