The term “College Rock” was a term bandied about in the early 80s. “New Wave” had run its course and a new catch-all term to sum up the music that was not traditional rock, but not pretty or slick enough for MTV. Bands like U2, the Replacements, the Call, the Alarm, the minutemen and plenty of others broke through to the mainstream with varying degrees of success after starting out being ignored by commercial radio but championed by college radio deejays. Those guys and girls on late at night with hours to kill, not a whole lot of listeners and a healthy sense of adventure. Of all the College Rock bands, the college-est and rock-est was R.E.M.
Back in June, 1983, I walk into Blue Meanie, the best record store in El Cajon, if not the best record store in San Diego, and I see it, under “R” in the rack. The cover art is an odd image of kudzu, that obnoxious weed that is everywhere in the American south. The name R.E.M. stands out, the title, “Murmur” is not as pronounced, but I am intrigued. I had heard “Gardening at Night,” off of the EP “Chronic Town,” and loved the blue gargoyle on its’ cover. I just never got around to buying it. I grabbed “Murmur” and kept it with the pile of vinyl I was buying that day.
Back home, I put it on the turntable and crank the volume and wait. In the book and film “High Fidelity” Rob Gordon talks about the Top Five side one song ones in history. He opts for the Clash “Janie Jones.” Mine is right here, right now on “Murmur,” “Radio Free Europe.” That intro from nowhere with the percussive clap and right into the lyrics. “Decide yourself if radio is gonna stay…” Hooked. The jangly guitars from Peter Buck and the near sinister whine of Michael Stipe’s lyrics is like nothing else. Well, actually it’s like a lot of stuff I love. There’s plenty
of the Byrds rolling around right up front and a whole lot of d.i.y. attitude. “Murmur” was recorded at Reflection Studios in Charlotte, North Carolina by Mitch Easter and Don Dixon. There’s a sense that runs throughout the recording that spontaneity was encouraged.
Most debut albums showcase a band trying to find its sound. R.E.M. had found it already. Refusing guitar solos and synthesizers, R.E.M. wanted an organic, timeless feel for the record. They had a negative experience with Stephen Hague, who insisted on multiple takes of “Catapult.” Hague added keyboards without the band’s knowledge and they hated the finished product. R.E.M. asked to record with Easter and Dixon. The label agreed and what they ended up with is the best debut album ever. There is an almost Spartan feel, but a lushness to it too. Not to get all artsy, but “Murmur” sounded like a band shouting itself into relevance.
“Radio Free Europe” is 4:06 of pop-infused rock with a twinge of a southern accent. “Pilgrimage” has a haunting quality that would resurface loaded and clearer on side two with “West of the Fields.” Best of the bunch, for me at least, your milage may vary, is “Moral Kiosk.” I closed my eyes the first time I heard this and tried to picture a hut of morality out in the middle of nowhere. It was gorgeous. Side two was just as strong. “Catapult,” rings through the fog clearly, “Sitting Still” is the logical follow-up to “Radio Free Europe” and the guitars chime and ring.
As soon as side two ended, I flipped it back to side one. I did the same thing over and over. There were plenty of good bands I had liked before, plenty of records I loved too. But this was art, without rubbing your nose in it. It sounded like rock’n’roll with the macho swagger replaced by every little brother on the planet suddenly discovering their music meant just as much as their big brother’s and sister’s did. From the moment R.E.M. unleashed “Murmur” into the world, those conversations of, “Yeah it’s okay, but it’s not Bowie.” No, it was echos and chimes away
from Bowie. It was post-punk anguish and Byrds-y 60s rock funneled through an enigma named Michael Stipe. Seriously, it’s decades later and I still need a decoder ring to understand what he says. As the reluctant frontman, he had Buck on guitar, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry carving their initials into the redwood of rock’n’roll.
“Murmur” was the moment when my oxblood Doc Martens started tapping instinctively to the beat all by themselves. When “Murmur” played, dancing was compulsory. Singing along with Stipe’s unintelligible lyrics and discussing their meaning until dawn was a regular occurrence. Friends would come by to study, but we just ended up flipping “Murmur” over and over, laughing and trying to discern the meaning to “Beside defying media too fast/ Instead of pushing palaces to Put that, put that, put that before all/That this isn’t fortunate at all.”
All we knew was “Radio Free Europe” the song would do more to build pro-Western feelings in the Communist Eastern Bloc than the actual Radio Free Europe broadcasts. Letting the commies hear “9-9,” “Shaking Through,” or “Sitting Still” probably would have ended the Cold War a decade sooner. Many nights were spent drinking Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine, playing Risk and listening to “Murmur.” To this day, I do not regret two of those activities.