Thursday, December 17, 2009

"We Really Wanted To Not Sound Like 1983." The story of REM, Reckoning, and the Birth of the Paisley Underground


Steve Wynn was familiar with REM before his band, Dream Syndicate joined them on the Reckoning tour in 1984. He had bonded with Peter Buck after a “wild, drunken night”, ending at 6am on a San Francisco beach, and established that they much in common. They were enthusiastic souls who talked quickly, and both were avid readers. More importantly, their taste in music was identical. “We liked Big Star and Soft Boys and the dBs and the Feelies. These were bands that were really exciting, but they were all way below the radar. Peter was checking out stuff like that; I was, and probably Paul Westerberg was, all in our little corners of the US, getting hip to this really obscure music. So when I heard Murmur, when I heard the Replacements’ Stink, that’s the music that made sense to me.”
But still, Wynn hadn’t seen REM perform live until the first night of the tour, in Fresno, California. And, like many whose impression of the group had been shaped by the blurry restraint of their debut album, Murmur, he was blown away. “They were ferocious,” he recalls. “I think they felt they had something to prove at that point. It was almost like a crusade.”
The title of REM’s second album reflected their determination. In the band’s eyes, it was time to put-up or shut-up. It was a reckoning. “We were as famous as it gets in Athens, Georgia,” says Peter Buck. “There isn’t really a fame culture there, so the fact that we were playing to three or four hundred people, that was it – we were the big band.
“In the South, we would get 600-800 people coming to the shows; New York was good, Los Angeles was pretty good, but then you’d play Albuquerque and get 20 people.”
“There really wasn’t a road map on how to be a band like they were,” argues Wynn. “What became indie rock, what became a brand, didn’t exist back then. We were all just figuring it out as we went along.
“Here’s an example. On that tour, we went and played Boise, Idaho. Bear in mind, REM had already been in the Top 40, and Dream Syndicate had already been in every magazine around. We pull into town and pick up the newspaper, and the headline is: ‘New Wave comes to Boise’. New wave, in 1984!? It was already a senior citizen. But in Boise, Idaho they probably thought we had safety pins in our noses.
“Even in 1984, we’d talk to people about what we were doing and it was all the same. REM could have been Devo could have been Tom Petty. To a lot of the country, it was still this weird music.”
Apart from the band themselves, REM’s manager Bertis Downs is perhaps the most qualified person to talk about the roots of Reckoning. He was employed as an occasional legal adviser by the band in 1984, but his friendship with Bill Berry and Peter Buck pre-dated the formation of the group. “Athens is a college town,” says Downs, “and I knew Bill from the university union. I knew Peter from the record store. We were both big Neil Young fans, and he knew a lot more about Neil Young than I did, so he advised me which bootlegs were worth buying. Peter was my official advisor on all things Neil Young, That was ’79, ’80.
“They played a show on April 5 in ’80. I did not go to that. That was a birthday party, I heard about it from mutual friends who said ‘Bill’s band is really good’. So I went two weeks later when they played a place called the Koffee Klub in downtown Athens at about 1.30 in the morning. I didn’t know which songs were covers and which songs were theirs. They all sounded good.”
It didn’t take long for REM to build a reputation in their hometown. “There was a buzz about them from the beginning,” says Downs. “There was this one famous place in Athens called Tyrone’s that they played typically at the end of every month, because the rent was due. And literally, every time they played, Tyrone’s would have to knock down another wall to become bigger. It was a shell of a building, and you’d see that Tyrone’s was 50 people bigger because they’d knocked that wall out. There was like another 12 foot square area that people could pile into. At the end of the day it probably held 400 or 500.”
“In Athens all of our friends were like Pylon, the Method Actors or Love Tractor,” says Buck, “and you might describe them as not commercial, so we were the most commercial of the bunch. We would think that we were a really commercial pop band, and then we would go on the road and we were the weirdest band we played with. We’d be on the road and everyone would think we were just completely odd. We just weren’t like anyone else, in a good way. We were really fully-formed and didn’t sound like anything at the time, which was kind of what were aiming for.”
Reckoning was produced by Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, who also did Murmur. REM’s first two records, the Chronic Town EP, and Radio Free Europe, which came out as a single in 1981, were recorded in Easter’s garage studio in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“The South was definitely guitar territory,” says Easter. “You just didn’t have many bands that were not guitar bands here. But the idea of the soloist and the hotshot guitar player, the guy that took a really long solo, that got silly. So certain types of guitar were meant to automatically show that you were like a metal guy or something.
“My band, Let’s Active, did some tours with REM pretty early on and we saw all of that. They played in some places where the audience was just plain hostile. And then there would be like these four girls who were just in love with them. You could see the tide turning. It was pretty great.
“One show I always remember was out in Lubbock, Texas. The reaction was just like, ‘We know you’re up to no good.’ It was like that from the minute REM opened their guitar cases. It was hilarious.”
