Michael Stipe was walking home from a...
Michael Stipe was walking home from a rock club. It was nearly 3 in the morning and the downtown of this little college town was deserted--all four blocks of it. It was just as safe to walk down the middle of the street as on the sidewalk.
Stipe, 25, lead singer of rock quartet R.E.M., was on a quickie vacation before returning to the road, where he has spent almost half his time since the band was formed five years ago. Its first “show” was for about 50 friends a couple of blocks away in an abandoned church.
R.E.M. has since done hundreds of concerts and recorded three albums that have catapulted it to the front of a new generation of independent American bands that have captured the artistic momentum in rock.
But Stipe still enjoys coming back here. The slow pace lets him relax before another round of touring. He also feels that the isolation from pop centers like Los Angeles and New York plays an essential role in allowing the band to maintain its own musical voice.
“This is like our private little world,” he said, passing the steps that lead to the University of Georgia campus where he studied art. “Things are so much slower here. In London, a band is on the cover of every major magazine before they write 10 songs. They don’t have time to develop.
“We had time to be renegades and play in biker bars and pizza parlors, sometimes to just five or 10 people. It gave us a chance to develop without having to worry about what the ‘record industry’ was going to say.”
But Stipe isn’t pleased with everything that goes on in Athens. He stopped in front of an old two-story frame house that was being demolished.
“There’s no respect for history here,” he said. “Every time we come home, another beautiful old building has been torn down. You’d think with all the land available here, developers could put up their buildings without tearing down the past. But they want to be right downtown so they just knock over whatever is in their way.”
Rock ‘n’ roll has been victimized by a similar indifference, a point that isn’t lost on Stipe, who named the group’s new album “Fables of the Reconstruction.” The title refers to R.E.M.'s Southern roots, but also alludes to the efforts by R.E.M. and a loosely aligned group of new bands to revive the heartbeat of American rock.
R.E.M. and groups like the Replacements out of Minneapolis, the Meat Puppets from Phoenix and Los Angeles’ Minutemen are part of an informal network of new bands that have rejected the “corporate rock” calculation that’s resulted in anonymous hit-making outfits like Journey and Foreigner. Roots conscious, they rely on musical strains that go back to Elvis Presley, Muddy Waters and Hank Williams.
Despite wide variances in post-punk styles (see profiles on Page 47), these bands display a common spirit and commitment. They seem to be more interested in self-expression than in chart position.
Explained Stipe, “I don’t like to talk about (these bands) in terms of a movement because it is really just a bunch of musicians who worked out their own philosophies all across the country. It was only after we started traveling and met each other that we began to see we had all these things in common.
“We all learned from the mistakes and excesses of that horrible rock-star stuff that came down in the ‘70s. . . . The Lear jets and the champagne and girls and drugs. That’s all part of life, I suppose, and everyone probably gets corrupted in some way. But it ends up ruining the music . . . not to mention your life.
“I’d like to think it’s possible to define success in rock in other ways--namely the music. My biggest goal isn’t to be No. 1. It’s to be able to think in 10 years from now I’ll be able to listen to our third album and not be embarrassed by it.”
Rock ‘n’ roll was born in America in the ‘50s, matured here and in England in the ‘60s--and almost died here in the mid-'70s when the business of pop suffocated much of the music’s vitality. Instead of being populated with strong, independent figures, the top of the charts were clogged with with timid, anonymous journeymen.
That’s because record companies and radio stations went after the widest possible audience. They became more concerned with acts that wouldn’t offend anybody than with those that would excite a few. Though the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac made engaging records, most of the soft-rock outfits that filled the bill were distressingly dull. Their music ranged from the anonymous art-rock of bands like Yes to icy commercialism of Boston and the Moody Blues.
Even worse than the blandness of the best-selling acts were the indulgence and aloofness of the veteran rock stars. Bruce Springsteen was one of the few mainstream figures in American rock offering a sense of integrity and vision, but even he was viewed with suspicion by much of the pop establishment.
