Saluting the follow-up to the Athens band’s legendary debut, and a chat with Begin the Begin author, Robert Dean Lurie, about the band circa 1984
The generic rock history quandary frames it as, “The Difficult Third Album.” But as time passes, it’s usually a band’s second album that presents the largest hurdle of their early career. Just ask R.E.M.
In very general terms, most bands form, play a ton of local shows, stumble on some regional fame, get about two years to whip up more songs and maybe release a couple singles, so by the time they get around to making an album, they’ve got a big batch of songs to record and pick from, most having been honed at a slew of drunken parties and all-night practices. Their spirits are high, expectations (and in-studio experience) low, but with luck, they come out, half-accidentally, with a solid debut that allows them some press coverage miles from home, and tour gigs even farther. Maybe you land on a couple of “Top 30 Albums of…” lists, and some record labels start to call.
Then suddenly, expectations – from fans, the record label, and perhaps most daunting, the band members themselves. The knee-jerk response since the Beatles set the template is that one should make sure each new record is noticeably different from the last; that musical and production changes must prove “artistic ambition.” I’ve maintained that there is, ironically, a creeping capitalist tendency in that seemingly lefty artistic imperative, and that sometimes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Those end up being the two tent poles that bands swivel their heads at while deciding on how they’re going to make their “sophomore album.” And not unlike sophomore year in college, second albums often coast on the fun of the first, while feeling a little more nervous about the future. And R.E.M. were no different.
Though R.E.M. were seemingly never that nervous, as they were extremely prolific and confident around that time, circa 1983-84. While most bands start to tour more after their first album, R.E.M. were road hogs from day one, and so were used to sneaking in songwriting stabs at soundchecks, never slouching on practice in between, etc., so that they had a good slew of songs to pick from. But they did have to make the usual decisions about who/where/how to record. They stuck with Mitch Easter as producer, a sympathetic friend who was in a somewhat similar position, as his band, Let’s Active, faced similar career conundrums at that time.
On its release, Reckoning garnered a similar amount of praise as their legendary, 1983 jangle-rock touchstone, Murmur, if with a few critical, uh, murmurings that the album was basically “another Murmur,” recorded a bit brighter, and with Michael Stipe moving towards more articulate vocalizing. But as time has proven, R.E.M. was playing a long game. It wasn’t broke, they didn’t fix it, but they spit-shined it right on the cusp of really jumping into new waters (over the Atlantic, actually) to record their “difficult third album,” Fables of the Reconstruction, in England.
But today, after the pile of R.E.M. albums and fame that followed, Reckoning stands as arguably the best of their early, pre-worldwide fame albums. It retained the mystery of their early morph from college party starters to murky Southern rock innovators, while hinting at a catchiness and song arrangement drama that would make them stars.
It is those formative, exciting, open-ended times that biographer Robert Dean Lurie explores in his great new book, Begin the Begin: R.E.M.’s Early Years. It’s packed with chats with Athens, Georgia locals who were in and around the scene. And Lurie’s expected fanboy immersion includes deep research, informed speculation, and lived-in knowledge that keeps you turning the pages faster and faster as the band rambles towards stardom.
It’s a refreshing tome for any longtime, early adopter R.E.M. fanatic who has bristled at the simplistic, over-earnest, “’90s alternative rock band” reputation that has come to canonize R.E.M. Most anyone under 35 probably thinks of R.E.M. mainly based on their post-“Losing My Religion” hits (they’d been a band for 10 years, with six albums and around 1,000-plus shows under their belt before that song); Stipe’s honorable if sometimes conflicted political activism; one of the greatest songs/videos of the 1990s (“Everybody Hurts”), if one of the most easily skewered; and the MTV Video Award moment for that video where the Beastie Boys hilariously ran up in costumes and stole the moment – effectively cementing the remaining cool cred rock’n’roll had as a more sarcastic, punk-derived attitude. Of course, the Beasties have since said they like R.E.M., the bands were friendly, and both acts’ politics were nearly identical. And R.E.M. could party for their right to fight with anyone in those early days. The fact that that half of their story has been lost is unfortunate, as it helps deepen R.E.M.’s legacy.
