REM – a retrospective

REM ”“ a retrospective

I have a theory; it goes like this. The development of a band can be mapped out over three distinct phases. The first, when they burst onto the scene all refreshingly spotty and innovative, after which they are sucked into stadiumville providing fodder for the masses before being spewed out by MTV as the diet changes and they retreat into a place where they can re-cast some of their more innovative tendencies, which the mainstream couldn’t stomach. Bowie has been round this cycle at least twice. Options for those who want to retain their artistic integrity and thereby allude phase two include (a) pack it in (Stone Roses) or (b) simply disappear for a decade thereby reneging on phase two (Portishead). There are some very rare exceptions of bands that somehow have come through the lot smelling of roses”¦Radiohead perhaps? This of course is ludicrously generalised and full of inaccuracies, but fun nonetheless as an interesting academic ”˜pub based’ exercise. REM have just released their 15th long player, so where do they fit? in a career that began some 30 years ago.

, though they did briefly threaten it in mid-life Out of Time/Automatic for the People era. Before ”˜The One I love’ single burst into the Top 20 they had already penned four albums ”˜Murmur’, ”˜Reckoning’, ”˜Fables of the Reconstruction’ and ”˜Life’s Rich Pageant’ without whoring themselves out to the industry. These early offerings provided an insight into the depth and scope of song content of which they were capable. In these early days the utterly beautiful ”˜Perfect Circle’ was backed up with a barrel full of ordnance to hurl at the airwaves of mainstream America, of which “Feeling Gravity’s Pull”, “So. Central Rain” and “Cuyahoga” are examples reflecting an increasingly broad spectrum. Certainly those early albums provided a clear indication of a rock band grounded in the punk ethos that had the natural talent and ability to show themselves capable of evolving across genres and surviving within them. Buck’s “agitated” guitar style coupled with Stipe’s lyrics which make Bono look like Enid Blyton provided the front piece to one of the most the solid and flexible rhythm sections ever to emerge out of planet rock. Yes, maybe they did sacrifice ingenuity for commercial success during the early 90s, but anyone who has heard the fabulous “Uberlin” will be aware that creativity is still burning.

But, what’s also interesting is to what extent REM provided the key to rock’s door for the likes of others, such as Sonic Youth, Pixies, Nirvana and the White Stripes. In a recent BBC interview Stipe strongly refuted this notion. For these bands the exam question here is “To what extent would it have happened anyway?” to which the answer is “Yes”¦probably”, but maybe not at the same speed or extent. Of course, REM themselves drew from their previous generation (Velvet Underground and Television) so it’s not to much of a leap to think that Thurston Moore, Kim Deal, Kurt Kobain and Jack White did the same to enable them and their ilk to go forth and reek havoc across mainstream American music. For that least we should be thankful.

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