R.E.M. was undoubtedly one of the first American bands to take the underground to the mainstream. At a time when popular music seemed destined to be awash with lustrous and synthetic production, they formed one of several pockets of bands across the country attempting to provide an aural antidote.
And, after the type of relentless touring that is almost nostalgic within today’s music culture, they triumphed. With the release of their debut album, ‘Murmur’, they created a blueprint that opened the doors to a new wave of equally deserved acts acquiring wider audiences.
After an incompatible demo session with the established producer Stephen Hague, the band reverted back to Mitch Easter, alongside his friend and co-producer Don Dixon, who had worked on their earlier ‘Chronic Town’ EP.
The result of their efforts was a record free of constraints. Peter Buck’s rhythmic guitar is stripped of cliché and conventions, intertwining with Mike Mills’ melodic baselines, and punctuated by Bill Berry’s drum beats. It is not surprising to hear that much of ‘Murmur’ was recorded first take.
Whilst its sound would go on to inspire the likes of Nirvana and Radiohead, ‘Murmur’ is something of an anti-rock record. It took elements of folk and country and added pop sensibilities to create a sound that was unique yet highly accessible to those who heard it. Above all else, it is the carefully crafted subtleties within it that have made it such a highly referenced influence of such acts.
Easter and Dixon experimented with unusual recording methods, which created an air of mystery to the album’s sound. The curious buzzing sound that introduces ‘Radio Free Europe’ was achieved by filtering Mike Mills’ bass through a noise gate, whilst the intermittent dull thud on ‘We Walk’ was a slowed-down recording of Bill Berry playing pool.
This atmosphere was accentuated by Michael Stipe’s indistinct vocals. The songs’ lyrics are often indecipherable, yet his unique style still manages to capture the listener’s attention at the right moments, as demonstrated on the exclaimed delivery of ‘Catapult’. Nothing heard on ‘Murmur’ happened by accident.
Upon returning home, there was a joint consensus of positivity. “I can remember thinking, ‘God, I can’t wait until everyone hears this’,” recalled Peter Buck some years later. “It was so different - it didn’t sound like us live, and it didn’t sound like anything else that was coming out.”
Thankfully, both public and critics agreed, and upon its release, ‘Murmur’ went on to overshadow its more established competition. This lo-fi, low budget debut topped Rolling Stone’s Album of the Year poll, succeeding over the expensive production of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’. R.E.M. was catapulted into the public eye and continually evolved during a career that spanned almost three decades.
After all this time, their debut stills holds the intrigue and excitement it had all those years ago. At a time when sound can often be secondary to image, ‘Murmur’ is a testament to the success of originality in music.
WORDS: STUART HOLMES
RELEASED: APRIL, 1983
PRODUCERS: MITCH EASTER, DON DIXON
MUSICIANS: MICHAEL STIPE VOCALS, PETER BUCK GUITAR, MIKE MILLS BASS, BILL BERRY DRUMS
1. ‘Radio Free Europe’
4. ‘Talk About The Passion’
5. ‘Moral Kiosk’
6. ‘Perfect Circle’
8. ‘Sitting Still’
10. ‘Shaking Through’
11. ‘We Walk’
12. ‘West Of The Fields’
1983: IN THE NEWS
Michael Jackson introduces the Moonwalk to the world.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is established.
The IRA car bomb Harrods in London.
Return Of The Jedi storms the box offices.
Blues legend Muddy Waters dies, aged seventy.
1983: THE ALBUMS
Malcolm McLaren - ‘Duck Rock’
U2 - ‘War’ Spandau Ballet - ‘True’
David Bowie - ‘Let’s Dance’ The Jam - ‘Snap!’