Celebrating the mumbling brilliance of the Athens band’s debut LP
Before alternative became a viable format, it was bubbling under the surface as college radio.
Songs by singers and bands who felt like a secret, known only to those who lived close enough to a university town to pick them up on the left of the dial. Or maybe something you could pick up if you had a cool record store you could drive to or order by mail after seeing it in a magazine you picked in one of those stores.
Some of those acts stayed in the underground, either going for years, others becoming harder to find outside of compilations. But others wouldn’t stay on the fringe for long.
It was 40 years ago today when R.E.M. took its first big steps above ground with the release of their debut album Murmur.
There was a building buzz, from their 1981 single “Radio Free Europe” and their 1982 EP Chronic Town.
Even though the group wasn’t on one of the big boy labels, I.R.S. Records had experienced some success when The Go-Gos’ Beauty and the Beat hit No 1 in 1982. The label had some ideas for R.E.M., starting with having Stephen Hague produce them.
Hague wasn’t a big name at that point. But by decade’s end, he’d have the likes of Orchestral Manouevres In The Dark, Pet Shop Boys, New Order and Siouxsie and the Banshees on his list of credits.
Those are quality names, but if you detect a certain incompatibility with that list and R.E.M., you’re not wrong.
The pairing of producer and band was short-lived in this case. Hague’s production style didn’t mesh at all, with things coming to head on the song “Catapult.” First, he kept demanding takes of it to the point where drummer Bill Berry was losing confidence. Then, he took the recording to Boston, overlaying keyboards without the band’s permission.
That was enough for R.E.M., which asked the label if it could go back to working with Mitch Easter, who had co-produced Chronic Town with them.
The band did a session with Easter and producing partner Don Dixon, basically an audition. It yielded the song “Pilgrimage”, which earned them the go-ahead.
The band got back together with Dixon, this time at a larger studio with 24-track capability. But this wasn’t a case of a band on its way up recording in a studio with loads of rock history in its walls.
This was Reflection Studios in Charlotte, whose biggest clients at the time were Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL Club. A place a philandering televangelist grifter called home was about to host rock history.
But rather than soak up history, R.E.M. were there to evoke it, albeit with some caveats. For one thing, there was a conscious desire to avoid guitar solos. For another, they didn’t want to use synthesizers (which was one big reason Hague’s Boston maneuver rankled them).
That didn’t mean everything operated under strict rules, as the freedom of being in a bigger studio with producers who were not much older, but just enough to have more experience.
“They were instrumental in teaching us how to use the studio,” Peter Buck told Rolling Stone. “We spent most of our time finding interesting ideas and sounds like strange percussion things, banging on table legs… I’d play acoustic guitar and then take the guitar off and leave the reverb on with the delay, so that it was ghostly and strange.”
Although R.E.M felt free to experiment in a somewhat bigger playground, they already had ideas of where they were going. The majority of songs that would make up Murmur had been road-tested over the previous couple of years. They had a strong idea of the running order before setting foot in the studio.
When it comes to the final results, one has to talk about what it was instantly known for– the way lead singer Michael Stipe sang lyrics that didn’t make linear sense, at least not without subtitles.
There are moments where it feels like someone made an album of songs from the Bad Lip Reading YouTube channel. If one didn’t know the song was called “Catapult”, it would have been easy to wonder why Stipe was singing “Gotta poot!” in the chorus.
He was more about feel than lyrical content at the time, as he’d grow in the latter as the years went on and the vocals were clearer.
But in 1982, Stipe wasn’t there yet. He told Sean O’Hagan in an interview years later that “Radio Free Europe” was “complete babbling.”
R.E.M. re-recorded the song for Murmur. The hook and energy were there on the original, but Stipe’s vocals were slathered in reverb.
VIDEO: R.E.M. “Radio Free Europe”
The album version wisely takes off the echo, turning it into a propulsive single, anthemic even if you had no clue what the word salad lyrics were supposed to mean. But then again, there was a long tradition of hooky songs with unintelligible lyrics (“Louie Louie”) or sounds/words that didn’t really mean anything (“Doo Wah Diddy”).
It’s an opening testament to the fact that, while the four members of R.E.M. — Stipe, Buck, Berry and bassist Mike Mills — were all a bunch of guys making their first album, they were remarkably assured as songwriters and performers
Take the aforementioned “Catapult”. Readers of a certain age might remember the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups where people holding jars of peanut butter and chocolate bars would somehow collide, leading to exclamations of “You’ve got chocolate in my peanut butter!” and “You’ve got peanut butter in my chocolate!”
In this case, the exclamations could be “You’ve got post-punk in my folk!” and vice versa. And it’s all set to another killer chorus with Stipe and Mills doing the call-and-response thing they wouldn’t shy away from over the years.
There’s something to be said sometimes for letting listeners come up with their own interpretations of songs. Stipe himself was loath to overly explain his lyrics, especially the band’s earlier material. But he could sell mood, as on the wistful jangle of “Talk About the Passion,” which doubtless launched future alternative bands on its own.
