Two events in the mid-90s perfectly capture the topsy-turvy universe of Athens, Georgia's R.E.M, the ultimate 80s underground band which became an arena act while sheperding the shift from post-punk to alt rock. The roots of R.E.M. extend back to the musically-productive college town of Athens, Ga. in 1979, where University of Georgia student and record collector Michael Stipe (vocals) met record store clerk Peter Buck (guitar).The pair became roommates and soon formed a band with fellow students Mike Mills (bass) and Bill Berry on drums. After performing an April 1980 show/party at Stipe and Buck's apartment in an abandoned church, the group began playing local bars, and expanded their following on the strength of short tours of the Southeast and the college radio hit "Radio Free Europe."
In May 1982 R.E.M. signed to indie label I.R.S. Records, who released their already-completed EP Chronic Town. Murmur, their 1983 debut album, defied the mainstream and was primarily an underground and college hit. Still touring constantly, R.E.M. returned in April 1984 with Reckoning and 1985's Fables of the Reconstruction, which led them closer to the mainstream with sales of several hundred thousand. 1987's Green marked their major label debut, and its first single "Stand." reached #6 on the U.S. charts.
After a break of two years, during which Berry, Buck and Mills collaborated with singer Warren Zevon as the Hindu Love Gods, the band re-emerged with Out Of Time, a bigger budget production which featured an entire string section, Kate Pierson of the B-52's on vocals and Boogie Down Productions' KRS-One. It was unanimously hailed as a masterpiece and spawned the hit singles "Losing My Religion" and "Shiny Happy People." The hit parade continued with 1992's Automatic For the People: "Drive," the happy-go-lucky Andy Kaufman tribute "Man On The Moon," and "Everybody Hurts."
Drummer Bill Berry collapsed from a ruptured aneurysm while on tour in Switzerland in 1995, and made a full recovery, but shocked the music world by retiring in 1997.
In 1996, R.E.M re-signed with Warner Bros. for the largest recording contract advance in history, $80M for five albums. R.E.M's first album under the lucrative Warner renewal was New Adventures In Hi-Fi, a moderate hit. Two years later, Monster showed the band in grunge-like mode.
Berry's retirement in '97 didn't phase the band at first, as they agreed to continue without a regular drummer. Ex-Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin sat in for the sessions for 1998's Up, proclaimed by many to be the band's most adventurous recording since the mid-80s.
The following year they provided the soundtrack for the Andy Kaufman biopic Man On The Moon, which included the excellent new track, "The Great Beyond." They earned further praise in 1999 for "All The Right Friends," their contribution to the soundtrack of Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky.
No subsequent album sold as well as their classics Out of Time (with the anthemic "Losing My Religion") or Automatic For the People, but the remaining unit is still going strong.