To understand R.E.M.’s rise from an underground band with a cult following to international pop stardom, you need to understand their relationship with college radio in America.
R.E.M.’s debut single, ‘Radio Free Europe’ originally released on indie label Hib-Tone and then later re-recorded for their debut album Murmur on IRS Records, was a harbinger that this band would be going places. It’s an incredibly infectious song featuring Michael Stipes’ soon-to-be trademark opaque lyrics, Peter Bucks’ jangly guitar sound, Mike Mills’ melodic basslines and Bill Berry’s economic drumming.
It was hard to believe it was a debut record because of its deft song-writing and singalong chorus (even if one doesn’t even know which words they’re singing). But commercial radio stations refused to pick it up and instead, the song was championed by college radio stations, so much so that Radio Free Europe’ was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry for “setting the pattern for later indie rock releases by breaking through on college radio in the face of mainstream radio’s general indifference.”
In less than a decade, R.E.M. would grace the top of commercial radio and Billboard charts, but in the early 80’s, most Album Oriented Rock stations didn’t give a hoot. They didn’t want to take chances on little indie bands from Athens, Georgia, even if the tiny city gave birth to an impactful scene known as ‘The Liverpool of the South’ that produced other cult acts like Pylon and B-52s. Commercial rock stations preferred to give airtime to 60’s/ 70’s rock survivors and calculated chances were taken on new bands that had the moneyed marketing leverage of the major labels.
But the radio stations on the lower left-hand side of the radio dial did embrace the jangly pop sound that was just beginning to gel with bands like R.E.M., the dB’s, Game Theory and R.E.M.’s then producer Mitch Easter and his band, Let’s Active.
In the USA, the 88 to 91.9 FM bandwidth is reserved for public broadcasting which is made up of community, college and other school radio stations. These radio stations were usually small powered (often only 10 watts), had limited reach, and were not allowed to play advertisements in adherence with Federal Communications Commission regulations. And because they didn’t have to rely upon marketing dollars of culturally conservative big brands, these radio stations had more freedom and often adopted a freeform programming format. In short, as long as these stations didn’t broadcast any words the FCC deemed vulgar, they could pretty much play any music they wanted.
This is the scene that I was born out of and that enabled me to discover music from the non-commercial side of the spectrum. I’m lucky to have grown up outside of Boston , Massachusetts – a huge college town with Harvard, MIT, Emerson, Boston University, Berkelee College of Music, Northeastern and not to mention the schools in the surrounding suburbs – and all of them had their own student-run radio stations.
In fact, so did my own town-funded high school – Holliston High. We had a 10-watt radio studio in a room just off the school library that was founded by a group of students, including my uncle Brian, a decade before. I started broadcasting on air in my freshman year of high school at the age of 14 – shhhh – that was 1982 – and I had my own show all the way through my senior year. College radio and a local progressive AOR station, WBCN, and my after-school job in a record shop moulded my musical tastes which leaned heavily toward the underground and bands like R.E.M.
I was already a music obsessive when it came time to head to university, and I only chose schools that had their own cool radio station. I ended up at New York University and headed over to the WNYU studio my first week on campus. I spent a lot of time there getting the most amazing training and later rising through the ranks to become the station’s first female program director. At that time, WNYU had the heady atmosphere of one of the biggest college radio stations in the country with my favourite bands popping in for an interview when swinging through New York City on tour. But more importantly, it became a home where I sometimes crashed after editing tape all night and where I was surrounded by a family of musical misfits.
The reason I mention this is because R.E.M. accompanied me throughout this journey and their trajectory from college to commercial radio, small local music venue to arena paralleled both the transformation of college rock to commercial alternative rock, and my own professional career in radio. I played Murmur, Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction on my high school radio station WHHB, and then Life’s Rich Pageant, Document and Green on my college radio station WNYU. It was stations like these that bolstered R.E.M.’s profile so much so, that their sophomore album, 1984’s The Reckoning, peaked at number 27 on the US album charts – an unusually high position for a college rock act.
By the time of Life’s Rich Pageant, R.E.M.’s core support still came from college radio, but they were beginning to chart hits on mainstream rock formats, as well. Commercial program and music directors had their eyes on the college radio charts and they began to rely upon us for our ears.
Of course, R.E.M. always had the potential to break through, just like two other soon-to-be-arena acts that were fostered by college radio: Depeche Mode and U2. Even though they were on an indie label and quirkily avoided the rock music trappings of the stadium sized guitar solo, R.E.M.’s music always had the potential to reach a wider audience. As Peter Buck once quipped, “We were the acceptable edge of the unacceptable.”
Their fifth album, 1987’s Document was a real turning point for the band as it featured their biggest mainstream hit yet, ‘The One I Love’. Like many indie rock heads, my younger self grappled with our own prejudices of the us against them nature – the non-commercial vs commercial music and radio formats. Looking back that was a bit unfair as the song is damn good and the remainder of the album included many deeply socio-political songs like ‘Welcome to the Occupation’ and ‘Exhuming McCarthy’ which made explicit parallels with then president Ronald Reagan.
And then the following year, R.E.M. did the unthinkable – they signed to a major label, Warner Brothers. I can’t even being to explain what a big deal this was indie-die-hards. Were R.E.M. selling out? Again, looking back it was unfair to think that way as now this incredible Georgian quartet had more infrastructure and money to get their music out to a wider audience. And the band remained steadfastly political, choosing the American release date to coincide with the 1988 presidential election, and using their increased profile to criticise Republican candidate George H. W. Bush. So ‘Green’ still had underground appeal with the highest accolade of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain naming it as one of his top 50 favourite albums.
