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? 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 (
) 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. Chronic Town
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.
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.
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.
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?”