R.E.M. formed right on the doorstep of 1980, a new decade buzzing with the promise of post-punk and new wave and a nascent underground music scene, one that cut a touring circuit through the college towns then emerging all across the USA.
Bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry were the practiced, musically literate rhythm section with a love of Beach Boys and Motown, while singer Michael Stipe and guitarist Peter Buck were just two record store geeks with a taste for East Coast art rock.
This stylistic push and pull made for a compelling sound, one that combined the adventurous and avant-garde with a steady hand that could pull on the reins from time to time. Songs could veer easily between bubblegum pop, folky ballads and crunchy alt-rock with remarkable consistency, and the secret sauce was creative equality; no single voice dominated.
Despite this, it is perhaps Peter Buck’s contributions on guitar that make R.E.M.’s music sound so unmistakably like R.E.M.
Open strings and arpeggiated chords alongside his ever-present ‘81 Rickenbacker 360 are part of that signature jangle, but other influences are easily heard: the major chord hooks of Big Star and the folk-rock figures of Richard Thompson, as well as Buck’s own particular economy of performance.
There’s little artifice beyond a dash of chorus or compressor; chords are thrifty, recycled; structure and melody are king. “I'm kind of a formalist as far as songwriting and guitar parts go,” he noted in 2018. “And I'm a way better rhythm guitar player than I am a soloist.”
- R.E.M. reissue their original Hib-Tone debut single, Radio Free Europe – plus limited edition '81 demo cassette
1. Radio Free Europe
Described in 1981 by The Village Voice as “one of the few great American punk singles”, Radio Free Europe was a statement of intent that effectively charted R.E.M.’s course out of the underground.
A spunky, foundational jam for both the band and the burgeoning college rock scene, its roots lie in a formative year spent chewing on Velvet Underground and Monkees covers before arriving at their own hybrid of late 70’s rock, post-punk and Byrdsian jangle.
The fingerprints of angular contemporaries like Pylon and Mission Of Burma are here, the sharp edges rounded off with a little of that 60’s pop sparkle, but there’s also idiosyncrasy: the simple three chord riff and palm-muted strings of the verse shift to a pre-chorus where, rather than alternate picking, arpeggios are played with a rough sweep picking, a consequence of Buck’s relative inexperience as a guitarist.
It’s quasi-naive as far as technique goes, but one that (combined with the soon-to-be trademark Rick and heavy gauge strings) arguably lays the blueprint for R.E.M.’s early guitar sound.
Michael Stipe’s lyrics, such as they are, also set a precedent for the cryptic non sequiturs that would become nearly as famous as his slightly oddball baritone. It’s nonsense, mostly, something to wrap a melody around; but it’s fun, by god, the chorus exuding a bratty, singalong charm that knowingly signposts the world-conquering hooks still to come.
2. Country Feedback (Out Of Time, 1991)
The dark heart of a record full of longing, Country Feedback documents not the breakdown of a relationship but the bitter, final surrender, a slow burner whose narrative starts with gritted teeth and rises to a near hysterical pitch.
Recorded over just a few short hours with Buck on acoustic guitar and Bill Berry on bass, a handful of overdubs were added later in the day that included organ, engineer John Keane’s mournful lap steel and a rare Peter Buck solo; Stipe cut his vocals in a single, startling take, half-improvising the stream of consciousness lyrics from a handful of scribbled notes.
A testament to Buck’s efficiency as a songwriter, Country Feedback does a hell of a lot with very little, a water-to-wine case study: a metronome chord progression (Em, G, D, C, G, D, Cmaj7) you could set your watch by, the repeating acoustic figure a canvas for Stipe’s increasingly agitated laundry list of regret; and of course that spindly, visceral solo – Buck favours a Gretsch 6120 on live performances – reminiscent of On The Beach-era Neil Young.
Perhaps a little overlooked at the time due to the overwhelming success of the album's lead single, Losing My Religion, Country Feedback started to gain momentum as a fan favourite during live performances in the mid-90’s.
The aforementioned Neil Young comparison became altogether more literal when Shakey himself joined the band on stage at the ‘98 Bridge School Benefit to tear through an absolutely gut-wrenching version with his Vagabond acoustic, doubling the run time and rebuilding Buck’s skeletal original with considerably more muscle.
