Tuesday, February 5, 2013

R.E.M. and the "What If..." Game

What if Elvis sought help in 1970 or so and was able to live as long a life as a recording artist as, say, Johnny Cash?

What if Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain had made it past 27? What might their music over the 10-15 years that followed have sounded like?

What if Buddy Holly lived to see 23?

What if the Rolling Stones actually acted like they gave a shit starting in, say, 1973 and running up to present day? Or at least through the 80s?

What if ABBA hadn’t made that deal with Satan and instead had focused on selling farming equipment?

And the biggee—what if John Lennon wasn’t killed? Would/could those rumors of a Beatles reunion have come to fruition?

It’s a fun one, to be sure, and can lead to hours of fun parlor game-type scenarios. What would that next Beatles record have sounded like, if they took the best of everything they were doing as solo artists? What would SMiLE have sounded like had Brian Wilson been able to keep himself together, or if Mike Love had been left in a shallow ditch outside Bakersfield in 1964 and therefore rendered unable to question, undermine and torment Brian for all those peak creative years? What might the follow-ups to Electric Ladyland and In Utero have sounded like? And on and on.

Here’s one Scott and I have kicked around. Not quite possessing the gravitas of a Beatles reunion or a long-lifed Elvis, but still, an interesting one.

What if R.E.M. had called it quits when Bill Berry left the band?

That would mean the band would have existed from 1980 to 1997, and would have offered a career discography of 10 albums, plus an EP (Chronic Town) and a collection of B-Sides (Dead Letter Office). It would have placed their overall output somewhere in the ballpark of The Who (pre-Keith Moon death ) and not far from that of The Beatles. It would have made for quite a full career, that is to say.

To many, including the two of us here at Reason To Believe, R.E.M. kinda did cease to exist as R.E.M. after Bill’s departure following the 1996 album New Adventures in Hi Fi and the ensuing 1997 tour. Yes, they produced some fine music (“Imitation of Life” is one of the best songs they ever did, and any band would have loved to have “Daysleeper” and “The Great Beyond” in its canon). And they always conducted themselves well in that they never short-shrifted the fans or, really, gave way in terms of integrity. They toured, they released albums and they kept themselves out there as an active, relevant part of the scene. All cool.

Two things:

1)     Once Bill Berry left they simply weren't as good. Tried and true and earnest and all the rest, but just never again quite as good as they were. They never produced an album without Bill Berry on drums that outdid or equaled anything they did with Bill Berry on drums. And Lord knows they tried—five full albums followed his departure.

2)      Pre-1997, this was a band, in the truest and rarest sense of the word – they were as fine an example of the “sum of the parts” equation any band that ever lived, including the Beatles and U2. (The list of bands that never changed parts during their full run—sorry Pete Best, but I’m afraid you don’t count—is ridiculously short). And R.E.M. made such an amazing effort over its career to focus on the band—every song credited to Berry-Buck-Mills-Stipe speaks wonders to that—that it really is hard to imagine an incarnation of R.E.M. that didn’t include one of these four members.

So. In this “What if…” scenario. Let’s say New Adventures in Hi Fi was in fact their final album. It would have been quite a final record, to be sure, as it was by all accounts at least a B+ effort, very possibly even higher (I for one grade it as a 4 ½ star album, using the tried and true Rolling Stone 5-star system, which would mean it’s right around A- range).

New Adventures represents much of the very best of what R.E.M. did; it can be looked at as a sort of offbeat career retrospective with its 14 songs. In some ways it plays almost like a “Greatest Hits" album made up of entirely new material, if that makes sense.

It had shout-backs to their early baroque southern gothic style (“Undertow,” “Be Mine,” and the piano on “Electrolite” even loosely evokes “Perfect Circle.”) It had the melancholic moodiness that came to define their early-90s sound (“New Test Leper,” “E-Bow the Letter”). It had glam-infused ragers that would have been right at home on Monster (“The Wake Up Bomb,” “Leave”) and guitar-heavy windups that easily recalled the best of Life’s Rich Pagent (“Departure”). And it had the mid-tempo folk-flavored sound that, jangle or not, became R.E.M.’s brand (“Bittersweet Me”).

So as a parting shot from arguably the greatest American band in rock-n-roll history, it had it all.

And if we play this scenario out to the fullest…what if “Electrolite,” the final song on New Adventures, was the last we ever heard of the band?

Hold that thought for a quick digression.

Whichever way you look at the end of the Beatles career, either by the last album they ever recorded (Abbey Road) or the last album they ever released (Let it Be), no band will ever offer a farewell to their fans the way the Fab 4 did. Whether it was John remarking at the end of “Get Back” that “we hope we passed the audition,” or the entire band joining behind Paul at the end of “The End” for “And in the end the love you take is equal to the love to make,” a more perfect or poignant departure will never be offered. It’s just not possible.

R.E.M. would have come close, though, with "Electrolite."

20th Century go to sleep
Really deep—we won’t blink

Your eyes are burning holes through me
I’m not scared
I’m outta here

That’s how “Electrolite” ends.

Imagine if that was the last we ever heard of R.E.M. Bidding farewell to the century that made them, announcing in their always cool and somewhat oblique way that they are not of the next century, that’s it's been real but…bye y’all. We're outta here.