The message to aspiring musicians was that rock was a closed shop. To get even a club date, much less a record contract, you generally had to sacrifice your musical instincts in favor of what was in vogue commercially. There was little room at the top for music with any of the primitive character or sociological examination of ‘50s or ‘60s rock.
The revolution began in 1976 in England when the Sex Pistols rallied against the pop establishment there and eventually opened the door for younger, more independent acts. The Pistols’ kamikaze success spread the word: There was room once more in rock for personality and ideas. Second lesson: You no longer needed hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment and staging or years of studio experience. Anyone could be in a band.
As the Clash, the Jam, Elvis Costello and other British artists followed the Pistols’ lead, they ridiculed the veteran rock corps, especially American artists whom they considered decadent and out of touch. Their actions helped inspire and focus attention on a small but gifted and idealistic wave of new American groups, mostly headquartered in Los Angeles (X, the Blasters, Black Flag) and New York (Talking Heads, Television).
The word spread quickly. England remained the commercial and artistic center of rock, but young fans in dozens of American cities formed bands. Contemptuous of big-time rock, they followed the do-it-yourself spirit of these post-punk bands and earlier rock anarchists like the New York Dolls, Patti Smith and the Ramones. With modest career expectations, these bands were free to set their own rules.
In the early ‘80s, this flood of new American groups began graduating from garages and hometown bars to national tours. They may have moved from city to city in crowded vans rather than Lear jets and slept four to a room in budget motels, but they found receptive audiences that prized the underdog quality of this innocent and unspoiled movement.
Critics, too, rallied behind the bands. Albums from 1984 by R.E.M., the Replacements, Husker Du, the Meat Puppets and the Minutemen all finished in the Top 20 in the Village Voice’s annual poll of the nation’s pop and rock critics.
These bands weren’t rejecting a bigger audience, but they didn’t want that bigger audience at the price of their self-expression. And R.E.M. got the best of both worlds: With no compromise or calculation, its two I.R.S. albums have sold nearly 300,000 each. That success and the momentum being generated by these new bands have caused major labels to begin scouting these new groups in earnest. Sire, the home of Madonna and the Pretenders, has just signed the Replacements, and Elektra has made a deal with Guadalcanal Diary, another Georgia band.
Perhaps the most surprising development is the reaction of British pop critics. They have cast aside their anti-American-rock bias and lead the cheering for these groups.
Bands like the Long Ryders, Gun Club, Dream Syndicate, Violent Femmes, True West, the Del Fuegos and the Beat Farmers are heralded with front-page spreads in the British pop journals, though none has made much of a mark on the American pop sales charts. There is also continuing praise in England for veteran L.A. bands like X, the Blasters and Black Flag, and for groups that have begun to make commercial inroads in this country, including Los Lobos and the Bangles.
In the introduction to a six-part series on the New American Rock, England’s Melody Maker dismissed the bulk of the last decade’s U.S. rock as “bland ear-wash for the sun-kissed deaf.”
By contrast, the weekly said these new bands have led to “British eyes . . . once more turning west, confident that at last American music has found enough of its old, real self to feel like taking on the world again.”
About R.E.M. specifically, Melody Maker wrote, “The first American group in years (that) it was possible to rave about while remaining credible.”
Not bad for the outgrowth of a chance meeting in an Athens record shop.
Peter Buck, R.E.M.'s lanky, talkative guitarist, sat on a chair surrounded by stacks of records in the otherwise vacant room of his modest frame house. He moved into the house a few days before and the only other furniture was a couch in the entry way and a couple of mattresses thrown on bedroom floors.
It’s no accident that Buck would be more concerned with records than furniture. He loves records so much he toiled in a manufacturing plant 16 hours a day on weekends during high school for money to buy records. Even now, he rarely passes Stovall’s, a black-oriented record store near his house, without stopping for a gospel or blues album.
Buck has made an effortless transition from rock fan to rock musician. Dark glasses during photo shoots are the only hint that he is at all image-conscious. Most of time he is as unaffected on stage or in a club as he at home, playing disc jockey for guests.
