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R.E.M.: The I.R.S. Years

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It has been 30 years now since R.E.M. first got together in Athens, Georgia. While time may have dimmed their achievements in the eyes of some, they have had a huge impact on music over the years. R.E.M. practically invented what we used to call college rock. In the eighties, radio was downright hostile to new music. Even during the short burst of New Wave, which supposedly opened up the airwaves, R.E.M. still did not fit in. In the beginning, the only place one could hear them was on college-campus radio stations, and those had a very limited signal.

The biggest hurdle R.E.M. faced was the fact that they were on an independent label, I.R.S. Commercial radio stations were just not willing to play anything that did not come from one of the majors. Once in a great while there would be an exception, but it did not happen often. Ironically, R.E.M. themselves were one of the exceptions, with their hit “The One I Love.”

In 1988, R.E.M. signed with Warner Bros. and went on to become one of the biggest bands in the world. They have had their ups and downs in the ensuing years, most notably the loss of drummer Bill Berry due to an aneurism – but have soldiered on. With the recent release of their 15th studio album Collapse Into Now, we thought it would be interesting to take a look back at their formative years on I.R.S.

The story begins in 1981 with the band’s first single “Radio Free Europe,” released on the tiny Hib-Tone label. This was followed by their I.R.S. Records debut, the five-song Chronic Town EP. The platter was produced by Mitch Easter, and showed that the band already had their trademark sound locked in, especially on tracks such as “1,000,000,” and “Carnival Of Sorts (Box Cars).”

At this point the group were ready to begin work on their full-length debut, Murmur. Mitch Easter was again at the controls along with his partner Don Dixon. The music the band came up with was simply magic. All 12 songs that make up Murmur have something to recommend them, and Rolling Stone  named it record of the year for 1983. Personal favorites include “Catapult,” and “Pilgrimage.” They even re-recorded “Radio Free Europe,” which this time around found some (college) airplay. The Deluxe Edition reissue features a second CD of a show at Larry’s Hideaway in Toronto on July 9, 1983.

Their second album Reckoning was released in 1984, with Easter and Dixon producing again. Stipe’s lyrics pursued darker avenues this time around, and there is a marked water theme running through the course of the record. Although the critical reception of Reckoning was not as unanimous as it was of Murmur, there were some outstanding tracks. Check out “Pretty Persuasion,” “Harborcoat,” and “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry).” for starters. The 2009 Deluxe Edition reissue included a bonus disc recorded live in Chicago at the Aragon Ballroom July 7, 1984.

Fables Of The Reconstruction is the most controversial album of their career. I loved it right from the start, but a lot of people did not. It certainly is different from what came before. From opening track “Can’t Get There From Here,” to the final “Wendell Gee,” the band takes us into a weird, twilight zone of the psyche. As Peter Buck puts it in the liner notes to the 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition “All four of us were completely out of our minds at the time.”

The band had spent the previous four years on the road, and were fried. They also had left the comforts of home, and familiar production team behind. Fables was recorded in London, with the legendary Joe Boyd at the controls. Over the years a myth about the album has emerged – that the band hates it. Nothing could be further from the truth according to Buck, “It’s a personal favorite, and I’m really proud of how strange it is.”

The 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition set contains a second disc of demos from the album, along with a fold-out poster, four postcards, and an informative booklet, packaged in a sturdy two-piece box.

By this time, R.E.M. were gaining traction – and album number four was released to a receptive audience in 1986. It could be said that Lifes Rich Pageant was a bit of a coming out party for the band. “Fall On Me” began receiving mainstream radio play, and critics were falling all over themselves for the group again. Of note is the cover version of the psychedelic obscurity “Superman,” originally by The Clique.

Document was R.E.M.’s final album of new material for I.R.S., and it flung the college/alternative music ghetto’s doors wide open. “The One I Love” was the culprit, in the fall of 1987 the song was inescapable. Most people ignored the irony of “The One I Love,” and it was a huge hit. The real fun though was the album’s closer, “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”

In the space of six years, R.E.M. had achieved something very few bands do. They made it, and did it all on their own terms. Nobody could have imagined just how much further they would go next, when they signed with Warner Bros. Records.

There is no question that they made some great records with Warner Bros., and for a time R.E.M. were one of the biggest bands on the planet. I remain partial to chapter one of their saga however. The five albums they recorded for I.R.S. between 1982 – 1987 are the ones I always seem to go back to. R.E.M. seem to have left I.R.S. amicably, and were reportedly advised to take the Warner offer by Miles Copeland himself, who knew he could not match it.

Between Lifes Rich Pageant and Document, I.R.S. released Dead Letter Office, which compiled B-sides, outtakes and rarities, along with the full Chronic Town EP. When the band moved over to Warners, I.R.S. released the amusingly titled Eponymous, a 12 track greatest hits set featuring a couple of rarities.

Eponymous stood for years as R.E.M.’s only hits collection from their I.R.S. era, until And I Feel Fine…The Best Of The I.R.S. Years 1982 -1987 came out in 2006. The single CD package contains 19 excellent songs from R.E.M.’s five albums for the label, and some fascinating liner notes from Rolling Stone editor Anthony DeCurtis. There is not a wasted cut on I Feel Fine, and it works as a great introduction for latter day fans to one of the crucial bands of the past 30 years.

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About Greg Barbrick

  • http://cinemasentries.com/ El Bicho

    A very good remembrance, Greg. Now they release albums and I barely even notice. I think Up as the last one I bought

  • Greg Barbrick

    Yeah, I know what you mean. 30 years is a long time for a band. I’m happy they are staying active, but my interest will always be in their early material.