Here’s a clip of Athens GA indie wunderkinds REM performing their return-to-roots glam-punk anthem “Star 69” from their much-derided 1995 album Monster.
“Star 69” is a shining example of balls-out playing from REM , clearly in line with the band’s mission statement at the time, which was to return to a more rock-oriented sound from which they’d diverged during their 1988-93 golden period. By the time they recorded it, REM had been riding a wave of hit after hit, when everything they touched seemed to turn to gold. This was quite a contrast to their previous phase, when they’d spent most of the 1980s as a band known to be living off college radio transmissions and dedicated fans supporting them in smaller venues.
From their indie roots, they’d branched out of the typical guitar-bass-drums by the end of the decade, and by 1992, the acoustic textures of Out of Time and Automatic For the People began to define them, and make their sound ubiquitous on mainstream radio, and in shopping mall PA systems all over the world. So perhaps to avoid a creative rut, they wanted to get back to the glam and punk that had given birth to them. Guitarist Peter Buck was quoted at the time as saying that the mandolins had been locked up, and it was time to make a punk record.
But a lot of reviews of the new album were negative, with Buck’s guitar sounding like it was being played while submerged in mud, and with Michael Stipe’s vocals buried even deeper. Now to be fair, there are plenty of great records that sound like this. Exile on Main Street isn’t exactly notable for it’s clarity and pristine production, for instance. And Raw Power isn’t exactly noted for it’s balance. But in looking for an REM smash single right in the middle of 1995, none of that mattered. After the release of Monster, their foothold as a band known for interesting music and widespread popularity too, seemed to slip.
I have my own theories about this trend, and I’m not sure it has to do with one or two uncharacteristic records. I saw REM at the Glastonbury festival when they were touring the Up album, another uncharacteristic record of theirs and the first one not to feature founding member and drummer Bill Berry. It would be easy, simplistic even, to say that the loss of Berry coincided with their uneven output. But, I think it has more to do with how professional they’d become by the late-90s. They could be REM – wait for the pun – in their sleep. The show I saw was spot on – just like the records.
And it made me wonder if their early days as a struggling indie band from the American South produced more interesting records and made them more of an interesting live act because they were still trying to find themselves and their audience. By 1999, the sound had been found, and the audience was everyone as opposed to a few college hipsters standing in a dingy club. Maybe the Monster experience had made them gunshy about making edgy music again; there were too many record buyers to alienate by then.
It’s funny – some bands get better when they find their sound. And others tend to decay, or at least stick to what works. But, I don’t think it’s over for REM. It’s not as if they’re not aware of their own arc as a group. Maybe this awareness will make things a little bit more uncertain, and make it more of a challenge to be the band they are. In my view, that’s just what they need.
For more information about the band, and to hear new material, check out the REM MySpace page.