Oh, boy...where to start with the storied history of the musical band known as R.E.M.? Let's go back to 1979, to the town of Athens, Ga. Michael Stipe, a University of Georgia student at the time, met Peter Buck who was a clerk at the record store that Stipe frequented. Eventually, the pair became roommates and formed a band with two others, Mike Mills and Bill Berry.
The band eventually took on the name of R.E.M. and started performing at local bars, including their home base at the 40 Watt Club. Over the next couple of years, they started touring throughout the Southeast and recorded a few songs, including "Radio Free Europe" which was released on the Hib-Tone label to a good reception by college radio stations.
May of 1982 saw R.E.M. sign with IRS Records who released their already completed EP "Chronic Town" which again generated a lot of buzz on college radio stations. The members all dropped out of school as touring took precedence and they began to record their first full-length album in December of that year. "Murmur" was eventually released in April of 1983 to plenty of critical kudos and college radio airplay but not much in the way of commercial success.
No matter...R.E.M. went on to release a few more albums without any regards to commercial success, including "Reckoning" (1984), "Fables of the Reconstruction" (1985), and "Life's Rich Pageant" (1986). It wasn't until the release of "Document" (produced by their kindred spirit, Scott Litt) in 1987 that R.E.M. saw any of their albums make it big outside of the college radio circuit. This album was boosted by its hit single "The One I Love", cracked the top 10, and will forever be remembered as the album that introduced "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)".
In 1988, R.E.M. moved into the big leagues by signing a multi-million dollar contract with Warner Brothers. The first release under the new contract, "Green", was an immediate success, buoyed by the hit singles "Stand" and "Pop Song '89". R.E.M. soon played at packed arenas throughout the nation and internationally. Michael Stipe soon grew out of his painfully shy state and became the new Michael Stipe, Rock Star, as he took to stage in a variety of interesting costumes and reveled in the spotlight.
1991 saw the release of "Out of Time" which went straight to number one on the US and UK charts. "Losing My Religion", the first single, became an anthem for everybody and the amazing video was and is still considered to be one of the best music videos ever made. This album marked a different approach to songwriting by the band in the use of mandolins, keyboards, and deeper and more emotional vocals from Stipe.
"Automatic for the People" (a slogan that they borrowed from a diner in Athens) came out a year later. Even with its darker tone in the songs, the album was another smash success for the band.
"Monster" came out in 1994 and marked another approach in instrumentation as the band produced an edgier and hard-rocking album, supposedly an answer to the recent deaths of Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix. The album, as uneven as it may have seemed to most people, still made it to number one on the charts.
The tour for "Monster" proved to be a nightmare as member after member fell to illness. Berry survived a brain aneurysm in the middle of the tour, Stipe had a hernia, and Mills underwent surgery for stomach problems. In spite of all this, the tour went on and the band found the time to record some new songs in between performances which ended up on the 1996 release of "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" (which, BTW, featured my personal favorite "E-Bow the Letter", a duet with Patti Smith).
Berry left the band in 1997 and the rest of the members took a bit of a break. Stipe started getting involved in the production of independent films and formed Single Cell Pictures which backed the films "Velvet Goldmine" and "Being John Malkovich", plus recorded a song with Tori Amos which never saw release; Buck performed with the bands Tuatara, Eels, and Minus Five plus did some production work; Mills was involved in the "Backbeat" project, a supergroup which performed on the soundtrack to the movie of the same name (a bio on the early days of the Beatles).
The three members reconvened to record songs for "Up" which saw release in 1999 and is probably my least favourite album by them. They used a lot of electronics in the songs but the results were somewhat bizarre and difficult to listen to at times...almost like how Radiohead sounds now but not as well done.
However, they've redeemed themselves quite nicely with the 2001 release of "Reveal" which is turning out to be my favourite album of this year. I can't praise this album enough...every song is very well-done and it's been a while since I've been blown away by any album from anybody until now. Go buy this album now.
Update (2004-10-05): "Around the Sun" was released today. I had a listen on my ride back from work. Go buy this album now.
Some questions that you're bound to ask...
Will they be touring for "Reveal"?
At this time, there are no plans for a grand tour. The only North American performance they've done so far was a free outdoor concert in downtown Toronto back in May.
Will they be touring for "Around the Sun"?
Yes, and I am the proud recipient of 2 tickets (10th row, floor) to the show in Ottawa, Ontario.
Update (2004-11-12): Saw the show last night and it was excellent. God, it was good to see them rock the house after having last seen them perform for their Monster tour about 11 years back. One of the more excellent songs performed actually turned out to be one that was dropped from Around the Sun - I'm Gonna Be A DJ.
Have they sold out?
Who cares? As long as they're still putting out music that is relevant, I'll gladly give them my hard-earned cash.
Did they really appear on Sesame Street?
Yep...they appeared in an episode in 1999 singing a variation of "Shiny Happy People" ("Furry Happy Monsters").
What's going to happen to that track with Tori Amos?
Originally recorded for the soundtrack to "Don Juan de Marco", the song was never released as a result of disagreements between their respective labels. Don't try looking for it on Napster, either...you'll end up downloading some strange recording of a really drunk woman wailing (I'm serious).
What happened to IRS Records?
They're still around. They re-released all of the R.E.M. albums on their label a few years ago with some rarities and b-sides included on each.
What's the association with 10,000 Maniacs?
They've toured together and the members of each band have recorded a few songs together, including "A Campfire Song" and "Photograph". Stipe also appeared on the MTV Unplugged show by 10,000 Maniacs to perform a duet with Natalie Merchant of "To Sir, With Love".
Did R.E.M. record a cover of U2's "One"?
Sort of...Stipe, Mills, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen got together at a charity ball to perform "One" with Stipe on vocals and they dubbed themselves "Automatic Baby". The song can be found on a couple of charity albums - unfortunatley, I don't remember what they were (although I do remember that one of them was a UK only album and that I had it and then lost it).
Update: Thx to theboy for reminding me that the UK charity album was Childline.
Did R.E.M. issue a remix album?
Yes, but only available online through their website (www.remhq.com) as mp3 files. It includes remixes of several tracks from Reveal and is called R.E.M.ix.