R.E.M. In 1980: Footage Surfaces, Questions Remain
Of all the items on offer at the R.E.M. In Perspective event, hosted by the Athens Historical Society on October 21, it was the previously unseen 1980 film footage that drew the hard-core fans from as far a-field as Switzerland. And for good reason. You want to know why people labeled R.E.M. the best band in Athens only weeks after their first gig? You want proof that, before he retreated into an “enigmatic” shell for most of the decade, Michael Stipe was in fact a “whirling dervish” as claimed by many of his peers? You want to see one of the world’s great rock groups improving before your very eyes? Watch these two sets, one from Atlanta’s Wuxtry Records in June 1980, the other from the same city’s Club 688 barely a couple of months later, and you will understand.
Both films were shot by Wuxtry’s Dan Wall and Mark Methe. Wall was especially close to the group: he employed Peter Buck at the Wuxtry stores both in Atlanta and Athens, and held the original lease on the Oconee Street church in Athens where he, Buck and Michael Stipe lived together early in 1980 and where R.E.M. gave their debut performance, on April 5, 1980. As an ally of the group, Wall’s suggestion to film and record them at the Atlanta store, in some kind of controllable environment, was eagerly accepted, and in early June, just two months after their debut gig, the group set up its equipment against the record racks, Wall and Methe rolled the cameras, and history – of a kind – was made.
The Wuxtry footage is fascinating for the fact that it predates most of R.E.M’s recognizable traits. Peter Buck plays a Fender Telecaster (belonging to Methe), Mike Mills a Hohner bass, Michael Stipe sports an angular haircut and a very “new-wave” red tee-shirt, and he and Mills share but the one microphone. The two songs we were shown at the Seney-Stovall Chapel each hail from R.E.M.’s early canon of sixties-influenced material: the surf-tinged “Narrator” and the effortlessly retro “Dangerous Times” (aka “I don’t wanna grow old”). Such songs bear almost no relation to the R.E.M. the world would come to love and admire, which is partly why the group begged Wall and Methe to keep this footage under wraps these last 27 years. Yet viewed with the benefit of middle-aged hindsight, the footage is deliciously endearing, and even if the band sounds and looks derivative, it still exudes the energetic enthusiasm that had it breaking attendance records at the Athens clubs Tyrone’s within weeks of its first gig. The footage ends with Mills, looking even younger than his tender years, bouncing across the camera’s vision as “Dangerous Times,” all suspended fourths and two-part harmonies, comes to a gloriously sloppy conclusion.
In their book Adventures In Hi-Fi, published in 2001, authors Rob Jovanovic and Tim Abbott gave the date of this Wuxtry footage as June 6, 1980, the same day as the group’s gig across town at Atlanta’s Warehouse. They also wrote that Methe put the audio track down to cassette, and that it was this tape which served as the group’s first demos – an eight-song collection widely bootlegged and usually labeled as “Late 1980 Athens Rehearsals.” But Dan Wall is not so sure. Rather, he insists that on June 6, he and Mark Methe filmed the group playing only five songs, and that the performances were so fast and furious they then filmed them playing them all over again, but slower. Without having a copy of the film to compare to the demo tapes, it’s impossible to know for certain, but Wall did also state that he recorded the group several times at Wuxtry and so, while it’s far from conclusive, it remains possible that the “Athens Rehearsal Demos” did indeed emerge from the Atlanta record store, albeit from a different day. It also remains equally plausible that they were correctly labeled to begin with.
Confusion also surrounds the date of the Club 688 footage. Those who watched the two films, back-to-back, at the Athens Historical Society, found it hard to believe that only a few weeks had passed since the Wuxtry set, because so much had changed in the interim. Peter Buck, for example, now has his Rickenbacker, Bill Berry is holding his sticks in a different manner, everyone’s hair has grown out, and Stipe has honed his early persona, so that he’s less a new wave caricature than a remarkably idiosyncratic lead singer and front man. The gig is notable for the group’s inherent balance of rough edges, raw power and enviable precision: they’ve been playing often enough to know what they’re doing, but not so often that they’ve got it down pat. For example, the guitar gives out at one point and Stipe throws Buck a nervous glance. Later on, Buck is comfortable enough to lean back on Stipe a la Keef on Mick, or Ron Wood or Rod Stewart; Stipe endures it for about fifteen seconds, then shoves his partner off forcefully but good-naturedly. It’s a delightful moment – a pair of best friends living out rock’n’roll clichés with absolutely no self-consciousness whatsoever.
Though Buck and Mills each rush round the stage like their feet are on fire, it’s Stipe who steals this early show: he twitches, shakes, spins and jumps in a manner that many of the original fans found to be group’s most exciting early quality. (Are you goofing on Elvis? Hey baby…) Those of us who never saw this movement in action and would have doubted it but for the consistency of early eye-witness accounts, can finally see what the fuss was about: the 1980 on-stage Stipe was already a star.
At the R.E.M. In Perspective event, we were shown four songs from that Club 688 gig: “Dangerous Times” (again), “All The Right Friends” (eventually recorded, many years later, for the Vanilla Sky soundtrack), “Gardening At Night” and “Radio Free Europe.” It’s in my R.E.M. biography that the group wrote the latter two songs early that first summer, and “Gardening At Night” is present on some 1980 bootlegs. But “Radio Free Europe” has not previously shown up on any live tapes from that year; it’s therefore remarkable to see it established and cohesive so early in the band’s career. And yes, you can hear the words more clearly at this gig than you ever could on the recorded version.
R.E.M. are clearly the support act act Club 688: there’s another drum kit visible behind Bill Berry. But though this might indicate that the footage hails from July 15 or 16, when the group opened for Gang of Four at the Atlanta club, that seems just too soon after the Wuxtry footage for the many visible and aural changes to be feasible. Dan Wall suggests that it more likely hails from a show with Love Tractor, the date of which is archived as being August 17, 1980. (The two groups were close friends and presumably Love Tractor could have closed out that gig.) There is also the possibility that the footage hails from September 23 or 24, 1980, when the band are also known to have played Club 688, though it’s not clear whether R.E.M. were headliners or opening act over those two nights. Any which way, Wall is absolutely adamant that the footage hails from the summer of 1980: “no question, from the horse’s mouth.” And even if it was a full three months after the Wuxtry rehearsal footage, the progression is still incredible by any other band’s lower standards.
The clips we were shown were but excerpts from longer tapes: the five songs, filmed twice, at the Wuxtry store, and the whole set from Club 688. Then there’s the fact that Wall and Methe also filmed the group’s first ever gig at Tyrone’s, on May 6, 1980, footage that has been kept completely under wraps for getting on to thirty years now. I would argue that it’s time to release these tapes, either as an authorized DVD, or, in these YouTube days, assuming that the group themselves no longer feel embarrassed by it (and they certainly shouldn’t), then by just letting fans have at it on the web and love it. For my part, as someone who has no shortage of tapes from R.E.M.’s early days, I’ve long believed that the group’s first songs – the Townshend-esque, Beatles-ish power, Byrds-like power pop numbers – deserve to be commercially available. Better yet, I believe R.E.M. should re-record them in (Mitch Easter’s?) garage – with Bill Berry on drums, of course – and teach the White Stripes and Kooks a thing or two. I guarantee they’d have a hit – or several of them – on their hands. We can but dream. In the meantime, I feel fortunate to have seen as much of the footage as I have, the overall effect of which brought to mind not so much the comparison made in the Athens student newspaper that June (“James Brown fronting the Dave Clark 5”) as the quote from former manager Jefferson Holt about the time he first saw the band, that same summer: “It was how I imagined seeing the Who before they signed a record contract.”