Happy 40th to R.E.M.'s Landmark Debut, 'Murmur'
Listening to the low budget, lo-fi album that would shaped indie music for the next four decades.
How good is your favorite band’s debut album? Was it a commercial success, a hidden gem, or a bomb needing course correction on the follow-up? For R.E.M., my favorite band, when I’m forced to pick one, Murmur is a debut that practically shaped the sound of college rock (indie rock by its former name) and sent the band on a path to becoming one of the biggest alternative acts of the 80s and 90s.
After the success of their first single, “Radio Free Europe,” the Athens band signed to I.R.S. Records and released the Chronic Town EP. Mainstream radio didn’t know what to do with Michael Stipe’s mumbled obscure lyrics or Peter Buck’s jangly chord progressions played with an old Rickenbacker. Instead, it was college radio that gave them a chance to break out of Georgia.
Now building on the buzz of Chronic Town, I.R.S. sent R.E.M. into the studio with Stephen Hague, who didn’t appreciate the group’s indie aesthetic. By all accounts, the band didn’t appreciate Hague adding keyboards to their songs. After a back-and-forth with the label, R.E.M. submitted a version of “Pilgrimage” with Mitch Easter, who produced Chronic Town, behind the boards, and I.R.S. gave them the go-ahead to move forward with Easter and partner Don Dixon (don’t worry about Mr. Hague, as he went on to work with New Order, Pet Shop Boys, and Erasure).
Easter and Dixon let the band be themselves at Reflection Studios in Charlotte. The album was completed in just seven weeks and released a month and a half later (in an era of six-month press cycle buildups to a record’s release, I find this incredibly refreshing). While Murmur “underperformed” in sales with around 200,000 copies sold (again, most indie bands and labels would love to have those kinda sales today), the critics couldn’t get enough of it, and Rolling Stone named it the album of the year. If you’re curious about what other records it beat for this title in 1983, you may have heard of a little album called Thriller by Michael Jackson.
Just six months after Murmur’s release, R.E.M. appeared on Late Night with David Letterman, and their classic, no-frills performances of “Radio Free Europe” and the yet-to-be-released massive single, “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” gave them a national platform. If you do one thing today, watch this raw performance with great banter between Dave and the band (apparently, Michael Stipe was not interested in hamming it up).
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