Buck may not have wanted to solo, but he wasn’t a wallflower. He throws in more than jangle, cutting through the verses of “Moral Kiosk” with almost-staccato playing and sound asides that evoke psychedelic garage. The playing cuts through the murk of Stipe’s line delivery as well (“They scratch the scandals in the twilight” sounds like it could also be “Stretches candles in the twilight”).
Berry’s drums opening “Pilgrimage” wouldn’t have been out of place on a disco record with the hi-hat, but is clearly more indebted to Wire. His steady work throughout is the not-so-hidden key to Murmur’s success.
The futzing around with vocals takes the form of an opening, which sounds as if Stipe were standing in an adjoining room to the one with the microphone, with the door between them mostly closed.
Even coming from left field (bells here, bongos there) as they do here they have a tendency to make “Pilgrimage” stick. One can see why the label heard it and thought, “Yes, their choice of producers is a good one.”
The first ten seconds of “Laughing” conditioned listeners to expect a voice in heavily accented British songspeak. But, no, R.E.M’s bait-and-switch strategy is to turn it into lovely folk rock set to what might be Stipe’s most unintelligible lyrics on the whole album. But the song itself is pretty enough (but hardly so delicate it collapses), that it doesn’t matter. Whether Stipe wasn’t as assured of his lyric writing at that point or it was deliberate, he clearly knew his instinctive sense of feel could sell what he was writing.
To go off a line attributed to Beach Boys member and sometimes archvillain Mike Love, to fuck with the formula, you have to have a love for the formula in the first place. R.E.M. clearly has a love for the various genres studded throughout Murmur, including a well-crafted pop song.
VIDEO: R.E.M. “Talk About The Passion”
They nimbly shifted between those genres, sometimes in the same song, other times letting one dominate.
“Shaking Through” is an example of the latter. Its straightforward approach feels like the template for their second album Reckoning, the closest to a stereotypical early R.E.M. song, but not in a bad way.
Conversely, “9-9” has Stipe start by speaking something that should just have “????” with a note by the transcriber that says “Screw it. I give up” on the lyrics sheet. Verses that answer the question, “What if Gang of Four were from Georgia ” follow before a chorus that throws psychedelia back in.
“We Walk” is a jangling waltz, played at faster tempo, albeit one where you can almost picture someone mouthing “1-2-3, 1-2-3” as they play it.
“West of the Fields” has more urgency, mining the turf they would explore with more volume on the guitars by decade’s end.
The undeniably pretty “Perfect Circle” is arguably the album’s masterpiece of mood, built around Mills’ piano, which sounds like it was recorded in a Hollywood version of an old timey Western saloon.
If the lyrics are again inscrutable (is the hook line “Standing two soon shoulders high in the womb”?), the intended feel comes across. Buck has said the song was inspired by seeing kids playing ball in a park, trying to get their last game finished as the sun sets and their parents made them come inside.
The music certainly evokes that feel, much better than the words do.
Murmur feels now as it did then, a timeless conduit that feels as lived in, as much a part of the history as the kudzu field in Athens on the front cover and the abandoned train trestle on the back. At the same time, it was incredibly forward-thinking, channeling influences into something freshly modern.
It’s also striking just how fully formed R.E.M. was. It is both a template for what is thought of as their sound as well as a launching point for directions they’d take in the future, including lyrics that Stipe didn’t hide.
Its reputation has remained undimmed, starting with it being one of the critical darlings of 1983. It wasn’t a smash, though, selling a respectable enough 200,000 copies by the end of the year. Those sales totals might not have met the label’s hopes, they were plenty enough to earn R.E.M. another shot with what became Reckoning.
For his part, Stipe was glad R.E.M. experienced a more gradual upward trajectory than hitting immediately. Working at a yearly pace, it was their fifth studio album (and final one for I.R.S.) — Document — that went platinum.
He told Rolling Stone in 1994, “It was something that I really, really did not want. It was like ‘Wait a minute — I’m a fucking singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band. I did not ask for this.’ It’s a lot of pressure. If Murmur or Reckoning had sold 5 million copies, I wouldn’t be alive to tell the tale.”
There are those out there who will insist that R.E.M. peaked during their I.R.S. days, that they were never the same after “selling out” with their 1988 move to Warner Brothers.
I’m not one of those people. In fact, pound for pound, 1992’s Automatic For the People is still their finest moment on record to my ears.
But Murmur is on the short list, as strong a debut album as any band could hope to achieve. Not only one of their best, it’s their most important. Every bit of success and influence R.E.M. had as one of the best bands this country’s produced in the last 50 years started here.
It’s the perfect portrait of the band they were and a roadmap for their journey to the higher-wattage locations on the dial.
- Picture This: Blondie’s Parallel Lines at 45 - September 26, 2023
- Growing On Me: Permission to Land by The Darkness Turns 20 - September 16, 2023
- Heart and Soul: Sports by Huey Lewis & The News Turns 40 - September 15, 2023