How R.E.M.’s Small-Scale Ambitions Came Up Big on ‘Murmur’
R.E.M.'s debut album, Murmur, released on April 12, 1983, was perfectly titled. They did indeed arrive like a murmur, something you heard in passing more than really saw coming.
R.E.M. were music-press darlings, oft mentioned but far-less-often seen. Ghosts from a different, weirder time where jangles and hard-snapping rhythms mixed with enigmatic, often indecipherable words, they grew up around the fading trends of synth-pop and New Romantics like Murmur's cover-image kudzu – and eventually choked them off.
Yet the goals, if they're being honest, were small.
"I thought I'd make a couple of records, then be the guy at the record store where people would come in and go, 'He made this cool record that came out in 1983,'" Peter Buck told Rolling Stone in 2016. "I didn't expect to make a living at it. I never owned a new car; I bought all my clothes used. I bought a house, but it cost $52,000. I was the first person I ever knew who owned a house. I was like, 'This isn't bad. It's got two extra bedrooms, so I can rent them out to pay the mortgage.'"
Buck never had to resort to side hustles like that, of course, though his quip about the record store didn't come out of thin air. Buck was, in fact, working at just such an establishment when he met a young Michael Stipe, setting off the first glimmers of R.E.M.'s off-beat alchemy. Mike Mills and Bill Berry eventually completed their initial lineup, as R.E.M. took full advantage of relaxed climate in sleepy Athens, Ga., to hone their sound.
"If you grew up in New York or L.A., it would change your viewpoint on just about everything. There's no time to sit back and think about things," Mills told Spin in 1985. "Our music is closer to everyday life – things that happen to you during the week, things that are real. It's great, just to bring out an emotion. Better to make someone feel nostalgic or wistful or excited or sad."
Musically, they led with a post-punk rhythmic attitude and Byrds-y folk leanings; Stipe's devastatingly shy, Southern gothic-sounding musings tended to wander around back. That template was set with "Radio Free Europe," R.E.M.'s first single. Originally released in 1981 before they'd signed to I.R.S. Records, then reworked for Murmur two years later, the song packed an inscrutable wallop. Mostly because Stipe hadn't even completed the lyrics before the session got underway. It wasn't the only one.
"The earlier songs were incredibly fundamental, real simple, songs that you could write in five minutes," Stipe told Alternative America in 1983. "Most of them didn't have any words. I just got up and howled and hollered a lot." A few years later, he described "Radio Free Europe" as "complete babbling." Yet Murmur still connected. Even Stipe didn't know why at first.
It took time, Stipe told the Guardian in 2011, but he eventually came to understand this was his own distinct way of communicating, that he'd found an intuitive new form. "I do have something to offer," he mused, "but it's just in a different dialect, a different language."
Watch R.E.M.'s 'Radio Free Europe' Video
The reason R.E.M. fans rallied around Murmur can also be found right there in the album name: A murmur causes people to pull in close, to intently focus, to study for the smallest of clues. Not many did, not nearly as many as soon would. But for those who bought this mesmerizing debut, its whispered meanings became personalized, something far more specific than the sweeping statements made by the typical MTV-era band.
"Radio Free Europe" was just the appetizer. Elsewhere, "Pilgrimage" pointed to their more widely heard experiments with form; "Sitting Still" spoke to their nervy youth; "Perfect Circle" is as gorgeous a song as R.E.M. ever committed to tape. Still, things remained remarkably lean.
"Most fans may not realize that for two years before Murmur was released, we barely made financial ends meet by playing tiny clubs around the Southeast," Berry said in the liner notes for Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011. "Our gasoline budget prevented us from venturing further."
The I.R.S.-released version of "Radio Free Europe" actually got no higher than No. 78; "Talk About the Passion," the second single, didn't chart at all. As a result, Murmur barely crept into the Billboard Top 40 – despite the fact that Rolling Stone snubbed Michael Jackson, U2, Prince and Bruce Springsteen in naming Murmur the best album of 1983. More praise would follow. Much more.
R.E.M. were soon hailed as the voice of a new generation – no matter their personal misgivings. "It was something that I really, really did not want," Stipe confessed to Rolling Stone in 1994. "It was like 'Wait a minute — I'm a fucking singer in a rock 'n' roll band. I did not ask for this.' It's a lot of pressure. If Murmur or [R.E.M.'s sophomore release] Reckoning had sold 5 million copies, I wouldn't be alive to tell the tale."
Quite frankly, at this point, R.E.M. could scarcely imagine such things – and, thankfully, they didn't need to. There was little label pressure, since Murmur only cost about $25,000 to make. Still not that far removed from their days as a local band seriously considering the name Twisted Kites, R.E.M. were allowed to mature at their own occasionally desultory pace. They stumbled into superstardom, much as they had stumbled into one another.
Buck got his first record-store job purely by happenstance, before dropping out of an Atlanta college. ("I hung out so much," he told the Chicago Tribune in 1989, "that they gave me a job for something like a dollar an hour to sweep up, maybe $2 an hour in credit.") About a year after drifting into a similar job in Athens, Stipe came walking in.
"Athens is a small town; I'd have met him anyway," Buck told the Tribune. "I'd heard he was a good singer; but the first time I saw him was in a band of old hippies. They were doing Santana songs, but then Michael would get up and do Elvis [Presley] covers, or Paul Revere and the Raiders songs."
Listen to R.E.M.'s 'Laughing'
They began jamming with Mills and Berry – a pair of college friends from nearby Macon who had been in a funky band Buck says was known for doing songs by Freddie King and the Ohio Players. The story goes that this new group finally decided on the name "R.E.M." after randomly selecting it from a dictionary. The embryonic sound heard throughout Murmur came together just as quickly, even if they didn't always understand the narratives Stipe began attaching to them.
"Michael's songs were kind of even more baffling back then, because we had to get used to his take on things," Mills told the Guardian in 2001. "On Murmur, there were these references to weird statues and stuff. It only made sense to me sonically back then."
Hopeful, they made an aggressive return to the concert trail. Stipe, in a 1989 talk with Rolling Stone, compared these early years to Jack Kerouac's On the Road – calling it "harrowing, but a blast. ... Peter and I certainly had romantic ideas along those lines, and damned if we didn’t do it."
Bar by bar, college-radio spin by spin, R.E.M. took the gospel of Murmur to ever-widening circles of fans. "We moved from small clubs to medium-sized venues," Berry said in the liner notes for Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011, "and the additional revenue made it possible to logically pursue this wild musical endeavor."
There was nowhere, almost literally, where R.E.M. would not play. "We really soon got the reputation of 'Well, they'll do anything,'" Buck told Rolling Stone. "We were broke and we had to sell some fucking records, so, 'Yeah, sure, we'll play the pizza parlor.'"
That was the next goal, now that Murmur was behind them: To make another record. But something else happened along the way. R.E.M. ended up changing the way music was listened to, and then how it was made.
"Murmur came out at a time where it was unusual; nothing else sounded like it that year," Buck told the Chicago Tribune, pointing out that R.E.M. helped reintroduce hometown roots music to music buyers. "After the punk thing died down, everything went back to the same old synth-pop. We helped bring back the feeling of the local rock band, do-it-yourself sort of thing." It started, like so much concerning R.E.M., with Murmur.