Farewell to R.E.M., and a return to Accelerate

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by Mark Saleski

There were a handful of nights back in the early 1980s when me and my buddy Gene did little else but sit around in his folks’ living room, bliss out on the heat of the woodstove, and listen to Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom and, especially, R.E.M.’s Murmur.

I remember being completely amazed at what I was hearing — the weird part being that I had no way to articulate the “why” of the music’s greatness. Peter Buck’s jangly arpeggios and mashed chords, Mike Mills’ hyperactive basslines … these were surely part of the reason I was so entranced.

They just sounded very new and fresh, this despite the supposed Byrds influence that I’m sure I didn’t pick up on at the time. It’s also amazing to me that we’re still talking about the band so many years later, even if it’s because R.E.M. has called it quits.

In a new message posted to their Web site, R.E.M. says: “To our fans and friends — As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening.”

When R.E.M. exploded to the superstar level so many years after Murmur, I can’t say that I was surprised. It was pretty easy to see the talent and creativity even in the early songwriting. It did feel a little strange though, to see a band that I thought of as my own little secret grow into a worldwide sensation.

It has been similarly weird to see R.E.M.’s transformations later in their career, especially post-Monster. No, especially post-Bill Berry. I didn’t know what to think of Up and really liked Reveal. And Around The Sun? Let’s just say that I was sure that it was their swan song. That’s not what I as hoping for, but that lackluster collection of songs (“Leaving New York” excepted) sure wasn’t encouraging.

Longevity is a rare thing in the rock world, and given the direction the band had taken after Berry’s departure, R.E.M. sounded like there was nothing left in the tank. That is, until Accelerate, which found the band back squarely where they belonged. Buck rediscovered the electric guitar, Mike Mills was all over the place instrumentally and vocally, and Michael Stipe sang as though his life depended on it.

It was good to have them back, if only for a moment.

Here’s a Something Else! Rewind on R.E.M. Click through the titles for expanded coverage:

R.E.M. – LIVE AT THE OLYMPIA (2009): This double-live album, made from those five nights in Dublin, revealed a three-piece band digging back into their roots. What’s important about this is that the material from Accelerate makes perfect sense presented alongside tunes from Chronic Town and Lifes Rich Pageant. Perhaps more important is that the ‘older’ songs seem just as fresh, at least in this high-powered, rock ‘n’ roll environment. With the band driving hard through old tunes like “Wolves, Lower” (from Chronic Town), “West Of The Fields” (Murmur), “Second Guessing” (Reckoning), and “Driver 8” (Fables Of The Reconstruction), we were reminded of the reasons why this band caught our ear in the first place.

R.E.M. – IN TIME (1988-2003) (2003): Like any other aging vinyl addict, what’s the first thing we do after opening the package? That’s right: read the liner notes. And In Time has some fantastic track-by-track commentary written by Peter Buck. I can never get enough of this kind of thing. Years of living with a body of music makes me wonder what the artist was thinking. Aside from your typical VH1-type details — why was a song included on (or left off of) an album, etc. — you get to see that Buck (and the other members of the group, I suspect) is also a fan of music.

ONE TRACK MIND: HINDU LOVE GODS, ‘RASPBERRY BERET’ (1990): A rowdy, no-frills run by Warren Zevon and three-fourths of R.E.M. through a series of familiar tunes is capped by a left-field choice of a then-recent Prince hit: his 1985 psychedelic pop delight “Raspberry Beret.” There’s nothing terribly tricky that the Love Gods do with this tune. Well, actually there is one thing: they took a riff from the string arrangement in the bridge and converted it to the song’s main riff. The bridge itself is discarded. Who needs all that clutter? The HLG’s sure didn’t on this straightforward, harder rendering that perhaps His Purpleness should have tried himself.

R.E.M. – LIVE (2007): Though there are no big surprises (like something from Murmur! What the hell guys??!!), they do pick and choose from around their career dial: “Don’t Go Back To Rockville” (Reckoning), “Drive” and “Man On The Moon” (Automatic For The People), “Orange Crush” (Green), “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” and “I Took Your Name” (Monster), and a bunch of others.

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    TOM JOHNSON: It’s probably about time. Has much of their music really impacted anyone lately? Some of it’s very good, but it lacks staying power. It also doesn’t sound like new music — it’s all been variations of old themes.

    MARK SALESKI: Well, they certainly didn’t mean as much to me as time went on. But to be honest, that’s probably more of a reflection on the changes in me. As proof: I never even listened to ‘Collapse Into Now.’

    S. VICTOR AARON: Time to re-form Hindu Love Gods with Warren’s son.

    FRED PHILLIPS: I honestly didn’t know they were still together. They were one of those bands that, when I was growing up, you had to like them to be “cool,” but they kind of passed me by. I didn’t dislike them — well, there are a few R.E.M. songs that I hope I never have to hear again — but I never was a big fan, either. ‘Green’ is the only record I own, and that primarily for “Orange Crush.” Still love that song.

    MARK SALESKI: I totally dug everything from ‘Murmur’ (still my favorite) all the way through ‘Monster.’ After that, I sometimes can’t even remember what song was on what record … except that i do remember that “Imitation Of Life” was on ‘Reveal’ and that a lot of people really hated that song. I have no idea why. I loved it. Maybe the last song by them that I loved.

    TOM JOHNSON: This’ll brand me a heretic, but I return to three albums regularly now: ‘Out Of Time,’ ‘Automatic For The People,’ and ‘Reveal.’ The rest is just songs. Those albums in particular resonate. I’ve never disliked that much of their music (aside from ‘Around The Sun’ – yech), but I’ve never LOVED that much of it either. Those three, however, they got me, if not many other “true” REM fans.

    NICK DERISO: It’s a signpost moment for fans of a certain age. None of us is going back to Rockville.

    TOM JOHNSON: So now we can expect an R.E.M reunion in … (hang on, doing rock math) … 2016 WITH Bill Berry on drums, right?

  • Something Else! Reviews

    Additional comments from the band, newly posted at R.E.M.’s Web site …

    “During our last tour, and while making ‘Collapse Into Now’ and putting together this greatest hits retrospective, we started asking ourselves, ‘what next’? Working through our music and memories from over three decades was a hell of a journey. We realized that these songs seemed to draw a natural line under the last 31 years of our working together.

    “We have always been a band in the truest sense of the word. Brothers who truly love, and respect, each other. We feel kind of like pioneers in this–there’s no disharmony here, no falling-outs, no lawyers squaring-off. We’ve made this decision together, amicably and with each other’s best interests at heart. The time just feels right.”

    “A wise man once said — ‘the skill in attending a party is knowing when it’s time to leave.’ We built something extraordinary together. We did this thing. And now we’re going to walk away from it.

    “I hope our fans realize this wasn’t an easy decision; but all things must end, and we wanted to do it right, to do it our way.

    “We have to thank all the people who helped us be R.E.M. for these 31 years; our deepest gratitude to those who allowed us to do this. It’s been amazing.”

    “One of the things that was always so great about being in R.E.M. was the fact that the records and the songs we wrote meant as much to our fans as they did to us. It was, and still is, important to us to do right by you. Being a part of your lives has been an unbelievable gift. Thank you.

    “Mike, Michael, Bill, Bertis, and I walk away as great friends. I know I will be seeing them in the future, just as I know I will be seeing everyone who has followed us and supported us through the years. Even if it’s only in the vinyl aisle of your local record store, or standing at the back of the club: watching a group of 19 year olds trying to change the world.”