After 30 years, 15 studio albums, dozens of iconic music videos and boundary-pushing tours (and just four core members) — not to mention a sphere of influence that extends from the nascent days of college radio to the buzzy blogosphere of today —
The band made the announcement Wednesday (September 21) on their website, posting a message that, like most things they did, was almost unyieldingly humble:
"To our Fans and Friends: As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band," their statement reads. "We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening."
The band — frontman Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry (a lineup that wouldn't change for some 17 years) — formed in the fertile music scene surrounding Athens, Georgia, in 1980, and after spending their early days touring the Southern states, they found their first modicum of fame with 1981's "Radio Free Europe," which garnered them critical acclaim and a contract with indie label I.R.S. Records. In 1982, they released their debut EP, Chronic Town, quickly followed by their first full-length, 1983's Murmur, which sold modestly but earned R.E.M. even more praise — particularly Buck's jangly guitar tones and Stipe's cryptic lyrics.
With each subsequent release — '84's Reckoning, '85's Fables of the Reconstruction, — R.E.M.'s fanbase only grew, and they quickly became pillars of the burgeoning "college rock" scene. They'd also continue to flirt with mainstream audiences, and by the time they released the overtly political Document in 1987, they finally consummated that relationship. Spurred by radio hit "The One I Love," it became the first R.E.M. album to go platinum.
They signed with Warner Bros. soon after and finally achieved massive success with 1991's Out of Time, a hugely influential album that featured the breakout hit (and accompanying eye-catching video) "Losing My Religion." It earned R.E.M. seven Grammy nominations, sold more than 12 million copies worldwide and has since become a tentpole of the alt-rock heyday of the 1990s. It also made them one of the hugest rock bands on the planet.
Undaunted, they followed the success of Time with the equally huge Automatic for the People (featuring hits "Everybody Hurts," "Drive" and "Man on the Moon") and the snarling Monster. But on tour for the latter, drummer Berry suffered an onstage aneurysm and Stipe underwent emergency surgery to repair a hernia. Still, they pressed on, re-signing with Warners (for a reported $80 million) and releasing the noticeably darker New Adventures in Hi-Fi, which didn't meet expectations from critics or fans and marked the end of their string of huge commercial successes.
Berry left the band in 1997, but the remaining members of R.E.M. pressed on as a three-piece (with a variety of drummers filling in behind the kit), releasing a string of albums —' '98's Up, '01's Reveal, '04's Around the Sun — that garnered critical acclaim but sold poorly in the U.S. (though it should be noted that worldwide, the band remained a huge commercial force). They wrote the instrumental score to the Andy Kaufman biopic "Man on the Moon" and continued to record, releasing their final album, Collapse Into Now, just this year.
Of course, though their commercial power faded during their later years, R.E.M. remained hugely influential throughout their entire career, thanks to their music, their activism and their unflappable, DIY ethos. They championed causes like environmentalism, voter registration, animal rights and handgun control, and everyone from Sonic Youth and the Replacements to Pavement, Radiohead and Nirvana cited them as huge inspirations. And, in 2007, when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it was Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder who gave their keynote speech and brought it all back to the beginning, joking that he'd listened to Murmur "1,260 times ... even though you can't understand a f---ing thing [Stipe] is saying."
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