Their next record didn’t feature political commentary as Michael Stipe explained to Spin Magazine, “You can only go so far writing songs like that and get away with it. I can’t do it all the time, and I don’t want to pigeonhole myself into being a political folk singer in a rock band. Every song on this record is a love song.” Out of Time became their big breakthrough and topped both the US and UK charts and garnered a worldwide hit with ‘Losing my Religion’. And it won R.E.M. seven Grammy nominations – more than any other artist that year. They eventually won three including Best Alternative Music Album.
The ‘Alternative Music’ labelling was significant. It was around this time when Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth and most famously Nirvana left their independent label homes and migrated to the major labels. Simultaneously, commercial radio formats were beginning to catch up with college radio where these bands had germinated. But you couldn’t call it ‘indie’ anymore and hence, the label ‘Alternative Music’ was born.
Again, this development was mirroring my own career. My first proper job after university was as a host/programmer/writer and sound engineer for an interview-based radio show called Music View that was syndicated on over 200 college radio stations throughout the country. Once Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ broke to the mainstream, commercial radio stations began adopting the Alternative Music format and I started producing another interview-based radio show called New Music Exclusives that went out on 50 commercial radio stations who had just changed their format.
With regards to R.E.M., it was possible that the pressures of becoming an arena-playing band and the added scrutiny that comes with being in the public eye, as they decided not to tour after releasing Out of Time, their highest selling album to date. Instead, Buck, Miles and Berry headed to the studio without Stipe as they found it worked better when they presented him with more solid instrumental backing tracks before he started adding lyrics.
They enlisted Scott Litt who had been producing their albums since Document, and produced some of the new record in Athens and then in various places throughout the country and the resulting album, Automatic for the People, became a career highpoint, selling 15 million albums, topped US and UK charts and produced three hit singles: ‘Drive’, ‘Man on the Moon’ and ‘Everybody Hurts’.
Initially, the band intended to have a harder rocking sound for the album, but it turned out quite different the overall the record had a much more sombre feel. They did enlisted legendary Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, but not for his heavy rock skills – instead he was brought in for string arrangements and they are beautiful – majestic and melancholic.
The opening song Drive sets the reflective tone for the album Drive seemed to be aimed at the young telling them to take charge of their own lives.
‘Everybody Hurts’ direct lyrics were aimed for teenagers and perhaps this is why it’s one of their most popular singles. It was mostly written by drummer Bill Berry (although the band always equally split song-writing credit) and the band tried to approach it using a Stax / Otis Redding ‘Pain in My Heart ‘ vibe which you can hear if you listen closely. And you may also hear the 10cc ‘I’m Not In Love’ influence in ‘Star Me Kitten’.
‘Man on the Moon’ was about controversial comedian Andy Kaufman. In an interview with Mat Snow in Q, (accessed via Rocks Back Pages) Buck revealed, “It’s a funny little song about two people who are dead but are supposed to be alive: Elvis, and Andy Kaufman, a comic who tested the boundaries. One of his routines was to read from The Great Gatsby for 45 minutes while the audience threw things at him. A lot of people think he’s still alive.”
The song does have one stand-out rocker and the only politically driven song on the record, ‘Ignoreland’ of which Buck said, “We live in America: look around – we’re pretty much able to ignore reality. We have this great ability to pretend there’s nothing wrong, that we’re still a superpower and it doesn’t matter if we kill a couple of hundred thousand people. Oh, and Reagan lowered taxes. In fact, taxes were raised 12 times during his reign. He lowered rich people’s taxes – he and George Bush made me rich, but my mom’s taxes went up. She’s a secretary. Most people are able to ignore all that and vote overwhelmingly for these guys who just out and out lie to you.”
In retrospect, Automatic for the People was a strange album to release in 1992. R.E.M. were no longer the darlings of college radio but arguably the biggest and most important band in America, yet they still didn’t quite fit in. Here was an album that was full of introspective ruminations on mortality, an album that wore its vulnerability on its sleeve, but was also empowering – connecting with people who felt they were on the outside.
And Automatic for the People certainly didn’t reflect the fact it was produced at the height of the next big wave of alternative music: grunge (although their next album ‘Monster’ did). It was almost like R.E.M. were now elder statesman, singing about the anxiety of aging whilst a younger generation decked out in flannel shirts slam-danced to Nirvana and Mudhoney.
Once again, R.E.M. didn’t tour to promote their latest hit album. Stipe told The Guardian, “We had done 10 years of touring. I was tired, adrenalised to my eyeballs and skinny as a rail. In 1989, we went around the world three times. My haircut during that tour should indicate my state of mind: it was the four worst haircuts of the 1980s combined into one.”
But they still had to feed the machine and promote the albums set up in a hotel for a week doing a gruelling 10 interviews a day. Stipe was bald, skinny and rumours were circulating that he had AIDS (he didn’t). The album’s title may have referred to the satisfaction-guaranteed slogan of their favourite local Athens diner, but it could just as easily speak of the pressures of a band selling millions of records and having to continually serve up the hits.
Looking back from a quarter of a century later, Automatic for the People is a gloriously crafted and poignant album that because it didn’t sound of a time has lasted the test of time. Even if the record didn’t neatly slot into the fashionable sounds of the early 90’s, the album’s sentiment and sound would later resurface in some of contemporary music’s most famous acts including Wilco, the National, Arcade Fire and Radiohead.
by Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy
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