REM: The Unheralded Instigator of Grunge
In the Beginning
As we moved past the middle-80’s, we saw a shift from the artistic creativity of earlier in the decade, to a what many felt was a blander and formulistic approach to pop, rock, New Wave and dance music. Many bands continued to pursue their music ambitions by caving into music executives demands for “more of the same.” And yet, there were a few, brave artists that refused to give up their dreams of creativity, innovation, and self-determination. The youth of the late 80’s often felt that music no longer represented the angst, insecurity, and rebellion that they were experiencing as they moved towards adulthood. It was this dichotomy between what music labels thought would make money and what much of the younger fanbase wanted that helped lead to the sudden, revolutionary explosion out of the Pacific Northwest that would become Grunge.
Yet, while we credit the “Seattle Scene” for this genre of music, the seeds were laid earlier, largely in part by a band formed in 1980 in Athens, Georgia (an epicenter of American New Wave and Classic Alternative at the time with other bands such as the B-52’s and Widespread Panic), REM, the instigator of Grunge.
REM’s original members were drummer, Bill Berry, guitarist, Peter Buck, bassist, Mike Mills, and lead vocalist, Michael Stipe. R.E.M. quickly became known for Buck’s ringing, arpeggiated guitar style, Stipe’s distinctive vocals and obscure lyrics, Mills’ melodic basslines and backing vocals, and Berry’s tight, economical drumming.
And So It Begins
The band released its first single, “Radio Free Europe,” in 1981 on the independent record label Hib-Tone. I should note, that I fell in love with this band instantly that year when I first heard the song on KROQ in Los Angeles as high school student and remained a fan since then. The album was followed by the Chronic Town EP in 1982, the band’s first release on I.R.S. Records. In 1983, the group released its critically acclaimed debut album, “Murmur,” and built its reputation over the next few years through subsequent releases, constant touring, and the support of college radio. Following years of underground success, R.E.M. achieved a mainstream hit with the 1987 single “The One I Love”. The group signed to Warner Bros. Records in 1988 and began to espouse political and environmental concerns while playing large arenas worldwide.
So what does this older, established New Wave band have to do with the rise of Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Sound Garden, and later, grunge bands from across the globe, such as Pearl Jam and The Stone Temple Pilots? One could say that it came down to a single unexpected hit, by REM, “Losing My Religion.”
Losing My Religion
According to Stipe in his interview for the book “Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop,” by Mark Myers, “Even when the song was released, it wasn’t supposed to be a big deal. It was just supposed to be the teaser track—the first song that would get us played on MTV and therefore introduce the album. Then we would release what was supposed to be the big hit—“Radio Song,” featuring rapper KRS-One. It was a great track and a great plan, but soon after “Losing My Religion” was released, it became our biggest-selling song worldwide. The song’s success was a complete fluke. None of us thought that “Losing My Religion” had much potential. There’s no traditional chorus, and the lead instrument was a mandolin. The video was unusual and groundbreaking—super-pop, super-homoerotic, and hyper charged. In the video, I lip-synced for the first time. But it all connected, and fans responded to the song’s realness and emotional urgency.”
The band had already been continuing to control its own creative destiny, and its sound was moving away from that of a majority of the early New Wave bands, many of which had fallen by the wayside by then. Stipe and Kurt Kobain had become friends, and, in many ways, Stipe had become a mentor to Kobain and some of the other artists who were rejecting the perceived “vanilla” flavor of the music current at the time.
“Losing My Religion” gave wings to the Alternative movement in several ways. First, they demonstrated that the music consuming public was interested in new and innovative songs, and not just the “fluff” that the Seattle scene felt that the labels were putting out. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the wild commercial success of the song and its album, “Out of Time” had record execs rethinking their stance on what was marketable. The 34th Grammy awards sealed the deal, as they say, when “Out of Time” received seven nominations. The band and its lead single for the album had demonstrated the commercial viability and supportive fanbase for the once underground Grunge scene. The band’s victories in winning over the music establishment successfully laid the groundwork for one of the most important and revolutionary trends in modern music. Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, Foo Fighters, and so many more would see worldwide success largely in part due to an older established band that whose “teaser” song became a worldwide phenomenon to the surprise of everyone, including REM.
Mark Burton is the visionary founder and a Managing Director at Pop-Daze Entertainment. Prior to creating the Pop-Daze Universe, he was an attorney and a partner in a private equity firm. His love of legacy music led him to leave the world of finance and find his own niche in the music industry. He is ultimately responsible for every aspect of your experience and always loves hearing from “Dazers!” It should be noted that while he does play the drums, he’s not very good at it, yet! He can be reached at [email protected].