The Beer Test Study Guide #5: R.E.M.
I need well rounded kids that can pass The Beer Test.
I am not talking about underage drinking, but the ability to have a conversation with anyONE about anyTHING. Music knowledge is a key component to this test and I want to talk about a band that need to be remembered…
I got my first real stereo a few days before starting high school and it was a thing of beauty. Two tape decks at the front, a cd player on the top, a radio built in and a glorious red dotted record button. My babysitting money didn’t go too far in the cd market so, like others my age, I quickly became a pro at queuing up a cassette tape to the exact right point so I could lunge at that record button when a favorite song came on the radio. And such is how my mix tapes were made. And one of the first bands I lunged across the room for was R.E.M.
As it turns out, after kleptoing a few of their songs, their 1991 album Out of Time became the first cd I ever purchased (ok, maybe my second, but I am choosing to block out the NKOTB phase). R.E.M. was the first music I played over and over and over again. In my closed off adolescent room with headphones on, R.E.M. and I shut out the world around me while I did (or not did) homework. The folksy Out of Time (and thankfully, not NKOTB) formed my opinion on future music and made me feel unique and different for not listening to the rap, hip hop and grunge that emerged as the “pop” music of my high school years. The Cure, Morrissey, Barenaked Ladies, Squeeze, Big Head Todd and the Monsters and U2 became favorites, but R.E.M. started it all.
But R.E.M. needed me less than I needed them. They were producing music long before I purchased their album in 1991 and continued to make music for 30 years. Formed in Athens, Georgia they slowly gained popularity on college radio, before landing in the mainstream. Their first single, 1981’s “Radio Free Europe” gained success but it was endless touring and underground following that gave them the ability to continue making records.
Over a period of releasing the three albums, Green (1988), Out of Time (1991) and Automatic for the People (1992), the band quickly emerged as a leading voice in the growing alternative music scene. On one album they could seamlessly switch between acoustic and electric instruments while maintaining the obvious influences of The Beach Boys and Patti Smith. And even though they were considered pioneers in the alternative scene, they never really strayed from being a plain old rock and roll band.
I was lucky enough to see them live while living in Dublin in 1999. They had lost original member and drummer, Bill Berry (after some health scares, he chose to retire to work his farm), but the show was magnificent and Michael Stipe was captivating. But it wasn’t just Stipe’s erratic dance moves or glittered face that struck me. The band played a two hour show of hits…banjos, mandolins, electric guitars, all living in harmony together. There were no rules or genres to conform into.
After 30 years, creating 15 albums, and being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, R.E.M. amicably parted ways in 2011. But what they left might be a foreign idea to young music fans out there — a legacy.
And this is something kids need to understand. A real band can change genres, create genres, destroy the same genres they create, and then when you least expect it, come out with a song that changes your life and touches your soul in a way you didn’t even think was possible.
That is the power of music and that is why The Beer Test is necessary. Because not every band can do that.
R.E.M.’s catalog of music is as varied as it is extensive and there is something there for anyone. Their music is not dated, not nostalgic, not cliche. Their music is sometimes intense, sometimes wistful, but always full bodied and genuine.
So choose what you want form their catalog of hits (I have a few linked throughout). Look for a few gems you have not yet discovered or forgotten about. And then share them with your children so the can pass The Beer Test when someone asks them about the great bands and front men of all time.