Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



'Alternative rock' group formed '80 in Athens GA: Michael Stipe, vocals (b 4 Jan. '60), Peter Buck, guitar (b 6 Dec. '56), Michael Mills, bass (b 17 Dec. '58), Bill Berry, drums (b 31 July '58). Name said to come from random sequence of letters, though matched 'rapid eye movement', the state of sleep in which dreaming takes place. Independent single 'Radio Free Europe' '81 followed by EP Chronic Town '82, LP Murmur '83. incl. 'Radio Free Europe', 'Talk About The Passion'. They became critics' favourites, in vanguard of roots revival: their early sound was reminiscent of the Byrds; the band acknowledged influences, enriched by Stipe's mysterious lyrics and Buck's eclectic guitar. Reckoning '84 confirmed promise, with 'So Central Rain', '(Don't Go Back To) Rockville', 'Seven Chinese Brothers'. Fables Of The Reconstruction/Reconstruction Of The Fables '85 prod. by Joe Boyd; Life's Rich Pageant '86 was a stronger, less dreamy-sounding album; Dead Letter Office collected B sides, live tracks, covers, then Number 5: Document '87 was also more outward-looking, their best chart showing yet at no. 10 USA. They were at the centre of a flourishing Athens scene incl. Don Dixon and Let's Active; Stipe sang backup on Jason and the Scorchers' Fever '83, worked with Warren Zevon '86; Buck guested on Dream Academy debut LP, worked with Robbie Robertson '86; Buck, Mills and Berry recorded with Zevon as the Hindu Love Gods '90; they worked with the Troggs and Billy Bragg '91, etc. Among the sidelights of the burgeoning Southern scene was Mitch Easter, singer, guitarist, co-prod. of the early R.E.M. albums and a power-pop veteran, who formed Let's Active with bassist Faye Hunter and drummer Sara Romweber: they made EP Afoot and LP Cypress '83--4, toured UK with Echo and the Bunnymen; Romweber left; Easter had help from Hunter and others on Big Plans For Everybody '85, acclaimed as classic guitar pop but with no commercial luck. A quartet Let's Active made Every Dog Has His Day '88 and Easter was said to be writing again mid-'90s.

Meanwhile, Eponymous '88 remixed R.E.M. hits; Green same year was a no. 12 album; Out Of Time '91 reached no. 1 with string-laden love songs, and Automatic For The People '92 was almost as big. Their work was eclectic and unpredictable; 'Losing My Religion' from Out Of Time was heard as one of the most downbeat pop records ever, yet in retrospect immediately became one of its generation's musical touchstones. Having seen the Unplugged era coming and beat everybody to that, they then flat-footed fans and critics with a return to loud electric rock'n'roll on Monster '94 (which some considered dispensable) just as their contract with WB was running out. Co-manager and 'fifth member' Jefferson Holt drifted away; Berry had to have brain surgery March '95 to repair a ruptured aneurysm; Mills had emergency surgery for an adhesion on his intestines; Stipe went to hospital with a hernia and fans were worried about R.E.M.'s future. Then they had a new contract and were back on form with the satisfying New Adventures In Hi-Fi '96, Mills talking about 'the shared history that you have that nobody else knows. That never goes away.' The new album didn't sell particularly well, the era of the superstars apparently over, but they had become everybody's favourite rock band and won all the awards going (Grammy, Brit, MTV, Billboard, Rolling Stone) by not trying to be fashionable. Surprise Your Pig '92 on Staplegun was a tribute album by various artists. Buck relocated to Seattle and continued to work with anyone who would have him, like a pop workaholic; quartet Tuatara incl. Justin Harwood (bassist from Luna), Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees' percussionist) and Skerik (saxophone, Creatures Buggin); their Breaking The Ethers '97 on Epic sounded 'uncomfortably like a stoned jam in a WOMAD side tent at about four on a wet morning' (Mojo). Buck also collaborated with songwriter Mark Eitzel (see his entry) on West '97.