The latest success story from the rock underground is an enigmatic quartet from Athens, Ga., that goes by the initials R.E.M. (Rapid Eye Movement). It was only five years ago that the members of R.E.M. were content to play at local parties around the college town of Athens. Today, the band is selling out Radio City Music Hall in New York City and other big venues across the country.
R.E.M. is at the forefront of a movement that is gaining a strong foothold in the mainstream. Groups such as the Violent Femmes from Milwaukee, the Fleshtones from New York City, and other bands from Kansas, New Jersey, and points all across the country are heralding a kind of American rock renaissance, a return to the simple guitar-bass-drum format that the music was founded on.
Call it folk-rock or garage-band-rock or no-frills-rock, it's basically the same rough-edged, un-slick sound that R.E.M. has cultivated all along. No synthesizers, no drum machines, no 24-track digital recording equipment: This band stands in defiance of current record company standards. Yet their current album for the independent I.R.S. record label, ``Fables of the Reconstruction,'' has crept into the Top 30, and has already racked up sales of over 350,000 (a respectable figure for a major label artis t, a phenomenal figure for an underground band).
Robert Haber, who publishes a new music tip sheet for college radio stations (perhaps the most progressive programmers in the country), believes that R.E.M. has made inroads into the mainstream on its own terms. ``They've done what few bands have done. They've managed to catapult themselves into mainstream acceptance without compromising their music or losing their core support. And in the process, they've become a beacon for this whole new wave in American rock music.''
How did such a phenomenon occur? How did R.E.M. get the ball rolling? And just what is it about the group that attracts people?
Mr. Haber says they got a healthy word-of-mouth campaign going through relentless touring and self-promotion. ``There has not been a band since The Police in '78 to pound the pavement like these guys did. They were everywhere.''
Their attraction is something else. In an industry dominated by a homogenized sound (synthesized drums-and-bass mixed well upfront, vocals heavily treated with effects and mixed into the foreground, synthesizers and sequencers providing background color and subliminal hooks), R.E.M.'s music is oddly unconventional. Michael Stipe's vocals are at times barely audible, buried beneath layers of Peter Buck's jangling, chiming guitar chords and the call-and-response interplay between bassist Mike Mills and dr ummer Bill Berry. Stipe's mumbled delivery and surrealistic imagery (whenever you can decipher the lyrics) adds a haunting touch to the proceedings.
Guitarist Buck, a self-taught player who didn't learn to play guitar until he joined the band, confesses to being short on technique and flash. Yet critics have called him one of the most refreshing guitar stylists since Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits.
``I'm not much for showoff guitar,'' he maintains in a recent interview in the Manhattan offices of I.R.S. records. ``I'm really more of a songwriter than a guitar player. . . . My job in this band is to make the guitar kind of pithy and concise and interesting to provide a good setting for the song.''
He adds, ``There's a vagueness about our music, I think, that keeps it interesting. So every time you listen to our records, you hear something different, unlike most of the records you'll hear on the radio today.''
R.E.M. has been the darling of college radio programmers ever since they broke out with their first independently produced single, ``Radio Free Europe.'' Their debut with I.R.S. records, ``Chronic Town,'' turned a lot of heads in 1982, but it was their follow-up LP, ``Murmur,'' that really caused a stir. That evocative album, with its typically hazy production and murky, moody atmosphere, ended up on several music magazine polls, ranking right up there with Michael Jackson's ``Thriller'' for Top Ten Bes t albums of 1983.
By 1984, with the release of ``Reckoning,'' the four lads from Athens were appearing on the covers of influential music magazines such as Musician, Music & Sound Output, and Progressive Media, as well as the fanzines and underground weeklies that had championed the band's cause since its inception.
Fans seem to respond to their no-nonsense approach, both on record and in concert. At R.E.M.'s recent show in New York City at Radio City Music Hall, there was a noticeable lack of theatrics. No laser lights, no flash pots, no video screens or smoke filling the stage. Instead, the band members simply played. Singer Stipe doesn't indulge in any gymnastic leaps about the stage, he doesn't dress in outrageous garb, he doesn't dance like Michael Jackson. True to form, he mumbled his lyrics into the microph one, moving from shadow to light on the minimally lighted stage. Buck unleashed his signature Byrds-like onslaught of jangling chords. Berry and Mills propelled the band with enthusiasm and energy.
The key here is that they looked like a garage band. The crowds who turn out to see R.E.M. don't idolize the four musicians from Athens. The college crowd is a questioning lot, and the oblique music of R.E.M. challenges the listener in ways that sterile, formulaic pop music never has and perhaps never will.