Feeling Gravity’s Pull: R.E.M has become America’s answer to The Beatles

An excerpt from “R.E.M.: The Rolling Stone Files”

Excerpted from R.E.M.: The Rolling Stone Files, by the editors of Rolling Stone, introduction by Anthony DeCurtis; © 1995 Rolling Stone Press; published by Rolling Stone Press/Hyperion

In the last major interview he did before he died, Kurt Cobain told “Rolling Stone’s” David Fricke, “I know we’re gonna put out one more record, at least, and I have a pretty good idea what it’s going to sound like: pretty, ethereal, acoustic, like R.E.M.’s last album. If I could just write a couple of songs as good as what they’ve written . . . I don’t know how that band does what they do. God, they’re the greatest. They’ve dealt with their success like saints, and they keep delivering great music.”

Nirvana, alas, would never make another album, and if they had, who knows if it would have sounded anything like R.E.M.’s “Automatic for the People.” But that’s not what’s important about Cobain’s remarks. However self-destructive he may have been, part of him wanted to find a way to survive—and that part of him was drawn to R.E.M. as a model of success with integrity. Over the course of a career that is now nearing the 15-year mark, R.E.M. have managed to pursue a highly personal, highly idiosyncratic artistic vision while simultaneously amassing an audience well into the millions. All this while, as Cobain noted, consistently “delivering great music.”

R.E.M.’s beginnings were modest but extremely weird. I first saw the band in the spring of 1981 while working on a story about the then-burgeoning music scene in Athens, Georgia, R.E.M.’s hometown. The B-52’s had burst out of Athens onto the national stage in 1979. Then, the following year, Pylon unleashed the jagged mentalist funk of their splendid first LP, “Gyrate.” At that point people began to wonder about the down-home surrealism that seemed to be taking shape in a sleepy Southern college town previously best known for its life-or-death devotion to the University of Georgia football team, those down and dirty Dawgs.

I was thrilled by the try-anything energy of Athens. The tedium of small-town Southern life and a university far too gripped by football fever to satisfy its most interesting students created a place in which, if you had any imagination at all, you had to create your own good times. The Athens crowd did that with impressive flair, and music became their primary outlet.

Students and the inevitable college town hangers-on, many with affiliations of one sort or another with UGA’s art department, formed bands that had infinitely less to do with technical expertise than with some bizarre brand of zany self-expression. The town’s endless supply of huge, cheap ramshackle houses provided perfect settings for the crazed bohemian dance parties that further honed the Athens aesthetic. Groups like Pylon, Love Tractor, The Method Actors, Oh OK and The Side Effects all quickly cropped up as if by spontaneous generation.

R.E.M.—a name the band used to insist meant nothing, but which stands for “rapid eye movement,” the physical indicator of the deepest state of dreaming—formed in the self-consciously arty environment of Athens but also stood apart from it. One acknowledgment of that distance was the way other Athens bands invariably—and somewhat condescendingly—referred to R.E.M. as a “pop bend.” When I got to see R.E.M. perform for the first time at Tyrone’s, the club that had virtually become the group’s Athens headquarters, it was easy to see how they had earned that tag. While nearly all the other Athens bands mimicked the spindly guitar lines and herky-jerky rhythms of the B-52’s and Pylon, RE.M. had fashioned a more traditional sound that rested on Peter Buck’s folk-rock, pick-strum guitar style, the passionately indecipherable slurring of Michael Stipe’s vocals, Mike Mills’ unusually melodic bass lines and Bill Berry’s elemental, almost-steady drumming.

If you knew your rock history, you could instantly identify R.E.M.’s musical sources, most prominently The Byrds and The Velvet Underground, but still the band sounded bracingly fresh. Stipe’s choruses—often with Mills providing harmonies or background vocals—would rise out of the jangle and drone of Buck’s guitar and inspire further frenzy in the dancing crowd. The audience would climb onstage with the band as the show would rock to a close, everyone smiling and drenched with sweat.

