Peter Buck was a record store clerk in 1979 when he took up residence in an abandoned church apartment in Athens, Ga., with Michael Stipe as his roommate. From the vantage point of the band that played its first gig in that church in 1980, R.E.M. wasn't such a big deal. "We were a good band," Buck said in a recent phone interview, "but in the early '80s, it just seemed impossible that anyone from our group of bands would have hit singles and hit records. We used to go, 'Oh, we'll never be on the radio and that's OK."
This fall, R.E.M. is touring to support its second greatest-hits album, In Time: Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003, a task reserved only for the most commercial bands with the longest careers. And that is not to mention the rash of compilation CDs released by IRS, the band's original indie label.
For Buck, it's uncomfortable to consider the fact that R.E.M. has long been a pop product to the highest degree. "It's not the way I think of myself," he says. "We definitely go through this every time IRS puts out another compilation. It's like, God, why can't we just put out our first five records and leave it at that? But that's not the way it works. There are people in offices thinking about squeezing another half-million dollars out of us."
R.E.M. is one of those rare bands that had its cake and ate it, too, becoming indie-rock demigods and critics' faves while selling millions of records over a two decade-plus career. Most rock historians will say that R.E.M. marked a crucial link between the flashy pop of the '80s and the raw rock of the '90s, that the band was an integral part of the movement that flooded the American consciousness with "alternative" music, and that the band's sound presented a refreshing set of possibilities for a whole generation of followers. But R.E.M.'s role in the pop landscape shift of the early '90s didn't really register with Buck.
"I don't think I thought of it that way," he says. "I noticed there was a lot of good music coming out, peer groups that were influenced by a lot of the same stuff that we listened to, but I never felt like I was a part of anything. I mean, I thought, 'Oh, this Nirvana record's really good,' but I never thought we had anything to do with it."
There is some irony in R.E.M.'s status as the prototypical indie rock band. In fact, most of the band's early songs have all the hallmarks of quintessential pop ditties. Early singles like "So. Central Rain" and "Fall on Me" are catchy, three-minute, verse-chorus-verse run-throughs with plenty of hooks and few frills. Virtually free of the pretenses that plagued the '80s, R.E.M. was one refresher course in the hum-along song. The band itself, as prolific as it is at churning it out, poked plenty of fun at pop over the years, placing the ambivalent single "The One I Love" alongside political numbers such as "Exhuming McCarthy" and "Welcome to the Occupation," from 1987's Document, and recording sardonic singles like the prophetically titled "Pop Song 89," from 1988's major-label debut on Warner Bros., Green. Self-consciousness was R.E.M.'s strong suit. The band never seemed to take itself too seriously nor too lightly.
And unlike many of its contemporaries, R.E.M. has over two decades managed another remarkable balancing act: retaining its signature sound throughout its development from a college radio small wonder to an international pop icon. Especially in the '90s, R.E.M. explored many musical styles and moods while withstanding the retirement of drummer Bill Berry in 1997 after he suffered a brain aneurysm. Out of Time's "Shiny Happy People," is grotesquely idyllic, while Automatic for the People is dark and slow, and the edgy, angry Monster is many fans' least favorite R.E.M. album. Through all this and beyond, you could count on R.E.M. to sound like R.E.M. -- even if it was largely for two factors: Michael Stipe's nasally vocals and Peter Buck's Roger McGuinn-inspired jangly guitar. "I was probably the only kid on earth who didn't think that lead guitar was the most exciting guitar playing," says Buck. "I was really into chord changes and melodies and stuff. And, when the band formed, it was in punk-rock days, so lead guitar was forbidden."
R.E.M. still makes a visible effort to stay in touch with those days. Buck still plays rhythm guitar, Stipe still takes political stands, and the band still makes each performance its own unique experience. But, according to Buck, recapturing musical innocence is a losing battle. "As much as you try to keep it spontaneous and un-thought out," says Buck, "as you get older, you just know what you're doing better. And it's something I fight against. I liked the naivete we had early on."
- "We used to go, 'Oh, we'll never be on the radio and that's OK," says R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck (right), of the seminal "alternative rock" band's early days.