KEXP is celebrating its 50th anniversary as a radio station this year. To honor that celebration, each week we’re looking back on one year of music during the past five decades. This week, we’re celebrating the year 1982 with R.E.M.’s “Gardening at Night.” Dusty Henry reflects on the band’s debut EP and their legacy as indie rock pioneers. Listen to the piece or read it below.
It’s strange for me to think of R.E.M. as anything but ubiquitous. That’s part of the great mystery of getting into music when you’re young. There are all these artists with sprawling catalogs and mythologies that feel like they’ve always existed. How do you wrap your head around acts like The Beatles and Nina Simone cutting their teeth playing bars? These artists are more like Greek gods who have beginnings and ends only speculated about in legends. R.E.M. even started in Athens… Georgia.
Athens’ pantheon extends to a slew of influential bands, including The B-52s, Widespread Panic, Vic Chesnutt. It also houses one of the headquarters of the Elephant 6 music collective, featuring bands like Apples in Stereo, of Montreal, and Neutral Milk Hotel. And that’s just scratching the surface. R.E.M. wasn’t the first band to break out from this fertile music scene, but their name would become synonymous with the Southern city.
R.E.M. began as a foursome while attending the University of Georgia in 1980. It’s a fitting place to start for a band who’d become synonymous with the ambiguous genre of “college rock” – the type of underground, alternative music being played on college radio stations unbeholden to playing top 40 hits. Within a year of forming they’d release their first single, “Radio Free Europe.”
The song was murky, almost unintelligible. But also, undeniable. Michael Stipe’s warbling vocals, Peter Buck’s jangling guitars, and Mike Mill's rapid bass line are held together with Bill Berry’s steady beat. It’s amorphous, yet dripping with melody. This sound would become a calling card for the band, later informing the name of their first full-length album Murmur. But not before they’d continue to cut their teeth with their 1982 debut EP, Chronic Town.
While Chronic Town doesn’t quite see the band having new adventures in hi-fi, it finds the band starting to crystallize. Stipe’s words are still hard to decipher, but this only makes the band more intriguing. It’s not just his words, but Stipe’s voice is compelling in itself. His voice quivers when he reaches for those dynamic high notes. His slight southern accent emerges when he dips down low, sounding bookish and self-assured, even when it’s still unclear what he’s trying to say. It’s the perfect foil for the band’s dreamy arrangements. Stipe and the band revel in their ramshackle aesthetics. Chronic Town feels like something you’d hear blaring out of the neighbors' basement – muffled and noisy, but charming and invigorating.
Among the band’s many accomplishments on Chronic Town is writing arguably the greatest song ever about using the bathroom outside. (I will certainly entertain arguments if any of our listeners want to weigh in.) Maybe even more so than “Radio Free Europe,” “Gardening at Night” feels demonstrative of the early R.E.M. sound. Buck’s trademark jangly riffs break open a barrage of sound that feels instantly iconic. Despite Stipe mumbling his words and the band embracing the muddiness of their production, “Gardening at Night” feels like a full-on pop moment. It’s a testament to the power of a melody and a band willing to take a shot on their vision with no clear precedent to hang their hat on. The song feels like a prototype for the next 40 years of indie rock.
Even as they broke ground, Chronic Town and the albums the band would release on I.R.S. Records through 1987 represent just one era of the band. They’d spend the rest of their career continually reenvisioning their sound. Signing to Warner Brothers Records, the group went from underground critical darlings to one of the biggest bands in the world.
As their budgets and esteem grew, R.E.M. continued to stay true to their artistic roots. Sure, Stipe’s vocals and lyrics became more clear. The band’s arrangement grew bigger and more complex with new instruments and expensive studios at their disposal. They wanted to try on new sounds like new clothes. Folky and forlorn one day, distorted and glammed up another.
They’d continually uplift new bands that excited them, befriending the likes of Nirvana and Dashboard Confessional early on in their careers. They started to build a sense of community between these young punks who similarly snuck their way into the major label machine. Despite their platinum record plaques and Billboard hits, they always felt like the biggest indie band in the world.
I caught the band live once, headlining the 2008 Sasquatch! Music Festival at The Gorge here in Washington. It started to rain heavily during their set – not ideal for an outdoor venue. Instead of postponing or complaining, the band embraced the chaos. I vividly remember Stipe taking off his shoes and sliding barefoot across the stage. I’d only been worshipping at the band’s altar for a few years at that point.
Seeing Stipe giddily splash in the water left a huge impression on me. It demystified the deification I’d imposed on them. As much as I’d felt that bands like R.E.M. existed in some higher realm, Stipe was showing his humanity. In a stuffy environment like indie rock, there’s still fun to be had. You can follow your whims to new sounds and sonic territories, or maybe they’ll lead you to literally singing in the rain.
The band would break up in 2011 just after releasing their final album, Collapse Into Now. Even over a decade removed from the band’s end, their creative bravery and freedom continue to resonate.
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