From the first, R.E.M. radiated optimism, and that was a rare, welcome virtue in the early ’80s. The campy, self-reflexive fun of the Athens scene could be delightful, but at times it also seemed to suggest that it was uncool to care about things. Why not just dance the mess around? More broadly, punk had run its self-destructive course, leaving its audience shell-shocked and groping for a new direction that neither America’s arena bands nor England’s synth-pop brigade could provide.

And if Stipe’s vocals were not only buried but entirely incomprehensible, who cared? It seemed as if he was ardently pursuing some truth that was deeper than mere sense, more emotional than literal, more sensual than verbal, more associative than specific, more evanescent than solid, fully as much yours as his. “Decide yourself,” he called out from the throbbing murk of “Radio Free Europe,” urging you to make the meaning of the song your own. The song’s hint of desperation only made its oblique messages of hope and forbearance seem earned.

One of those singles that shapes the way you hear music that comes after it, “Radio Free Europe”/“Sitting Still” [released in July of 1981] established the R.E.M. cult. Critics raved; indeed, smart, literate and musically allusive, the band was the virtual definition of a critics’ darling. Equally important, R.E.M. soon began the relentless touring that would not only build the group’s base of evangelical fans—turning your friends onto R.E.M. became something of an ’80s rite of passage—but that would blaze a trail that other progressive underground bands could follow.

The single also won R.E.M. a worldwide deal with I.R.S. Records, a large, independent label based in Los Angeles. I.R.S., which had a distribution deal with A&M Records, did not pack the commercial clout of the major labels that were also interesting in signing R.E.M., and certainly the band could have gotten a much larger advance from those majors. But I.R.S. agreed to allow R.E.M. virtually complete control over every aspect of their creative life, an issue about which the band was adamant.

Then, as now, R.E.M. were extremely wary of any influence that did not originate with the band’s four members, its manager, Jefferson Holt, or its attorney, Bertis Downs. They often seemed open to just about anything—but they were almost obsessively determined never to have to do anything they felt uncomfortable doing.

This attitude resulted from a characteristic, if somewhat contradictory, combination of insecurity and confidence. R.E.M. simultaneously hated situation in which their naïveté and inexperience might be revealed and felt completely certain that, left to their own intelligence and instincts, they could figure out the best way for them to proceed under and circumstances. More important, if they were going to fail, they wanted it to be because of their own poor judgment, not someone else’s. Joe Boyd, who produced “Fables of the Reconstruction,” described this strange blend of attitudes as “absence of doubt without arrogance.”

“We get away with a lot of shit,” Buck told David Fricke for a 1985 “Rolling Stone” story. “But it’s reasonable shit. It’s not like we’re asking for the brown M&M’s to be taken out of the dish. We want the power of our lives in our own hands. We made a contract with the world that says, ‘We’re going to be the best band in the world; you’re going to be proud of us. But we have to do it our way.’”

That insistence on an internally defined sense of direction, even sense of mission, extends not only to the band’s record company and fans, but to each of its individual members as well. All of the band’s songs, for example, are credited to “Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe,” regardless of who the primary writers are. That arrangement ensures that songwriting royalties—a crucial source of income for bands—are split equally, preventing friction in the band over money.

“We have a real socialist democracy,” Buck explained to Frick in 1990. “We sit around tables and vote just about as much as we write songs. We vote on where we’re going to play, where we’re gonna make the record, who’s gonna produce it. We each have equal say and input when we bring songs into the studio. Everything is a total compromise between the four of us.

“We have a rule of no,” he continued. “If we can’t make up our minds, then we don’t do it. It has to be all four in one direction. If one person really thinks that something is wrong and is passionate about it, even if we think he is wrong, we agree with him.”