It almost seems by design to be intended that way. Michael Stipe repeats the final line, sans band, at the very end—“I’m outta here,” his voice echoing alone in the studio.

Not at all unlike the way things started more than a decade earlier, when "Radio Free Europe" opened up Murmur and introduced R.E.M. to the world with a two word declaration,  “Decide yourself.” The first echoey words we ever heard from Michael Stipe, at the very beginning of the very first song of the very first album R.E.M. ever offered, were those. “Decide yourself.”

We did, of course. We decided we wanted them to stick around for a long, long while.

R.E.M. bucked convention for its entire career. From the early muted lyrics to the ending that came 31 years later with a press release (seriously, in rock-n-roll, who does that?), to crediting every single song to all the band members to eschewing band cover photos to never once being knocked off their trajectory of doing the kinds of music they wanted to be doing. They did things their way, from beginning to end. And that it indeed one of the most basic things we love(d) about them

But if a career that began with “Decide yourself” had ended with “I’m outta here?”

As Papa hisself once offered with his own unique ending, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”


  1. Gosh, I started reading this, all ready to argue your thesis to pieces, and....I can't.

    You're right.

    I bought that "Decide Yourself" album when I was deciding myself, and played the living hell out of it. When I moved to Milwaukee, the first student loan disbursement I got, I bought a case of beer and Reckoning. REM Has been part of my life since I started establishing my own path of life. Saw them at a little theater on the Life's Rich Pageant tour, with CVB opening. Saw the shed tour for Green. Even turned my son on to them.

    All the post-Berry albums are important to me, some of them as important as the earlier work. I love Collapse Into Now, and the songs Around the Sun and Leaving New York are amazing.

    But you're right. if this was a movie, that should have been the end.

    In a way, that makes me very sad.

    1. No, no. Don't be sad, shopgirl. Here's why you shouldn't be:

      REM were one of the very most perfect rock and roll machines ever. The only other ones that really compare are the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, in that taking away any one member for a significant amount of time would have irreparably damaged the whole, and caused it to fatally malfunction. The Stones proved they could replace members left and right and, for a while at least, even improve. This may be heresy, but I think the Who could probably have lost Daltrey and done just about as well with Townshend taking over all the lead vocals. And while the importance of the rhythm section to great bands like CCR and U2 is often criminally overlooked...well...I'm not convinced that that's the same thing as saying they're equally weighted.

      (Cream, the Police and Nirvana are also perfectly balanced bands, and I like two of the three very much. And while both the Police and Nirvana deserve to be mentioned in the 10 or 20 all time most important bands, I don't think either of them makes a serious run at the top position--although if Nirvana had stuck around for just one more album, they might very well have.)

      ((Also too, for anyone who foolishly discounts the importance of Ringo as a musician, just try to imagine the Beatles having lasted past 1967 without him in the studio to defuse tension; we got at least two extra years just from his goofy icebreaking alone.))

      But each and every member of REM was every bit as vital as every other member: in the broadest of strokes, Stipe was the artiste, Buck the rock and roller, Mills the craftsman and Berry the dispassionate critic. And once you removed one of those counterweights, the entire thing fell out of whack. It turns out that without Berry's influence as a songwriter, arranger and, most of all, editor, the machine developed a grinding hitch. Suddenly, for all Stipe/Buck were the Jagger/Richards or Plant/Page dynamic duo, it was Stipe and Mills against Buck and just like that, the magical working relationship was gone, at least on a regular basis.

      But here's why you shouldn't be sad: because those three knew it—and they fought on anyway. They had no need to. None of them are ever going to need to work another day in their lives; hell, their grandchildren are never going to need to work a day. But they kept going anyway, because they love music and they love rock and roll and by God they were going to go out on their terms, when they wanted and how they wanted and not one moment before. Yeah, if they'd quit when Bill Berry quit, their reputation would be, I think, significantly higher: I think they would be rightly seen, almost universally, as one of the three or four greatest American bands ever, rather than top 10 or whatever. (For my money, they're THE greatest.) But they didn't. Instead, they did what they'd done their entire career: they did just what they wanted and flipped the bird to anyone who didn't like it. And that's pretty badass.

      Talk about pushing an elephant up the stairs. They did.

  2. ooo, I forgot to add, the one thing that I think refutes your idea that they no longer had life as a band, is the Live At The Olympia album. Lots of life in that bunch yet.

    I think they just weren't able to have fun making albums anymore. But they had fun PLAYING them, at least on that album. Pretty good documentary too.

  3. And I think that is indeed fair. Their hearts were indeed always in it and I will always believe that Buck-Mills-Stipe enjoyed playing together, probably even had a blast doing it.

    I just don't think they were R.E.M. anymore. And unfortunately, while there was some good stuff put out by the three of the them in the final 15 or so years (I highlighted some of them, and you are right that Collapse Into Now has some very good songs), it wasn't in the same category as the albums the four of them put out. Hence my initial thesis/question.

    But you are absolutely on the money about them live - they played great together and grew into a great live band, even after Bill left. I think that speaks to their investment in what they were doing - I don't ever recall a time when I thought R.E.M. (before or after Bill) was phoning it in.

    Thanks for the comments. Greatly 'preciated.