I.R.S Records/Bloomsbury Publishing/Salon
Excerpted from “R.E.M.’s Murmur” by J. Niimi (Continuum, 2005). Reprinted with permission from Bloomsbury Publishing.
It was back in Macon that Bill Berry first encountered Mike Mills, a fellow high school student. Mills is arguably the band’s closest thing to a “native” Southerner: though he too was born in California, like Buck, Mills’s parents moved to Georgia while he was still a baby. As a teenager Mills was a clean-cut straight-A student, while the teenage Berry was something of a long-haired stoner, and the pair did not get along well until the day they both happened to show up at the same band audition and reluctantly decided to bury the hatchet (as Berry had already set up his drum kit and thus couldn’t bail out of the rehearsal). The two ended up becoming best friends, playing together in a few different bands (including one called the Frustrations, which included a local guitarist by the name of Ian Copeland). The duo eventually moved to Athens together in 1979 to enroll at UGA.
The four future members of R.E.M. were finally introduced to one another by Kathleen O’Brien in the fall of 1979. It was a less than auspicious beginning: Stipe was put off by Mills’s falling-down drunkenness, but he did like Berry’s now-famous monobrow, which Stipe credits for tipping the scale in his decision to join up with the two Maconites. A few months later, O’Brien was planning a party at the church on Oconee Street in celebration of her birthday, to be held on April 5, 1980. She had gotten the popular local band the Side Effects to agree to play, but she now needed an “opening act.” She asked the as-yet-unnamed (in fact, barely formed) R.E.M. to play as well. The band was thrilled at the prospect and said yes, though they had only a couple of half-hearted, beer-soaked rehearsals under their belt by this point.
Buck and Stipe had written a few tentative songs together before they met Berry and Mills. Together the four of them worked out a few more originals, as well as a slew of covers, rehearsing in the back of the church during the Winter of 1979–80. After O’Brien’s invitation to play came in February, the band kicked up the pace, cobbling together a set’s worth of songs in the weeks before the party, deciding at the last minute on the name Twisted Kites (after discarding such other possibilities as Negro Eyes and Cans of Piss—though some band members claim that they played the party without any name at all).
About three hundred people showed up at the church that night, surpassing even O’Brien’s expectations: the birthday gathering was now an Event. After the Side Effects finished their set, Twisted Kites/R.E.M./untitled took the stage, playing about twenty songs, roughly half of them originals, to a wildly enthusiastic (and profoundly drunk) crowd. The band was so well received that night, in fact, that the crowd goaded them into playing their entire set a second time. Among the covers reportedly included in the set were “Honky Tonk Women,” “God Save the Queen,” “Secret Agent Man,” the Troggs’ “I Can’t Control Myself,” and the Monkees’ “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone.” Among the band’s originals that night (also documented on the early bootleg "Bodycount at Tyrone’s," recorded about six months after the party—a fairly representative cross-section of the band’s early material) was a nascent version of “Just a Touch,” which appeared in final form on "Lifes Rich Pageant" in 1986.
Their earliest material was fast, brash, and goofy. Most of the lyrics were first person narratives from Stipe directed, interestingly enough, toward women subjects (or possibly against women subjects, as some R.E.M. historians believe). There’s a liberal use of the rock pronoun baby, and plenty of I don’t wannas a la the first Ramones record. The band settled on the name R.E.M., picked from a dictionary—it didn’t have any trite “punk” connotations, and Stipe really liked the periods. Plus, like "Murmur," it was easy to pronounce.
The band was an almost instant hit on the Athens scene. But as they started to venture out of town, they realized that maybe they weren’t just a local beer-party phenomenon. With encouragement from Jefferson Holt—who had moved to Athens to manage the band—they decided to try and record a demo to send out to clubs and record labels. The band’s first “recording session” was held on June 6, 1980, a couple months after their gig at the church party, in the back of the Decatur branch of Wuxtry Records, where Buck had worked as a student at Emory. It was a stop-off on the afternoon of their first out of town gig at the Warehouse in neighboring Atlanta, essentially a rehearsal for the show, and they bashed through eight songs while Wuxtry owner Mark Methe videotaped them. (While the band never used the tape, which sounded like crap, the murky audio track of the session has shown up on various bootlegs over the years as "first demos.")
Holt suggested they make a proper recording to showcase their newer songs, so they booked a day at engineer Joe Perry’s Bombay Studio, a small eight-track setup in nearby Smyrna, in February of 1981. Within a matter of hours the band laid down eight songs, including skeletal versions of “Radio Free Europe,” “Sitting Still,” and “Shaking Through.” Though the tapes have never been made public, the results were apparently less than stellar—Holt urged the band not to send them around and went looking for another studio and engineer. At the suggestion of Peter Holsapple, Holt called Mitch Easter.
Easter recorded the band’s seven-inch on April 15, 1981, in his garage studio setup. The band wisely decided to focus on just a few songs, rather than banging out a whole mini-set as they did at Bombay, so they recorded “Radio Free Europe” and “Sitting Still,” as well as a third song, “White Tornado”—a quasi-surf instrumental they had just written. The band slapped together a few hundred handmade cassettes of the three songs (plus a “dub mix” of “Radio Free Europe” that Easter had later spliced together, half-jokingly) and sent the tape out to clubs, labels, magazines, and just about anyplace else they could think of. Hib-Tone released the seven-inch of “Radio Free Europe” b/w “Sitting Still” in July 1981; of the initial pressing of 1,000 copies, 600 were sent out as promos, and a total of around 6,000 additional copies were later pressed by popular demand (amazingly, since the first pressing mistakenly omitted any contact info for the label). The band was annoyed with the muddy-sounding mastering job (Buck smashed one of his copies and nailed it to a wall in his house), but the single spurred a critical buzz for the band, garnering wide-spread plaudits and landing on a number of year-end Top 10 lists. R.E.M. started to get letters from labels, most of which made them laugh. They threw them in the fireplace and kept playing.