The alternative revolution of the 80s
The early 80s was a bad time if you wanted to play pop tunes with electric guitars. On the one hand, punk had been diluted by the New Wave - and New Wave had been leaving the guitars aside for synthesizers - on the other hand, rock bands were full of shredders more interested in their solos, and their tights, than in their songs. But from Athens, Georgia, a college town, four guys were to combine the lyrical sophistication of the Velvet Underground with the Rickenbacker of the Byrds and as a result create an alternative current that would take rock music by storm at the beginning of the next decade.
R.E.M. had formed in 1980 when Michael Stipe and Peter Buck, two college students, met in a record shop and found they shared common tastes. Soon Mike Mills and Bill Berry, who had been playing together since high school, entered the equation. The first thing they recorded was the single Radio Free Europe, in 1981, for the small independent label Hib Tone. It was one of the band's few recordings that didn't feature Buck's legendary black Rickenbacker 360, as he used producer Mitch Easter's Fender Electric XII. The first run was only 1,000 copies but it sold out so quickly that they soon released another 6,000 copies - that soon went the same way. College radio made them one of their favourite bands and started the boom of what the Replacements would call "left of the dial", becoming the main propagator of alternative music.
The band began to make a name for themselves and RCA tried to sign them, but R.E.M. opted for the independent IRS, where they released the Chronic Town EP in 1982. Finally, on January 6, 1983, the band entered the studio to record their debut album with three years of experience and a handful of great songs under their belts. To show their independence, they discarded the synthesizers and guitar solos that were so much in vogue, but this did not prevent Peter Buck's Rickenbacker from being one of the main protagonists of the record; always, of course, at the disposal of the song and the singer.
The album opens with one of the band's biggest songs, Radio Free Europe, which they re-recorded at the behest of IRS for the album. The song is a perfect example of early R.E.M., Buck's jangle guitar, Mills' melodic bass (plus his unmatched backing vocals), Berry's simple drumming and Stipe's cryptic, unintelligible lyrics, all rounded off by a glorious chorus. The curious thing is that the album keeps up with, and in some cases even surpasses, their most famous song.
Pilgrimage begins enigmatically with Stipe in the distance, until Mills' bass comes in, with a borrowed Rickenbacker 4001, a piano and it all leads back to one of the band's shattering choruses, Laughing follows a similar strategy, although this time Buck uses an acoustic. Then comes one of my favourite songs by the band, Talk About The Passion, with a great riff from Buck on his 360 and a particularly inspired Stipe. Moral Kiosk is much more edgier, more electric, being one of their winning aces in their early live sets.
By the time the devastating Perfect Circle kicks in you have to surrender to the greatness of this band, an out of tune honky tonk piano, which incredibly also sounds like a harpsichord, and a gorgeous melody. It's incredible to think that this baroque piece was mainly composed by drummer Bill Berry. It is the closing of a glorious first side.
Part two opens with Catapult, another marvel on which Buck's jangling Rickenbacker once again shines. Sitting Still is a fan favourite and another perfect example of the band's early days; it features a melodic bass, a guitar colouring the whole time and a sweeping chorus, with Mills joining Stipe at the end. 9-9 is the most indie rock moment on the album, also the closest to the punk of their beloved Patti Smith, while the final trio of songs; Shaking Through, We Walk and West Of The Fields; proved that these southern boys found it practically impossible to produce a chorus that wasn't capable of moving you.
Murmur could be considered an album halfway between the Byrds' first album and the Velvet Underground's third, which made the band a beacon for New American Rock groups, with examples such as the Long Ryders, the Dream Syndicate and Los Lobos, but also for the nascent alternative movement of Hüsker Dü, the Replacements or the Pixies. The truth is that it is not surprising because Murmur is a timeless album full of exquisite songs, between three and four minutes long, from which entire movements could blossom.