||February 24, 2002
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
The mysteries of R.E.M.'s first album begin with the striking cover image
of an alien landscape overgrown with ravenous kudzu, rendered in muted sepia
tones that bring to mind the haunting Civil War photographs of Matthew
In large, typewritten letters in the upper left-hand corner is the band's
name--fans know that the initials stand for "rapid eye movement," the phase
of the sleep cycle during which dreaming occurs--and under that, much
smaller, comes the title: "Murmur."
It all sets the stage for one of rock's most perfectly sustained mood
Singer Michael Stipe has often said that the title was chosen because
it's one of the easiest words to pronounce in the English language. It also
happens to be wonderfully descriptive of his vocal style at the time. Rock
critics who weren't enchanted by the disc would derisively call it "Mumble,"
but these non-believers were in the minority.
While R.E.M. would become known as one of America's quintessential
"Southern bands," none of the members were actually born in the South.
Guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills both spent their early years in
California; Stipe was an Army brat who lived in Germany for a time, and
drummer Bill Berry was born in Duluth, Minn. Family moves brought them all
to the Peach State, while the University of Georgia eventually drew them to
the tiny college town of Athens.
United by a lust for excitement and a love of punk and New Wave music,
each member brought considerable experience to the group, especially in
terms of how to craft an image and build interest. Mills and Berry had
served as the rhythm section in several different bands, and Berry had
worked for a booking agency run by Miles Copeland, brother of Police drummer
Stewart Copeland and the man who founded R.E.M.'s first real label, I.R.S.
Berry knew that touring was the key to creating an audience. Meanwhile,
Stipe and Buck were voracious music lovers who devoured the rock press and
learned the benefits of myth-making. From the beginning, Buck was loquacious
in interviews, spinning romantic tales about the abandoned church where the
band practiced, and equating its travels up and down the Eastern seaboard
with the wanderlust of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." And Stipe ... well,
Stipe was mysterious, elliptical, and enigmatic, a cipher waiting to be
decoded, or a Rubik's Cube yearning to be solved.
While the punk explosion of the mid-'70s never caught on as a commercial
force in America as it did in England, it did give birth to a thriving
underground. By the early '80s, there was a strong network of small,
independent labels and a string of clubs, fanzines and college radio
stations to support them. R.E.M. tapped into this scene, took full advantage
of it, and arguably became its biggest cheerleader.
The band made its recorded debut in the summer of 1981 with a song that
paid homage to the spirit of the young, independent broadcasters. (Rock 'n'
Roll Truism No. 3: If you want to get radio play, write a great song
celebrating radio.) The tiny Hib-Tone label only pressed 1,000 copies of
"Radio Free Europe," but the single topped the Village Voice's year-end
critics' poll, and the attention helped the band land its deal with I.R.S.
The group's debut E.P. was recorded at Mitch Easter's Drive-In Studio,
a.k.a. the basement of his mom's house in Winston-Salem, N.C. Dark, layered,
intricate, but melodic--an American answer to British bands like the
Psychedelic Furs and the Smiths--1982's "Chronic Town" was an auspicious
debut, but it only hinted at what was to come.
The group continued working with Easter for its first full album, but it
moved from the Drive-In to a professional 24-track facility called
Reflection in Charlotte, N.C., a place more familiar with recording gospel
acts. The band claims to have entered the studio with all 12 songs and even
the sequence already set, but plenty of outtakes later emerged on B-sides
and rarities collections, including a handful of memorable covers.
Throughout the sessions, there was pressure from I.R.S. to produce a hit,
but Easter and the band say they tuned the company out and proceeded to
craft the sort of finely textured cult album they adored: "Big Star III,"
"The Velvet Underground III," "Tonight's the Night" by Neil Young, or "Pink
Flag" by Wire. The production was dense but inviting, like a cloud of
sweet-smelling perfume, and it was full of small but inspired touches:
clanging bells, a moaning cello, odd, metallic ringing noises, wooden
clacking, and a vocal treated to sound as if it was coming through a
In An R.E.M. Companion: It Crawled from the South , the most illuminating
book about the band, Marcus Gray quotes Easter as saying he had to talk the
minimalist group into making a more elaborate recording. "They weren't
particularly interested in being real fancy," the producer said. "Actually,
it was sort of a struggle for me and [engineer Don] Dixon to get them to
accept any additional stuff on the record."
