R.E.M. was an American rock band from Athens, Georgia, formed in 1980 by drummer Bill Berry, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and lead vocalist Michael Stipe, who were students at the University of Georgia. Liner notes from some of the band’s albums list attorney Bertis Downs and manager Jefferson Holt as non-musical members. One of the first alternative rock bands, R.E.M. was noted for Buck’s ringing, arpeggiated guitar style; Stipe’s distinctive vocal quality, unique stage presence, and obscure lyrics; Mills’s melodic bass lines and backing vocals; and Berry’s tight, economical drumming style. In the early 1990s, other alternative rock acts such as Nirvana and Pavement viewed R.E.M. as a pioneer of the genre. After Berry left the band in 1997, the band continued its career in the 2000s with mixed critical and commercial success. The band broke up amicably in 2011 with members devoting time to solo projects after having sold more than 85 million albums worldwide and becoming one of the world’s best-selling music acts.
R.E.M. released its first single, “Radio Free Europe”, in 1981 on the independent record label Hib-Tone. It was followed by the Chronic Town EP in 1982, the band’s first release on I.R.S. Records. In 1983, the group released its critically acclaimed debut album, Murmur, and built its reputation over the next few years through releases every year from 1984 to 1988: Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, Lifes Rich Pageant, Document and Green, including an intermittent b-side compilation Dead Letter Office. Don Dixon and Mitch Easter produced their first two albums, Joe Boyd handled production on Fables of the Reconstruction and Don Gehman produced Lifes Rich Pageant. Thereafter, R.E.M. settled on Scott Litt as producer for the next 10 years during the band’s most successful period of their career. They also started co-producing their material and playing other instruments in the studio apart from the main ones they play. With constant touring, and the support of college radio following years of underground success, R.E.M. achieved a mainstream hit with the 1987 single “The One I Love”. The group signed to Warner Bros. Records in 1988, and began to espouse political and environmental concerns while playing large arenas worldwide.
R.E.M.’s most commercially successful albums, Out of Time (1991) and Automatic for the People (1992), put them in the vanguard of alternative rock just as it was becoming mainstream. Out of Time received seven nominations at the 34th Annual Grammy Awards, and lead single “Losing My Religion”, was R.E.M.’s highest-charting and best-selling hit. Monster (1994) continued its run of success. The band began its first tour in six years to support the album; the tour was marred by medical emergencies suffered by three of the band members. In 1996, R.E.M. re-signed with Warner Bros. for a reported US$80 million, at the time the most expensive recording contract ever. The tour was productive and the band recorded the following album mostly during soundchecks. The resulting record, New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996), is hailed as the band’s last great album and the members’ favourite, growing in cult status over the years. Berry left the band the following year, and Stipe, Buck, and Mills continued as a musical trio, supplemented by studio and live musicians, such as multi-instrumentalists Scott McCaughey and Ken Stringfellow and drummers Joey Waronker and Bill Rieflin. They also parted ways with their long-time manager Jefferson Holt and band’s attorney Bertis Downs assumed managerial duties. Seeking to also renovate their sound, the band stopped working with Scott Litt, co-producer and contributor to six of their studio albums and hired Pat McCarthy as co-producer, who had participated before that as mixer and engineer on their last two albums.
In January 1980, Peter Buck met Michael Stipe in Wuxtry Records, the Athens record store where Buck worked. The pair discovered that they shared similar tastes in music, particularly in punk rock and proto-punk artists like Patti Smith, Television, and the Velvet Underground. Stipe said, “It turns out that I was buying all the records that [Buck] was saving for himself.” Through mutual friend Kathleen O’Brien, Stipe and Buck then met fellow University of Georgia students Bill Berry and Mike Mills, who had played music together since high school and lived together in Georgia. The quartet agreed to collaborate on several songs; Stipe later commented that “there was never any grand plan behind any of it”. Their still-unnamed band spent a few months rehearsing in a deconsecrated Episcopal church in Athens, and played its first show on April 5, 1980, supporting the Side Effects at O’Brien’s birthday party held in the same church, performing a mix of originals and 1960s and 1970s covers. After considering names such as Cans of Piss, Negro Eyes, and Twisted Kites, the band settled on “R.E.M.”, which Stipe selected at random from a dictionary. R.E.M. is well known as an initialism for rapid eye movement, the dream stage of sleep; however, sleep researcher Dr. Rafael Pelayo reports that when his colleague Dr. William Dement, the sleep scientist who coined the term REM, reached out to the band, Dr. Dement was told that the band was named “not after REM sleep”.