Easter vividly remembers the first time he set eyes on REM. “Even before I heard anything out them I thought ‘these guys are cool’. They stayed at my house. They arrived the night before and seeing them walk up the sidewalk, I thought, ‘Oh, this might be good.’ It just looked like, hey, these guys are obviously the band. It was like that thing where you’d see pictures of these ’60s bands, and it was always four guys of about the same age.
“They were of the time and not of the time in this perfect way. Maybe they were right for the USA. This place has a lot more roots in that barroom beer-drinking scene that ZZ Top tapped into. The really fluky bands could come out here and do well, but REM could transcend that and do well everywhere. At the same time, the kids that were looking for something else could spot that they had it. They were really snotty in that sort of correct way. They thought everything was terrible except for three or four things. And they totally had that down. Pete Buck was just a master of the dismissive comment. He could dismiss giant swathes of the world in this perfect way.
“It’s very useful. You have Mike Mills who always seems really sunny, and you can have Pete Buck taking care of the other business. They never seemed like they didn’t know what they were doing.”
“Part of what was going on in that era was that there was a new way of doing things,” says Buck. “I worked in record stores and I sold plenty of double live records from everyone from Aerosmith to Ted Nugent to Peter Frampton, and there was a sense that this was a new era. And as much as most of the new stuff was garbage, it gave you a way to look at playing that wasn’t informed by the clichés of the time.
“When you look at the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, it’s not as if that was totally rock’n’roll. It wasn’t that kind of that kind of ’70s rock with a ‘w’. it seemed to me that punk rock and the last years of the ’70s were kind of a waste, musically, and all of us, all the bands from America, were just trying to step aside from it and try and invent a way of making rock’n’roll less of a showbiz thing.
“The whole punk thing was: it’s Year Zero so you gotta start over. When that happened, a lot of people just reinvented the same clichés. But a lot of the music that we were listened to at the time, whether it was the Gang of Four, the Fall or The Psychedelic Furs kind of found a way to reinvigorate a form that was considered clichéd. And it was great, because it did allow a lot of us to start over
“From my point of view as a guitar player, the big cliché was the huge Marshall stack and the fuzzy tone, and no matter how rock our songs are, they don’t have that ’70s guitar, or the punk rock guitar sound. I was trying to go for something that was very tense and clean. I didn’t have a fuzz pedal until probably 1985.”
Murmur had been an understated, enigmatic record. For Reckoning, REM wanted something that more closely-resembled their live sound.
“They had this attitude that what they did onstage was what they wanted to put on the record,” says Easter. “Along with the idea that they had to be talked into on Murmur that you had to snazzy it up a little sometimes for a record, otherwise it just sounds like a demo tape.”
“We really wanted to not sound like 1983,” says Buck. “That was a really horrible sound for a couple of years – you had the whole digital delay thing on the drums. New wave, as much as it was kind of fun, most of it was crap. Our influences were older than that. But we spent a lot of the two years in a row that we were on the road with the Gang of Four and the Beat. It wasn’t just the music, they had political agendas; they were basically socialist as far as to the way credit and money was split. That was an influence on us.”
“REM had this aesthetic set of rules that we figured out early on,” says Easter. “They figured them out on Murmur. On Reckoning it wasn’t even a discussion. We just started from where we left off.”
Reckoning was recorded in a little over two weeks, at Reflection Sound, in Charlotte, North Carolina. “People think Reflection is some backwoods gospel studio,” says co-producer Don Dixon, “but it’s a very high-end multi-room that would have been quite at home in London or New York.” The studio was also the recording base of televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.
“Michael met Tammy Faye Bakker,” says Buck. “He fascinated by her, and introduced himself. I think she gave him an autograph. He said she was really nice. He was like: ‘Wow! We’re making this big record in the same studio as Tammy Faye Bakker. Cool!’”
Most of the songs for Reckoning were written in an intense rehearsal period in the summer of 1983, prior to the autumn tour. “We rehearsed for eight or ten days,” says Buck “I think we were still rehearsing in Mike’s bedroom at that point – and we just knocked them all out.
“It wasn’t like we were jamming. We’d write songs and Michael would hum along and think about words he liked. I remember we went into a place – I think it was called the Agora in Atlanta. We rented it for two days to play onstage in front of the crew. We were trying to rehearse through all of the nine or 10 new songs. It was just like we’d written them that week, and here they were.
“We also constantly talked about how we didn’t want to write songs about love, or cars, or girls, or all the stuff that people write about. Michael was finding his footing as a lyricist. By the Reckoning period, if the songs aren’t super-direct, they’re definitely more direct than the first record. There’s a million ways to tell a story, and his way is slightly more oblique than the stuff that you’d hear on the radio; but all to the good, I think.”
The album was recorded one track at a time, with Dixon driving Stipe to the studio at around noon to do his vocals, and the band arriving around two. He remembers Stipe being in a fragile state.