On “Chronic Town” [released in August 1982], the band yielded nothing to its critics—or to tiresome complaints that “You can’t understand the words.” Stipe’s unwillingness to enunciate turned his voice into an instrument; his words and singing contained meaning only in the sense that a melody or the sound of a guitar contains meaning. Much as the band eventually grew bored with the metaphor, dreams do provide the best analogue for the emotional effect of R.E.M.’s early songs. In dreams the overall atmosphere colors every specific detail, and no detail is less significant than any other—a shirt is as important as the sky, a shape is as important as a word. To this day, I have no idea what “Wolves, Lower” or “Gardening at Night” is “about;” I only know how powerful the experience of entering those song and traveling within them has been and continues to be.

Propelled by the rapturous response to their first full album “Murmur” [released in January 1983], R.E.M. climbed back in their van and continued to tour. Stipe, the member of the band most averse to the rigors of the road, has described those days as “harrowing—but a blast.”

“If there’s an extension of “On the Road” and that whole Kerouacian—can I possible use the term, Kero-whak-ian? If there’s an extension of that, probably forming a rock band and touring clubs in the closest you could get,” Stipe told me in an interview for a “Rolling Stone” cover story in 1989. “Peter and I certainly had romantic ideas along those lines, and damned if we didn’t do it.”

Buck’s reminiscence aren’t quite so literary. “We really soon got the reputation of ‘Well, they’ll do anything,’” he said in the same story. “We were broke and we had to sell some fucking records, so “yeah, sure, we’ll play the pizza parlor.’”

It’s necessary to emphasize in this age of multiplatinum debut albums that “Murmur,” while a critical smash, was not remotely a commercial hit. At the time, it was all but unthinkable that a band like R.E.M. would get played on the radio—except on college stations, and “alternative” means to exposure that R.E.M. helped bring to maturity. The band’s ultimate ambition was to be successful enough to continue making records—in other words, not so unsuccessful that no record company would have them on their terms—and playing live.

It’s a prosaic, but important, point that keeping costs low is one way of maintaining independence in the music business, and R.E.M. were masters at working economically. Because “Chronic Town” was essentially complete before R.E.M. even signed to I.R.S. and “Murmur” only cost around $25,000 to make, the label could hardly complain when they didn’t sell millions of copies. It doesn’t take much in the way of sales to earn back such a small advance, and staying in the black keeps the record company off your back. No executive can say to you, “Well, we gave you a million dollars to make your last record and it only sold 14 copies. We’ll give you another million to make your next one—now you owe us $2 million—and to recoup our investment we’d like you to fire your drummer, use an established producer and make an album we can get on the radio.”

In addition to staving off corporate interference, making records cheaply gave R.E.M. every incentive to play live. Because they didn’t get large advances, the band only made money when it toured and sold records, activities that go hand in hand. All those frequent visits to small towns, college towns and big cities really paid off in the long run. For the first few years of the band’s life it seemed as if everyone who liked R.E.M. knew them personally, an emotional fact that filled their fans with fervor.

In December of 1983 and January of 1984, R.E.M. traveled to Reflection Sound Studio, in Charlotte, to record “Reckoning.” As the album’s title suggests, the band was quite conscious of having to live up to its critical reputation, but the mood at the sessions—confident, casual, incredibly good-humored—was exhilarating, even inspiring.

When I arrived at the studio to do a story for “Record” magazine in January, it seemed as if the kids had taken over the candy store. The band had all grown their hair down to their shoulders, an unheard-of gesture at the time, very un-’80s.

Stipe would record his vocals in a secluded room off the main studio, sometimes while lying down, sometimes in the nude, to achieve the sense of overwhelming intimacy and vulnerability hinted at but ultimately denied by his lyrics. In short, there was an assumption of complete aesthetic and personal freedom, the ability of interesting, creative people to do whatever they wanted. As we drove to his motel after an ice storm late one night during those sessions, Buck told me he had earned a grand total of $8,000 the previous year; that didn’t diminish a whit his conviction that “It’s a privilege to do what we do.”

