Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

The end of REM as we know them

The surprise statement from REM that they are calling it a day naturally enough dominates the music agenda as OTR goes back to work. It’s big news when a band as successful and influential as REM head for the hills. …

Thu, Sep 22, 2011, 08:33


The surprise statement from REM that they are calling it a day naturally enough dominates the music agenda as OTR goes back to work. It’s big news when a band as successful and influential as REM head for the hills. Acts who’ve lasted 31 years together don’t usually let the stuff and nonsense which comes with being in a successful band get in the way of being in that band as the years go on, as we’ve seen from the likes of U2. Success usually keeps an act together because success means you can tick off the boxes and achieve the stuff you set out to do when you and your bandmates were callow youths in Athens, Georgia. After all, very few of REM’s peers from the early 1980s are still in the game because the rate of attrition is greater on the lower rungs of the ladder.

REM had an unsurpassable golden age when every album, every track, every video was worth observing and experiencing. As the band developed musically with early albums like “Murmur” and “Lifes Rich Pageant”, they became a band you kept the faith with and the bond between them and their fans was always an intense one. Even when mainstream success arrived with “Green” and “Out of Time” – the move from IRS to Warner Bros giving them the marketing and promotional muscle they had lacked in their early days – that bond with the believers continued through the strength and quality of the music.

But it was during the later years of the 1990s, as REM firmly established themselves as the stadium rock band it was OK to like, that quality control problems set in with material. You could chalk this down to internal problems – the departure of drummer Bill Berry due to serious health concerns and a parting of the ways with original manager Jefferson Holt – but REM’s music no longer reached beyond the band’s heartland. Of course, given the size of that fanbase, it was more than enough to keep the band in clover, but as every new REM album which promised to be a return to form failed to live up to its billing, those outside that tent began to lose interest and find other acts to champion.

The spin behind albums like “Around the Sun” and “Reveal” just didn’t convince you when you listened to the tracks. The band themselves sounded like they were going through the motions, trying to show to themselves and others that they were still making music as vital and essential and life-affirming as had been the case decades earlier. As with so many heritage acts, though, it was just not as convincing, exciting, revealing or good as that earlier material. Ironically, given the events of yesterday, this year’s “Collapse Into Now” was probably the best of their recent vintage, an album which had a snap and a crackle to it which previous releases lacked.

There will be a lengthy mourning period following REM’s demise. They had a huge fanbase, ranging from people who had them as the soundtrack to their teenage years in the 1980s (they were a staple on the Dave Fanning radio shows which took me through that decade) to those who fell in love with them when “Out of Time” became a massive worldwide best-seller. They could still fill the big rooms and REM coming to town for a show was always an occasion to savour for many. They were a band many people genuinely loved and admired.

But all good things do come to an end and REM leave the pitch in a very dignified manner with standing ovations from all sides. It’s true to say that we’ll probably never see their likes again. There are very few bands of a similar ilk left in the game and, given the changes we see in the music business with every passing week, it’s becoming harder and harder to see how a band like REM can rise from indie roots to worldwide acclaim and success. They were one of the last remaining relics of music’s old world order. Whatever about any reunion tour which might come down the line when tempting offers are despatched to Athens or any solo albums to inevitably come (a Michael Stipe solo album could well be better than anything they’ve released in years), they leave behind a well stocked back-catalogue and memories of superb shows at venues like Dublin’s SFX, RDS, Olympia and Lansdowne Road. You couldn’t ask for anything more.