“They had done this long, gruelling, irritating tour opening for the Police, and it was really hard on all of them. They weren’t used to playing huge places like that and they weren’t used to being ignored, and they found themselves in the middle of it and they had to grind it out.
“It took a while to recover from that. Plus Michael was just fighting some illness… not illness but exhaustion. He was trying to find ways to cope with this monster that he had brought on himself. You gotta be careful what you wish for. And if you want to be a successful band, and you’re out playing all the time, it’s a horrible life. It’s no life at all, except for the moments you have onstage. I think Michael was trying to cope with that. He just was withdrawn, some. I believe that during the course of making that record he totally came out of that. And by the time the record was over the whole band was regaining its energy.”
“Michael was very shy on and off stage,” says Wynn. “I remember we played a show in another of those crazy non-hipster places, Salt Lake City. After the show he just didn’t want to deal with the throng of people; I was standing backstage, and he grabbed me and said ‘Let’s go out in the park.’ We just stood out there and talked, and watched the people leave the show. I think he felt more comfortable doing that then having to talk to people about what went down.”
“Michael’s extremely sensitive and very smart,” says Dixon, “so that’s a very tough combination. A lot of the sensitive smart people who became rock stars died. And he didn’t. He gets a huge tip of the hat for not only maintaining his integrity through all this – but also for not succumbing to the easy way out.”
“Camera that was about a friend of Michael’s that had died, and I think he was upset,” says Easter, but I don’t remember him breaking down or having any trouble doing his thing. It’s very easy to see him as an extremely weird guy, but he wasn’t a weird guy to me at all. He was just an art student. One of the first times I met him he had all these little bits of metal with melted enamel stuff on it that he was showing me. He was really into that sort of stuff. Whereas the other guys were a little bit more like your rock’n’roll type dudes.
“Michael was slightly different from the rest of them and he was eating very strange pasty food out of Tupperware containers, and he loved this electric typewriter they had in the studio and was always typing things on it. But they were all busy happy fellows.”
“It was overwhelming in a lot of ways for all of us,” says Buck. “But we did the work. There was a couple of years where it was really hard and stressful and it was a matter of learning how to deal with this stuff.
“As songwriters and musicians we knew what we were doing. But we were from Athens, Georgia. You would go to New York and it was bewildering – in a good way. All the bands that we were playing with, they did have images. They had new clothing. Our booking agent would pull us aside and say, ‘Guys, you gotta cut your hair and buy some clothes with zippers.’ And we would say, ‘Well really that’s not what we’re all about.’”
“On that tour, Michael was very shy,” says Wynn. “Peter and Mike were the cirque du soleil. They were the ones doing all the moving. Michael stood there and sang, and that was enough. It was almost like the Who where you had all this excitement all around you. He just stood, and the voice did the work.”
“They all had a very funny attitude in the studio,” says Easter. “Not Luddite exactly. But their version of punk rock was to reject recording studio conventions, more than any social stance. It basically had to do with the idea like, ‘What’s wrong with this really awesome 1967 single I’ve got here? It didn’t have any of that crap on it.’ It wasn’t really too fancy but they were right. They had an identity, they weren’t groping around for what to do at all – they were incredibly single-minded in this efficient way. They just didn’t sweat it.”
The sessions went so efficiently, that REM were able to take a couple of nights off. One night involved a trip to the cinema, to see a low-budget film, Strange Invaders. “The producers had called up IRS and said, ‘We want a new wave kind of band, but we don’t want to have to pay any money,’ says Buck. “So we licensed something off of the Chronic Town EP. We were just eight people in the studio watching this film. Our song’s in it for 30 seconds in a scene where the lead guy pours a beer for his dog. And the dog drinks the beer. We were like, ‘All right, we’re in a movie!
“We didn’t get a lot of offers in those days. We went to see one of those horror movies, about Freddy, the killer guy, and Johnny Depp’s lying on his bed, and behind him there’s a Reckoning poster. They didn’t have to ask permission, but someone went to see it at the local cinema, and said ‘Man, there’s this huge scene where your poster’s above Johnny Depp’s head in bed. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool.”
Reckoning was released at a time when the excesses of 1980s pop production were at their height, and if it was a slow-burner commercially, the accompanying tour provided more evidence that something was afoot. “We played Chicago,” says Wynn. “The show was over and we went to the Cubby Bear club in town, and saw the Replacements with Del Fuegos opening. It was like, there is something happening here.”
“We always loved this band,” says Dixon, “but did we think they were going to be the number one band in the world and on the cover of Rolling Stone? No. We thought they were a band that was a little too quirky to reach that level of success.”
“There was definitely the feeling from everyone that if we would just play the game a little more we could sell a lot of records,” says Buck. “I always felt that if we didn’t play the game, and we were whatever band we were, then things would work out better for us. We’d go to clubs at the end of the week, and the music was bullshit. No names, but all those horrible records by those bands that had two hits – that was the crap that was playing in the clubs back then. We just thought, ‘We’re miles above that, and if people don’t understand it, then fuck ’em.”