During its tenure on I.R.S. Records between 1982 and 1987, R.E.M. practically invented the language for alternative rock music videos. Rebuking the style and flash of the first MTV generation, in those years the Athens, Georgia quartet produced beguiling videos (often directed by singer Michael Stipe) to accompany its singles and a select few album cuts that were more art films than pop promos, relying on Super 8 footage, film negatives, montage editing, altered speeds, and other low-cost film-making techniques instead of clichéd plastic-looking sexy models and lip-synced performances to capture the rustic mystery of its music in visual form. Although the look of those vintage R.E.M. clips was admittedly dependent on limited resources, the band and the directors made laudably skillful use of what was available to them, resulting in timeless efforts that are on par artistically with the most acclaimed promos (be they big-budget technical spectacles or similarly clever DIY affairs) from that or any other era.
Since the 25th anniversary remastered edition of the group’s fourth album Lifes Rich Pageant is due out next week, I’d like to take this opportunity to present a rundown of R.E.M.’s most exemplary music videos from its pre-major label years. Whether you religiously engaged in late-night viewings of MTV’s 120 Minutes during the 1980s or couldn’t tell “Radio Free Europe” from “Losing My Religion”, R.E.M.’s exemplary videography is essential viewing for music video connoisseurs, and while not every stellar clip can make the cut, here’s hoping that at the very least these five selections will compel you to explore further.
(Note: Although not a conventional promo video and therefore not included on this list, I strongly suggest checking out the short film Left of Reckoning, which is soundtracked by the entire first half of R.E.M.’s second album. Directed by James Herbert, its surreal images of the band members wandering around a plethora of whirligigs make for an oddly beautiful viewing experience. Additionally, on occasion the section containing the song “Pretty Persuasion” is isolated for airings on music television channels.)
Dissatisfied with how the “Wolves, Lower” promo turned out, Michael Stipe refused to lip-sync on camera for years afterward. While in most instances the band would sidestep the issue by relying on imagery that wasn’t focused on people mouthing words, here Stipe takes a different tack by performing an entirely new live take for the clip. Backed by his miming bandmates as they perform behind screens that transform them into ghostly presences, the dreamy-eyed Stipe delivers an intimate, soul-barring performance that serves as the deserved focal point of the video.
Stipe’s video for the lead single from Lifes Rich Pageant is so simple it can be easy to overlook how smart its execution is. Throughout its brief duration, the song’s lyrics are imposed in orange lettering over monochrome footage with green framing, a concept that draws due attention to the tune’s subject of environmental devastation (and to think, this was one of the first times R.E.M. fans were able to figure out what Stipe was singing!). Subtle touches like the key words in the second chorus lingering on the screen (“Buy… Sell… Bleed”) and the text dropping out entirely for the heaven-sent bridge section illustrate how an understated video can deftly augment the song it is promoting without overwhelming it, as flashier promos can often do.
Fables of the Reconstruction presented R.E.M. at is most overtly Southern, and the “Driver 8” video accordingly lavishes attention on the railroads that crisscross the region. A joint Stipe/James Herbert effort, the promo kicks off with Stipe chatting briefly about toy trains before giving way to slow pans that savor the real thing. Although trains like these are still contemporary everyday technology, the vibe of the clip as conveyed by the documentary-style camera work and the occasional scenes of the shadowed band members sitting in front of film being projected on the wall behind them gives the whole affair an ethereal quality, as if you are catching a faint glimpse of some long-forgotten memory.
Like “Driver 8”, the iconic “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” promo (arguably the most recognizable alt-rock video from the entire decade) derives its power from presenting the ordinary and the mundane—which can so easily be taken for granted—in a light that reveals its oft-overlooked wonder. Here the camera lens follows an adolescent boy around as he rummages through a junk-filled house that’s exposed to a perfect sunny day. It’s the kind of adventure that may seem pointless to jaded grown-ups but can be any curious kid’s dream afternoon. There are so many great solitary shots on display, like the boy holding a portrait in front of the doorway and him conducting to an open field, and every little scrap the protagonist holds up to the camera is imbued with an intriguing magic. As the title suggests, when there are so many hidden treasures to be found and savored in every free moment, it’s hard to get bummed out about looming Armageddon.
The opening track to and third single from R.E.M.’s final I.R.S. album Document is an inspiring call to arms, and the music video suits it to a tee. Weaving in and out from black and white to color and back again, Stipe’s rapid-fire editing is based in Soviet montage theory, weaving together images of shirtless workers brandishing tools and stock footage of construction projects into a striking visual manifesto for forging a better future. An underrated gem of elemental potency, it’s an exhilarating and inspirational clip that transcends its promotional purpose to become a genuine piece of short-form cinematic art.