On “Reckoning,” also, Stipe continued his evasion and flirtation with literal meaning, a dynamic that, for all intents and purposes, has continued into the present. “To give away everything is never good, at any time,” he told me for the “Record” story about the making of the album. “Even in a marriage or love affair, you never reveal everything to the other person in that love. There’s always something you return to yourself. I think that’s real important.”

If on “Murmur” R.E.M.’s pilgrimage was excitedly gaining momentum, on “Reckoning” it has careened out of control. The apprehension underlying “Murmur’s” good spirits came further to the fore. “Reckoning” ends with the propulsive rocker “Little America,” another of Stipe’s oblique (and, in this case, anxiety-stricken) evocations of the road. The song concludes, “The biggest wagon is the empty wagon/Is the noisiest . . . Jefferson, I think we’re lost,” borrowing manager (and former van driver) Jefferson Holt’s first name for its historical resonance. It’s a stark vision of the band traveling down the road into the American night, directionless, its future unclear.

Making strict correlations between what’s in a band’s songs and what’s happening in the lives of its members is always a dangerous business. Still, it does seem evident that R.E.M. went through something of an identity crisis by the time their next album, “Fables of the Reconstruction,” was recorded in England [released in June of 1985]. While the band has never had a great deal to say about it, it’s widely assumed that R.E.M. nearly broke up during this period.

In many ways the band was experiencing the worst of both worlds at this time. “Fables” sold about 100,000 copies in its first three months of release—nothing by the platinum standard of the times but enough to take the underground sheen of the band. The ultra-hip backlash against the group first began to be articulated around this time. To be denounced, however unjustifiably, as sell-outs then had to have been painful, even though the band would likely never admit it.

To make matters worse, despite that criticism, R.E.M. hardly had the option to be smug superstars, even if they wanted it. Still chronicling his salary, Buck told David Fricke that he anticipated making $24,000 in 1985. R.E.M. were still working like dogs, touring at a merciless pace. The unevenness of their popularity became more glaring at this point, as well. In some cities they could fill 5,000-seat theaters; in others they could barely fill clubs. In Europe, outside of England and France, they were still virtually unknown.

On tour R.E.M. staged truly confounding shows that mirrored the turbid sound of “Fables.” The lighting, designed by Stipe was dark to the point where it was often difficult to make out the band members amid the shifting shadows onstage. The singer’s always complicated relationship to his emerging stardom had achieved such an extreme degree of ambivalence that it was really quite stunning.

Amid all this, Stipe also maintained the remarkably introspective quality of his writing. In particular, he continued his penetrating examination of the complex interplay between distance and desire, a dynamic that attains dramatic force on the ballad “Good Advices.” The song is an empathetic, though completely unsentimental, exploration of faith and faithlessness. “Familiar face, boring place/I’ll forget your name,” Stipe sings, telling the saga of every band in anywheretown on all nights, “I’d like it here if I could leave/And see you from a long way away.”

The character in the song is more capable of engaging his feelings about a person than the actual person—the farther away someone is, the easier it is to conjure a loving image. Distance breeds desire; nearness breeds detachment. The personal isolation that results from the emotional dilemma is difficult to bear, however, and the singer unleashes an indictment perhaps of himself, perhaps of a lover: “At the end of the day/Where there are no friends/When there are no lovers/Who are you going to call for? /What do you have to change?” Through the years, Stipe has maintained a regard for his writing on “Fables,” and there is an intensity burning at the core of the album’s dense musical layers.

For their next album R.E.M. returned to the U.S. to work with Don Gehman, who had established his reputation making records with John Cougar Mellencamp. While obviously not a marriage made in heaven, R.E.M.’s collaboration with Gehman produced “Life’s Rich Pageant” [released in July of 1986]. It was a much harder rocking album than “Fables” and the band’s first gold record. “Pageant’s” tougher sound suited its more public—by R.E.M.’s standard anyway—themes. It’s as if the band woke up from its own collective dream, looked around and discovered where the country was headed in the Age of Reagan. In one way or another, political consciousness would be an element of R.E.M.’s music from that point on.

