In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that R.E.M., which officially disbanded last week, was a band I was always willing to give the benefit of the doubt, even when I knew better. I grew up in the Athens, Ga., act’s backyard, listening with hungry ears as a quartet of college students, not too many years older than myself, reinterpreted and reinvented American guitar pop.
While heeding lessons learned from the likes of Big Star and the Byrds, R.E.M. also opened up chord structures, let the bass lead the band and buried abstracted Southern folklore deep in the mix. The result was a sound that was both unique and accessible, rooted in rock-band traditions while willfully breaking its rules.
Of course, that kind of wholesale creativity can’t last forever. After too few albums – five by my count – R.E.M. stopped being the secret many music fans shared and evolved into an act faced with the realities of the music business. Production on the band’s albums became cleaner. Arrangements became less quirky and more radio-ready. And while the band never truly played by the rock rules, later hits included the nihilistic romp The One I Love, which is often mistaken for a love song and Man on the Moon a tribute to the late surrealist comic Andy Kaufman – hardly standard rock band fare.
For many faithful fans, the end came when guitarist Peter Buck started setting aside his electric guitar in favor of the mandolin.
For others, the end came in 1997, when drummer Bill Berry decided to eschew the rock star lifestyle in favor of a Georgia hay farm. It doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter when, or indeed if, R.E.M. came to a point where the band mattered less than it once did. It doesn’t matter that some of the later albums might, to longtime fans, sound pale in comparison. It doesn’t matter that the band’s approach to production and writing and arrangement changed into something fans found unfamiliar.
What matters is, despite becoming enormously successful, despite most of the band abandoning Athens for more cosmopolitan environs, R.E.M. still, until the very end, played the game according to its own rules.
And that includes calling it quits.
Although the band’s very lucrative contract with Warner Bros. recently wrapped, R.E.M. was not a band in need of scrambling for secure footing. The back catalog alone could have easily sustained R.E.M. as an in-demand live band for many years. But that wasn’t the foundation R.E.M. was built on. It was built to evolve and stretch, remain uncompromising in a business where acts get diluted every day. That wasn’t the R.E.M. way.
Instead, the band has signed off, leaving behind a catalog of songs that redefined rock and pop. Was every song a hit or genre-defining classic? Certainly not. But enough were to establish this act as the kind of band so many other bands will aspire to be.
That’s quite a legacy.
BROAD STREET BREAKDOWN. For years, I’ve followed the Arts in the Heart of Augusta festival with a column that lists things I would like to see changed. Ordinarily it runs the week after the festival. This year it did not.
The reason? I was hard-pressed to find any flaws.
Sure, the children’s area could have been a bit easier to navigate, and some vendors seemed surprised by the number of patrons attracted by perfect weather and a vastly improved layout. But the reality is, those would seem to be welcome challenges.
My advice to the Greater Augusta Arts Council and the Arts in the Heart of Augusta steering committee: Do nothing. After more than 25 years of experimenting with the festival, it finally seems to have hit its groove. I think now we are entitled to enjoy what it has become.