‘Murmur’ – A Look Back on R.E.M.’s Masterpiece
By the time R.E.M. released their debut album on April 12, 1983, the buzz was already swirling. And this was before the Internet, satellite radio and MTV’s willingness to play something other than Duran Duran’s latest video. ‘Murmur’ was one of the most anticipated underground albums up to that time, all because of a 1981 super-indie single and a 1982 EP, ‘Chronic Town.’
The Athens, Ga., quartet started working on ‘Murmur’ the first week of 1983 in a North Carolina studio with Don Dixon and Mitch Easter producing. Together, the team shaped the songs – not punk, post-punk, New Wave or folk, but a blend of each – into moody, murky bits of southern-gothic pop. From Peter Buck’s jangling guitar lines to Michael Stipe’s cryptic lyrics, ‘Murmur’ sounded unlike any other record made during the first part of the ‘80s.
‘Chronic Town’ was steeped in sounds that appeared to originate from someplace in the ozone layer. But the mystery deepens on ‘Murmur,’ and the melodies become more pronounced. From the opening ‘Radio Free Europe’ (reworked and aired out from the group’s first single from 1981) to the ringing folk-rock of ‘Talk About the Passion’ to the lovely ballad ‘Perfect Circle,’ ‘Murmur’ is all shadowy suggestion. Stipe’s infamous mumbles all but obscure his words, making each listener’s experience truly his or her own.
And in that sense, college rock as we know it would have headed in a whole other direction if not for ‘Murmur.’ R.E.M.’s strikingly original album did more for underground music, and its eventual commercialization, than almost all other records that came before it combined. It even climbed to the Top 40 on Billboard’s album chart, something that indie records did not do in 1983. ‘Radio Free Europe’ also found its way on the mainstream pop chart, reaching No. 78. But its legacy was pretty much set from the start: ‘Murmur’ is college rock’s starting point and its greatest achievement.
Watch R.E.M.’s Video for ‘Radio Free Europe’