Sean Bw Parker peruses Athens, Georgia’s finest export, R.E.M., as UMC/Capitol release their I.R.S. Records haul of singles. Join Sean as he revisits the band’s inaugural 80s heyday of ‘finest work songs’.
R.E.M. ‘7in – 83 – 88’ (UMC/Capitol) 8th December 2014
In an interview I did last year with the Throwing Muses’ Kristin Hersh, when asked about their recent demise, she replied ‘they’re some of the few real gentlemen in rock, and I’ll miss them a lot’. For over thirty years, this has been the root appeal of R.E.M. It never took a musician to tell that these four Georgian indie-Countrysmiths truly meant it, and wouldn’t let you down, ma’am.
But meant what? Enigmatic frontman Michael Stipe’s lyrics were seemingly permanently low in the mix, and often simply murmured (an aesthetic reflected in their debut album of the same name). Murmur was roundly considered the album of 1983 in the States, and R.E.M. would for the rest of the decade lead the conscientious alternative music fan through the rest of the free-market capitalism-infested decade – reflected on the other side of the Atlantic by The Cure and The Smiths. The following decade, accidentally spearheaded by Nirvana, would see alt-rock become mainstream.
It was quite a classic, if sometimes somewhat businesslike seeming, ‘career path’. Energised, caterwauling, ambitious-without-looking-it 80s slides into moneyed, grandiose, multi-unit-shifting, arena-rocking 90s, finally into postmillennial decline and a feeling of R.E.M.-on-repeat. That said, their innate humanity, work ethic, perceived liberal socialism and organic approach saw them burrow deeply into the hearts of more than one generation of ‘serious’ music listener.
Their first run of singles, from post-new-wavey ‘Radio Free Europe’, through to the sublime ‘SO. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)’, and incendiary ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’ to first crossover hit ‘The One I Love’ are all present and correct, plus a surprise, ramshackle Velvet Underground cover ‘There She Goes Again’. The politically incorrect lyric of late Lou’s ‘better hit her’, referring to his street-walking girlfriend – and rather incongruous to R.E.M.’s right-on credentials and ethos – is changed by Stipe by the end to ‘better let her’.
There is a view amongst Stipe-watchers that R.E.M. should have called it a day after the departure of bored, brain aneurysm afflicted drummer Bill Berry, and simultaneously underrated album Up. Possibly, but those late alums (Reveal, Around The Sun, Accelerate and contract-fulfilling swan song Collapse Into Now) indicate a return to the spiky aesthetic of the songs brought together here, from their nascent years – just with more expensive production. A fine collection of ‘worksongs’, indeed.