I had never heard of the opening act, but after four or five songs, all of which featured the singer dancing around the stage with more energy and intensity than any performer I’d ever seen before, I said to the girl I was with, “These guys are really good. What was their name?”
Some band neither of us had heard of before, from nearby Athens, it turned out. REM. It took a while, but eventually just about everybody heard of them, and most of them liked what they heard.
Thursday, after a mostly glorious three-decade ride, the band called it quits.
The news came as a surprise. Most super-groups keep going as long as they can, milking the record-buying public for every last penny they can. But REM always played by their own rules, which was a big part of their appeal and their success.
And frankly, their career had cooled to nearly stone-cold status for most of the past decade. I had pretty much stopped listening to them after the release of “Monster” in the early ’90s. The albums that followed got slower and softer and gave the listener the impression of a band stuck in the creative doldrums. The “best” song on those albums would have been considered the “worst” song on most of their earlier ones, or would not have made the cut at all.
Their late-era shows could be just as listless. I last saw them at Chastain Park in the late 1990s. While that’s admittedly a lousy place to watch a rock band, their performance that night was, for the most part, lethargic.
The band finally got its groove back on its final two studio albums, “Accelerate” and “Collapse into Now.” And there’s no question that it could have continued cranking out records for as long as it wanted to. Yet rather than repeating themselves ad nauseum, like an octogenarian Pablo Picasso recycling the Cubist riffs that were groundbreaking 60 years earlier but hackneyed by then, the band decided to call it a career.
But back to 1980. I was working as a disc jockey at WLET-FM in Toccoa at the time. Single, fresh out of college and living in a town where “nightlife” typically involved a trip to church or to one of the many local bootleggers (a story for another day), I often spent my weekends hanging out an hour away in Athens.
The record companies flooded the radio station with promo copies of new records. The ones the station didn’t want we were free to take. So I would unload them for a few bucks at the Wuxtry used-record store in downtown Athens and had developed a passing acquaintanceship with some of the staffers, one in particular.
The record station didn’t play much punk or new wave, so after taping the cuts I liked on the first Clash album, I dropped by Wuxtry one Saturday afternoon to swap it and some lesser records I didn’t want for some different discs.
The guy at the counter took the Clash record, asked incredulously, “You’re getting rid of this?” — and never again gave me as much as a nod when I would stop in.
On one of those trips to Athens in 1981 I saw that REM was playing that night at a club called Tyrone’s O.C. and eagerly went there that night. Lo and behold the guitarist, (Pete Buck), was the guy from Wuxtry.
There were only about 75 people there that night. The singer (Michael Stipe), whose bangs reached almost to his jaw, ended the show rolling around on the dance floor, microphone in hand.
It wasn’t what you’d call a typical rock show, especially not at the height of the disco era. And while it was rock and roll, their sound drew not from Aerosmith or Boston or from the then-current Southern Rock of Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Allman Brothers, but from earlier half-forgotten bands like The Byrds and the Velvet Underground.
I saw them there again a month or two later, and realized that REM was as good or better and more original than any band I was hearing on the radio and could hold its own with anybody. And I was no novice rock fan. I’d seen hundreds of bands play by that point in life, with hundreds more yet to come. But none were as good or as powerful or as much fun to go see as REM.
I saw REM play countless other times in those early years. At one point I made a list of when and where I’d seen them. I counted 15 or 16 that I could distinctly remember, but knew there were probably more. I would have loved to have been at their early-’80s gig at The Strand Cabaret in what’s now the House of Lu on Cherokee Street behind the Strand Theater.
Here’s a link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPE-l-tfN0I&feature=related to a full-length REM set from October 1982. It’s the earliest such REM clip I know of. Though the lighting is murky, the sound is reasonably good and it provides about as good a glimpse back at the band in its “Chronic Town”-era (pre-“Murmur” release) as we’re ever likely to get.
It’s one of the great losses to rock history that, as far as I know, the band was not professionally filmed and/or recorded while onstage in its earliest years. All those of us who were there have to go on are bootleg recordings, blurry photos and memories. … But what memories!
Joe Kirby is Editorial Page Editor of the Marietta Daily Journal and author of “The Bell Bomber Plant” and the forthcoming “The Lockheed Plant.”
This article was originally published on September 26, 2011.