At dinner one evening, James Finch, the owner of the NASCAR racing team we sponsored, was talking about a NASCAR driver who was simply going through the motions. As James Finch described it, the driver had quit driving years before, but still hadn’t gotten out of the car yet. I recalled this story last week when the announcement about R.E.M. breaking up hit Facebook. Early in the band’s history, they’d declared they’d be breaking up when one of R.E.M. quit or on December 31, 1999. Both events came and went (drummer Bill Berry left in 1997). True to their promise, R.E.M. “quit” creating much compelling new material (in my opinion) years ago, but they never got out of the car.
While that assessment of R.E.M. may seem overly harsh, I don’t mean it to be.
My opinion simply represents the frustration of a once incredibly invested R.E.M. fan. Outside of the live retrospective concerts R.E.M. did a few years ago or the few times on recent recordings where they actually rocked, it’s been disappointing to see a band which once earned the coveted “America”s best rock & roll band” designation on the cover of Rolling Stone going through the motions.
Nevertheless, I spent too much time listening to and learning the R.E.M. song catalog to not share how profoundly I was shaped by their early work:
- My appreciation for a DIY creative approach – If you have a passion for something, it’s wonderful to grab the “instruments” associated with your passion and start pursuing it creatively, whether you know much about “playing” the instruments or not.
- Giving equal credit to everybody on a strong creative team – Early original songs from R.E.M. were all credited “Berry / Buck / Mills / Stipe.” Their embrace of everybody getting equal creative credit regardless of individual contributions on any one aspect of the work is something I try to uphold.
- Borrowing creativity from others – Especially in concert, R.E.M. was notorious for performing a variety of well-known and obscure cover songs. While the group wrote some wonderful, exciting songs, it was more than willing to borrow creative inspiration from others and reshape it in their own way.
- Not sharing everything you can do – R.E.M. earned its initial fame with the song “Radio Free Europe.” Because it was a “hit” (or simply to be obstinate) though, R.E.M. hardly ever performed the song. I saw R.E.M. perform live six times and never got to experience it live, despite seeing some incredible shows. I took away that it’s okay to put some great work on the shelf in the pursuit of even better output.
Those are just four ways R.E.M. shaped my creative approach.
To wrap, I found this mid-1980’s R.E.M. concert from German TV several years ago. After sitting on it for several years, here’s the concert by individual song groupings – if you just want a sampler – or in its entirety (the last video) if you’re a big R.E.M. fan. I love this show because it was R.E.M. before all the pretense that crept in years later.
Take a look at any part of the concert video. You’ll definitely see the musical DIY roughness I described along with intriguing cover songs, but no “Radio Free Europe.” – Mike Brown
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