The club was dark, rowdy, dangerous, and populated with the best New Orleans had to offer: gay men in thin-lapeled jackets and ruby slippers, shag-headed women with bleary eyes, and stringy-haired junkies who only came to New Wave night at The Beat Exchange because they could buy heroin in the back and needles behind the bar. Few cared that the featured act that March night was the truest garage band working the East Coast: those four lovable mop-heads from Athens, Gee-A—R.E.M.
Peter Buck, his ragged-cut black hair sticky-stiff with lemon juice and road dirt, leaned against the bar taking it all in and scowling at the crowd’s oblivious, uncaring mood. A woman behind the bar wiped beer suds from the cooler and bemoaned her recent bad luck. “Oh, I’ve had so many problems lately,” she shouted above the house music. “Last week I had to fire a guy because he was selling needles and junk over the counter. But thank goodness that’s all taken care of.”
Peter sucked on a longneck Bud and stared at the woman. “Lady, I hate to break it to you, but in the bathroom there are works stuck in the wall and a whole fistful of ’em clogging the toilet.”
The woman exclaimed like an exasperated mother concerned, “Oh, damn! Not again! Those boys!”
It was another show on the road, but this one was a little different. For a couple of months earlier R.E.M. had been talking about record deals, entertaining the curious interest that followed the surprising popularity of their muddy little power pop single from the summer before. They’d met a few record company reps. Talked some stuff. Nothing definite. And when they hit New Orleans they were told that a representative from I.R.S. records might show up to see them play at The Beat Exchange.
They went on and played to a crowd preoccupied with scoring dope. To most of the audience the band was background noise, an ambient din, and so the band played without connecting, without their performance rising to something special. After the show the band members sat around the dressing room, drying their sweat, drinking their beers. Michael was quiet, slightly disappointed in their performance and the lackluster audience. “That sucked tonight,” he said. “I’m glad the record company guy didn’t come.”
As if on cue, a young lanky man walked into the dressing room. “Hi,” he said. “I’m Jay Boberg from I.R.S.”
Peter chuckled at their fate, saying, “Aw, man, I was afraid you were going to say that. We were hoping you didn’t make it.”
But Boberg surprised them all. “No way, man, you guys really blew my mind tonight. It was great!” He liked them. He wanted to sign them. They had got what they wanted; they were almost there.
The previous fall, on the tail of their single, R.E.M. had recorded some songs for an EP. They had enough material for a full-length album, but the band wanted to take things one step at a time. While they checked out record deals, they planned to release the EP by themselves, on Dasht Hopes, the name Jefferson had made up for a playtime promo company during his earlier romping days in Chapel Hill. Jefferson’s friend David Healy, who was spending a furious but brief few months in Athens, had coopted the name to use for a label and promised to put up the money.
“When it got time to do the EP we already had worked at Mitch’s for a day, but it was still kind of like we’d never been in a studio,” Pete Buck recalls. “We didn’t understand it. So this time we said we’re going to learn recording. I would say, ‘What’s a tape?’ and Mitch would show us what a tape loop was, and I’d say, ‘Let’s put it in this song,’ and Mitch would do it. The whole time, we’d say, ‘What is this?’ and ‘What is this?’
“We spent three days on it and got eight songs. There’s everything on those cuts. I’d put like ten guitars down and compress it to one track and Mitch would dig it and say, ‘This is fun.’ He was having a great time. We stayed at Mitch’s house that his grandmother had left him where he lived. The studio was in his Mom and Dad’s house. We slept on the floor. He was real cool about it all. He realized we were broke and so we would get a pizza and he’d chip in more than his share. And Mrs. Easter liked us and she would say, ‘Wouldn’t you boys like some donuts?’ And we’d go, ‘Donuts! Hell yeah! snarf, snarf.’”
While R.E.M. was at Mitch Easter’s the band also recorded “Ages of You” and “Shaking Through.” A couple of weeks later, back in Athens, they wrote “Wolves, Lower.” When David Healy, the alleged money-man, heard it, he said, “I love that new song ‘Wolves,’ it’s gotta be on the EP.” So the band said, “Sure, as long as you’re paying for it.” So they drove back up and recorded it.
“Then David freaked out,” Peter says. “We called him once and said, ‘David, the van broke down and we don’t have any money.’ He had wanted percentages and everything and so we said, ‘You gotta give us a couple hundred dollars to get home.’ He said, ‘No way, I can’t do that.’ So that’s why he’s credited on the EP as ex-producer. We got back home and fired him.”
The band got Curtis Knapp, the friend of The B-52’s who had helped that band get their early New York dates, to take their pictures and help with the mechanicals of the EP cover. Michael and the rest of R.E.M. did not want a picture of four guys with haircuts and pointy shoes gracing their cover. Michael wanted something to hint at the gloom and murk that was conjured by his image and the indecipherable lyrics. He wanted a gargoyle. He got it.
R.E.M. had the cover designed and the songs recorded. They were prepared to put out their EP, which Michael had named Chronic Town, by themselves if they had to. Then Jay Boberg walked into The Beat Exchange in New Orleans.