R.E.M. followed up “Life’s Rich Pageant” with “Dead Letter Office” [released in April 1987]. A hodgepodge of previously recorded B sides, outtakes and other obscurities, the album spoke particularly to the collector’s soul of Peter Buck. Buck, in fact, wrote the album’s offhandedly charming liner notes, in which he pointed out that the compilation offered R.E.M. the opportunity to “clear the closed of failed experiments, badly written songs, drunken jokes, and occasionally, a worthwhile song that doesn’t fit the feel of an album. This collection contains at least one song from each category. . . . Listening to his album should be like browsing through a junk shop.”

“Document,” R.E.M.’s next album, marks the first time they worked with Scott Litt, who has co-produced every one of their new studio albums since. Recorded in Nashville, mixed in Los Angeles and released in August of 1987, “Document” might be considered the first of R.E.M.’s “mature” albums in that it was clearly made by a band no longer interested in dodging or denying its prominence. Confident and poised even in its most casual moments, “Document” has all the earmarks of a major statement by a major band.

With the release of “Document,” the band’s contract with I.R.S. was completed. Relations between the band and the label were generally good, but if in 1982 people were impressed that R.E.M. had convinced a label as large as I.R.S. to consent to all its demands, by 1988 the insider consensus was that the band would be foolish not to sign with a record company with more thorough distribution and greater international muscle. Eventually the group decided to sign with Warner Bros. Reportedly the terms of the deal were five albums for $10 million (needless to say, Buck was no longer revealing his annual earnings to journalists).

Predictably, R.E.M. took some heat for signing with a huge multinational conglomerate. After speaking with a group of high school students in Atlanta, Bill Berry remarked that the kids seemed to “think of Warner Bros. as literally like a monster, just something that consumes and spits out. I think a lot of kids wonder how we fit.” But Berry had no patience with the argument that R.E.M. had sold out. “My response is, like, Guns n’ Roses,” he told me for a “Rolling Stone” cover story in 1989. “Great band, by the way. I love ’em. But it’s like they’ve got this ‘fuck you,’ ‘rock ’n’ roll kid’ attitude, and they sell 7 million records. Their first record. And here we are . . . “Document” was our fifth full LP, it sells a million records and ‘R.E.M. has sold out.’ But Guns n’ Roses gets all these accolades. I don’t know what we’re supposed to do. I really don’t.”

On November 8, 1988, the day George Bush was elected to succeed Ronald Reagan as president of the United States, R.E.M. released “Green,” their first album for Warner Bros. The album title suggests innocence, hope and environmental conviction (though R.E.M. were also certainly not about making a sly allusion to their newfound wealth). Michael Azerrad wrote, reviewing the album for “Rolling Stone,” “Now is not the time for despair, R.E.M. seems to be saying, but for redoubling of efforts.”

Stipe confirmed Azerrad’s view in the cover story I wrote for “Rolling Stone” after the album’s release. “I decided that this had to be a record that was incredibly uplifting,” he said. “Not necessarily happy, but a record that was uplifting to offset the store-bought cynicism and easy condemnation of the world we’re living in now.” “Get Up” is an upbeat encouragement to keep the progressive faith, and the equally ebullient “Stand,” the album’s first single, became the band’s second Top 10 hit. Meanwhile on “Green’s” propulsive opening track, the archly titled “Pop Song 89,” Stipe seemed to be sending up his new persona as millionaire rock superstar (and his general air of befuddlement).

Since “Life’s Rich Pageant,” R.E.M. had cut back considerably on their breakneck touring. But with a new album for a new record company—and the prospect of finally building a worldwide audience—the band (with Peter Holsapple along on guitar and keyboards) took off on a monstrous international tour that ran through virtually all of 1989. The tour ended on November 13 with a benefit show at The Fox Theatre, in Atlanta, at which the band played all of “Murmur” and all of “Green” back-to-back—an acknowledgement of he degree to which they felt that “Green” had represented a new beginning. At that point, though, no one fully understood how emotionally draining that tour had been, particularly for Stipe, whose role as front man gives him the biggest burden to carry. The band would not tour again until January of 1995.

