St. Mary’s Episcopal Church Athens USA
First ever gig April 5th 1980
They played a set of covers like the Sex Pistols “God Save the Queen,” the Monkees’ “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” and Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner,”
On April 5th 1980, the vivacious university town of Athens, Georgia, swirled with excitement that went beyond the usual buzz of a nascent college music scene. A rumour that the birthday party of Kathleen O’Brien, a popular DJ of a regional radio station, might include the performance of three local bands, was spread through the capillaries of the student campus and advertised the happening to be nothing less than the mother of all parties. In a place of such bohemian leisure and DIY ethos, it was certainly an event not to be missed.
In the early hours of the evening, several hundred people gathered around a collapsing episcopal church, only a short walk away from the university’s main entrance. The combination of alcohol, barbiturates and southern springtime breeze built a scorching atmosphere that was additionally inflamed by concerts from local impromptu ensembles Turtle Bay and The Side Effects. Last on the bill was a band whose members met only a few months earlier and were so new to the game that they haven’t even decided on a name. The electrifying quartet ravaged through a carefully selected bouquet of cover songs before the singer jumped in the audience and ended the set on the hands of the crowd, joining the festivities that lasted well into the next morning, when even the most eager of the partygoers caved in to fatigue. Even though it must have been one of the best parties of the Athens’ vibrant college scene, it was probably lost on the attendees at the time that they witnessed something as historical as the first performance of R.E.M.
R.E.M. stands for rapid eye movement, a stage of sleep when dreaming occurs. Although the band members claim that it was just something they randomly pulled out of a dictionary, one couldn’t find a better phrase to describe their music. Their characteristic sound of dreamlike hand-painted landscapes and murmured fables, vested in the mysticism of the abstract and the mythology of rock’n’roll, became synonymous with the art of dreaming while being awake. With it, R.E.M. filled in the voids between what has already been and what was yet to come, using every colour on the palette, and even inventing new colours on their own, as long-time fan Eddie Vedder wittily remarked in his ode to the band before their 2007 induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
R.E.M. was a living proof that the unit is only as strong as its parts. The band members collectively signed themselves under all their compositions regardless of who actually wrote a particular song, which spared them the friction regarding royalties that undermines the foundation of many successful bands. However, the largest portion of their magic lies in four unique individuals who managed to find a common musical language that enabled them to create ‘that special something’ that makes them stand out in spite of their clearly visible differences.
There was Peter Buck, a Kerouacian vagabond, eternally enamoured with rock’n’roll, one of the greatest connoisseurs of rock music and the subject of an anecdote that he knows every record ever released (and probably has it in his collection). There was Bill Berry, a drummer in love with the melody, the band’s main motivational drill-sergeant and the sharpener of the rough edges of some of their best songs. There was Mike Mills, R.E.M.’s multi-instrumentalist and secret weapon in charge of unconventional bass lines and irreplaceable backing vocals.
And then, there was Michael Stipe – one part dreamy poet of abstract, almost allegoric lyrics, one part lucid activist who once stated that music and politics don’t mix but he’s going to try anyway. Utterly ambiguous and painfully straightforward at the same time, Michael’s vocals were impossibly difficult to decode, compliment of his nasal murmuring style of singing that was often buried in the mix. Despite the fact that the records contained no lyrics sheet and the words were a constant guessing game among fans, you could feel the emotion he was trying to put through to you, as if the message was clear and upfront.
That warm spring night 40 years ago set off a journey that saw them embark on a seemingly endless tour of the continent with occasional hops over the Atlantic, and rewarded them with a cult status among the fast-growing and extremely heterogeneous college rock audience. After five excellent indie albums, relentless work ethics and the band’s uncompromising dedication to their art resulted in the long-running contract with Warner Bros. and subsequent worldwide success. They have gone a long way and covered a lot of ground, from alternative rock pioneers to folksy bouzouki troubadours and analogue synthesizer enthusiasts, all whilst maintaining a strong image of integrity. Despite the global success of that mandolin song and the fact that they have sold millions of records and produced quite a few high-grossing tours, no one ever dared to accuse them of selling out. On the contrary, most of the contemporary alternative rock stars like Eddie Vedder, Thom Yorke and Billy Corgan praised R.E.M. for their efforts, and even the late Kurt Cobain continuously cited them as a major influence.
R.E.M.’s legacy is astounding and their influence on the music world cannot be measured. All that is in our power is to remember every moment of their greatness.