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A Sprawling Birthday Celebration for R.E.M.’s ‘Reckoning’

Thirty-five years ago, R.E.M. released one of the great rock albums of the 1980s, sending the Athens, Georgia, quartet on the road toward global stardom. Here’s a track-by-track breakdown of the album, as well as conversations with Patterson Hood, Mitch Easter, and Scott McCaughey.

Getty Images/R.E.M./Ringer illustration

Nearly four decades after the fact, it remains a source of mystery. How, exactly, did R.E.M. seem to emerge perfectly formed in 1982, like the armored Athena sprouting directly from the head of Zeus? Guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, drummer Bill Berry, and lead singer Michael Stipe were four individuals whose distinct skill sets and overlapping aesthetics complemented one another so perfectly that they seemed to proceed at once with an assurance belying other great bands. There appeared to be no learning curve, no hesitation, and no anxiety. Instead, beginning with the ready-made brilliance of their first single, “Radio Free Europe,” early R.E.M. records played like instant classics that for some reason no one had thought to make. Curated from a crate digger’s sensibility and abetted by an air of regional specificity and emotional idiosyncrasy, the records were both new and old, immediately accessible and mysterious in the extreme.

Following the scene-setting 1982 EP Chronic Town and the masterful full-length debut Murmur the next year, 1984’s Reckoning is both a refinement of the band’s early sound and a kind of culmination. It is the last record they would make with legendary producer Mitch Easter, the visionary singer-songwriter of Let’s Active, whose singular talent for finely honed, fast-moving pop would begin to be displaced in future iterations of the band by a more humid, melancholic feel. Reckoning is, in short, a nearly perfect distillation of an extravagantly talented young band playing with house money—not yet superstars, but well on their way, unfamiliar with failure and drawing from a seemingly limitless storehouse of top-notch material.

Our attempt to reckon with Reckoning starts with going through the record on a track-by-track basis: Because Elizabeth is an actual musician, her analysis has a lot to do with how R.E.M.’s music actually works and sounds, while Adam, being a superfan with no musical training or ability, is a bit more steeped in the band’s lore. We’ve also solicited input from R.E.M. aficionado Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, former R.E.M. affiliate member/fifth Beatle Scott McCaughey, who eventually joined the band in the early ’90s, and Mitch Easter himself.

Harborcoat

Elizabeth Nelson: As an opening gambit, this strikes me as the band making an exquisite display of the entire tool kit: a typically fetching major-minor Buck progression that lodges in your cerebral cortex within seconds, Michael Stipe murmuring inimitably gnostic phrases just fascinating enough to engage you on a dream-logic level, and Mills and Berry holding the thing down with a hammer-and-nail precision that keeps you fully grounded in the strangeness of a song named after an article of clothing I don’t think actually exists. By the time they get to the soaring major-key chorus, with Mills’s high tenor providing the perfect counterpoint to Stipe’s growly musings, it’s like they’re just showing off.

Adam Nayman: The entry for “Harborcoat” on Matthew Perpetua’s invaluable blog Pop Songs 07-08, which covers every single R.E.M. song released between Chronic Town and Accelerate, suggests that the lyrics have something to do with the Bolshevik Revolution, and since “Lenin” is one of the only discernible proper nouns in the song, I’m inclined to believe it, even if the lyrics seem to describe a more homespun form of realpolitik. The phrase “reddened their necks and collared their clothes” suggests a kind of Southern comfort, dressed to the nines in partisan garb. The emergence of R.E.M. as an overtly political band would have to wait two more years until the poetic protest songs of Lifes Rich Pageant (itself followed by the anti-Reagan deluge of Document), but however inscrutable the titular object and underlying ideology of “Harborcoat” may be, its cryptic come-ons at least hint at some hidden meaning.

7 Chinese Bros.

Nelson: Stipe’s lyrics on these early records are very weird. I don’t know that this gets enough attention. I have never felt they were placeholders or just chosen on the basis of timbre or phrasing. They are too specific, too evocative, and too deliberate. This song is a parable of some kind, a retelling (I suppose) of the Ming Dynasty folktale Ten Brothers, but with something like an inverted gender story of the prodigal son woven in (“she will return …”). The net effect is to situate the band in a kind of enigmatic temporal space, seemingly outside of the concerns of their immediate world. Even the version on Dead Letter Office where Stipe basically reads liner notes from a gospel album suggests a certain intention for the material to exist on a psychic wavelength that eludes simple interpretation.

