REM and the leap of the gods from university rock to mainstream icons


Grunge. Wu-Tang clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall”. The music of the 90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does that say about the time – and why is it still important? In our show 60 songs that explain the 90s, Alarm Music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla sets out on a quest to answer these questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 44 , which breaks down REM’s’ 90s release and the song “Nightswimming”.

“Nightswimming” certainly isn’t considered a deep cut: it’s a proverbial fan favorite, it has decent streaming numbers, REM technically released it as a single when it still mattered. Also: If you even play 10 seconds of “Nightswimming” on a piano in public, like at a house party or something, you are guaranteed to have sex with someone at that party, if you wish it. I made it up. I can’t play it. I would not know. But he feels true, and I think you’ll agree that’s what matters.

But “Nightswimming” is also kind of an anomaly. It’s a piano ballad, with strings and so on, with no bass, drums or guitar, two of the four guys from REM don’t even appear on it, and in terms of public opinion, this song isn’t “Everybody Hurts, or “Man on the Moon,” or more to the point that it’s not “Losing My Religion,” from their previous album and shock commercial breakthrough, Out of time in ’91. “Losing My Religion” is quite objectively REM’s greatest song, and that’s how, personally, I got super on REM. I submit to you that REM is a completely different group, a way of life if you discovered them in 1982 or 85 or 87 versus if you discovered them in 1991. The point is that I also know the five REM studio albums released in the 90s, as well as intimately, as I know five consecutive (or non-consecutive) albums by anyone. I know them by heart, I never tire of them. As recently as this morning I was sitting in wonder at the sound of Peter Buck’s guitar on New adventures in Hi-Fi. The sequence from “Undertow” to “E-Bow the Letter” to “Leave” in particular. I’ll keep you out of this. You’re welcome.

But I feel the need to clarify that this is a 90s REM celebration chaired by an emphatic 90s REM guy. I know 80s records; I love 80s records. But I can’t help but feel an academic, a critical distance from them, at least from what I have. really love, emotionally, and my heartfelt opinions on ’80s REM are often indistinguishable from, like, trolling. I believe what I’m saying but it looks like no. For example, this is REM’s best single released in the 1980s.

Yeah, I know it’s not their song. Yes, I know that is not true. In fact, it is. “Superman” is REM’s best song from the 1980s. Do you know why? The voices of Mike Mills and Michael Stipe intertwined. Alpha and Omega, Cupid and Psyche, Gin Tonic, Tango and Cash, Chocolate and Peanut Butter from college rock, alternative rock, arena rock, rock ‘n’ roll of all kinds. The pinnacle of the very notion of harmony in my opinion.

REM was formed in 1980 at the University of Georgia, Athens. Michael Stipe on vocals. Peter Buck on guitar. Mike Mills on bass. Bill Berry on drums. These three guys traded instruments a lot, but basically yes. First single “Radio Free Europe” in 1981; first album Murmur in 1983. Their second best album overall. You know the 33⅓ book series and podcast? The 33⅓ book on Murmur by J. Niimi is excellent, if you want to learn more about southern gothic, kudzu, and jangly guitars. I am professionally obligated to describe early REMs in particular as messy; they were super poetic and cryptic and melodic like guitar-rock groups do. You hear the Byrds a lot in the early REMs, a psychedelic country-folk chord. You hear power pop, and power pop from the South in particular, Big Star for example, and dB, which was mostly from the South. You hear the more artistic and poetic end of punk: Velvet Underground, and the Feelies, and Television, and Michael Stipe’s beloved Patti Smith. But early on with REM you also hear propulsion and aggression, and yeah punk rock in the classical sense. The pinnacle of the very notion of harmony filtered by punk rock, filtered by hard rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, REM does “Radio Free Europe” on David Letterman in 1983 is perhaps my favorite late night musical performance. Just the lankiest guys imaginable kicking rich amounts of ass.

Their first five albums are Murmur, Account, Fables of Reconstruction, Rich pageant of life, and Document. REM’s sixth album, Green, released in 1988, and they went from relatively small, home-grown IRS Records to corporate giant Warner Bros. Records. They jumped on a major label. The group would very much like to go from “college rock”, from fame on college radio to simple fame on popular-rock mainstream radio. Maybe a heavier MTV spin as well. Much to the dismay of a certain percentage of their fans, REM has exhausted, in the language of their time. I even gave up trying to explain the concept of sell to the young people of today. Forget. From what I understand, the 80s REM felt like yours, felt like your own personal secret no matter how many times on college radio, as, as we move into the 90s, the group is poised to be a part of everyone. Fools like me are about to crush the party. You may not even recognize them anymore. This discomfort was best embodied, the Green album, by a disconcerting and energetic little tune called “Stand”.

Polarizing. And also REM’s biggest success so far: no. 6 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 singles chart. “The one I love” from Document in 1987, a much less controversial major REM song, peaked at no. 9. (I once saw Bush, the band Bush, cover “The One I Love” as a tribute to Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell after Chris Cornell died, I may have mentioned it already, just a moment incredibly confusing in my adult life, given my teenage understanding of how these three groups corresponded to each other.) Either way, a sense of unease, but also of impending greatness, therefore surrounds the seventh REM album, Out of time, released in March 1991. This record is called Out of time because they couldn’t think of a title and ran out of time. The band decides they won’t really tour to support this album because they’ve been touring for 10 years in a row and they’re tired. And Michael Stipe, quoted in Tony Fletcher’s book Perfect circle: the story of REM, gives the media quotes like, “When I say this record is going to change the course of pop history, I say it with my tongue pretty firmly in my cheek and a little sneer on my lips, but I think that it really is. , for 1991, a rather particular record. And on the first single, Peter Buck plays the mandolin, of all things. None of this necessarily suggests impending greatness or a change in the course of pop history, but yes, you don’t have to be very cool to find out what happened next.

To listen to the full episode Click here, and make sure you follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes of the decade’s most important songs. This excerpt has been edited slightly for clarity and length.

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