It all began with one weird little album with a weird little cover, with weird little songs sung by a weird guy who couldn’t even enunciate properly.
I’ll set the scene:
In 1983, punk was D-E-A-D, desiccated and spread across the radio waves as New Wave. The underground had gone below ground, but there were inklings of a new scene coalescing around college radio stations and newspapers all across the country, not limited to regional acts or styles. There wasn’t really a word for what we now call “alternative”, or “indie” -- maybe “college”. Punk had been angry and political, diametrically opposed to the mainstream of corporate music culture. When the embers finally died the ashes blew into the atmosphere and circulated the globe: if many of the groups who picked up the banner of punk were not as angry nor as violent, they were still dedicated to the idea of creating an opposition to corporate rock culture.
Put aside the fact that this kind of stance, taken to its logical extremes, is necessarily self-punishing; and put aside the difficulties inherent in even trying to draw lines between big and little, indie and major. Humility was a new sensation in rock music -- a field where even confessional singer-songwriters were famously bombastic. Punk had been full of piss and vinegar, military swagger or skid-row savage. These new musicians didn’t want to put themselves on record covers, not even for the purpose of sneering. Or if they did put a picture of themselves on a record cover, it was usually vaguely embarrassing. They were actually products of these new-fangled independent record labels, labels that didn’t have huge graphic design departments, who could afford to put something ominous or cryptic or just plain ugly on the sleeve because the kids buying these new records were themselves ominous or cryptic and, yes, maybe even a little ugly.
It wasn’t about burning the bridges anymore -- punk had already burnt all the bridges that needed burning. It was time to build a new canon out of all the stuff that the really smart critics had been raving about for years, all the records that smart musicians listened to... hell, let’s just go ahead and say it, these people were smart, and self-consciously so. Suddenly, for at least a small percentage of the population, being smart wasn’t incidental to being a rock & roller. It wasn’t just the Stooges and the Velvet Underground, although obviously they were the touchstones. It wasn’t just Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Pet Sounds, although they were there too. It was the Fugs and Television and Nick Drake and all those other lost artists who never seemed to fit in anywhere else, or who never amounted to as much as they should, or who faded away before they could hit it big. Essentially, it was everything that everyone else had put off, conglomerated and melted into one big old gnarled waxwork.
Everything was small, purposefully small -- everything except the sound.
Imagine a rock & roll album with a soggy, overgrown railroad trestle for a cover. What the hell does that even mean? It’s a mystery, it’s a purposeful obfuscation, a dodge. It’s willful obscurantism. It doesn’t try to sell anything: there’s no promise of adventure or thrills or sex or wild youthful abandon, or even intellectual stimulation or literary pretension. It’s a picture of a trestle.
But it’s not just a picture of a trestle.
You can’t say that R.E.M. were the first alternative band, not in any meaningful or accurate sense, and you can’t say that R.E.M. represented any kind of massive break from the immediate past. They were the lucky beneficiaries of a burgeoning national college radio scene, the first big “stars” of a system specifically designed to discourage stardom. They wore their influences on their sleeves, and it was obvious to anyone with ears that they were extremely well-educated music fans: Pylon, Gang of Four, the Cure (Three Imaginary Boys and Seventeen Seconds), Young Marble Giants, Mission of Burma, Patti Smith. But it wasn’t just the hip youngsters, there was also older, squarer stuff in the mix, stuff like the Byrds and the Band (although R.E.M. hardly needed the advice of four Canadians to conjure up some home-brewed faux-Faulknerian Southern Gothic), and even the Beatles. For a while it hadn’t been cool to raid your parents record collection any deeper than that old copy of Velvet Underground & Nico your uncle used to roll his joints on, but suddenly it was OK to write jangly pop songs again. There was something freeing in that.
But all of this is academic: for all the groundwork that had been painstakingly laid, Murmur was Ground Zero for Alternative Nation. It doesn’t take anything away from groups like Hüsker Dü and the Meat Puppets and the Replacements and Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth -- all of whom came up at or around the same time -- to say that without R.E.M.’s success, the whole idea of “alternative” music might never have amounted to much of anything. R.E.M. emerged out of the backwoods of Georgia -- Georgia! -- like Athena bursting forth from Zeus’s skull. If R.E.M. hadn’t come along, maybe something else would have; there is nothing inevitable about them. But the fact that they did come along at exactly the right moment gave the whole enterprise some kind of legitimacy. Suddenly, people were paying attention. All the above artists owe large slices of their careers to R.E.M., because it was R.E.M. who popularized the notion that you could be a rock musician and still keep your self-respect. You could keep your cred, you could keep your sound -- hell, you could even keep your indie label if you wanted. All that mattered was that you kept your soul, on your own terms. Without R.E.M., it’s a certainty that there would have been no Pavement, no Pixies, no Radiohead, no Nirvana.
And it all began with one weird little album with a weird little cover, with weird little songs sung by a weird guy who couldn’t even enunciate properly.
In the years since its release, I’ve listened to this album many hundreds of times, perhaps more than any other album I’ve ever owned. Dating back to their first TV appearance on the Letterman show in 1983, I’ve been there for every step of the way. As such, I think I’ve got a little bit of credibility in the matter (even if, it will be admitted, I may be a tiny bit biased). Murmur isn’t even my favorite R.E.M. album, but there is no doubt, not for one second, that this is the most important R.E.M. album. It all starts here: this isn’t one of those awkward, unsatisfying debuts that betrays no hint of the band’s potential -- no Pablo Honey. It’s all here, from day one.
