R.E.M. Vinyl, CD & tapes by R.E.M. at Norman Records
Ah R.E.M. They started everything didn’t they? For younger viewers it’s sometimes easy to just remember them as the 'Shiny Happy People' and 'Everybody Hurts' miseries. But rewind to the beginning of the 1980s and they pretty much invented alternate/college/indie rock/whatever you want to call it both in sound and in their DIY attitude. The nascent R.E.M. proved that you could make music on your own terms, tour like crazy and not be at the mercy of the big record company man. Without R.E.M. we would have no Nirvana, Pixies or any host of alternative bands that followed in their wake.
Their early records were exceptional. Debut EP Chronic Town was a five track blueprint of what would come later as it matched Peter Buck’s jangling guitar figures to Michael Stipe’s blurry vocals backed up by a rhythm section as tight as that of any post-punk band. Indeed this blurring of post-punk energy and 60s songwriting chops was R.E.M.’s forte in their early years. Debut album Murmur made extraordinary waves on both sides of the Atlantic. Its enigmatic lyrics and dreamy, off kilter production was a million miles away from punk’s sloganeering or new-wave’s goofy jerkiness. Critical acclaim was widespread and it won Rolling Stone’s Album of the Year beating Michael Jackson’s 'Thriller' - a landmark moment that would foretell a future where smaller grass roots bands could rise up and infiltrate the mainstream. They followed up Murmur with Reckoning a similarly obtuse work but with a more straightforward garage sound sometimes at polar opposite to the layered production of their previous album but with their distinctive chiming sound intact. 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction was their first ‘difficult’ album recorded in misery in London - the vocals are barely audible and it seems to show a band yearning for home. It’s mostly a lovely work but at this point there was the chance that R.E.M. could disappear into a haze of introspection. To counter this the band chose an unlikely producer in Don Gehman for 1986s Lifes Rich Pageant (and yes no apostrophe). Gehman was famed for work with the heartland rock likes of John Cougar Mellencamp and gave the band the harder edge that would form the basis of their subsequent success. 1987’s Document would prove this as a good move yielding crossover singles with 'The One I Love' and It’s 'The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)'. The band were now absolutely massive, competing with the likes of U2 rather than the previous arty likes of Pylon and Love Tractor. They were criticised for giving up their indie roots and signing with Warner Brothers for 1988s Green but the truth is that they were the last of their contemporaries to switch to a major (Hüsker Dü for example had jumped ship from SST to Warner Brothers in 1986).
Green was an enormous success - a sort of half acoustic, half big bumbling bubblegum pop song type of record yet its follow up Out Of Time was both as bizarrely eclectic and their biggest success to date. “Their career is over” said an unimpressed Dave Lee Travis on hearing lead single 'Losing My Religion' which subsequently became an enormous worldwide hit and one of their signature songs. Out of Time saw R.E.M. adopt a more acoustic approach - they didn’t tour, Stipe wore a hat, all of which help prepare for Automatic For the People where the band descended into a beautiful depressed fog of dark beauty, ruminating on death and ageing on a batch of lovely shimmering songs. Again, it was designed to be anything but commercial but was both a critical and commercial success.
And this is where they probably should have stopped. After their glammed-up return to rock album Monster and the semi-live opus 'New Adventures in Hi-Fi', drummer Bill Berry left and with him went a lot of the dynamic that made them great. Subsequent albums 'Up' (