Nayman: The Dead Letter Office outtake you’re talking about is called “Voice of Harold,” and it’s quite wonderful as an example of Stipe’s intuitive grasp of phrasing and delivery. The way he paces his singing so that banal promotional copy like “on and on the songs roll on / and soon you are caught up” feels imbued with melody and meaning—which is, of course, not the case, since the words and the music have absolutely nothing to do with each other. (The gospel album is called The Joy of Knowing Jesus by the Revelaires, and it’s pretty much impossible to find a copy online.) I’ve read that “Voice of Harold” was less an in-joke than an attempt by coproducer Don Dixon to coax the band’s lead singer out of his shyness, and it worked: On “7 Chinese Bros.” the tidy, ambling arpeggiations of Buck’s guitar lines are almost overwhelmed by the emotion and clarity of Stipe’s vocal, particularly the haunting, promissory refrain “she will return.” That line cuts through the knowingly mythic references of the verses—including those nods to Chinese folktales you mentioned and the tragic Greek hero Achilles (“wrap your heel in bones of steel”)—and disguised autobiography (Stipe has said the song is about him breaking up a couple by sleeping with both partners) to convey a sense of loss and retribution no less moving for being so indeterminate.

So. Central Rain

Nelson: Bono once compared Michael Stipe to Bing Crosby, and I think the chorus of this song is the kind of thing he was referring to: It’s difficult to think of a vocalist from the rock era who has more pure crooner in him. This is a remarkably well constructed song, with the sort of comet-streaking-through-the-sky sing-along hook that made R.E.M.’s eventual superstardom a foregone conclusion.

Having said that, this is also a great demonstration of what made the band so unconventional. The vibe here is reminiscent of Richard Thompson: timeless folk rendered with a rock edge and freighted with a sadness bordering on desperation. Which is to say, not exactly consonant with the Top 40 radio of the day. The influence of knotty English folk from the ’60s and ’70s—Thompson, Fairport Convention, and Incredible String Band—is one of the major distinguishing characteristics of the band and would reach its apotheosis the following year when they recorded Fables of the Reconstruction with Joe Boyd. Sidenote: “Rivers of suggestion” may be the single best descriptor of early R.E.M. imaginable.

Nayman: Rivers of suggestion, indeed: The spine on all vinyl copies of Reckoning reads “File Under Water,” a pretty good double entendre about how to position the record thematically—i.e., drenched in a torrent of aquatic metaphors—and maybe to go drown it in the bathtub if you don’t enjoy it. Definitely, water figures, however obliquely, into “Harborcoat,” “7 Chinese Bros.”—whose title characters are described as “swallowing the ocean”—and of course, “So. Central Rain,” which seems to describe an apocalyptic deluge (“the trees will bend, the cities wash away”) before dissolving into Stipe’s anguished cry of “I’m sorry.” Maybe it’s just the invocation of stormy weather, but I’ve always drawn a line between “So. Central Rain” and your pals/tourmates Wussy’s gorgeous 2014 single “To the Lightning.” But as I’ve already written plenty about Wussy, I’ll drop it. I’m sorry ... I’m sorry.

Pretty Persuasion

Nelson: One of the most purely ebullient songs in the entire R.E.M. catalog and a demonstration of their intuitive mastery of the pop form. Buck drops into his endless inventory of ingenious early Byrds Rickenbacker riffs and pulls out a doozy. Stipe and Mills duet with the confident ease of Lennon and McCartney circa Help! and Berry drives the whole thing with an urgency too frequently absent once he left the group. Whole careers were made just repurposing these three minutes and 50 seconds—all of the Gin Blossoms’ hits should pay royalties in perpetuity—and scene peers like Hüsker Dü and the Replacements would soon borrow heavily from the vernacular established here on classic tracks like “Makes No Sense At All” and “Never Mind.” Pretty magnificent stuff.