Despite their exhaustion at the end of the “Green” tour, R.E.M. went back to work in January of 1990, beginning the session for what would become their best-selling album to date, “Out of Time.” With no tour in the offing, the band was free to work as casually as it cared to.

“Out of Time” was a quieter album than either “Green” or “Document” had been, and that reflected where R.E.M. had arrived in their lives and career. “For me, age brings—if not wisdom—at least a little understanding,” Buck told Jeff Giles for R.E.M.’s third “Rolling Stone” cover story. “I like to play quiet songs, and I really didn’t when I was 21. I don’t think I’ve ever, in the last five years, played the electric guitar for fun. . . . I usually play acoustic or mandolin. I really have no interest in going back to being a rock ’n’ roll band.”

Their quieter sound also suited R.E.M.’s desire not to tour. “We’re in our prime as far as writing songs goes,” Bill Berry told Giles, “and that’s what we feel like right now—we feel like a studio band.” “Out of Time” also reflected changes that had taken place on the music scene at large. R.E.M. didn’t identify with much that was going on in music at the time. “I think the days of rock ’n’ roll bands being No. 1 on the charts are over,” Buck said in the same story. And as for Guns n’ Roses, the hot band of that moment, Buck had little patience for them: “They’re a Benny Hill parody of what a rock ’n’ roll band should be.” Accompanied by Peter Holsapple, R.E.M. did a handful of promotional acoustic shows in Europe and then performed sets for “MTV Unplugged” and American Public Radio’s “Mountain Stage” in support of “Out of Time,” which went on to sell 5 million copies in the U.S.

On the strength of “Out of Time,” R.E.M. swept “Rolling Stone’s” 1992 Reader’s Poll, winning the categories of Artist of the Year, Best Album, Best Single (“Losing My Religion”), Best Band, Best Male Singer (Stipe), Best Songwriter (Stipe, though in fact all R.E.M.’s songs are credited to the entire band) and Best Video (“Losing My Religion”). The critics were barely less generous, honoring the band in Best Album, Best Singly, Best Band and Best Video categories.

R.E.M.’s fascination with acoustic music reached an apex on their next album, the extraordinary “Automatic for the People” [released in October of 1992]. Prematurely dead figures from popular culture, like Montgomery Clift (“Monty Got a Raw Deal”) and Elvis Presley and Andy Kaufman (“Man on the Moon”) wander through the album like lost souls. “Try Not to Breathe” and “Sweetness Follows” deal explicitly with death and mourning. And the album’s last two songs—the ballads “Nightswimming” and “Find the River”—are so deeply suffused with longing and a wrenching nostalgia that it’s difficult to ground their emotion in anything less elemental than a yearning for life itself.

If the musical performances on “Automatic,” including orchestral arrangements by former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, are studies in intelligence and subtlety, Stipe completely outdoes himself as a lyricist. In his writing on this album he discovered a language that enabled him to be simpler and more direct than he had ever been before as well as more poetically resonant. His themes may be ambitious, but he handles them with a truly impressive grace. He also conveys, as he never had even attempted before, the strange sweetness of his sensibility, the part of him that once prompted Bill Berry to say, “Sometimes Michael says things, and the rest of us will be biting our tongues, trying not to laugh.”

