Last week, R.E.M. announced they’re calling it quits. It’s hard to believe they formed the band thirty-one years ago. I must be getting old. I vividly remember the first R.E.M. album I ever bought: Eponymous (1988). It wasn’t my introduction to the band, just the first time I broke down and bought an album of theirs. Eponymous was actually a compilation of songs from those early, seminal albums: Murmur, Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, and others. It had a few other tunes as well, alternate takes and such, not found on those early records, including the original Hib-Tone version of “Radio Free Europe.” Yet Eponymous wasn’t really a collection of hits. The only really popular song on the album was “The One I Love,” which peaked at #2 on the Billboard U.S. Rock chart. But as a guy who had been listening to college radio since the early eighties, it surely seemed like a greatest hits package to me: “Driver 8,” “Don’t Go Back to Rockville,” “Gardening at Night,” “South Central Rain,” “Finest Worksong.” Great tunes! I recall I purchased the CD in Dallas, Texas while on a business trip. (Anyone remember Digital Switch Corporation?) I practically wore it out in the rental car’s CD player. R.E.M. were indeed an alternative to the mainstream rock of the day, though I don’t recall that term being used until later. Early in their career they were labeled post-punk, college rock, or even new wave. I occasionally heard them described as a new breed southern rock, and guess there was some truth to that as well. No doubt this had a lot to do with Peter Buck’s frequent use of folk instruments like the mandolin, banjo, and Appalachian dulcimer, but there was also a certain quality in Stipe’s voice — not really a twang or drawl — just an attitude I guess. But R.E.M. bore little resemblance to The Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Over the years I have cooled and warmed again to R.E.M, but I admire the catalog. Some of my other favorite albums are Green, Out of Time, Automatic for the People, Monster, and Reveal, which spoke to me as the dot-com bubble popped. (I’ve actually yet to hear this year’s Collapse into Now in its entirety.) Some other stand-out tunes are “Circus Envy,” “Pop Song 89,” “Orange Crush,” “Drive,” and “Imitation of Life.” I always seem to chuckle inappropriately when I hear “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” :) I love that one-off collaboration with U2 that produced that great live version of “One.” I’ve also enjoyed the work with Kate Pierson, Wilco, and others. I’ve followed the many Peter Buck side projects as well, most notably his work with Pete Yorn. R.E.M. have definitely made their mark on music history. They have been cited as an influence by countless bands: Radiohead, Wilco, The Strokes, Pearl Jam. And they’ve put Athens on the musical map. But it has been said that all good things must pass.
It hasn’t been all bad news for Georgia though. Music Midtown was reborn this past weekend. I wasn’t able to attend, but it looks as if the festival went off without a hitch. The band reviews were favorable. Coldplay, The Black Keys, Manchester Orchestra, and The Postelles all got good press. There was nothing but praise for the new venue: The Meadow at Piedmont Park. And Mother Nature cooperated for once. Attendance apparently peaked out at around 40,000 for headliners Coldplay, who had a little surprise in store for the crowd. Taking note of the recent announcement by R.E.M., Coldplay covered the tune “Everybody Hurts” as a tribute. It was a nice gesture I think. Coldplay also played a few tunes from their upcoming release Mylo Xyloto, due out October 24. So while R.E.M. may have written their final chapter as a band, Music Midtown has risen from the grave. All good things must? We can hope for an even bigger and better, and multi-day, festival next year. Perhaps they could even arrange to have R.E.M. as headliners! Afterall, we are entitled to two or three farewell tours, aren’t we? :)