3. Orange Crush (Green, 1988)
After five studio albums, R.E.M.’s long-expected move to a major label marked not just a commercial shift but a much broader stylistic transition. It’s here that we get a real taste of the bombastic, glam-meets-grunge sound that would later come to define 1994’s Monster, something first hinted at a year earlier in the superb The One I Love.
Bill Berry fires up the engine room with a galloping snare drum intro and keeps things moving beneath Mills’ layer of thick, funkified bass runs. The guitar here has relatively few moving parts and plenty of repetition, the result of having been composed during a sound check.
There's a verse mostly picked out on open chords and textured with some characteristically mid-80’s overdrive – think U2’s Pride (In The Name Of Love) – a barebones chorus riff (E, B, F#, B) and a smattering of harmonics that glitter through the bridge like broken glass. It’s simple, powerful stuff, with a hook big enough to hang your coat on.
One of the group’s most overt social critiques, Orange Crush doesn’t beat around the bush with its motifs. The call-and-response vocals echo a military drill, while ricocheting vibraslap and helicopter blades thunder over a bass drum that mimics the march of boot leather.
Stipe draws on his own experiences of growing up the son of a Vietnam vet, and though increasingly direct in both his vocal and lyrical output, here, the unintelligible chorus is instead swept along by an infectious pop harmony.
4. Strange Currencies (Monster, 1994)
It’s interesting to note that, for much of their early career, R.E.M. – a band of white southerners – chose to sidestep any overt pastiche of black music, and only truly recalibrated once drummer Bill Berry wrote their chart-decimating ode to southern soul, Everybody Hurts, to which Strange Currencies is often regarded a stylistic sibling.
On the surface, that's a fair comparison. The band readily confess 1994’s Monster is a record steeped in the likes of Stax Records, Smokey Robinson and Booker T, while both songs share a time signature and a flatpicked, undulating riff.
It’s more than an idle retread, though, particularly for listeners weary of Hurt’s schmaltzy overtones. Vocally, Michael Stipe later admitted to channelling INXS singer Michael Hutchence, and there’s certainly shades of Never Tear Us Apart in his bold, ecstatic delivery.
A sort of rusty ballad, feedback sustains the usual arpeggiated twang—with more than a passing resemblance to the Velvet Underground’s Femme Fatale, which R.E.M. covered as a B-side back in ‘86 – the rhythm section falling into place with some syncopated Motown bass before a warming haze of distorted chords and Hammond organ deliver the triumphant chorus.
Notably absent is the tremolo that utterly shellacks the rest of the album, with the only other quirk a toyish pitter-patter as Buck picks below his Rickenbacker’s bridge during the middle eight.
5. E-Bow The Letter (New Adventures In Hi-Fi, 1996)
Largely overlooked at the time by a disinterested public already burned-out on all things R.E.M. (1996’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi was their fourth studio album in five years), E-Bow The Letter’s mid-tempo, dirgey weirdness doesn’t quite scream “hit single”, something Peter Buck later acknowledged in response to the song’s muted chart performance: “Maybe I overestimated the patience people have with us.”
While perhaps unconventional by pop standards, it’s not exactly Zappa, either. Opening with the EBow’s refrigerator drone and a functional four chords strumming in the backseat, Buck switches to arpeggios and back again before the song sways bleary-eyed into a chiming sitar riff underlaid with mellotron and the contralto croon of punk lioness Patti Smith.
In contrast to Smith’s totemic refrain, Stipe drops an oddly-metered, spoken word confessional, including some of his finest and dryest observations (“Dreaming of Maria Callas, whoever she is...”), backed with a glint of Moog strings in the second verse.
But if there’s a narrator here, it’s the EBowed guitar: it’s voice, somewhere between a cello and a Theremin, adds a plaintive harmony that almost imitates choral fuguing tunes. There’s a maturity and understatement to the entire composition, as elements are allowed to ebb and flow in service to the song, a sum greater than its parts.
In a way, E-Bow The Letter is a culmination of the band’s second decade, incorporating motifs from each of the records that came before.
With its parent album undergoing something of a reappraisal by fans in recent years – the sombre mood and monochrome aesthetic belatedly earning comparisons to Automatic For The People – perhaps now more listeners will agree that while not all songs make good singles, some truly great songs don’t need to.
- R.E.M.'s reissued 1981 debut single, Radio Free Europe, is out now.