Always adept at rewriting history, Buck now takes full credit for the
psychedelic tilt--even though he disavowed that adjective at the time.
"Certainly, a lot of things on 'Murmur' reflected my familiarity with the
Byrds, the Beach Boys, or psychedelic stuff, which was new to the others,"
he said in one recent interview. "I'd do something in the studio and Michael
would be like, 'Wow, that's really wild, that's weird.' And actually, it was
something I ripped off from some totally obscure English '60s band."
A canny, self-taught primitive, Buck's biggest asset as a musician is
impeccable taste. There's hardly a single conventional guitar lead on the
album, arguably because he couldn't play one at the time. Instead, he
fashions a signature rhythm sound that is gorgeously chiming and jangly (the
obligatory rock-crit descriptions for early R.E.M.), drawing heavily on the
trademark Rickenbackers of the early Byrds, with the occasional burst of
Velvets-style feedback and garage-rock fuzz thrown in for emphasis.
While Buck strums away, Mills provides the songs' melodic counterpoints
with his ultra-musical bass parts, and Berry shows considerable imagination
in varying his propulsive backbeats with deft and colorful use of elaborate
patterns on the tom-toms. Both also add beautiful harmony vocals, though
these wouldn't be fully perfected until the next album, "Reckoning," and the
discs that followed.
At the center of it all is Stipe's rumbling, nasal baritone. Deliberately
slurring his words, he seems to be singing into his sleeve or lurking in the
shadows just off mike, rather than dramatically annunciating like an opera
singer or a traditional pop crooner. Like Brian Eno (who intellectualized
singing nonsense syllables) or the great doo-wop groups (who did it
instinctively), Stipe knew that words chosen merely for the way they sound
and phrases that suggest something without actually saying anything can be
much more powerful than lyrics that try to tell a story, because the
listener is free to fill in the blanks with his or her imagination.
Village Voice rock critic Tom Carson contended that Stipe's singing
evoked the feeling of a child who wakes up in the middle of the night and is
galvanized by the pile of clothes left on the floor in the corner, which
seems to have metamorphosed into something altogether different in the
darkness. But critics often over-emphasize Stipe's mumbling.
Perhaps 30 percent of the lyrics on "Murmur" are intelligible. With the
exception of "Radio Free Europe"--which appears in a new version more
subtle, less immediate, but no less potent than the original single--it's
hard to say what any of the songs are "about." But the phrases that pop out
of the haze paint an impressionistic portrait of life in the underground
circa the early '80s, lionizing those who chose to live an alternative
lifestyle in the face of Reaganism, yuppie greed, and growing cultural
"The pilgrimage has gained momentum ... Martyred, misconstrued ... Empty
prayer, empty mouths, talk about the passion ... Not everyone can carry the
weight of the world ... Oh, we were little boys/Oh, we were little girls ...
I can hear you/Can you hear me?"
Coupled with the swirling sounds of the album, the strength of the
melodies, and the passion of the performances, scattered lines such as these
are as moving today as they were when R.E.M. first won its rabid cult
following. (Platinum success wouldn't follow until four years later, with
1987's "Document.") "If 'Murmur' sold 8 million copies, I don't know where
we'd be today," Buck told me in 1996, comparing his band's career arc to
that of Nirvana. "I'd like to think it wouldn't have gotten as far as it did
with Kurt [Cobain], but I don't know if we'd be here now."
In fact, R.E.M. is here but not here, the richest and most celebrated
American band of its generation. It continues to make music that ranges from
mediocre to very good (but not great), though it's no longer the band that
Berry quit and the others continued, though they vowed they never would.
I recently saw Stipe on "Entertainment Tonight," dueting with Cher on "I Got
You, Babe," and pronouncing every word all too clearly. Buck was arrested
last year for causing a drunken rock-star scene onboard an airplane, and the
last time I interviewed Mills, he grew furious when I suggested that it was
hypocritical for the band to attack Ticketmaster on Capitol Hill, then go
along with the $15 service charge that the company added to the $50 tickets
for the band's last tour.
Sadly, R.E.M. circa 2002 is more likely to talk about the passion than to
express it as purely and eloquently as it did on "Murmur," which stands as
its most impressive and innovative work, and the one most deserving of a
place in the pantheon beside the classic albums the musicians loved most.
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