Six dollars doesn’t go that far today. With that much money you could buy two fancy coffees at Starbucks and get your fix of happiness for few hours or so. Late in my early teenage years, six bucks seemed like a lot of money to me. Budget constraints made EPs a quick way to bolster my record collection. Four or five songs was better than none and for less than half the price of a full LP back in the days when loading music meant putting a record on a platter or a cassette in a bay. One of the first EP that I can remember buying outside of my record club commitments was also my first modern alternative record; R.E.M’s Chronic Town. Although R.E.M. was based in Athens, G.A, the band recorded its first collection of songs in Winston-Salem , N.C. at Mich Easter’s Drive In Studio. R.E.M. had already attracted the attention of the big city rock press in New York City with the single “Radio Free Europe”. For those of us in the Southeastern United States, R.E.M. had been a not so well kept secret.
Locally they were the talk of the town and could be heard or seen regionally at any number college clubs (all of which I was too young to visit). Fortunately for me I could hear them on Greensboro’s two alternative college stations WUAG and WQFS. Within days of Chronic Town’s release however they would become a national underground sensation and would help solidify college radio’s influence on the growing modern rock movement.
With Mitch Easter producing, Peter Buck’s jangly guitar was scruffy while various analog effects gave an extra dimension of mystery to Michael Stipe’s surprisingly clear vocals. The murky persona he was developing and would go into full mystery mode by Murmur a year later.
The R.E.M. sound was still evolving with rough edges that suggested the bands varying influences. In the six tracks you could hear bits of rockabilly on “Carnival of Sorts” fused with a mild punk sensibility. More importantly, to date no one had mixed up the Birds, Southern mythology and elements of folk and rockabilly quite R.E.M. although many would try. The anxious and somewhat uneven sound would quickly evolve, but you could hear the roots of what would become the leading American alternative band of the ‘80s with Chronic Town.
Interestingly Chronic Town remains the only R.E.M. album I have ever purchased on vinyl. Originally released as a record and cassette, it was a moment of rediscovery when IRS released Chronic Town on CD in its entirety at the end of Dead Letter Office, a collection of rarities, and B sides. I still have that old record, but nowadays I display its creepy cover art in my music room as a reminder of how much joy $6 could buy you.