Leading up to that, Bill Berry had been sending R.E.M. tapes to Ian Copeland, his old friend from Macon who now ran F.B.I., the booking agency. Ian told him, “Bill, you’re good. I guarantee you’re going to get a record contract.” To show his faith Ian added R.E.M. to his list, and they became the only unsigned band that he represented. Ian also asked the band what record label they wanted to be on. They said, oh, not a big one, maybe I.R.S. Ian said, “Good. That’s my brother’s label. I’ll mention it to him.” Miles Copeland ran I.R.S. Ian ran F.B.l. Their brother Stewart was in The Police. Their father had been career C.I.A.
“Mark Williams did most of the work,” Jefferson remembers, “but Ian did mention to Miles that there was this band I want you to check out.” Mark Williams had been working for A & M, I.R.S.’s distributing label, as a college rep in Atlanta, where he DJed at the 688 club and had a show on WRAS, the campus station for Georgia State University. Williams told Jay Boberg, president of I.R.S., to check them out. “They have a hundred songs,” Williams told him. “And they’re great live.”
R.E.M. decided the best approach they could take would be to sign with a small label. “Someone like us on a big label didn’t make any sense,” Peter says. “We’d only taken one publicity photo in our life and if we didn’t feel like playing it would be, like, ‘Fuck you.’ It didn’t matter if it was a showcase. If we felt like dicking off, we would dick off. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
“If we had gone with Columbia or Warner Bros., they would have put us on the bottom line of a big showcase. We didn’t see the point of going with someone who didn’t understand what we were doing. We wanted someone small who would let us learn. And the way we did it, we went from being pretty bad, to being okay, to being pretty good with some problems, to being a good band.
“I’d always read too much and seen too many bands get taken advantage of, and you realize we know better what we’re doing than anyone else and you’ve gotta kind of sink or swim with what you believe is right, and I could never let someone tell me what to do or what to record. So yeah, we turned down money and things in order to get control over what we did. We got a little better royalty rate, so it probably paid off in the long run. You know, most bands go for the fifty- or hundred-thousand-dollar advance so they can quit their day jobs and not have to tour. With us, I think we got a five thousand dollars to buy drum cases and amps and make sure we travel, and we stayed on the road and stayed autonomous pretty much.”
Bert Downs was at that point serving as the band’s attorney. He and Jefferson connived to get back the publishing rights for “Radio Free Europe” and “Sitting Still” from Hib-Tone Records owner Jonny Hibbert. They told him they would never use those songs again if he didn’t sell them back. He needed the money, so R.E.M. reclaimed two of their best songs for two thousand dollars.
R.E.M. signed with I.R.S. in May.
Chronic Town was released in August.
Finally, they would play New York City.
“Touring was where we grew,” Bill Berry explains R.E.M.’s strategy of building grassroots support. “At that time, nobody wanted to play the kinds of bars we played. All these other bands didn’t want to play these sleazy places in the South. So just by us going to these places, just by being an out-of-town band that played this new kind of music, we were stars. People would look at us and say, ‘Wow, thanks man.’ For a long time, the bands that would open for us would be these heavy metal cover bands. So even before we walked on stage, these little protopunks were so grateful we were there in their towns. That’s how we got so much confidence.
“Chronic Town was out before we started regularly playing New York,” Bill continues. “All the art bands went to New York. They played Athens and they played New York and they came back and they were cool. They were written about in New York Rocker and that was fine. It wouldn’t have worked for us. In that atmosphere, we couldn’t go up there, say, ‘Hi, we’re from Athens,’ and then play ‘Steppin’ Stone.’ It just wouldn’t have worked. We didn’t want to go play some showcase at Jim Fouratt’s disco at two-thirty in the morning and then go to a bunch of parties. It just wasn’t R.E.M.
“But two years later we had all this road experience and we were a good band.”
After R.E.M. signed with I.R.S., the hard-line art crowd intensified their muttering about the upstart kids who were surpassing anything that had come before. Their previous feelings of superiority began to turn into bitter attacks.
“Occasionally you’d hear stuff from the trendy hangers-on,” Peter Buck says, “and they were the assholes—a lot of the people who were around Pylon or around The B-52’s, and maybe were their friends. I got it all the time, ‘Ugh! You’re a pop band!’ And I didn’t see anything wrong with that. As long as it wasn’t dumb. And it wasn’t dumb. We were bad, but we were never dumb. We were younger for one thing, a lot younger. And we also were a rock-and-roll band. But the real people involved, Vic Varney, the B’s, the people in the bands here, they were always nice and involved and helpful. It was the hangers-on who were mouthing off. Waiters and waitresses studying art: ‘Well! They’re just certainly not artistic!’ There was that dumb broad in town, didn’t have a chin and always danced funny, she moved to New York and was telling everyone, ‘Now that they’ve signed their record contract, I know they have no artistic integrity left.’ And she would say that, and it would be, like, ‘Hey, we have more artistic control than most bands in Athens.
“‘We can do whatever the fuck we want!’”