It was the Summer of 1983, and I was working as a waiter/bus boy at a small resort in Southern Wisconsin when I first heard R.E.M. The band had just released their first full-length album on I.R.S. Records, and the local alternative radio station was playing “Radio Free Europe,” when I was bitten with the bug. Immediately, I recognized that R.E.M. was going to join U2 as the bands of my generation, even if few others had. Within that one song, I heard all the important rock milestones of my generation: the jangling guitars of folk rock by artists such as The Byrds, the muddy sounds of the Velvet Underground, the eschewing of all things that seem to be of the moment like the great punk bands that emerged during the years of 1975 through 1977, and an arty nod within the obtuseness of the lyrics much like the beat writers many of us were rediscovering in college. Plus, you could hear other points-of-references important to people our age: bubblegum music over Woodstock musicians, a love of AM radio of the early Seventies and a disdain for arena rock and irony, truckloads of irony like Late Night with David Letterman.
So, as the Eighties progressed, both U2 and R.E.M. rose to prominence within the music world. As we all know by now, U2 put their collective foot down on an international scale during a primo performance during Live Aid, one that was so significant that it took Queen’s performance of a lifetime to cast a shadow over U2’s. But, by 1987, U2 delivered upon their promise when The Joshua Tree propelled them to the mantle of the greatest band in the world. Still, 1987 was significant for R.E.M. as well because that was the year in which they were finally establishing themselves as a commercial force with their brilliant album Document, their first Top 10 single “The One I Love” and their immortal sensory-overload induced song of eternity “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”
Slowly, R.E.M. arose from the Athens, Georgia, music scene into the lexicon of the mainstream without nary a compromise. And the three subsequent studio albums launched them into the stratosphere alongside U2. Now, those two bands WERE the bands of a generation. It was into this strange land of musical acceptance and world domination that R.E.M. found itself. During it’s first decade as a band, they grew increasingly insular with their lyrics and musical motifs. And, if you ever got to witness R.E.M. in concert, you knew that no matter how beautiful these increasingly acoustic albums were, they did not truly represent the band while onstage. Au contraire, R.E.M. was reared in the punk era, and the immediacy of their concerts sat in complete contrast to their plaintive albums. Plus, the very musical landscape they created was now becoming the whole voice of a generation as Grunge and Lollapalooza brought the whole underground scene to the masses. In other words, the music world was loud, so how was our heroes going to react?
Well, they took a page out of U2’s playbook. If you remember well, U2 was at the very same crossroads in 1990. So, they tore up their sound and did a David Bowie-like turnabout by releasing a pair of albums that took something of a dadaist approach to their sound. They created more claustrophobic music with obtuse lyrics, and the move was very successful.
R.E.M. are well-known record bin divers, not unlike myself. So, it was not the least bit surprising that they knew the musical landscape that was in shape around them. But, instead of reaching out toward Bowie, as U2 did, our heroes made a sidestep toward the trashier side of Glam Rock and tried to make a record dripping of sex. Now, sex within a bookish band like R.E.M. is going to be warped all over the place, since they cannot be pigeonholed. What came out was extremely jarring and unsettling, and the band called the album Monster. Of course, the album’s sales blew out of the gates, but all I kept hearing from the bandwagon crowd was how R.E.M. no longer sounded like the pastorally elegant Automatic for the People. The band triumphantly toured the world to sold-out gigs, all the while running into one medical emergency after another along the way. Drummer Bill Berry had a nearly-tragic aneurysm while onstage in Europe, bassist Mike Mills had emergency surgery to remove an intestinal adhesion and singer Michael Stipe had emergency surgery for a hernia.
Yet, and this may be an urban legend, Monster has been purported to be the CD most often sold to second hand music stores. So, why is that? And, why is everyone making a bigger deal out of this album being re-released this month for its 25th anniversary? Simply put, this album is much better now than it was ever perceived to be in its time. You see, R.E.M. may have unwittingly rung in the whole stupid MTV Unplugged movement of the day with their Top 5 performance on the fledgling program a few years earlier. When the band decides to be in the studio exactly what they are onstage, the public was sonically taken aback. Then, throw in the abrasiveness of some songs, even though Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails were doing similar sonic sounds, the fair weather R.E.M. fans of the past two albums were not ready for Monster, and quite honestly, neither were the music scribes of the day. But, the true R.E.M. fans from the beginning knew this WAS the band’s original identity.
First, the lyrics were still cryptic but now taken from a third person’s point of view and not Stipe’s. Next, guitarist Peter Buck put down his acoustic and Rickenbacker guitars, along with his mandolin, and rediscovered his guitar hero stances. Finally, the crack rhythm section of Berry and Mills played as if they were attempting to be heard over a Sonic Youth or Nirvana concert of the day, setting the stage to be heard all over stadiums throughout that upcoming tour. This was an alternative amalgamation of arena rock and punk rock, not unlike many of the songs on that aforementioned Document album, which seemed to be predicting the whole grunge era.
Let me just say that Monster is much better than the reviewers of the day ever gave it credit. No, it’s not the masterpiece of their earlier albums, nor is it their Achtung Baby. But, if you judge it for what it is, I like to make a parallel of it to Prince’s vastly underrated Around the World in a Day or Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, a moment where an artist realizes that he/she/they can no longer be constrained by their past and their success. If they are to grow, then they must be willing to jettison the bandwagon fans who believe artists that won’t “play the hits” are self-absorbed, and stretch their musical vision into new territories. The so-called betrayal is not to the pop radio fans at all, because the true fans will stick around.
Unfortunately, this is the last true classic album R.E.M. will deliver, though I will anxiously await each album’s 25th anniversary re-release just to do my own re-evaluation. The band’s next album ended up being the last recorded with Berry as he will choose a simpler life of farming. Their next album, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, will be recorded during soundchecks on the Monster tour, making it somewhat disjointed and hurried.
On a personal note, my wife and I attended the local stop of the Monster tour. I had seen them on the Document tour with some friends from work, a point of contention with my wife who remains a huge R.E.M. fan to this day. But, when we saw them, our older son Graham, a ten-year-old at the time, thought he should have been allowed to go to the concert. Maybe now that he is a father, he will realize how important it is for his parents to get away from their kids no matter how much they love them? Anyway, to this day, he says that we owe him a R.E.M. concert, if they ever regroup. Remember, this is the child who entertained the college kids at the local yogurt store in Oxford, Ohio, by singing R.E.M.’s version of “Superman” when he was just 27 months old. Then, my younger son learned from me that the guitar on “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” was recorded backwards, just like The Beatles did first. As a matter of fact, I told them that tidbit so often that #2 would answer “The Beatles!” immediately when the solo came on, and he was six years old at the time. Needless to say, the whole family is huge R.E.M. fans.
I gotta tell you, there is going to be a huge battle between my boys for the rights to my R.E.M. collection. And, they want me to decide while I am alive! This is a no-win situation!