Buck enjoys playing disc jockey. If you haven’t heard an obscure Buck favorite--like Johnny Cash’s “The Chicken in Black” novelty--he’ll flip it on the turntable and watch your reaction. The variety of the records in his collection provides a clue to his wide musical instincts.
In his choice of records, he apparently wasn’t swayed by either the sales charts or the critical consensus: an Elvis Presley single rests next to an ABBA single, while an album by Zyedco favorite Clifton Chenier is next to the latest release by L.A.'s Green on Red.
“I always thought about being in a band, but it never seemed conceivable,” he said, popping open a can of beer. “For one thing, I had never met anyone with the same tastes. It was really hard to find anybody in the South who wanted to play anything other than the Grateful Dead or Lynyrd Skynyrd.”
Buck thought more seriously about being in a band after seeing Patti Smith in 1975. The poet-turned-rocker played four shows in Atlanta on her first U.S. tour and Buck saw them all. Here was someone with spirit and passion galore, but not a lot of polish. She seemed like a fan who had just stepped up on stage. It made rock seem so much more possible.
Still, he hesitated. How do you even begin to put a group together? Then Michael Stipe wandered into the record store where Buck worked. Buck would pick at the guitar or listen to Velvet Underground records. “Michael and I talked about being in a group and he finally said, ‘What the hell, let’s try starting one.’ And so we did. It was as easy as that. He had been in a band and I guess that gave me the confidence to think it was possible.”
Shortly thereafter, they met bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry and formed the band.
Stipe laughs at the suggestion that he was the motivating force: “I had been in a punk band in St. Louis, but we only did three shows before my family moved to Athens,” he said, sitting on the steps of the University’s Academic Building later the same night. “If I came across as the voice of authority and experience, it was all bluff.”
Like many idealistic rockers, Stipe found something in rock ‘n’ roll that gave him comfort and direction. He didn’t look forward as a teen-ager to moving to Athens with his parents. His memory of Georgia--from visits with his grandparents--was of a very backward place, “full of hippies and Southern boogie music.”
Once outgoing, he had become introverted by the end of high school. He found it increasingly hard to relate to other kids until he found some people in St. Louis who shared an interest in the emerging punk scene.
Stipe was a virtual recluse his first year in Athens. He attended night school twice a week, but mostly just listened to records by himself. He is still shy, and gradually withdrew from interviews last year after the success of R.E.M.'s second album, “Reckoning,” brought the group considerable media attention.
This elusiveness has caused some to view Stipe as an arty eccentric, and he does tend to stand back and observe rather than rush into conversation the way the rest of the band does. Where his long, curly hair used to give him a slightly angelic appearence, his new shortly cropped hair style is a quirky bohemian touch.
But Stipe doesn’t want to be known as the Mysterious Rocker, so he plans to try to combat the shyness and do occasional interviews on the group’s upcoming tour. At home in Athens, he was especially relaxed as he talked about his early motivation.
“I think that everyone has some desire to express himself,” he said. “With us it was music and everything suddenly opened up. It was kind of like the pedestal that rock bands had been put on was shattered and you realized that all you needed was $1,000 to get their first single out. Bands around the country were doing that--going into studios and cutting their own records and here we were in Athens listening to it.”
R.E.M. isn’t the first post-punk band to march out of Georgia. The party-minded B-52’s put Athens on the rock map in 1979 with wacky dance-oriented tunes like “Rock Lobster.” In fact, out-of-town club owners used to frequently advertise R.E.M. shows with posters that said, “From Athens--the home of the B-52’s.”
But the B-52’s moved to New York quickly, so rock fans here don’t relate much to that band today. There’s more talk these days in places like Ruthless Records, across the street from the college campus, about the new Athens bands. In fact, there is a whole display rack devoted to regional bands, including Love Tractor, (the defunct) Pylon, Method Actors, Swimming Pool Q’s and Guadalcanal Diary. However, R.E.M. gets the most space. Its first two LPs and an EP are in the racks and its T-shirts are tacked on the wall above the sales counter.
