It’s not every day that a new musical movement is started, but Athens, Georgia based R.E.M. could be called the sound that launched 1,000 bands. They had attracted much critical praise with their Mitch Easter produced Chronic Town EP in 1982. Their record label I.R.S. had big plans for the band on their follow-up LP and hired big city record producer Stephen Hague to oversee the project.
In short, working with Hauge was a disaster. He was a difficult studio perfectionist who clashed with the laid back style of the band. It got so bad that the band pleaded with the record company to retain the familiar production talents of North Carolina based Mitch Easter. So after scrapping what they had done with Hauge in December of 1982, they headed up to Reflection Studios in Charlotte to work with Easter a month later.
The resulting album Murmur was a critical and commercial success. R.E.M.’s signature folky, jangly guitar sound courtesy of Peter Buck was refined to the point that it spawned hundreds of imitators. One of the things seldom if ever replicated by clones was leader Michael Stipe’s ghostly if somewhat off-center vocal delivery. At times sharp and other times mumbled, the often abstract lyrics gave a certain depth to R.E.M.’s music. Like many of the finer arts, R.E.M. songs were interpreted differently depending on who was listening.
Up to the ’80s, the South was known for bands like the Allman Brothers or Charlie Daniels. These bands combined blues, rock and country in varying amounts. R.E.M. would get their influences mostly from West Coast 60’s bands like the Byrds and were part of a wave of progressive sounding acts based in Athens Georgia. Along with North Carolina based Lets Active and The Connells, R.E.M. would lead a growing resurgence of Southern Rock in a new era, making the Southeastern US a musical hotbed much like Seattle and the Pacific Northwest would be in the ’90s.
R.E.M.’s sound was a fresh take on an old folk/country/rock sounds that would be drenched in the creepiness of old Confederate lore and superstitions. The cover of Murmur summed up the mood of the album with a spooky image of a kudzu plant and a foggy horizon. As a teenager, I remember well the posters put up at record stores and ads in underground rags announcing the band in concert (for $10 you could see R.E.M. and the B52s!). My hometown of Greensboro N.C. circa 1982, was a great place and time to be a fan of alternative music. There were two great college radio stations (WUAG and WQFS) and was in the middle of the regions hot music scene.
What was clear was that R.E.M had become the flagship sound for a young college radio format. Led by songs like “Radio Free Europe”, “Perfect Circle” and “Pilgrimage”, half the album seemed to be in constant rotation. This was especially true in the Southern United States, but eventually would transcend campuses to the pop charts. Murmur sold well over 200,000 copies. Not bad for an underground band in the early 80s. The critical acclaim was more impressive with Rolling Stone declaring Murmur the best album of 1983, beating out established heavyweights from the Police, Michael Jackson and U2.
R.E.M disbanded in 2011, but the magical string of releases from 1982-1984 would define their sound. Those releases included Chronic Town, Murmur and Reckoning, all produced from the team of Mitch Easter and Don Dixon. So if you liked the band during their commercial peak, you might love them at their most primal and Southern sound from the start of their long career.