R.E.M. broke up Wednesday, with an exit nearly as modest as its entrance.
You couldn’t get much more humble than touring America in a beat-up van out of the decidedly un-hip environs of Athens, Ga., in 1980. And when the band went out this week, it wasn’t as part of a blow-out arena tour, but via a terse announcement on its Web site.
"A wise man once said -- 'the skill in attending a party is knowing when it's time to leave,’ ” singer Michael Stipe wrote at remhq.com. “We built something extraordinary together. We did this thing. And now we're going to walk away from it.”
Some contended on social media sites Wednesday that the band overstayed its welcome. “R.E.M. was still together?” tweeted hip-hop producer El-P. A contingent of fans and critics has maintained that R.E.M. really ended when original drummer Bill Berry quit in 1997 over health and personal issues. Cofounders Stipe, bassist Mike Mills and guitarist Peter Buck carried on for another 14 years without him, with money-making tours but few enduring albums.
What’s indisputable is that R.E.M. will be most fondly remembered for what they did with Berry from 1980 to the mid-‘90s, and that legacy casts a huge shadow. With the exception of U2, Nirvana, Radiohead and possibly a few others, no band has had quite as much impact over the last three decades in balancing commercial success with critical acclaim. Though the band sold more than 70 million albums, it was how the band sold those records that left the deepest imprint. (A guide to the band's essential albums is HERE.)
The band’s ability to create a healthy marketplace for itself was a beacon for other post-punk bands that fought to make personal, cutting-edge music at a time when MTV was playing million-dollar videos by assembly-line rock and pop acts.
“We’re the acceptable edge of the unacceptable,” Buck once said of the band’s legacy in the ‘80s, a decade in which it rose from playing bars and dives to headlining arenas with its integrity and musical credibility intact. Along the way the band produced a series of classic albums, beginning with “Murmur” in 1983.
Above all, there was the sound, an intoxicating mix of rock drive and Southern atmosphere, as thick and mysterious as the tangle of kudzu vines depicted on the cover of “Murmur.” Buck’s guitar-playing was as much about arpeggios and ringing overtones as more conventional rock riffing. The rhythm section of Mills and Berry often pushed to the front of the mix alongside the guitar and vocals, the songs motoring along with sometimes breathless speed, especially in concert. The rhythm-section duo also added expansive vocal harmonies, amplifying Stipe’s plush if often incomprehensible lead mumble. He eventually took greater care to enunciate his lyrics, revealing a lyricist with a gift for poetic twists, sardonic asides and politically tinged commentary.
Especially in R.E.M.’s early days, Stipe reinvented the role of the rock “front man,” his voice becoming another instrument in a heady musical tapestry. That R.E.M. was essentially a democracy, with the four members sharing equally in the songwriting and functioning as complementary pieces, upended the typical band hierarchy and created a template for others to follow.
R.E.M.’s burgeoning success on an independent label, I.R.S., also blazed an end-run around entrenched music industry gatekeepers. The quartet’s success helped affirm the viability of a musical community that didn’t depend on the major labels and radio conglomerates for its existence.
When Warner Brothers signed R.E.M. in the late ‘80s, the band faced a challenge to its relevance with the rise of Seattle’s rock scene and the emergence of new, harder edged bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam. But R.E.M. responded by making two of its finest albums with “Out of Time” (1991) and “Automatic for the People” (1992). Both sold multi-millions, and “Out of Time” yielded the band’s biggest hit, “Losing My Religion.” Though the band had in a way outgrown its post-punk origins, its songwriting had matured and deepened in a way that cut across generations.
“We’re informed by the same aesthetic as the Pearl Jam-Nirvana guys were – they’re the second generation of punk kids, and we were the first,” Buck told the Tribune in 1994. “But I remember when the Beatles were together. I was 10 when they broke up, and that was part of my experience, too. We’re probably more interested in songwriting than a lot of younger bands are, and that’s a totally unhip thing to say. It’s not supposed to be about songs anymore, but grooves, riffs and passion. But I like a good bridge and an intro section, and a key change in a good place.”
R.E.M. re-signed for a reported $80 million with Warner in 1996, something of a golden age for a music industry awash in profit from compact-disc sales and classic-rock reissues. But the next year Berry quit, tired of being a “pop star,” and gave the band his blessing to continue as a three-piece. Stipe likened R.E.M. to a “three-legged dog” and though the band continued to make albums, it was never quite as potent.
Mills acknowledged as much in a 2004 Tribune interview. Berry was not only a friend and an excellent drummer and harmony singer, but played a critical role in the songwriting.
"The primary thing we learned when Bill left and we had to figure out how to work as a trio is something that we should have known all along, but didn't necessarily practice, and that's communicating with one another," Mills said. Berry "was very much about keeping the songs to their essence. He didn't want any fluff. I think now we all try to fill that role, but it was an adjustment for everybody. We had to learn to police ourselves better without Bill in the mix.”
The band began revisiting its past on recent albums, with the more scrappy approach of “Accelerate” (2008) harkening to the “Murmur” era. Its 15th studio release, “Collapse Into Now,” released last March, rehashed parts of its legacy from the ‘80s and early ‘90s. In many ways it was difficult to tell apart from the most recent Decemberists album, “The King is Dead,” which included a cameo from Buck. “Collapse Into Now” nonetheless became the band’s 10th album to crack the top 10 of the Billboard chart, and it was clear the band could have continued as a viable commercial enterprise for a good deal longer, capable of playing to arena-sized crowds in many parts of the world.
So the band’s abrupt end was driven by reasons other than commerce. One suspects the band finally acknowledged that it really had exhausted its creativity and that it would be pointless and possibly embarrassing to continue past this point. It’s a heck of a legacy they leave behind, not only influencing countless bands from an aesthetic and business point of view – the Decemberists, Pavement and Nirvana, among them – but pointing the way back to important, overlooked underground bands such as Big Star and Robyn Hitchcock’s Soft Boys.
That the band went out on its own terms should’ve been expected. Stipe once addressed that stubborn sense of integrity in a Tribune interview: “The insularity of this band, it’s almost pathological. Peter has always said, and he’s dead right, that it’s the songs that matter and everything else is b.s. We have to protect that.”