“A wise man once said–’the skill in attending a party is knowing when it’s time to leave.’ We built something extraordinary together. We did this thing. And now we’re going to walk away from it.” –Michael Stipe
While they may have stopped being a “big deal” somewhere around 1997, it’s negligent to overlook the entirety of their career as nothing but one of the most influential in the history of rock music. In 2011, it’s easy to forget that R.E.M. was once one of the “biggest bands in the world”, with record sales that rivaled other bands of the time, namely Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and U2. As a band, they basically invented college rock or alternative rock or indie rock or whatever you want to call it. R.E.M.’s path became one for other bands to follow, one that–at least before Everybody Hurts–allowed for prosperity without the benefit of mainstream, commercial success. Their 31 year career, a feat in itself, can be broken into 3 epochs:
- The College Rock Circuit The band was able to thrive off of constant touring and support from college radio. From that, they built a foundation that didn’t require mainstream media support, didn’t require their pandering to MTV or traditional rock radio. MTV and traditional rock radio, as it turns out, would come to them. The records during this period, like Murmur and Lifes Rich Pageant, should be used as cultural high water marks that the U.S. beams into space in order to impress our alien neighbors.
- Everybody Hurts The “Alternative Nation” takeover of pop culture in the early 1990s is credited to Nirvana and the rest of Seattle but if Nirvana delivered the fatal blow to bloated 1980′s mainstream rock, R.E.M. was the cancer that weakened the beast. Starting with 1987′s Document, the band began its assault with hits The One I love, Stand, Losing My Religion, Man on the Moon, and Everybody Hurts. Michael Stipe’s skull becomes the most recognizable skull in the country.
- The Sunset Years Things started changing across the pop culture landscape in 1997 and the bands that dominated the majority of the 1990s saw their record sales plummet. Hardly heartbroken, R.E.M. continued to release records on its own terms–including this year’s Collapse Into Now.
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Image courtesy of Quique Lopez via flickr.
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