"It's not easy to be so uncompromising, to keep a band going for 19 years and sell records and produce work you're so proud of," said REM front man Michael Stipe back in 1999. "It's a sterling combination of stubbornness and creativity."
REM, arguably the most influential rock band of the Eighties and Nineties, released Reveal in 2001 and received its best reviews in nearly a decade. "REM are sainted," says rocker Courtney Love. "If you've started a band in the last 15 years, you've looked at how REM did things."
Singer-songwriter Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bass player Mike Mills, and drummer Bill Berry played their first gig on April 19, 1980. "We were like an arty garage band," says Peter. "We just played for whoever would hire us."
The group began to develop a cult following and signed with indie label IRS. They released a well-received EP followed by their first full-length album, 1982's Murmur, which Rolling Stone magazine named album of the year.
In the late Eighties, Stipe's lyrics often mumbled and incoherent became clearer both in their pronunciation and content. It's The End Of The World As We Know It embodied political leanings in a catchy pop song and became something of an anthem for disaffected youth. The band's politicisation crystallized with Green, shifting the focus onto Stipe and making a reluctant "spokesman" of the increasingly reclusive star. Grammy awards followed, along with top ten singles.
In 1992 they released Automatic For The People, their most lauded album, and continued to tour. But somewhere along the line, the REM train went awry. Critics carped that the group didn't seem to be having fun any more, and they were right. On tour, Bill suffered a near-fatal brain aneurysm, Stipe underwent an operation for a hernia and Mills had abdominal surgery. Then, shortly after completing the '96 tour, Bill quit.
"When we mixed Up, I thought it was our last will and testament," says Stipe. Suffering from writer's block, Peter Buck and Mills were sitting around while the group was meant to be recording. Seattle-based Buck grew increasingly upset about being away from his family, and tension mounted. "Then we talked, and we realized that each of us wanted to continue making music somehow and that the people we wanted to continue making music with were in the room," says Stipe. Buck adds, "We just had to get past the weird stuff."
The group began to diversify. They did a track for the Jim Carrey vehicle Man On The Moon, and scored the film, too. Stipe also threw himself into film production, co-producing Being John Malkovich and getting involved with Self Timer, the low-budget film enterprise he heads.
"With the exception of U2, there's no one who has stayed together and stayed relevant for as long as we have," says Stipe. "We can't possibly compete with Limp Bizkit and Britney Spears, and I have no real desire to. But as long as people are excited about our work, we're going to expend the energy to do it."