Nayman: I will brook no disdain for the Gin Blossoms: As Robert Christgau wrote, “Peter Buck himself would kill—or at least steal—for the gold-plated hook” of “Hey Jealousy.” Christgau was also pretty convinced that R.E.M.’s sophomore full-length effort was a step down from Murmur, opining sarcastically in his B+ (ouch) review of Reckoning that “[its] guitar chords ring out with a confidence in the underlying beauty of the world that’s all but disappeared among rock-and-rollers who know what else is happening.” No song on Reckoning rings out like “Pretty Persuasion,” which is breathtakingly pretty on the surface but devoid, I’d say, of “underlying beauty.” To be honest, I’ve always heard it as an expression of confused sexuality, with the “he” and “she” referred to in the chorus as two sides of the same gender-ambivalent identity rather than identifiers for a contentious couple.

Time After Time (annElise)

Nelson: I intend no inhospitality to the Gin Blossoms, whose hits are deep excavations into the human brain’s eclectic pleasure centers. Rather I mean to say that accomplished careers have been built off the back of the specific line items in R.E.M.’s panoramic genius. It’s like how all of Richard Diebenkorn’s paintings were inspired by just a short period in Henri Matisse’s career. (OK, now no one is reading, so we can talk openly.) Although notoriously Stephen Malkmus’s least favorite song on Reckoning, I would argue that “Time After Time” is both a good tune and an important one in the group’s evolution. Essentially a three-and-a-half-minute journey into the sonic netherland of drone, this is the band evoking the Beatles’ “Within You Without You” and kicking the tires on the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs.” Listen closely and the track is a dry run for the sped-up, epochal Document opener, “Finest Worksong,” which would shoot the starter gun on their next great phase.

Nayman: The repeated mentions of a “water tower” on “Time After Time” keep Reckoning soggy, but they also put me in mind of a band you just mentioned earlier—the Replacements. On the demo for “Can’t Hardly Wait,” Paul Westerberg vowed to “climb to the top of a scummy water tower.” Are water towers the common denominator between Minneapolis and Athens? Maybe there’s something in these cities’ respective water supplies that accounts for their shared and disproportionately high volume of canonical ’80s alt-rock acts? Anyway, we know that Westerberg was listening to R.E.M. in 1984, the year that Peter Buck almost produced Let It Be and played a lickety-split solo on “I Will Dare” (too many notes there for Bob Stinson’s slash-and-burn style). Even if the two groups never really sounded all that much alike, it’s easy to see why they (mostly) got along and to understand their combined appeal to rock critics deluged on all sides by sludgy arena metal, anodyne synthesizers, and “We Are the World”-style humanism.

Second Guessing

Nelson: It’s a tribute to the band’s talent that a song this structurally robust, craftily rendered, and energetically played feels like an afterthought amid the welter of wonderful material that populates the first three releases. This is all great stuff: the killer riff and urgent drum pattern at the top, the cheerfully malevolent counter-accusing lyrics, and the choruses that often go on at contenting length saying nothing other than “Whoa oh oh oh.” To me it feels like a deliberate decision to sequence something with a nervy tempo following the minitorpor of “Time After Time.” Early R.E.M. were ingenious at parceling out the contemplative moments in rational proportion with the rave ups.

Nayman: Most of the writing I’ve read on this song describes that brazen, joyful cry of “here we are” as the closest I.R.S.-era R.E.M. ever got to true rock ’n’ roll flamboyance, announcing their presence with something like chest-beating pride. Or maybe that’s just a fun way to hear it since—stop me if you’ve heard this one before—I have no idea what Stipe is on about.

There’s something very high school about the sarcastic-sounding query “Who will be your book this season?” as if taking a literary poseur to task, and in general, the same romantic animus floating around the edges of “7 Chinese Bros.” and “Pretty Persuasion” seems to manifest here too.

Letter Never Sent

Nelson: I always think of the Pretenders’ “Mystery Achievement” when I hear this tune. It starts out halting and ambiguous and then some manner of lightning strikes, and the next moment you are in the ebullient thrall of one of pop music’s great mood elevators. I’m curious about the metaphorical notion of a letter never sent. In some ways this characterizes the band’s status as indie outsiders with mainstream potential and ambition. Their most meaningful predecessors and contemporaries in the American indie rock scene—the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets, Hüsker Dü—were, at that time, essentially a letter never sent to the mainstream. R.E.M. was a letter actually received.

