Friday, September 23, 2011


Kudos to legendary American rock band REM for bowing out with dignity this week, rather than just milking it on the live circuit for the next 20 years in the face of dwindling album sales and musical relevance.

REM's history is in a very real sense my history in terms of having a genuine interest in music - it was when I went to Bristol University in 1988 and discovered the Fry Haldane record library in the Students' Union that I really got an idea of the breadth and range and weirdness of what was out there waiting to be listened to - one of the first things I really got into was REM's fifth album Document, and, after it was released the following year, 1989's Green - these two were the albums that really launched them onto the world stage.

It's fair to say that this was probably a good time for them to go - my view is that all of their first ten albums, from the mysterious jangly mumblings of 1983's Murmur to the wild experimentation of 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi, are pretty much essential, but that New Adventures was their last really good album, the rest being fine but not startlingly good, with the exception of 2008's back-to-basics rock thrash Accelerate. So you could say that it was drummer Bill Berry's decision to quit in 1997 that did for them, and you might be right.

The first really major rock gig I ever went to was an REM gig as well, at the now-defunct Wembley Arena in what a bit of research tells me must have been June 1989. Even with a bit of allowance for rose-tinted spectacles this is still in the top two or three rock gigs I've ever been to, the opening blast through Finest Worksong being a proper hairs on the back of the neck moment (you can see footage from that tour on the excellent concert DVD Tourfilm). I also saw them at the also-now-defunct Cardiff Arms Park in 1994 touring in support of Monster. My principal memory of that gig is standing watching their encore rendition of Let Me In, Michael Stipe's grungy lament for Kurt Cobain, with my sister sitting on my shoulders and some drunk bloke singing along next to me after having spent the previous five hours or so swigging red wine out of a 2-litre Coke bottle.

My advice for the REM novice is to start with 1986's Lifes Rich Pageant, still their finest moment, proceed to Document and Green and then take it from there. Everyone should own some REM albums.

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