10 Things I Learned From the New R.E.M. Documentary

This week, R.E.M. put out a massive, six-DVD box set called REMTV, the latest in a steady stream of archival releases the band has offered fans since "calling it a day" in 2011. It includes the 110-minute documentary R.E.M. by MTV, which is the first film to tell the entire story of a group of Athens, Georgia 20-somethings who started as a party band and finished as one of the most revered groups in music history.

Using archival interviews and live clips instead of a narrator, it's a linear trip through this classic "local boys make good" tale that, despite a lack of hardcore drugs and inter-band lawsuits, should have any music fan on the edge of his/her seat.

I have read six books about R.E.M., listened to every song available from the band and, on a recent trip to Winnipeg, dropped my grocery money for the week on a box of magazines that featured R.E.M. on the cover. Going into REMTV, I thought I had an Encyclopedia Brittanica-level knowledge of the band, but perhaps I was more like a Wikipedia page that hasn't been updated in a few months. Here's a list of 10 things I learned watching the new R.E.M. documentary.

10. Michael Stipe initially thought Peter Buck's name was Richard
It's not like the singer was calling his guitarist by the wrong name through the end of the Lifes Rich Pageant tour. However, he did call him "Richard" for the first three months of their acquaintance, which started at Athens record store Wuxtry Records, where Buck worked and Stipe was a frequent customer. "He just never corrected me," says Stipe with a laugh in the documentary. Perhaps that's why Buck's solo project sometimes goes by the name Richard M. Nixon?

9. The producer of R.E.M.'s first record thought they were an electronica band
In an archival interview with early R.E.M. producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, Easter recounts his initial assumption about the band. Thanks to an artsy poster promoting a live appearance, Easter was surprised to learn that R.E.M. wasn't an electronica outfit when they arrived at his studio to record 1982's Chronic Town EP. To his credit, this is the group that made Up 16 years later.

8. Stipe fasted during the recording of Reckoning
1983's Murmur is one of the best albums of that decade, but its murky, mysterious sound wasn't quite indicative of R.E.M.'s rowdier live shows at the time. Reckoning better approximated the sound of your typical R.E.M. gig, where punky takes on "Don't Go Back to Rockville" and Bruce Springsteen covers were the norm. The faster, more-energetic LP couldn't have been a coincidence, since the group's singer claims to have fasted during the 11-day recording session. The rest of the band was drunk the whole time, he says in the film.

7. The members of R.E.M. lived well below the poverty level through the Fables of the Reconstruction period
In the documentary, a now financially secure Buck talks about the band's earnings in its early I.R.S. Records years. "We weren't paying ourselves very much," he says, in what might've been the understatement of the 1980s. The members of the band that beat out Michael Jackson and U2 for Rolling Stone's Record of the Year in 1983 and had an MTV hit with "So. Central Rain" the following year were only making $140 per month after expenses. According to my unscientific calculations, $140 in the mid-'80s has the same buying power as $320 today. No wonder R.E.M. needed an $80 million contract in 1996!

6. Out of Time was Stipe's attempt at writing intelligent love songs
The 1991 LP Out of Time might be best known for humongous hits like "Losing My Religion" and "Shiny Happy People," but for those who have taken time to get to know the record, the lush instrumentation, gorgeous harmonies and uncharacteristically (up until that point) inward lyrics are what define it. Stipe explains in an old clip that Out of Time found him fighting against bad love songs. "There are so many love songs that are so poorly written," he tells the interviewer. "Of course, the one biggest challenge for me as a lyricist would be to write a body of love songs that are intelligent."

5. R.E.M. sent out peanuts with copies of Automatic for the People
Any R.E.M. fan worth his/her salted peanuts knows that the title for 1992's Automatic for the People came from the slogan of Weaver D's Delicious Fine Foods in the band's hometown of Athens, but R.E.M. took their appreciation for the establishment a step further in the promotion for the hit record. Seven-thousand bags of Weaver D's peanuts were sent out to radio stations who received the record. The group's association with their local restaurant helped make it the Athens tourist destination it is today.

4. Buck was technically homeless during the Automatic For the People sessions
Buck's first marriage out of three was on the rocks by the time R.E.M. started recording Automatic for the People. "I didn't even have a house," he recounts in the documentary. "I was driving around listening to cassettes and staying in $19-a-night motels." This, the guitarist from one of the two biggest bands on the planet at the time. Surely, there were a lot of double takes from the other patrons at those cheap motels.

3. R.E.M. almost canceled on Prague three times during the Monster Tour
R.E.M's worldwide jaunt for 1994's Monster, their first tour in five years, was fraught with injuries and near-death experiences. The most notable was drummer Bill Berry's aneurysm, which caused the band to axe their originally-scheduled Prague date and led to him retiring in 1997. What most don't know is that Mike Mills fell ill with appendicitis in Europe in 1995, leading the band to postpone another string of dates, including one in the Czech capital. The band tacked on a makeup date at the end of their next European run, but on the morning of the show, Stipe suffered a hernia. Rumors spread that the show would be postponed for a second time, but the perseverant singer went through with the concert and was operated on in Atlanta the next morning.

2. R.E.M. reunited with their former drummer after completing Up
Berry announced his retirement from music just as the band were about to begin recording 1998's Up. The futuristic-sounding record became their first as a three-piece. After completing work on Up, the remaining three members sent a copy to Berry and gave him three days to listen to it. After that brief period, they met with the drummer-turned-farmer (presumably on his Georgia property) to discuss the record, drink wine, and talk about old times. "Boy, I felt like a chump," Berry says in the documentary, recounting realizing how his former band had made such a great record without him. "I must've looked like one." He later reunited with the band musically for a very brief time in 2007, performing at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and recording a John Lennon cover for charity.

1. R.E.M.'s initials meant something special to Stipe's grandmother.
R.E.M. randomly picked their name out of a dictionary and, although its entry explained that those letters stand for "rapid eye movement," they have no meaning when it comes to the band, despite Stipe's many lyrical references to dreams. (Even though their name is essentially meaningless, it still beats early contenders Slut Bank and Cans of Piss.) However, Stipe's grandmother made her own significance for the initials R.E.M. during the last years of her life. In a clip from the band's Hall of Fame induction, Stipe says that she once grabbed his hand and said that, to her, R.E.M. stands for "remember every moment."

Whether REMTV helps you remember every moment or teaches you about every moment, this superb documentary is worth a watch. If we're lucky, someday there will be a few more R.E.M. moments to remember, but this film will certainly do for now.


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