“The good thing about R.E.M. is the guys haven’t changed despite all that has happened to them,” said David Giles, owner of the shop. “There are some bands around here who go into the studio and record a tape for $150 and they start strutting around the street. There’s none of that air about R.E.M. They’re completely normal guys--just like when they started doing shows here.”
R.E.M.'s first concert was April 5, 1980 in the converted church that the band lived in and used as a rehearsal hall. In the early shows around town, the group did a few cover songs (including the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” and the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women”). But mostly it concentrated on its own songs. “The music was primitive, loud, energetic . . . all fast songs,” said Bert Downs, a local attorney who saw the early shows and now works with the band. “I think it was two years before they wrote a slow song.”
After a few months, the group began playing out of town. “It was great,” guitarist Buck recalled. “We’d call clubs and bars and say we’d play free on, say, Monday night if they charged a dollar admission and split it with us. There were a lot of $35 nights, $40 nights and sleeping on people’s floors. We budgeted ourselves $2 or $3 each for food.”
To persuade out-of-town club owners to book the group, R.E.M. made a demo tape at a recording studio in North Carolina recommended to them by their friends in another band, the dB’s. The studio was owned by Mitch Easter, who now fronts a band called Let’s Active and who produced R.E.M.'s first two albums.
Besides sending the tape to clubs, the group’s manager, Jefferson Holt, sent copies to all sorts of magazines, from odd choices like Redbook to the more appropriate ones like New York Rocker. A writer for the latter publication, which championed this new scene, liked the tape and gave the band a rave review.
They then released a single, “Radio Free Europe,” that was widely heralded. R.E.M. went back into the studio in the fall of of 1981 to record “Chronic Town,” the mini-album released by I.R.S. Records. It sold about 30,000 copies and built an audience for “Murmur,” the 1982 album that established the band as a major creative force in American rock.
Reflected Buck, “It’s funny when you look back at it. That first tape only cost about $350 and we sent it to a lot of those magazines almost as a joke. We even put these drawings on the package saying ‘Danger . . . don’t open.’ But then people started calling us. We even had major labels writing us. But we knew they were just reacting to what they had read. They probably hadn’t even heard our music. We couldn’t imagine they’d really be interested in a band like ours.”
Movements don’t involve just new bands, but a whole level of managers and attorneys. R.E.M.'s manager, Jefferson Holt, was working in a record store in Chapel Hill, N.C., booking bands on the side, largely as a favor to the musicians. He certainly didn’t have ambitions of being the next Brian Epstein.
But his name got around and he found musicians from all over the South calling him. When one of the Athens bands he had booked into a club couldn’t make it, they recommended R.E.M. as a substitute. He was struck right away by R.E.M.'s free spirit.
“The show was incredible,” he said. “It was greatest thing I had seen in my life. They had so much fun. They didn’t seem to care about anything. I think Peter literally knew three chords at that time and couldn’t care less. They just got up there and had a great time. To me, it was what I would have imagined seeing the Who before they signed a record contract. It’s what I think any rock band should strive for . . . a certain sense of chaos.”
Holt eventually moved to Athens and worked as R.E.M.'s road manager before stepping up to manager. While he works hard to make sure the band’s wishes are relayed to record companies and agents, he seems as suspicious of the pop machinery as the band members are.
“Every time you come off a stage, there is going to be somebody telling you what you should do to be more successful--whether it is the club owner or some drunk who is going to go, ‘Hey, man, you guys would be really great if you just did this,’ ” he said, sitting in a sandwich shop across College Avenue from his office here.
“That’s especially true for record companies. A lot of them are just like people in soda pop companies. They sit in room and think about things. They try to figure out what works most often and make everyone conform to it.
“Everyone keeps telling us the band should develop an image. We know it’d be easier to get Michael’s picture on the cover of Rolling Stone if he dressed up like a girl, but what’s that all about? The band has its own standards about how it wants to present itself . . . what it will do and won’t do with album covers and with videos--and it stands by those rules because it knows that once one rule is broken it’s easier to break the next one. They also have the confidence in knowing they have gotten this far without having to compromise, so why change?”
