I first heard R.E.M. in 1984 when my friend Mike taped their new album Reckoning for me. It sounded like The Byrds, who we both loved, and became my most played album of the summer. When I saw that they were playing Nottingham’s Rock City that autumn, I had to go, though I couldn’t persuade anyone to go with me. There were less than a hundred people in the audience, but some fans (and Q magazine) have pinpointed this gig as the point where R.E.M. lifted their sound into the classic one that was to define them. Not having seen them before, I can’t comment on the change, but I can say that I went expecting The Byrds and found something more akin to The Sex Pistols. They were that exciting. The concert was recorded and later broadcast on BBC Radio One, so I’ve heard it many times, but the broadcast doesn’t capture the excitement that was in the room that night, the intensity. They returned a year later and the show was – from all of the boots I’ve heard – a more typical early R.E.M. gig, with messing about, odd cover versions and sublime moments, but that first gig was the one that made them my favourite band.
I have friends who follow people (ie Dylan) round on tour but I’m usually content to see one gig per tour. Over twenty-seven years I saw the band fourteen times, an average of every other year, though I saw them twice in a week in 2003 (Brixton Academy, Glastonbury) and on two consecutive days in 2007, which I’ll come to. They only played Nottingham twice more. I was in the middle of the second row when they did the Royal Concert Hall in 1989, the Green tour, possibly the greatest gig I’ve ever been to, although it was only 75 minutes long. I spent most of it jumping up and down, as I often did at R.E.M. gigs in the 80’s and 90’s. They never bettered the first side of Green. During the tour, they became an arena band and, although I saw them in small venues again several times, this was mainly due to my belonging to their fan club (only fan club I ever joined and a complete bargain – it’s greatly to their credit how well they always looked after their fans). From their next album on, they weren’t just an arena band, they were – when they wanted to be – a stadium act. I saw them outside three times – Huddersfield, Glastonbury and their final Nottingham show, a miserable 2005 night at the Forest City ground, with the sound blowing around in the rain. Even that last one was pretty damn good, because it was R.E.M. and they always gave their all.
Hard to explain to people younger than 40 how important R.E.M. were in the 80’s. Their decline arguably began with their first multi-million selling album Out Of Time (the one with Losing My Religion, a great song I got tired of hearing at gigs). I loved the mysterious, elliptical, magnetic rock on Lifes Rich Pageant (maybe their quintessential album, even though – or perhaps because – it’s a bunch of old and news songs thrown together) and found Automatic For The People decidedly patchy, not so much for the irritating, overtly political Ignoreland (compare to their greatest early ‘political’ song Cuyahoga and weep) but for the dreadful, cloying Everybody Hurts, destined to be played at every subsequent R.E.M. show I saw (except, mercifully, the last two). Anyway, the band returned to form in ’95 with Monster, opening with their best single, the awesome What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? (note, live versions of this are better, the original version is too slow, though it didn’t seem so at the time). Kurt Cobain’s suicide galvanised them. You couldn’t play the sappy Everybody Hurts in response to that. Instead we got the anguished Let Me In. The album outgrunged grunge. Touring it, recorded a live album of new songs, later released as New Adventures In Hi-Fi, which has many great moments, but is more a consolidation than a step forward.
And that was it, really. For, during the 1995 tour, drummer Bill Berrry had a brain aneurysm and, though he recovered sufficiently to see out the tour (the arena gig I was going to was cancelled, but I saw them do a great outdoor show in Huddersfield), he left before their next studio album. They carried on, and I’m glad they did, for the next time I saw them (at a tiny Notting Hill former chapel, with lots of celebs and fan club members) I finally persuaded my partner to come along, and she accompanied me to several subsequent R.E.M. shows. I got my first R.E.M. album the summer she moved in with me, so their songs soundtrack… well, no need to get soppy. My love of R.E.M. even seeped into my identity as a writer. In 1990, my first novel contained a quote from the opening song of Green, ‘can we talk about the government, can we talk about the weather?’ which summed up the theme of The Foggiest (reissues don’t have it, btw, as the band never gives permission to quote lyrics but, hey, they were nice enough not to sue me). My letterhead (and later, my website) had a caricature of me by my old friend, Brick, wearing an R.E.M. T-shirt.
Last time I saw them was four years ago, in Dublin. They played five nights of ‘public rehearsals’ in the thousand seater Olympia theatre. We went to the first two, meeting up with R.E.M. uberfan Hank and his family. Great, intimate shows, where they tried out new songs and threw in a few old ‘chestnuts’. They were trying to reinvigorate themselves after the dull, overworked 2004 Around The Sun album, and kind of succeeded. The following year’s Accelerate was, you know, pretty good. Then, this year, they released Collapse Into Now. I’m a collector, for my sins, and R.E.M. are the one band whose every release I hoard, but I have to confess that the final single from CIN is still in its shrink wrap. The album initially sounds good, but the songs don’t have any resonance (though I quite like the one about farting Mine Smell Like Honey). It’s R.E.M. by the numbers, an attempt to make another Automatic For The People. If they’d toured, I’d have gone to see them, but last night they announced that, after 31 years together, they had split up. I was sad, a bit, but it’s undoubtedly the right decision. ‘Well, at least we don’t have to look forward to any more disappointing records from them …..’ the poet Martin Stannard (another huge R.E.M. fan) emailed me while I’ve been writing this. There’s that, but it’s weird to think that I’ll never see them live again, for they were a great live band, and their shows have punctuated my adult life. I can’t see them reforming in a few years, as so many have. They went on for too long and are too classy to milk it for the farewell or reunion tour. The odd hometown get together, maybe. There was one Athens show where Bill rejoined them on drums. The recording circulates privately, as they say…
And that’s it. I’m not going to get stuck into an indepth analysis of R.E.M.’s music or lyrics (the redoubtable Matthew Perpetua, of Fluxblog, has written superbly about nearly every song here, and Michael Stipe has even responded to some of his observations. ‘I do tend towards becoming ‘advise guy’ in real life, which I hate, and sometimes that taints the songs or lyric’ he observes, acutely, but still goes on to write the dreadful ‘Every Day Is Yours To Win’).
Nor is this the time to discuss why, at my age, I still enjoy being (maybe need to be?) a fan, and why this particular band are the one I chose to get most obsessive over. Above is a video of them playing the song that first got me hooked on them, before it even had a name (thanks to my pal Scott, another big R.E.M. fan, who found this clip, which I’d never seen before). And, from my getting on for a hundred R.E.M. bootlegs, have an encore song from my first R.E.M. show, November 21st 1984, which the BBC didn’t broadcast. It didn’t appear officially until Pageant. Then a live version of what is probably my favourite R.E.M. song, also from Pageant, recorded in ’86. I never saw them play it live (how many times did I yell out for it?). Now I never will. Thanks for the memories, guys, and good luck.