So, just when we thought that the biggest (no pun intended) R.E.M.-related news of the day was Michael Stipe unfurling his shiniest, happiest member on his Tumblr, the band announced on its website today that it is breaking up. The statement reads:
"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. 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." R.E.M.
Formed in 1980 in Athens, Ga., R.E.M. was one of the best, most important bands to come out of '80s underground rock. The band's debut record, 1983's Murmur, is still considered by many fans and critics to be R.E.M.'s greatest achievement, but this was a group that had several records that could be credibly designated with that distinction. The band's series of albums through the '80s and early '90s stands as one of the great runs in rock history, while at the same time providing a model for success with ethics and integrity that scores of other artists would draw inspiration from.
For fans that came up with them, R.E.M. was the gold standard for consistent excellence and a new kind of every-dude rock stardom, where you could be famous and still resemble a human being. The band didn't have a gold-selling record until its fourth record, 1986's Lifes Rich Pageant, and then R.E.M. went platinum with its next album, 1987's Document. By the time of 1991's multi-platinum Out Of Time, R.E.M. was one of the biggest rock bands in the world, and a beacon for newcomers like Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder, who would turn to Stipe as a sort of big-brother figure and career adviser as their careers exploded much more rapidly.
More classics followed: 1992's Automatic For The People was like the Pet Sounds of the alternative era, and a hard act to follow for 1994's more rock-oriented Monster. The tour in support of Monster proved to be the first major calamity of the band's career, as every member save guitarist Peter Buck fell ill—most notably drummer Bill Berry, who suffered an aneurysm while on stage in Switzerland. By the time of 1996's New Adventures In Hi-Fi, which was recorded during the Monster tour and remains one of R.E.M.'s most gut-wrenching works, Berry decided to quit the band.
Now working as a three-piece utilizing various sidemen, R.E.M. carried on for another 15 years with varying degrees of success. The band's commercial and critical fortunes took a significant hit, but for many fans R.E.M. rebounded on its last two records, 2008's Accelerate and this year's Collapse Into Now.
While today's announcement is surprising, at least it comes while the band was on a high note. As it stands, R.E.M. will likely be remembered as the band it was, not what it became in the latter half of its career. And that legacy is unimpeachable: No history of American music from the last century can be written without a chapter on R.E.M., and what it stood for.