Music

The Top Five I.R.S.-Era R.E.M. Music Videos

With the 25th anniversary deluxe edition of the band's fourth album Lifes Rich Pageant due out soon, here's a look at the top videos R.E.M. made during its tenure on I.R.S. Records.

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.)

 

5. “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” (1984)

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.

 

4. “Fall on Me” (1986)

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.

 

3. “Driver 8” (1985)

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.

 

2. “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” (1987)

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.

 

1. “Finest Worksong” (1987)

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.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.

Music

Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

By the Book

Flight and Return: Kendra Atleework's Memoir, 'Miracle Country'

Although inconsistent as a memoir, Miracle Country is a breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.

Music

Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold Celebrate New Album With Performance Video (premiere)

Mark Olson (The Jayhawks) and Ingunn Ringvold share a 20-minute performance video that highlights their new album, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. "This was an opportunity to perform the new songs and pretend in a way that we were still going on tour because we had been so looking forward to that."

Music

David Grubbs and Taku Unami Collaborate on the Downright Riveting 'Comet Meta'

Comet Meta is a brilliant record full of compositions and moments worthy of their own accord, but what's really enticing is that it's not only by David Grubbs but of him. It's perhaps the most emotive, dream-like, and accomplished piece of Grubbsian experimental post-rock.

Music

On Their 2003 Self-Titled Album, Buzzcocks Donned a Harder Sound and Wore it With Style and Taste

Buzzcocks, the band's fourth album since their return to touring in 1989, changed their sound but retained what made them great in the first place

Reading Pandemics

Chaucer's Plague Tales

In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.

Music

Country's Jaime Wyatt Gets in Touch With Herself on 'Neon Cross'

Neon Cross is country artist Jaime Wyatt's way of getting in touch with all the emotions she's been going through. But more specifically, it's about accepting both the past and the present and moving on with pride.

Music

Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.

Music

Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity

"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."

Books

How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.

Film

From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.