The band members eventually dropped out of school to focus on their developing group. They found a manager in Jefferson Holt, a record store clerk who was so impressed by an R.E.M. performance in his hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that he moved to Athens. R.E.M.’s success was almost immediate in Athens and surrounding areas; the band drew progressively larger crowds for shows, which caused some resentment in the Athens music scene. Over the next year and a half, R.E.M. toured throughout the Southern United States. Touring was arduous because a touring circuit for alternative rock bands did not then exist. The group toured in an old blue van driven by Holt, and lived on a food allowance of $2 each per day.
During April 1981, R.E.M. recorded its first single, “Radio Free Europe”, at producer Mitch Easter’s Drive-In Studios in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Initially distributing it as a four-track demo tape to clubs, record labels and magazines, the single was released in July 1981 on the local independent record label Hib-Tone with an initial pressing of 1,000 copies—600 of which were sent out as promotional copies. The single quickly sold out, and another 6,000 copies were pressed due to popular demand, despite the original pressing leaving off the record label’s contact details. Despite its limited pressing, the single garnered critical acclaim, and was listed as one of the ten best singles of the year by The New York Times.
R.E.M. recorded the Chronic Town EP with Mitch Easter in October 1981, and planned to release it on a new indie label named Dasht Hopes. However, I.R.S. Records acquired a demo of the band’s first recording session with Easter that had been circulating for months. The band turned down the advances of major label RCA Records in favor of I.R.S., with whom it signed a contract in May 1982. I.R.S. released Chronic Town that August as its first American release. A positive review of the EP by NME praised the songs’ auras of mystery, and concluded, “R.E.M. ring true, and it’s great to hear something as unforced and cunning as this.”
I.R.S. first paired R.E.M. with producer Stephen Hague to record its debut album. Hague’s emphasis on technical perfection left the band unsatisfied, and the band members asked the label to let them record with Easter. I.R.S. agreed to a “tryout” session, allowing the band to return to North Carolina and record the song “Pilgrimage” with Easter and producing partner Don Dixon. After hearing the track, I.R.S. permitted the group to record the album with Dixon and Easter. Because of its bad experience with Hague, the band recorded the album via a process of negation, refusing to incorporate rock music clichés such as guitar solos or then-popular synthesizers, in order to give its music a timeless feel. The completed album, Murmur, was greeted with critical acclaim upon its release in 1983, with Rolling Stone listing the album as its record of the year. The album reached number 36 on the Billboard album chart. A re-recorded version of “Radio Free Europe” was the album’s lead single and reached number 78 on the Billboard singles chart in 1983. Despite the acclaim awarded the album, Murmur sold only about 200,000 copies, which I.R.S.’s Jay Boberg felt was below expectations.
R.E.M. made its first national television appearance on Late Night with David Letterman in October 1983, during which the group performed a new, unnamed song. The piece, eventually titled “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)”, became the first single from the band’s second album, Reckoning (1984), which was also recorded with Easter and Dixon. The album met with critical acclaim; NME‘s Mat Snow wrote that Reckoning “confirms R.E.M. as one of the most beautifully exciting groups on the planet”. While Reckoning peaked at number 27 on the US album charts—an unusually high chart placing for a college rock band at the time—scant airplay and poor distribution overseas resulted in it charting no higher than number 91 in Britain.