Nayman: It’s a well-reported piece of R.E.M. lore that the lyrics to “E-Bow the Letter”—the first single off of 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi—were taken pretty much directly from a piece of Michael Stipe’s personal correspondence: “This bus ride, I went to write this, 4 AM, this letter.” I thought of this because (1) I often think about “E-Bow the Letter,” unbidden (as do the writers of Showtime’s Billions, who recently inserted an “aluminum tastes like fear” reference into the show’s dialogue), and (2) to extend the postal metaphor, New Adventures was the last time that an R.E.M. record was sent to and received by a mass listenership, at least in the United States. Starting two years later with Up—their first album without Bill Berry, and the second release of a then-record-setting $80 million Warner contract that in retrospect looks like the beginning of the end of the CD era as we knew it—the group’s receding sales and declining profile would suggest that they were carrying on primarily for their fan club. Their 21st-century releases went out to the ones who loved them already.

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Nelson: This is the first time they really sound like the Doors. It’s “The End” for marble-mouthed teenaged degenerates. The next time they sound this much like the Doors, it’s on the breakthrough hit “The One I Love.”

Nayman: I’ve never liked the Doors and I don’t really like “Camera,” which slows things down more lugubriously than “Time After Time” and is probably on nobody’s list of the best R.E.M. songs ever. Which leads me to ask, since we’re spending all this time singing the praises of a band long valued for its album-by-album batting average, what is the worst R.E.M. song ever, for you? The commonly held belief that it’s “Shiny Happy People” is, I think, pretty stupid, as that’s evidently a great song (my daughter really likes the Sesame Street version featuring the floppy Kate Pierson muppet) the same way that Showgirls is a great movie: self-aware stupidity = smart. I nominate “The Wrong Child,” from Green, a thought experiment in which Stipe tries to sing from inside the perspective of a sheltered, disabled boy and ends up cultivating unintentional self-parody—and probably inspiring this deathless Corky and the Juice Pigs number, which is basically a cover.

(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville

Nelson: I don’t know if you’re being intransigent or if you’ve contracted a high fever, but of course everybody knows that the worst R.E.M. song is “Radio Song” from Out of Time. “Radio Song” makes “The Wrong Child” seem like “Tangled Up In Blue.” But let’s talk about a great song: “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville.” Written by Mills and sung with pitch-perfect empathy by Stipe, here is something entirely different: an R.E.M. song that could (and should) have been covered by George Jones. Everything about the band has been great up to this point, and now we find out they can do this too.

From a writing perspective, this is alloy-strong stuff. Mills relates his melancholy plea in a series of snapshots, imagining his estranged paramour in scenes of future unhappiness—nothing too terrible, tedium and ennui. Then he is describing his own predicament: drinking himself to sleep, stalked by bad dreams. It’s a math problem, really, that he’s setting up here. How do X and Y not become unbelievably screwed up? Y doesn’t go back to fucking Rockville! It’s so simple when he explains it this way.

Nayman: We’ll talk about “Radio Song” another time. But there’s no doubt that R.E.M.’s country move on “Rockville” beats their rap move, and while they never delivered a full ten-gallon album after that, Stipe’s doe-eyed cowboy routine on songs like “Texarkana,” “How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us,” and of course, “Man on the Moon” derives from this early aw-shucks gesture. The folksiness of Stipe’s phrasing and all those down-home details (“they don’t talk to anybody they don’t know”) would sprout, flower, and mulch on Fables of the Reconstruction, which is about as Southern Gothic as they got (I like to think that Driver 8 is headed to Rockville to pick up Old Man Kensey and Wendell Gee, but then I spend too much time wondering about such things).

Little America

Nelson: One of my favorite closers on any R.E.M. record, and one that arguably closes the book on the band’s first phase. After this it would be new producers, broader soundscapes, more direct lyrics, and bigger budgets. Appropriately valedictory, “Little America” is a sort of shorthand for everything they’ve done so well up to this point. An opening riff that turns the Yardbirds’ “Heart Full of Soul” upside down, an energetic vocal and compelling lyric from Stipe, and a locked-in rhythm section. The best couplet is “rally round your leaders / it’s the mediator season,” which suggests both the jingoism of the then-current Reagan administration and that something worse may lie in store for Little America. I can think of no more chilling description of our contemporary age of cable news and Facebook memes than “the mediator season.”