Drummer Bill Berry and bassist Mike Mills are both easy conversationalists, but have a lower profile because media attention normally centers on a band’s guitarist and/or singer. However, this rhythm section plays an important part in the writing of the music for Stipe’s lyrics. Mills, in fact, wrote both words and music to “Rockville,” one of R.E.M.'s most appealing numbers
Berry’s entry into music underscores the odd twists the rock life can take. Bored one day in school, he welcomed any excuse to miss class. When students were invited to come to the lunch room to take an aptitude test one day, he raised his hand. It turned out to be a music aptitude test and he scored high. The school band sounded like fun. What instrument? The drums sounded like the most fun--and they were the closest thing in the band to rock.
He was in various bands over the next few years in nearby Macon, many of them with Mills. Berry eventually gave it up to work for a rock booking agency. To improve himself in that profession, he enrolled at the University of Georgia, where he and Mills met Buck and Stipe at a party. They talked about starting a band and scheduled a rehearsal session. When one of them didn’t show up, the plan was dropped. But Berry bumped into Buck a few days later and they decided to give it another try.
About the success of these new American bands, Berry said, “I think the audience has a lot to do with it. Lots of kids simply aren’t willing to listen just to Hall and Oates or whatever. They will turn to the college radio stations where they can hear new bands, and it has become cool to read fanzines and search out your own bands.
“There’s this great sense of adventure today. It’s more fun to go in a record store and take a chance on a record you may have read about than just settle for the new Foreigner record or whatever. That’s great because it creates an audience for new bands. I think we were just in the right place at the right time.”
Like many of the bands in the new movement, R.E.M.'s music demands some adjustment by fans of traditional rock. There are familiar elements: the moody textures (but not the street-weary cynicism) of the Velvet Underground and the ringing guitar brightness of the Byrds. The result is music that is graceful and stirring.
Though it’s frequently hard to make out Stipe’s lyrics, his voice has a warm, evocative shading that gives R.E.M.'s music a positive and enriching glow. Rather than define themes, R.E.M. offers sketches that invite listeners to draw upon their own experience to fill in the details of the songs.
The new album is the group’s most assured collection yet, but it hardly sounds like the kind of immediately accessible collection that is going to get a lot of airplay.
“I think mystery is a good thing in music and art but you can’t become manipulative or self-conscious about it,” Stipe said. “That’s going to come back to you in the end and I don’t want that. It’s just the way we sound. I think a lot of people have interpreted a lot of our stuff as being incredibly dark, but I see a lot of the music as very optimistic. I like to find the goodness in people.
“Because of our style, people come up with all different interpretations of what they mean, which is fine. Take ‘Talk About the Passion.’ The song was about apathy. When I wrote it, I was thinking about all the hunger in the world, which sounds like a cliche now. But this was a year and a half ago.”
But Stipe is uneasy about R.E.M. being viewed as the leader in an “American rock” movement. “It’s weird going to England and being considered ‘spokesmen’ for America,” he said. “It’s the same as people calling you an artist or a poet. There are pretensions and responsibilities that go along with those terms that I don’t feel like having to explain myself out of them. They interfere with what you are doing.”
In view of the growing acclaim and attention, is there a danger that R.E.M.'s values will shift? Buck didn’t even look up as he searched through a stack of singles for something else to play.
“I think we’ve gone through that challenge a lot of times already,” he said. “This isn’t our first chance to sell out. I remember Miles Copeland (the chairman of I.R.S. Records and manager of the Police) sat down with us one night and said, ‘Listen, 10 years from now, you’ll see your friends in yachts and with huge houses, but you won’t have it and that’s because you won’t do the things that most other bands do.’
“He wasn’t trying to pressure us into changing. He just wanted to to make sure we understood the realities of this business. And we do. We said, ‘Thanks, but we know what we want to do.’ I don’t mind the yachts, but it’s not what we’re in this for. If I wanted to be in a business, I’d have gone to law school. I wanted to be in a band and to make music that we wanted to make. When one other person said he liked it, we were already ahead.”