R.E.M. announced in 2011 that after 31 years, 15 full-length albums (including that year’s Collapse Into Now), and myriad all-time “alternative rock” classics, they were breaking up for good, or at least until their surprise reunion at Coachella in the not-too-distant future. People were sad. (Or derisive toward the people who were sad, but let’s forget about those guys for a second.) The band’s best years were behind them, it’s true, but the pride of Athens, Georgia, has still left an indelible footprint on Modern Music As We Know It. Here are some of their career highlights, from the hits to the spoofs, the lucrative contracts to the embarrassing arrests.
1. “RADIO FREE EUROPE” ON LETTERMAN
If you’re unclear on what the fuss is all about — if you only know R.E.M. as that band woefully associated with such words as “jangly,” “college,” and “Shiny Happy People” —here’s the place to start: Their ecstatic, uncharacteristically ferocious 1983 televised debut. Stipe’s hair! Peter Buck’s faux-rocking spasms! Bill Berry’s sleevelessness! Mike Mills’ youth! A worthy band to worship, to shamelessly emulate, to be inevitably disappointed by. Letterman looks on with studied nonchalance.
2. “DRIVER 8,” A BOON TO ASPIRING GUITARISTS EVERYWHERE
Young, thoughtful grad students wielding third-hand Gretsches and Rickenbackers have grappled for decades with the intricate-but-muscular interplay between bassist Mills and guitarist Buck; here, perhaps, is their apex. Every college town has a coffee-shop-abetted open-mic night that features one morose dude tentatively picking through this masterpiece of arpeggiated melancholy. If said morose dude is really invested, he then switches to piano, pounds out “Nightswimming,” and spends the next 12 hours having woefully uncoordinated sex with a procession of future children’s librarians.
3. MIKE MILLS’ VOCAL HARMONIES ON “SUPERMAN”
Mike Mills performs with R.E.M. in 2008 (Photo: Getty Images)But R.E.M.’s real secret weapon has always been Mills’ voice, a sunny yelp that wraps perfectly around Stipe’s plaintive, portentous wail; he’s the loyal sidekick who quietly, patiently keeps the guy in the spotlight from getting himself killed. And while it may be sacrilege to single out a cover song, their soaring harmonies on “Superman” are too relentlessly joyful to ignore. As rock critic J. Edward Keyes has noted, the real benefit of this breakup is that it frees up Mills to make what will inevitably be one hell of a solo album. Maybe he’ll even start wearing those rhinestone-studded suits again.
LISTEN: R.E.M., “Superman” (live in Holland, 1987)
4. WATCHING PEOPLE RECOIL IN HORROR AT “STAND”
Part of being an R.E.M. fan is coming to grips with the fact that R.E.M. are, at their core, deeply, deeply corny, and that this occasionally manifests itself in a goofy, carefree cheese-pop song of nuclear-grade corniness. With apologies to “Shiny Happy People” (improved somewhat by the presence of Kate Pierson, and redeemed by the Muppets), 1988’s “Stand” is still the gold standard in this regard, basically a three-minute aural cringe that can cause even the most devout Stipe devotee to consider homicide/suicide. Used to great effect as the opening credits to Chris Elliot’s short-lived early-’90s sitcom Get a Life, which says it all, really.
5. THE “LOSING MY RELIGION” VIDEO
And here we have the band’s cultural saturation point, delivering unto them Grammys, Video Music Awards, and “Weird Al” spoofs alike, an honest-to-god pop hit with a hilariously, impressively arty video lousy with somber dancing (this clip was a huge influence on Thom Yorke), somber-er mandolin playing, and all sorts of religious/mythological import. Director Tarsem swiftly parlayed it into a gig directing surrealist J.Lo horror flick The Cell nearly a decade later. Seriously though: Six VMAs this thing won, beating out “Silent Lucidity,” “Wicked Game,” “I Touch Myself” “Groove Is in the Heart,” and “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” for Video of the Year. Chris Isaak was robbed.
6. THE WAYNE’S WORLD “EVERYBODY HURTS” PARODY
In terms of somber artiness, though, no way R.E.M. ever topped the “really sad people stuck in a traffic jam” tableau that was “Everybody Hurts.” And while by this point the band was fair game for the likes of The Simpsons and Weird Al, here’s the pop-culture parody to beat: As Wayne tenderly explains, “It’s a song about the crushing pain of just being alive in this, what we call the postmodern world.” This is substantially more amusing if you’re 14, it’s true, but at 14, there’s nothing funnier than “if monkeys fly out of her butt, then I shall hurl.”
7. THE CONTRACT
Chart courtesy Wall Street JournalLet it be known that in 1996 the band signed a five-album deal with Warner Bros. for 80 million dollars. The most lucrative contract the music biz had ever seen. Eighty million. That is Michael Vick money. True, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, then-drummer Bill Berry would not appear on any of those five albums, which began with Up in 1998 and concluded just this year with Collapse Into Now. And no, none of those records came anywhere close to the commercial (or critical) success of the late-’80s/early-’90s hits that justified throwing around that much cash to begin with. But hell, if someone was gonna get it, better R.E.M than, like, the Goo Goo Dolls.
8.MICHAEL STIPE PATIENTLY EXPLAINS HIS OBLIQUE LYRICS (SORT OF)
R.E.M. in the mid-1980s (Photo: Sandra Lee Phillips)In 2008, blogger/critic Matt Perpetua debuted an extraordinary online series called Ask Michael Stipe, in which the man himself consented to answer submitted fan questions, primarily about his oft-inscrutable lyrics. These are blunt queries roughly on the order of “What the hell is _______ about?” (Actual example, in regard to “Fretless”: “Was I really singing along to accepting cum with a gentle tongue in front of my parents?”) And while Stipe doesn’t exactly clear up anything, the resulting epic Q&A (totaling more than 15,000 words) is random and loopy (“I’ve never thought about my subconscious as cat hating — I just think they’re mischievous”) and revealing even in its refusal to fully reveal. Also: “Paul Weller is a twerp.”
9. PETER BUCK’S BOGUS JOURNEY
Peter Buck performs in October 2001 at Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit (Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/ImageDirect/Getty)Because it’s still funny that The Jangly Guitar Guy was involved in an April 2001 mid-flight fracas summed up thus: “Mr Buck, 45, denies one charge of being drunk on an aircraft, two counts of common assault against air stewards and one charge of damaging British Airways crockery.”
10. THAT TIME THEY REFUSED TO BREAK UP FOR 14 YEARS
Michael Stipe on The Jon Stewart Show in 1998
That R.E.M. did not dissolve for good in 1997 upon the announcement of Berry’s departure (after an onstage brain aneurysm two years earlier and a switch to the quieter lifestyle of a farmer) is still a matter of consternation among some fans. No one’s arguing that the five records (for $80 million!) that followed comprise the band’s career peak, though a few are quietly underrated: Up is stately and gorgeous, and Collapse Into Now has a surprising, infectious intensity. But most likely your Twitter feed yesterday was lousy with cries of either “They hadn’t broken up already?” or “They should’ve broken up years ago.” Which, y’know, shut up, Twitter. They kept fighting, they leave with their legacy firmly intact, and listening to “Imitation of Life” is never not a good idea. This one goes out to the ones we loved.