published in NME – 03/12/83
If ye Smythes are anything to go by, rock’s set-piece quartet of voice and guitar, bass and drums is making a decided comeback.
Witnessing R.E.M.’s astonishing performance at The Marquee last week, it seemed to me about time too. There were more possibilities, more trails and extensions pushed out by this music than a dozen New Orders have conjured.
I initially saw this group, this Radical Electric Magic, 18 months ago in their own locale of Atlanta, Georgia, but I guess I was too drunk to take in just how much was being proposed, how many of rock’s assumptions shaken down.
From a casual, idle exposure to their recorded works (the EP “Chronic Town” and this year’s “Murmur” album), you would not be slandering R.E.M. by describing them as Byrdsy with a strong Undertone of ’60s power pop. The form is deceptive: from a nexus of close, course chording – Mat Snow has already rooted them in a couple of Byrds blueprints – they spin a web of hooks and harmonies that so radically reshuffle the standard issue blocks of rock you feel you’re at the onset of a new musical dimension. Quite possibly you are.
Michael Stipe will set off a harmonic chain – picked up by bassist Mike Mills and rounded off by drummer Bill Berry – that moves with such flowing assurance it’s like a single organic voice. These are figures whose shape and dynamic are things quite other than the small mercies rock has formally yielded. I won’t try and capture such a magnificent metamorphosis here; I’m still not certain it wasn’t a dream.
I expected to find the curly-mopped, dressed-down, student-bespectacled Stipe irritating, but I found him superb and not a little mysterious. He does not sing words, he siphons them – liquidises language. The three other instruments (for Stipe’s is no mortal “voice”) are untreated and perfectly interwoven. Clowning country ‘n’ western Weller Peter Buck is always doing more than shoving in the meat of a melody; whether slashing the ‘ol Rickenbacker like Townshend or being slashed by it like McGuinn, he shapes a different texture for each break and bridge, each twist and turn of these gyrating ‘Perfect Circle’s. Then all of a sudden Mills will be playing guitar on his bass; Berry’s drums will be talking. There were moments in “9-9” when my heart stopped dead with wonder.
R.E.M. encored with the freeform solar jangle of “Radio Free Europe”. Later, somewhere in Soho, I found myself dazed and reborn. This is the most vital American group of today. (Barney Hoskyns)