There are times when I find it hard to believe that so much time has passed since I first heard a song or a band. This is once of those times, as I was thinking about the band REM, I band I first heard in the early 80s, while working at the college radio station. Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Bill Berry and Mike Mills where on the forefront of a new style of music that was just starting to be heard, labeled as 'alternative' by the music industry. They were the first of several bands from the Athens, Georgia, area, very much the antithesis of what many thought rock music should be. Buck delivered a searing guitar work, often punctuated by crisp and clear solos, while lead singer Stipe, with his angelic face and shy demeanor, had a vocal style that was more invested in muddling the tone, on swallowing at times rather than projecting, ushering in a new style and feel that would change Rock for decades to come.
The first time the band had a significant spot on the US music charts was 24 years ago, in 1987! As I mentioned before, I had remembered hearing Radio Free Europe in the early 80s, but it wasn't until later that the band scored a Top Ten hit with The One I Love, the aching love song from the IRS album Document, the last one they had with the small label before being picked up by Warner Brothers. The song was written by the band, and was the first single released. It made it to #9 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #2 on US Mainstream Rock Tracks.
The band followed that up with the frantic song The End of the World As We Know It, which might come as close as you are gonna get to rap for a bunch of 80s rockers. And it brought the band out into the open, following up the plaintive and some might say whiny heart-ache of The One I Love with the politically charged and highly public rocker to cement a forming fanbase. Although the song only went to #69 on the Billboard Hot 100, it did score a Top 20 on the US Mainstream Rock Song chart.
The third single from Document didn't hit the Pop charts, and really wasn't a player on the rock chart either, but it is of interest because it showed yet another side to the band, and an oddly homo-erotic video. Finest Worksong was released at the beginning of 1988, and was the last single before the band was signed by Warner Brothers.
Way back when, there was much discussion about the relative charms of Michael Stipe, as both the boys and the girls were just crazy about him. Stipe seemed to shy away from talking about his personal life, at least until the new millennium, when he started referring to himself as a queer artist, although he pushed aside the 'gay' marker as too limiting. Whatever, he was now sleeping with guys, no matter the terms he feels most at ease with.
For more about the band REM, you can check out their official website here. With so much great music still to come, I am sure you will see them popping up again soon!