Post-Yuppie Pop: A Classic R.E.M. Interview By Jon Savage

As R.E.M. call it a day, we visit the Rock's Backpages archive for an interview by Jon Savage. He found the dress-wearing group quietly eager to take their liberal politics into the mainstream

"I could turn you inside out! But I choose not to!" R.E.M.’s singer Michael Stipe, back arched, is bellowing into a megaphone. Five songs into their concert at the Onondoga War Memorial Hall in Syracuse, an upstate New York college town, R.E.M. are into their stride. The Memorial Hall, built in 1951 and running to seed, is filled with over 8,000 bodies and this mixed audience of students, rock fans and teens attracted by R.E.M.’s current hit single is going gently berserk amid purple and orange light.

Syracuse is the twenty-ninth American date out of R.E.M.’s eight-month 1989 world tour. The night before, they played to 17,000 people (85 per cent capacity) in New York’s Madison Square Garden; the next day, they go to Toronto. Their current single, ‘Stand’, is at number six. Their first album for Warners, Green, is in the top 20; released last November, it has sold over a million copies. The week of the concert, R.E.M. are dubbed ‘America’s hippest band’ on the cover of that bastion of American rock values, Rolling Stone. It seems like business as usual.

Except that singer Michael Stipe is wearing make-up and a dress. It’s a nice dress: a knee-length affair in red tartan. It covers the trousers of a baggy, dark brown 1950s suit and is covered by the suit jacket, which is held together with a safety pin. It is not the standard attire of a serious American rock group. R.E.M. are generally upbeat and often didactic, but ‘I Could Turn You Inside Out’ is designed as an all-out assault on the senses. The transformation that is the hallmark of any powerful pop event is beginning to take place. R.E.M. use surrealist backdrops throughout their performance: here, the screen is filled by murky film of fish shoals moving with a hypnotic slowness. The lyric examines the power of the performer, whether a pop star, "a preacher or a TV anchorman", to manipulate a mass audience. Within this context, the dress has a particular significance: it marks R.E.M.’s passing from their cult rock-band status to the blurred, warping world of pop stardom.

The week of the concert, a big item in the US news is a rally in Washington attended by 300,000 people protesting against possible anti-abortion legislation. "Causes are fashionable now," says a friend in the centre of magazine Manhattan: R.E.M. are well placed to catch this post-Yuppie mood: they espouse green and specific issue politics. They are idealistic and forward-looking to a degree that might seem naïve.

"I’m over-simplifying," says Michael Stipe, "but I think as a motivating force for change pop culture is still at the forefront. Events like the Amnesty tour brought a lot of attention. Pop culture is still the one way in which someone who is without power can attain it and bring about a change."

Aged between 29 and 32, R.E.M. represent the coming to power of a particular musical generation in America. As much as the Beastie Boys, they are the final products of English punk, which has taken ten years to filter into the American mainstream. Like their nearest English equivalent the Smiths, they mark industry and public acceptance of the 1980s independent label sector. They are also a product of a new force in the American music industry, college radio, the success of which has made a dent in the programming policy of the notoriously conservative American radio networks.

"It’s been a gradual build-up all the time," says Stipe. The group, named after the rapid eye movement of the first, deep sleep, was formed by four college drop-outs in Athens, Georgia, in 1980. All had lived in the South for some while: only Stipe had lived outside America, in Germany. If bassist Mike Mills, guitarist Peter Buck and drummer Bill Berry appear straightforward and friendly, Stipe is the changeling of the group, hinting on occasions at the twisted dandyism of other Southern exports like Capote and Wolfe.

"’Think global, act local’ is one of our catch-phrases," says the spry Mills. A town of about 70,000 inhabitants, Athens remains important to the group: they all live there and are involved with local politics. The way Buck tells it, the town offered a sheltering bohemia: "It has all the parochial small-town behaviour, but then you’ve got all the college kids who roar through. It’s got the best art school in Georgia, maybe one of the better ones in the South."

