I've always found it fascinating the way that rock bands seem to be made up of interchangeable parts. Guided By Voices continued to play under the GBV name despite the fact that the band had over forty members throughout its existance. The Misfits continue to tour despite only having half their original lineup and lacking frontman Danzig. Weezer has always been a four piece band but has had seven members over twelve years. They Might Be Giants constantly rotates guitarists, bassists and drummers. Yet the example of Bill Berry's departure from the essential rock act R.E.M. is truly a unique one.
R.E.M. formed in 1980 with the lineup of Mike Mills on bass guitar, Peter Buck on guitar, Michael Stipe on vocals and Bill Berry on drums. The band played together with that original lineup on eleven full length albums spanning seventeen years.
Yet, on October 30th, 1997, Bill Berry announced he was leaving R.E.M. An address was made via a press release. Berry was quoted as saying "At 36, I don't really want to be a rock n' roll star, on stage and making all the gestures." While it wasn't the main reason, Berry cited that the March 1995 incident in which he suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm in the middle of a show in Lausanne, Switzerland had contributed to his decision to leave the band.
Berry stated: "I'm at a point in my life where some of my priorities have shifted. I loved my 17 years with R.E.M. but I'm ready to reflect, assess, and move to a different phase of my life. The four of us will continue our close friendship and I look forward to hearing their future efforts as the world's biggest R.E.M. fan."
Yet R.E.M. wasn't stopping, and yet, they also weren't seeking a replacement drummer. R.E.M. band manager Bertis Downs was quoted as saying "There will be additional musicians making records and touring, but there are now three members of R.E.M."
Michael Stipe, the frontman and most recognizable face in the band, was quoted addressed this by asking "Are we still R.E.M.?" Then answered it, "I guess a three-legged dog is still a dog. It just has to learn to run differently."
Thus, without ever getting a new drummer, R.E.M. continued running along as a three-legged dog. While Bill Berry apparently began living a life as a farmer the band continued to make music together. They have thus far released three full-length albums without Berry (Up, Reveal and Around the Sun), writing and performing the music for the film Man on the Moon, and continuing to be successful on the radio, as shown by successful singles such as Imitation of Life, Daysleeper, Bad Day and The Great Beyond. All of which are examples that post-Berry, the band continues to be popular and create relevant music.
The band has toured with and used experienced drummers and drum loops and drum machines in the place of Berry. They have worked with Joey Waronker (frequent drummer for Beck and Elliott Smith) on Up and Reveal and Bill Rieflin (who has worked with Nine Inch Nails and KMFDM) on their latest, Around the Sun, and yet, they will forever hold the position of drummer as absent after the departure of Bill Berry.
At an August 1999 show in Atlanta, Georgia, not far from the band's origin town of Athens, Georgia, Berry took the stage of the Chastain Park Amphitheatre to give the crowd a wave.
On March 6th, 2001, Bill Berry, who while being a group member of R.E.M. had performed with The Indigo Girls and Warren Zevon among others over the years, played drums on The Sky at Night, the seventh album from fellow Georgia rockers Love Tractor.
However, the biggest post-R.E.M. move by Berry took place on October 9th, 2003 at a Raleigh, North Carolina show, Berry took the stage of the Alltell Pavilion to perform with the band for the first time in nearly six years. He sat behind the kit to play the unreleased track Permanent Vacation and provided backup vocals for the band's first single Radio Free Europe. He also revealed what he had been doing since he left the band, which was becoming a trained sushi chef.
Many bands go through different members over time, sometimes going through messy splits with band members and continuing on despite the fact that yet the unprecedented decision by R.E.M. to consider Bill Berry irreplaceable, and thus, never officially replace Berry on drums, is one of the best examples of artistic respect in the rock world.