Nayman: I could never tell if this one was supposed to be cheerful or apocalyptic: “Another Greenville, another Magic Mart” sounds comfortingly banal until Stipe asks the band’s then manager Jefferson Holt to get his fiddle—what better musical accompaniment for a country on fire? At every turn, the lyrics seem to be referring to some impending, uncertain future (“I can’t see myself at 30”), and the combination of Buck’s riffage and Berry’s backbeat sounds unusually—and perhaps strategically—out of control. Which brings us all the way back to the cryptic anxiety of “Harborcoat” and its subtext that something is happening here, even if what it is ain’t exactly clear. Maybe it’s a result of your, ahem, paranoid style, but over the course of recapping a record I’ve always treasured for its sweetness and light I’ve become convinced that it’s actually pretty dark stuff. I’ll just have to listen to it again, right now, to make sure.


A Conversation With Patterson Hood

A decorated singer-songwriter and co-frontman of the Drive-By Truckers, Patterson Hood came of age in Alabama listening to and being inspired by early R.E.M. More than three decades later, he remains an ardent and passionate devotee. We spoke to him about the band’s influence on him as a songwriter and bandleader and the special significance of their shared southern heritage.

Nelson: While they would eventually digress and evolve in fascinating ways, early R.E.M. seemed to emerge as an astonishingly fully formed aesthetic phenomenon. Even bands that ultimately achieve world historic status generally experience a period where you see the seams showing or the learning curve taking place. In the case of R.E.M., they seemed to commence from “Radio Free Europe” as a first single and scarcely make a misstep all through their early years. As a person who has played in bands your whole life, I’m curious to know what you make of that.

Hood: I agree totally with your assessment. I think a lot has to do with their strange and wonderful chemistry. Possibly one of the all-time great chemistries ever. A wonderful balance. Quantifying simply, there were two pop guys, two rockers—although there was a ton of cross-balancing between the two camps to the point that calling it that is way too simple. Likewise, there was a balance of the avant-garde and conventional, the pretty and the ugly, the classic and the punk at a time when there was a lot more segregation between those two camps in the early ’80s music scene. An unwillingness to follow typical convention. The right balance between chops and a rebelliousness against the type of chops that were in style at that time. A restlessness and refusal to repeat themselves that kept them interesting even when things didn’t quite work, although for a long time things did work unbelievably well. They were young too. Most of them only a few years older than me and I was 18 when Chronic Town came out.

Nelson: As a southerner, I’m wondering if you experienced R.E.M. as a southern band and what that meant to you. Their relationship to time, space, and geography always felt elusive, but there is certainly something about records like Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction that seems to self-identify as culturally southern.

Hood: I always considered R.E.M. to be the greatest southern rock band of all time. They’re every bit as southern as the Allman Brothers, who I truly adore, as Duane is my all-time favorite guitar player, or Lynyrd Skynyrd who I also admire at least in their original run from 1973 to ’77. The Allmans truly had the greatest musicians, Skynyrd had that amazing mythology, and although stylistically different, they possessed so much of what I love about punk rock, even if they came from an earlier time. Van Zant was a fantastic songwriter, and they had a great sense of composition. But R.E.M. had great albums. Lots of them, in a row. They challenged themselves more and in so many different directions. They were the greatest of all. They were such a huge influence on [DBT cofounder Mike] Cooley and I in our Adam’s House Cat days and beyond. Still are. If you listen to the AHC album Town Burned Down you can literally count the R.E.M. references, even though they manifested themselves in many different ways. In more recent years, when I was having a hard time figuring out the next move on how to write a follow-up to the DBT album American Band, it so happened that the reissue of Automatic for the People came out and became a bit of a touchstone to me in figuring out a new direction. As I said, you’d probably never hear that in a literal way listening to it, but it definitely was a huge influence, especially in the sequencing and general vibe of how to express the things I was feeling and having a hard time expressing in song.

Nelson: What strikes you as Reckoning’s specific legacy both within the band’s catalog and in a larger context?

Hood: Most days it’s no. 1 or 2 on my list. Chronic Town was so much fun and such a breath of fresh air. Murmur was so weird and vibey. But Reckoning had such amazing songs. They really grew as songwriters on that one. Each and every song was so strong. It was the most consistent until Automatic for the People, and the two of them make for a wonderful combo of the best of the I.R.S. and Warner Bros. years. “So. Central Rain,” “Harborcoat,” “7 Chinese Bros.,” and especially “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville”—those are just amazingly constructed and written songs. Songs that have really held up all these years later. 1984 was such an incredible year for rock and roll music. Purple Rain, Born in the U.S.A., Let It Be, Learning to Crawl, such a great year. Reckoning definitely holds up as well as any. Perhaps better than most of them.