In the 1993 “Rolling Stone” Critics’ Poll, “Automatic for the People” won in the Best Album category; R.E.M. won for Best Band; and Michael Stipe won for Best Singer. “Automatic” sold more than 2 million copies in the U.S. And, as with “Out of Time,” R.E.M. didn’t tour to support “Automatic.” Astonishingly, after nearly a decade on the road the band enjoyed its two biggest selling albums while playing live with the greatest infrequency. It’s virtually unheard of for multiplatinum bands—or bands of any level, really—to refuse to tour after they release albums. Along with the unique music R.E.M. were creating during this period, a highly individual brand of chamber pop, staying off the road demonstrated the degree to which R.E.M., however successful they had become, continued to play entirely by their own rules.

Not everyone viewed their decision so simply, however. When R.E.M. failed to tour for the second consecutive time, rumors of various kinds began to fly—the most serious and troubling being that Michael Stipe had AIDS or was HIV-positive. The rumors were further fueled by “Automatic’s” obsession with death; Stipe’s refusal to grant interviews after the album came out; his activism in support of AIDS causes (and that he is, by his own description, of “questionable sexuality” and “queer-friendly”); and that, physically his body had taken on the hard, angular, painfully thin quality of Egon Schiele self-portrait.

So when I went to Los Angeles in June of 1994 to do a “Rolling Stone” cover story on R.E.M., I knew I would have to ask Stipe about his health. I felt the story couldn’t be done without the issue being raised; if Stipe didn’t want to discuss it, he could always refuse to.

Finally Michael and I were alone one night after midnight in the lounge at Ocean Way Recording where the band was working and I asked him. He seemed sympathetic to my asking and didn’t hesitate to answer. “I don’t know how smart it is to say this,” he said, “but I purposely did not come forward and say, ‘No, I am not HIV-positive,’ because I thought it might be good for a lot of people who did respect me or think highly of me to wonder about that and think about it, you know? And think, ‘Wow, if it can affect somebody who I really look up to, maybe I should be a little bit more careful myself.’ Now that might be unbelievably naïve on my part.

“But getting back to the HIV thing; I’m not HIV-positive. I’ve been tested many times, for various reasons, whether insurance or personal. I guess I’m glad that people are concerned about my health. That makes me thing that they might want me to stick around. I’m really, really okay.”

That good news aside, however, things were not going well at the “Monster” sessions that I attended. Because “Out of Time” and “Automatic for the People” were each recorded over relatively long periods and the band hadn’t toured in years, Stipe, Buck, Mills and Berry had, in an odd way, become superstars without really having to be R.E.M. for an extended period. Having to work as a unit was not coming easily—quite uncharacteristically, they were peevish and tense. They were staying in different hotels and houses and seemed to be living very different lives, with each band member negotiating the demands of his own family, friends and personal life and the album getting done (or not) as those other commitments permitted.

R.E.M. had always been an extremely efficient outfit, but from the time they began working on “Monster” various pitfalls had arisen that prevented them from working as assiduously as they would have liked. As the band bounced from studios in Georgia, Miami, New Orleans and Los Angeles, Mike Mills had an appendectomy, Berry took ill with the flu for a week, Buck’s girlfriend gave birth to twins and, most devastatingly, Kurt Cobain committed suicide.

Crushing as that personal loss was and stressful as recording had been, none of those issues hurt the music at all. In fact, all the tensions fueled R.E.M.’s creativity. The songs on “Monster,” which was released in September of 1994, bear the mark of everything the band had been through. The album, unquestionably, is the edgiest R.E.M. have ever made.

With the release of “Monster,” R.E.M.’s time had come. They would dominate the musical scene in ways they never could have while not touring in support of their most popular albums. It is a dramatic moment for the—a drama that only intensified when drummer Billy Berry suffered an aneurysm in March 1995, bringing their world tour to a screeching halt.

R.E.M. had always joked about breaking up on New Year’s Eve of the year 2000, and they’d backed off that joke as the date loomed nearer. While never stepping back from mass success, R.E.M. had never pursued it with the single-mindedness of other artists—U2, Bruce Springsteen, Prince—to whom it has come at one time or another. It will be intriguing to see if their peculiar, finely balanced chemistry weathers that experience.

This article originally appeared in our June 1995 issue.