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32 Years Ago: R.E.M. Help Kickstart Alt-Country With Their Second Album, ‘Reckoning’

REM Reckoning
I.R.S. Records

Back in 1984, R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe said their second album was originally supposed to be titled “File Under Water” – a clever pun alluding to the watery lyrical themes of the album. From the watercolor painting on the cover by outsider artist Rev. Howard Finster to the lead single, “So. Central Rain,” Reckoning truly is a fluid affair.

But narrators are notoriously unreliable (especially in the Southern storytelling tradition) and perhaps none more than young Stipe, who later claimed that the band’s move from indie I.R.S. Records to major label Warner Bros. was due to Bugs Bunny. Regardless of the name, R.E.M. were under immense pressure to follow up their 1983 instant classic of a debut, Murmur.

The sophomore jinx has taken down more than one band. The logic goes something like this: When a band enters the studio for the first time ever, they’ve often spent years performing and sharpening seven or eight strong songs and nail their debut. But when the time comes to record album number two, they’ve probably just come off tour in support of their first album and have little to no new material. Second albums are often quite literally a reckoning for bands.

But for R.E.M., this wasn’t the case. When the Athens, Ga. four-piece entered the studio in December 1983 to commence work on Reckoning, they had a folder filled with songs that had been well-tested during their time on the road supporting Murmur. In fact, two months prior, they debuted an untitled version of “So. Central Rain” during their first ever appearance on Late Night with David Letterman.

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“So. Central Rain” became the album’s first single and cracked the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 85, but that was more than enough to broaden the band’s rapidly growing audience.

Something was happening – something crucial to the future of independent music. R.E.M. had been college radio darlings since their Chronic Town EP dropped in 1982, but Reckoning knocked on the door of mainstream acceptance. Granted, Murmur’s Radio Free Europe” charted a few slots higher than “So. Central Rain,” but Reckoning saw the first real stirrings of enthusiasm for the band outside of critics and R.E.M.’s already loyal fan base.

Some of that is attributable to the immediacy of the album’s sound.. Recorded in two to three weeks (depending on who you believe), Reckoning came much closer to R.E.M.’s early live sound than its predecessor. The fact that the recording sessions were allegedly well-lubricated with plenty of alcohol may have been a factor in the band’s loose sound, too. Regardless, in the same year that Cyndi Lauper had a mega-hit with “Time After Time,” R.E.M. nearly matched her pathos with “Time After Time (Annelise).”

Although the band brought plenty of material to the studio, producer Mitch Easter convinced them to also lay down “Pretty Persuasion,” a concert staple and fan favorite going back to their earliest days. With exception of perhaps “Radio Free Europe,” one would be hard pressed to find a song that better typifies the early R.E.M. catalog. It’s all there – the obtuse lyrics, the jangly guitars, bassist Mike Mills‘ vocal harmonies and Bill Berry’s locomotive rhythm.

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Another concert staple also made the cut: the infectious “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville.” InIt Crawled From the South: An R.E.M. Companion, author Marcus Gray quotes Easter: “‘Rockville’ had been this kind of semi-punk song….,” he said. “I mean, it was real fast. Then it sort of got turned into this vaguely country thing and when that happened, they had new enthusiasm for putting it on the record.” Gray also notes that “the new arrangement was originally intended as a joke at the expense of the band’s attorney who loved country music.”

Joke or not, the band were connecting genres in a manner that wasn’t common among college radio bands at the time. During the Reckoning sessions, R.E.M. also recorded covers of Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,”  the Henry Mancini chestnut “Moon River, Archie Bell and the Drells’ funky classic “Tighten Up” and the Velvet Underground‘s “There She Goes Again” – some would surface as B-sides and later on the 1987 odds and sods collection, Dead Letter Office. The net result to young fans was tacit permission to leave their musical cliques behind and simply like what’s good. It was a sentiment echoed by R.E.M.’s friends in the Replacements when they went on to cover the KISS classic, “Black Diamond,” on their own 1984 album, Let It Be.

But, while implying that it’s okay to leave your indie cliques behind, “Rockville” also paved a path to cowpunk for many early listeners. Make no mistake: Bands like Rank and File, the Blasters and X got there long before R.E.M., but the commercial success of Reckoning proved there was a market for the curious blend of country, punk and New Wave that was brewing in the mid-’80s. The Beat Farmers, Marshall Crenshaw, the Del Fuegos, Jason and the Scorchers, the BoDeans — a Harborcoat of country-fried indie bands were lifted from Reckoning’s waters. That wave crested in 1986 and 1987 with the release of the Georgia Satellites’ eponymous album and the Los Lobos-heavy soundtrack to La Bamba. 

But what R.E.M. established with Reckoning was a blueprint for the future of independent music: Keep it loose, do what you love and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. If you’re Ryan Adams and you want to cover an entire Taylor Swift album, have at it. If you’re Jack White and you want to record Loretta Lynn, that’s all you, man. Phosphorescent‘s 2009 album To Willie has its roots in a drunken run-through of a live staple that R.E.M. hadn’t played for two years prior to gently mocking their lawyer, as do much of the catalogs of Jeff Tweedy and Sturgill Simpson.

Would we have alt-country today without Reckoning? That question is unanswerable without a flux capacitor, but probably. A lot of bands were knocking on that door prior to R.E.M. kicking it in with their sophomore release, but Reckoning remains a true classic that sounds as fresh today as it did the day it was released.

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