A Conversation With Mitch Easter

As the creative force behind the wonderful ’80s-era band Let’s Active, Mitch Easter possesses the legacy of a great singer-songwriter in his own right. However, he may be better known at this point for his role as producer on the three early R.E.M. releases that burnished the credentials of a group that would go on to attain legendary stature. We spoke to him about his experiences recording Chronic Town, Murmur, and Reckoning and what he hears when he listens back to those records after more than three decades.

Nelson: From the perspective of an outsider, it feels like R.E.M. emerged as a fully formed aesthetic entity to an almost magical extent. As someone who was there from the beginning, I’m curious to know your perspective on this.

Easter: I met them when they had been together for about a year, so I’m sure they developed a lot during that time, but yes! They kind of struck me as Venus-like too. At the same time, I was surprised at how much they were not exactly of their time. In one way they were—there was a certain tone in the old batch of songs that had a vibe like nothing I knew from the past and seemed modern—but then there was the vaguely pastoral, old element. Live, they were pretty punky, which served them well and was great fun. They just had a really perfect set of attributes, I guess. I had just started recording people for real when I did my first session with them, and it made me feel really optimistic about things.

Nelson: Bearing that in mind, do you remember significant differences in the experiences of recording Chronic Town, Murmur, and Reckoning?

Easter: By now most people know about the infamous test session which they did before Murmur, at the insistence, or maybe recommendation, of the record company. Having just done Chronic Town, which was fun, fast, and a bit experimental, I was shocked at how anti–studio production they had become. And it was due to the unfortunate mismatch between the band and the producer on that test session. I don’t really think their core aesthetic had changed, but they had become wary of potential sonic cheesiness. A smart and bold stance to take in the early ’80s, and a little bit mystifying to me at the time. We came up with a production vocabulary they were okay with, and on Murmur the result was a record that is hard to date. Which is a nice feature.

Reckoning was only a year later, but the band was moving a lot faster. It’s a record that reflects their situation—excitement, change, the sadness of loss, and some pure art motive too. The sound is a little more spare and somewhat more like their live sound. I always think this one was even faster to make than Murmur, but I think in fact it took a day longer. The session was efficient, and I think everybody was generally pleased with what was happening, but there was a little bit of distraction in the sense that they were definitely being noticed by then.

Nelson: Early R.E.M. feels like a unique hybrid of the artier side of the late ’70s New York scene—say Television and Talking Heads—mixed with the nominally more straight-ahead tradition of southern power pop ranging from Tom Petty to Dwight Twilley and Alex Chilton. Your own great band Let’s Active was covering a lot of the same aesthetic terrain at that time. I’m wondering if this is something you discussed with them—not only favorite songwriters or bands but regional and geographic distinctions within different scenes and how to effectively draw from them.

Easter: No, I think all of us just did the best we could. There’s never been too much that was exactly or effectively intentional about bands in my experience, beyond what happens when you like certain records and like playing in a band. There’s never been a manifesto. About regionalism, I dare say southerners may be a little more happily unconcerned about what one is “supposed” to do. I’ve never heard a southern band give an interview like, say, KISS would. A more typical southern-band take on things would be the Big Star interview on that WLIR radio show in 1974—do you know this one? The interviewer talks about Alex Chilton’s past with the Box Tops and asks how the music business was back then compared to now. And Alex says, “Pretty scummy, really, about as scummy as now,” which he says kinda laughing, which to me says, “I realize this is all ridiculous and I don’t really care.” That notion is probably the strongest commonality between southern bands. It’s an attitude which may overlap with problematic qualities like laziness and cluelessness, I suppose.

Nelson: The songs on Reckoning are almost like perfect machines, delivering big hooks and emotional payoff with astonishing efficiency. In that way they seemed to draw from punk, but in other ways that differentiated them from scene peers like the Replacements or Hüsker Dü. They never seemed inclined to blow through their material at breakneck speed or turn up to intimidating volume levels. What about R.E.M. do you think inclined them against the more abrasive edge of some of their contemporaries?