They’ve already got a knack for writing anthemic pop songs, and “Radio Free Europe” is still one of their best. The art of writing these kind of impossibly great songs just can’t be taught, it’s something you either have or you don’t. R.E.M. have it, and it’s quite striking that they can write them about nothing at all -- seriously, does anyone know what “Radio Free Europe” is about? I’ve been living with the song since 1983, and I’ll be damned if I have a clue. But it’s not just the pure pop, they’ve got the harder rock as well: “West of the Fields” still pummels, fast and hard and disciplined in the thrilling manner of the best punk, but built around an almost transcendent moment of emotional clarity. Slower ballads are present, in the opaque “Perfect Circle”, overly-earnest topicality (“Talk About the Passion”), even the left-field novelty numbers they occasionally throw out to keep people on their toes (“We Walk”). There’s such an incredible amount of material in just these twelve tracks, so many different directions outlined, that it’s still possible to see new and thrilling possibilities based strictly on this template, even after all these years.
The main attraction of the Deluxe reissue is still the album itself. It’s been given a digital makeover that amounts to a monumental improvement over the previous muddy CD releases. Never having heard Murmur on vinyl, I’ve only ever heard it on hissy cassette tapes or poorly-mastered CD -- and this is the best the album has ever sounded, crisp and clear in detail without sacrificing the intentionally murky atmosphere. You can actually hear everything, and it doesn’t sound like it was recorded in your uncle’s basement. The second disc features a live performance from 1983, featuring the entirety of Murmur as well as a few rough drafts of later songs and an obligatory Velvet Underground cover (“There She Goes Again”). For a 1983 concert recording, it sounds pretty damn fantastic, enough so that you’re left scratching your head as to just why they sat on these tapes for 25 years. I was surprised to hear just how tight they were at such an early date -- I suppose they had been playing together long enough by this point that they knew what they were doing fairly well, but still. It's probably of secondary interest to anyone but the fans -- but to them, absolutely, positively, unequivocally essential.
That they were able to jump out of the gate so well is primarily thanks to an incredibly strong rhythm section. It’s a rare thing in rock, but the drummer -- Bill Berry -- was the All-Star of these early recordings. He knew what he was doing even when the rest of the band might have seemed tentative, and it’s to his credit that the many disparate elements hang together as well as they do. Because, on paper, these ingredients could have added up a mess. Michael Stipe can’t sing, Peter Buck can barely strum, and while Mike Mills has some good, melodic bass lines (in the vein of Paul McCartney), he’s threatening to crowd the guitarist out of the arrangements. It could have been a disaster. Even given a strong set of songs to carry them, the fact that they don’t sound like a bunch of art students fumbling about on their first album (which is pretty much what they were) is pretty remarkable. There was some wisdom in building the band slowly: they didn’t just jump into the studio to record a whole album after they had some success with “Radio Free Europe” in 1981, or even with the Chronic Town EP the following year. They waited until they were ready, and the results speak for themselves.
Of course, once they got started, they never really stopped. In the space of six years between 1983 and 1988, they released six albums, all varying degrees of excellent. They stopped recording so much after they signed to Warner Brothers in 1987, and by then they were one of the biggest rock bands on the planet. By the early '90s, with the releases of Out of Time and Automatic for the People, they would jump from being one of the biggest to being -- for at least a moment -- the biggest. They reached their apex of popularity right as grunge peaked, and that’s no coincidence: for all that grunge may have sounded like punk, their spiritual forefathers were groups like R.E.M.. Kurt Cobain wasn’t listening to Achtung Baby when he killed himself, he was listening to Automatic.
And that’s why R.E.M. still matters. Even as their supposed peers -- shambling corpse-bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, and U2 -- maintained (at least some of) their popularity at the expense of their relevancy and critical appeal, R.E.M. never strayed from their (delusional? hypocritical?) ideals, even if it meant jettisoning a wide chunk of their popularity. Let’s be frank: if they had wanted to, they could have easily banged out an album packed full of “Losing My Religion” retreads every year for the past decade and reaped substantial rewards for maintaining a consistent presence on retail shelves. It only took one Pop-sized disaster for U2 to institute a massive course correction in favor of a renewed dedication to insipidly predictable stadium-pleasing crap. But the last decade has seen R.E.M. stumble through the wilderness, producing good albums (Up) in equal measure with the bad (the execrable Around the Sun), all because of a naive unwillingness to be ruled by any considerations besides their own best judgment. They had to learn the hard way how to recognize lapses in said judgment when they occurred, and accordingly, they had to take their lumps before they could find their way back. That’s why this year’s Accelerate was such a righteous return to form: it wasn’t some cynical back-to-basics play for renewed popularity, it was an honest rediscovery of everything that had made the group so good to begin with, a hard-won triumph in every sense of the phrase. Or, to put it another way: if they had just wanted to restore their “commercial viability”, they picked about the most ass-backwards way conceivable of doing such a thing. It was enough for them to actually put out another album worth listening to.
That’s all they ever wanted to do. They succeeded so well with Murmur that we’re still talking about it some 26 years later. If they had broke up after their first album, well, we’d probably still remember Murmur -- at least every once in a while -- long after Michael Stipe had been promoted to assistant manager at the Athens Applebee’s. But as it is, they are so important precisely because Murmur wasn’t a fluke. It was the start of something pretty special, both in terms of the group’s astounding career trajectory and the invention of alternative rock itself. If you’ve never heard the album, or if you dismiss R.E.M. out of hand for whatever reason, please don’t take my word for it. This is strong stuff, stirring and savage in equal measure, awkwardly fumbling one moment and running ahead the next, but doing it all with such a clear and winning confidence that it’s inconceivable to imagine they were, basically, a bunch of kids. It makes me want to be young forever, despite the knowledge that I probably won’t. And even if I can’t be young forever, I can hold on to that feeling every time I hear this album.