Like countless others, R.E.M. were inspired by the punk style and attitude that spread from New York and London in the mid-to-late 1970s. "I heard Patti Smith and Television when I was 15," says Stipe. "I’d found something that was dirty and exciting and sexy and smart. I realized that I was an outsider and I felt separated from most people. This music made the separation worse but it gave me an ace in the hole because I had something they didn’t have."

"I was the manager of a rare and used record store in Athens," adds Buck, "so I used to play records I hadn’t heard all day long. In Georgia you were so far away from everything that the Sex Pistols were just the same as Ultravox. For two years, 1977 and 1978, we’d buy everything that came out. Punk filtered down to us; it meant that you didn’t have to follow the rules."

R.E.M. began playing in an Athens bar called Tyrone’s — "a good mixture of preppies and hippies," says Berry — and soon began an extended period of playing any possible venue, from top 40 bars to gay bars. After their first single, they were picked by Miles Copeland’s IRS Records for the first of seven albums, Murmur. Marrying the utopian jangle of the 1960s Byrds with the new forms of song construction illuminated by punk, R.E.M. soon emerged as the best of an often mundane pack of new American rock bands.

"We’ve played with each other so long that we can intuit chord changes," says Peter Buck, and this musical closeness has been an R.E.M. hallmark: songwriting credits are equally split between all four. "The neat thing about us is our harmonies," says Mills. "We have three people who can not only sing but make up their own ideas about what to sing, instead of building a song on 1-3-5 harmonies." The group have also been marked by Stipe’s buried vocals and cryptic, allusive lyrics. "In Television’s songs, I never knew what they were singing about half the time," Stipe says. "But it doesn’t matter because it sounds great. Some songs are written in one stroke but others are prepared for months and months. I have these notebooks: I’ll pick a topic and run through the notes and say: ‘This applies and this applies.’ The moment of inspiration is extemporaneous but it’s all been prepared before."

This approach resulted in a sequence of songs that defines a new America. Albums like Life’s Rich Pageant and the remarkable Fables of the Reconstruction captured the sense of space and possibility that lies within America, allied to a strong sense of loss and dreams betrayed. "There’s a lack of history here which would be the American version of Catholic guilt," Stipe says. "I think that’s a big flaw in the American dream. You’re not taught about the annihilation of the entire culture of the Indians whose land this was."

Boosted by constant touring, superior material and college radio support, R.E.M. finally broke through to the US mass market with 1987’s top 10 single, ‘The One I Love’. During the 16-month lay-off that ended with the start of this tour, the group signed to Warner Brothers Records for several million dollars. The group’s belief in the mass market inevitably required mass distribution. Says Stipe, "IRS’s distribution had gone as far as it could and it was time to move on to someone who could get the records out world-wide."

"Touring is a great pressure," he adds, and at Syracuse fatigue is beginning to set in. The normally good-humoured Berry runs out of the photo session, while the night before Buck had broken a toe in a fit of frustration. All are coming to terms with the alienation of the mainstream music industry while attempting to retain their ideals and closeness.

Outside the hall in Syracuse, a strong wind blows gusts of snow through streets that to a European seem empty even when peopled. What R.E.M. offer their audience inside is a sense of community: their performance is a careful balance between raw feeling and downtown rigour, between outright didacticism and the dream state implied by their name. Their reward is a crossover appeal to intellectuals, rock fans and regular high-school students.

Perhaps what they react to is the transformation implicit in Michael Stipe’s and androgynous performance. As he dances, dervish-like, in the flicker of a strobe, or throws his head back and roars like a preacher, he dramatizes R.E.M.’s triumph at finding their own power. Unlike other groups, who use this power to dazzle, R.E.M. deliberately seek to draw the audience in, to offer a positive approach. "Hope is important," says Stipe. "It’s an intrinsic human emotion, to think there is some kind of light at the end of the tunnel."

© Jon Savage, 1989

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