Lurie’s book reminds fans of how R.E.M. started out as a hard-drinking party band, playing either frat houses or off-campus hovels in a small town where always the twain shall meet and stumble into each other. Something about that early gig crowd mesh of arty heps and football bros surely added to R.E.M.’s ability to craft what was, at the time, an intriguing new American indie sound (arguably the beginning of indie rock), while whipping up riffs and beats that would eventually fill arenas and Top 10 charts.
I asked Lurie about R.E.M.’s early days and their 35-year old sophomore.
So, often with the second album, bands either feel they have to try some different tricks to show artistic ambition, or they realize it might be best to stick with what they know for the time being. Where do you think the members of R.E.M. fell on that spectrum as they approached their second album?
My impression is that it was all just pouring out at that point and there wasn’t a lot conscious thought about how it should distinguish itself, other than it should rock.
From the research for your book, did the band feel “ready” to record? There’s that adage, “You get 20 years to write your first album, and six months to write the next one.”
I read recently that Peter Buck wanted Reckoning to be a double album. If you go by stuff like that, then yes, they were feeling ready to record new material. At the same time, the album’s producers have said that Michael Stipe was becoming more withdrawn and somewhat more difficult to work with during the Reckoning period. My own speculation is that he may have been trying to accommodate himself to his new identity as a public performer when he was, in essence, an introvert. How do you get those two things to co-exist? Using Stipe’s own terminology, he was trying to become “loud shy.” There was probably more going on than that, but in any case, I think the tension works to the album’s benefit, for the most part.
Did they write on the road a lot at this point?
They were writing constantly – at home, on the road, refining songs at soundchecks, and incorporating them into the set. Famously, they played “So. Central Rain,” at that point a “song too new to be named,” live on David Letterman before they set it to tape.
VIDEO: R.E.M.’s first TV appearance in 1983 on Late Night With David Letterman
I feel like R.E.M. played the “long game.” They seemed to have a notion they might last a few years, and didn’t feel a need to rush into trying too many new widgets and songwriting moves on Reckoning.
Yes. This is to me one of the most interesting aspects of the R.E.M. story: they seemed to always be thinking long term, wanting to pace things and not make too big of a leap too early. You see this in a number of areas: the fact that they didn’t play New York right away; that they didn’t pursue a major label deal more aggressively; the way they recoiled from the experience of touring with the Police because it was too big, too fast. So I think your observation is perceptive and can be applied to Reckoning. The record feels very much like a consolidation of what they had been doing on Murmur, but more stripped-down and with more of a live feel.
They stuck with Mitch Easter as producer for Reckoning, which also shows a kind of steadying notion, though they never used him again. Was there anything that happened while making Reckoning that kind of rattled that relationship; or was it simply the band wanting to try different things later?
I don’t think there was any kind of dramatic break. There did seem to be a productive creative tension going on in that relationship, with Mitch Easter and co-producer Don Dixon nudging the band to explore the expanded possibilities of the studio – such as the ability to layer in acoustic guitars, piano, and other instruments that couldn’t necessarily be deployed in a live setting – and the band wanting to go more in the direction of energy and immediacy. That being said, I think everyone involved was in favor of the live feel for Reckoning. R.E.M. had a lot of touring behind them at that point and were more confident in what they could get across with their primary instruments, and the producers were open to that. The split probably has more to do with your previous question – within that “long game” approach the band were taking, they were looking for subtle ways to change things up so they could continue developing. One obvious way was to try working with different producers, and they actually did a test run of the Reckoning material first with Elliot Mazer before landing back with Easter and Dixon for the album. They repeated this process the following year with Joe Boyd tracking the Fables demos in Athens, and ultimately went with him for that album.
Nevertheless, as time has passed, Reckoning is probably my favorite R.E.M. album overall; and I think with the pile of albums they had after, it now stands out from Murmur maybe more than some of those original middling, if mostly positive reviews claimed. Of course there were some big differences between Murmur and Reckoning. What would you say the differences were, from your personal listening opinion to what you learned about the writing / recording of the record?