Easter: The thing is, they were pretty ferocious live, and there was a fair bit of breakneck speed. I don’t know exactly how they saw themselves in the scheme of things, but I think what is curious is that they had a pretty different approach on stage than in the studio. I think it was just what happened, I can’t imagine them lowering themselves to a discussion of strategies. They seemed about as organic and real as you could get. Anyway, in the early days, if you had walked into the bar and they were playing, they wouldn’t have seemed immediately noticeably different from a proper punk band.

Nelson: Reckoning was the final R.E.M. release you worked on, and it does feel in a sense like the culmination of a kind of trilogy alongside Chronic Town and Murmur. I’m curious to know if you had a sense when the record was over that you wouldn’t be recording the band again?

Easter: Maybe! I didn’t want to wear out my welcome, so I didn’t lobby them to do another one. I just felt like they might want to have new experiences with record making. I would have been happy to keep working on their records, but I knew all these famous people were getting in touch with them. It was all just interesting to me, and to see them getting famous too. So yeah, I figured they would move on.

Nelson: Do you ever put those early records on all of these years later, and if so, what about them strikes you?

Easter: Reckoning has more of that “room” sound as compared to Murmur. I think of Murmur as having an “interior” sound, while Reckoning is on an unreal stage. The funny thing about records I’ve worked on is that they always surprise me when I hear them years later. They always sound a little, or a lot, different than what I remembered. This must be some kind of official syndrome! Reckoning always sounds, you know, great.

A Conversation With Scott McCaughey

A legendary figure in rock music circles, Scott McCaughey began his career as frontman and singer-songwriter for Seattle’s Young Fresh Fellows, before going on to join R.E.M. as a second guitarist in 1994. He currently plays in the bands the Minus 5 and Filthy Friends alongside his longtime best friend, Peter Buck.

Nelson: Why was R.E.M. so good, so quickly?

McCaughey: I think they found themselves by going with their strengths and instincts over a fixed idea of a certain kind of sound or image they wanted to present. Peter’s knack for an arpeggiated cascade of notes over power chords immediately set them apart. Then you had a second melodist on bass—Mike wasn’t beholden to chords or chord structures. And Bill would give the songs an almost disco punch, which I believe was deliberate and kinda sneaky. And then with Michael as a fourth instrument, really, coming from a place that wasn’t wedded to any idea of what a rock singer should be. It was the perfect storm.

Nelson: I’m curious to know your thoughts about regionalism and the role that played in early R.E.M. Pacific Northwest bands like yours and the Fastbacks owed a debt of gratitude to regionally specific garage rock like the Sonics, and I think of R.E.M. as having the DNA of southern acts ranging from Gram Parsons to Alex Chilton. Do you remember thinking that R.E.M. was a band with a specific southern sensibility?

McCaughey: It’s funny, but it didn’t occur to me back then as thinking of R.E.M. as being particularly southern. I’d heard of Athens as the place that birthed the B-52s, but that might as well have been in outer space as far as that went. So I thought of R.E.M. as being a band from a fertile college town, more than the south. They seemed as far from Lynyrd Skynyrd as did Pink Floyd. Of course, now I totally hear it, but like the B-52s, and bands like Pylon and Love Tractor, as well as the dB’s/Let’s Active N.C. gang, they made me question what made southern rock southern. Now, the Flat Duo Jets—they did scream “the south” to me. Chilton of course was duly recognized as influential to R.E.M., and Mike does love his Gram [Parsons]. And it’s no question that the band worked their magic all across the southern college-town circuit before they caught on elsewhere, with their mysterious kudzu-covered Gothic weirdness. As far away again as the punk/garage/Stooges cruddiness that was fueling us losers in the Northwest.

Nelson: You had the unique perspective of joining R.E.M. many years after Reckoning had been released. I’m wondering what your experience was in terms of how the band felt about their early material by the time you joined up in the early ’90s.

McCaughey: When I started playing with R.E.M. in 1994, they had little interest in playing songs from Reckoning and earlier. The focus was always on the newly excited forward-propelling material. Also, you have to realize how many times they’d played those songs, 200-plus nights a year early on. A deserved break was in effect. And I do think it felt like coming from a different time, almost a different band. By the time we got to Up, one could argue it was a different band. But the further we got away from those early songs, the more likely it was to return to them, which we did increasingly, gladly, in later tours.

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