They toured Canada in July and August 1985, and Europe in October of that year, including the Netherlands, England (including one concert at London’s Hammersmith Palais), Ireland, Scotland, France, Switzerland, Belgium and West Germany. On October 2, 1985, the group played a concert in Bochum, West Germany, for the German TV show Rockpalast. Stipe had bleached his hair blond during this time. R.E.M. invited California punk band Minutemen to open for them on part of the US tour, and organized a benefit for the family of Minutemen frontman D Boon who died in a December 1985 car crash shortly after the tour’s conclusion. Fables of the Reconstruction performed poorly in Europe and its critical reception was mixed, with some critics regarding it as dreary and poorly recorded. As with the previous records, the singles from Fables of the Reconstruction were mostly ignored by mainstream radio. Meanwhile, I.R.S. was becoming frustrated with the band’s reluctance to achieve mainstream success.
For its fourth album, R.E.M. enlisted John Mellencamp’s producer Don Gehman. The result, Lifes Rich Pageant (1986), featured Stipe’s vocals closer to the forefront of the music. In a 1986 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Peter Buck related, “Michael is getting better at what he’s doing, and he’s getting more confident at it. And I think that shows up in the projection of his voice.” The album improved markedly upon the sales of Fables of the Reconstruction and reached number 21 on the Billboard album chart. The single “Fall on Me” also picked up support on commercial radio. The album was the band’s first to be certified gold for selling 500,000 copies. While American college radio remained R.E.M.’s core support, the band was beginning to chart hits on mainstream rock formats; however, the music still encountered resistance from Top 40 radio.
Following the success of Lifes Rich Pageant, I.R.S. issued Dead Letter Office, a compilation of tracks recorded by the band during their album sessions, many of which had either been issued as B-sides or left unreleased altogether. Shortly thereafter, I.R.S. compiled R.E.M.’s music video catalog (except “Wolves, Lower”) as the band’s first video release, Succumbs.
Don Gehman was unable to produce R.E.M.’s fifth album, so he suggested the group work with Scott Litt. Litt would be the producer for the band’s next five albums. Document (1987) featured some of Stipe’s most openly political lyrics, particularly on “Welcome to the Occupation” and “Exhuming McCarthy”, which were reactions to the conservative political environment of the 1980s under American president Ronald Reagan. Jon Pareles of The New York Times wrote in his review of the album, “‘Document‘ is both confident and defiant; if R.E.M. is about to move from cult-band status to mass popularity, the album decrees that the band will get there on its own terms.” Document was R.E.M.’s breakthrough album, and the first single “The One I Love” charted in the Top 20 in the US, UK, and Canada. By January 1988, Document had become the group’s first album to sell a million copies. In light of the band’s breakthrough, the December 1987 cover of Rolling Stone declared R.E.M. “America’s Best Rock & Roll Band”.
Frustrated that its records did not see satisfactory overseas distribution, R.E.M. left I.R.S. when its contract expired and signed with the major label Warner Bros. Records. Though other labels offered more money, R.E.M. ultimately signed with Warner Bros.—reportedly for an amount between $6 million and $12 million—due to the company’s assurance of total creative freedom. (Jay Boberg claimed that R.E.M.’s deal with Warner Bros. was for $22 million, which Peter Buck disputed as “definitely wrong”.) In the aftermath of the group’s departure, I.R.S. released the 1988 “best of” compilation Eponymous (assembled with input from the band members) to capitalize on assets the company still possessed. The band’s 1988 Warner Bros. debut, Green, was recorded in Memphis, Tennessee, and showcased the group experimenting with its sound. The record’s tracks ranged from the upbeat first single “Stand” (a hit in the United States), to more political material, like the rock-oriented “Orange Crush” and “World Leader Pretend”, which address the Vietnam War and the Cold War, respectively. Green has gone on to sell four million copies worldwide. The band supported the album with its biggest and most visually developed tour to date, featuring back-projections and art films playing on the stage. After the Green tour, the band members unofficially decided to take the following year off, the first extended break in the band’s career. In 1990 Warner Bros. issued the music video compilation Pop Screen to collect clips from the Document and Green albums, followed a few months later by the video album Tourfilm featuring live performances filmed during the Green World Tour.