The most obvious change is the more aggressive sound, which we’ve touched on. In addition to the fiercer playing, Don Dixon had become interested in the “binaural” recording technique and used it on a number of the tracks. Binaural involves placing two microphones in positions roughly analogous to the human ears (typically these are mounted inside a specially fitted mannequin head) to supposedly create a more natural surround effect in the recording. The problem is that it only really comes across on headphones and is typically better suited to classical music than rock. Lou Reed did three binaural records in the late ‘70s (Street Hassle, Take No Prisoners, and The Bells), and those albums have a strange, cavernous sound. Honestly, while Reckoning sounds different and more immediate, I have a hard time hearing the binaural aspect, perhaps because not all of the songs were done this way, and also because Dixon was doing binaural on a budget: he didn’t have the mannequin head so he put the microphones in a cardboard box. Whatever he did, it worked—better than those high budget Lou Reed albums, I would say!
But an arguably even bigger difference – which I hadn’t been as aware of prior to working on the book – was a shift toward more focused lyrics. Stipe later said that Reckoning was where he began to find his songwriting voice. The language is still abstract on the album, but here the songs begin to address specific subjects: the death of a loved one in “Camera,” the collapse of a relationship due to distance and miscommunication in “So. Central Rain,” the longing for home in “Letter Never Sent.” There is an adroit blending of the personal with the universal in this material.
VIDEO: R.E.M. “So. Central Rain”
Was there anything about that period — a story or something about the making of Reckoning — that got axed from your book that you’d like to tell?
Well, I covered this and it’s not exclusive to my book, but I have to say I find the “Garlicgate” story endlessly enjoyable: Michael Stipe was allegedly ingesting massive amounts of garlic (presumably for its health benefits, but possibly also to create some space for himself) and would bring tupperware containers full of garlic-infused foods into the studio and nibble away throughout the day. We have to wonder whether this too had an impact on things like microphone placement and vocalist/instrument separation. Most of the Reckoning vocals were tracked in a stairwell. Coincidence?
I really like that you focused on the earliest, even pre-years of R.E.M. for your book. I feel like those under 35 have a somewhat limited view of R.E.M. as just a “big ’90s band,” that they are mainly recognized for “Losing My Religion” and hits after that, Stipe’s politics, the fame, etc.; and that the interesting origins as a hard-working garage band have been lost. I think that balance would help their legacy, as their early, busy years are probably the most inspiring and exciting, and give an interesting mirror to their current status as a “serious classic rock band.”
As we both know, there is a vocal minority – very vocal and very much a minority – of R.E.M. fans that draws a line between the IRS years and the Warner Bros. era, and refuses to cross it. And there is a reason for that loyalty. But the vast majority of the listening public, and even many R.E.M. fans, are less aware of this early material than they probably ought to be. When R.E.M. went mega-huge with Out of Time and Automatic for the People, they came across as a studio-oriented band putting out these meticulously crafted, almost baroque-sounding albums. (And when they went back to a rock sound with Monster, a lot of these new fans recoiled in surprise.) Someone just tuning in during this era would probably not have suspected that R.E.M. had once enjoyed a reputation as a hard-charging, freewheeling live act that had people following them around with the same fervor as Deadheads. I’m not sure that my book, which is relatively under the radar, does much to right this balance with the larger public. But in my way, I’m trying to get across just why the early R.E.M. mattered so much to so many people. They created their own self-contained world.
R.E.M. has been incredibly smart and effective at keeping their legacy going with really nice reissues, infrequent interviews, etc. But there still seems to be a resistance to releasing those very early demos / live takes of the garagier tunes (“Narrator,” “A Different Girl,” etc.); and they still treat those now pretty interesting 1982 Stephen Hague demos like kryptonite. Why do you think that is (though I know the session itself was a label suggestion, so the band was never 100% into the idea in the first place); and do you think there’s any chance that stuff might see the light of day someday? God knows, they haven’t been stingy with releasing loads of B-sides, demos, etc. And Buck’s liner notes on Eponymous show a self-effacing sense of humor about the band. What’s he so scared of with those Hague demos?
As with all of this stuff, there is a danger of over-speculating. Still, the observable trend with R.E.M. is that if they didn’t have a good experience during a session, they’re less inclined to release the recordings. And based on accounts from Tony Fletcher and others, the band clashed with Hague’s production approach. Among other things, he mandated that Bill Berry play to a click track, which did not go over well. I agree with you that the version they did together of “Catapult” is pretty interesting. It’s exciting and has a heightened sense of drama; in some ways, I prefer it to the album version. The only aspect that doesn’t really work for me is the keyboard after “Did we miss anything?”
AUDIO: R.E.M. “Catapult” 1982 demo from the Stephen Hague sessions
I suspect that there has never been an official re-release of the Hib-Tone mix of the very first “Radio Free Europe” 7” for a similar reason: the experience of being overridden by Hib-Tone owner Jonny Hibbert – who opted to go with his own mix instead of Mitch Easter’s – was an unpleasant one for the band. Hearing the two mixes side-by-side, it’s really hard to understand what the fuss was about. Personal issues would seem to be the only reason for not having them both officially available.
It’s harder to figure why R.E.M. have not released the pre-Easter, pre-Hib-Tone recordings they did with producer Joe Perry (no relation to the Aerosmith guitarist). These include early run-throughs of “Sitting Still,” “Radio Free Europe,” and “Don’t Go Back to Rockville,” along with “Narrator,” “Mystery to Me,” and others. Perry told It Crawled from the South author Marcus Gray, “To this day, I do not think they [R.E.M.] know how hot those tracks really are.” This material represents the holy grail for R.E.M. fans, and it remains unheard.
AUDIO: R.E.M. “Radio Free Europe” original 1981 cassette tape.
Also, to clarify, how many songs did they record with Hague? And how many did he finish mixing?
I believe they only did “Catapult” with Hague.
Ah, ok. I thought I’d read they did four songs with him – such is the maniacal way they’ve kept that session under-the-rug. Where would you place Reckoning in the R.E.M. pantheon?
Its stature continues to rise. As you probably know, Pavement wrote a song about the experience of hearing Reckoning for the first time (“Unseen Power of the Picket Fence”) which is not something you’re going to see done with U2’s October. The album is now recognized as its own entity, no longer in Murmur’s shadow. I can’t see any scenario in which it does not land in their top five albums. For me personally, it has gone way up. I used to be a Murmur partisan, but if I were to play the two albums back to back now, I would probably rate them about equal. That being said, it’s not quite perfect. I wish the vocals on “Time After Time” and “Camera” had more emotional investment. “Camera” in particular could really have been a powerhouse. On the plus side, there are live versions of both of these songs that correct these issues.
Can you tell me a story off the top of your head about the period you first moved to Athens, which you described as being just after the initial crest of “the Athens scene,” that might define how the local scene was seeing their favorite sons as they got huge?
Yes. I remember chatting with the doorman at the Globe, a popular downtown bar, one evening in 1993. I glanced over to my right and just about jumped when I saw all four members of R.E.M. seated at a window table not twenty feet away. While it was pretty normal to see Stipe there, this was the first time I’d caught all four guys in the same place. They were deep into what looked to be a pretty intense discussion. Stipe, stubbly faced as always, hat pulled low over his head, stared intently across the table at Bill and gestured animatedly with his hands, emphasizing a point on…what? The next album? The forthcoming tour? For all I know, it was last week’s episode of “Seinfeld.” I turned to my friend and said, “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this.” He gave me a blank stare and said, “Used to what?” I nodded in the direction of what was then one of the biggest bands on the planet. He glanced over and then back at me. “What?” I jerked my head in R.E.M.’s direction again, more insistently. Bored stare from my friend. I finally gave up and got on with my evening.
On the one hand, it was cool that he doubled down so intently on the unspoken rule that we were not to make any kind of fuss over seeing R.E.M. But on the other hand, Come on man, you really want me to believe that your pulse didn’t quicken just a little when those four walked in? Would it kill you to admit that?
That was such an Athens situation – catching R.E.M. at such an intimate moment, and then doubling down on the studied indifference, to the point where the chillness became ostentatious. That pretty much sums up how the majority of the town dealt with the band. Looking back, it might have been nice if people had loosened up enough to celebrate the incredible things that were happening to R.E.M. at that time. I’m not saying that there wasn’t any of that, but I think people in the main were paralyzed by the situation – excited for the band, but also not wanting to make them feel uncomfortable.
AUDIO: R.E.M. Reckoning Deluxe Edition