For many, the band R.E.M. represents an idea of the counterculture.
Videos by American Songwriter
The group rose to fame in the 1990s via methods outside the traditional avenues. Word of mouth, college radios, and bootlegged tapes were the source of their successes. Not traditional methods like labels and big executives.
Today, with big songs like “Losing My Religion” and “Everybody Hurts,” the band maintains a big market share in the hearts and minds of music fans. But where did their name come from? What do the letters—R and E and M—stand for?
That’s exactly what we’ll dive into here. So, without further ado, let’s jump into the history.
R.E.M. is an American rock band from Athens, Georgia. The group, which formed formally in 1980, consisted then of drummer Bill Berry, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Millks and lead singer Michael Stipe. All of these fellows were students in those early days at the University of Georgia.
The group is one of the first “alternative rock bands.” At their outset, R.E.M. was known for Buck’s guitar playing and Stipe’s voice and thoughtful lyrics. They were heroes to bands that came after them, including Nirvana. To date, the band, which broke up amicably in 2011, has sold more than 85 million albums worldwide.
In early 1980, Buck met Stipe in an Athens record store, Wuxtry Records. That’s where Buck worked. The two found they shared similar tastes in music and loved punk rock and artists like Patti Smith, Television and the Velvet Underground.
Said Stipe of those times, “It turns out that I was buying all the records that [Buck] was saving for himself.” The two, through a mutual friend, later met Berry and Mills, both of whom had played music together since high school. The four started to play together. But it wasn’t out of a search for stardom. Said Stipe, “There was never any grand plan behind any of it”.
At this time, the band was still unnamed.
They would rehearse in the St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on Oconee Street in Athens. They played their first show on April 5, 1980, performing a mix of originals and covers from the 1960s and 1970s. At first, the band considered a bevy of names, including Cans of Piss, Negro Eyes, and Twisted Kites. Finally, though, they settled on R.E.M.
Stipe had found and selected the name at random from a dictionary. To many, the initials are known as shorthand for “rapid eye movement,” which is the dream stage of sleep during which one’s eyes dart around under their eyelids.
Sleep researcher Dr. Rafael Pelayo said that when his colleague, Dr. William Dement, the sleep scientist who coined the term “REM” reached out to the band, Dr. Dement was told that the band was named “not after REM sleep.” (Today, one can imagine Stipe smiling on the other end of the phone while this was relayed.)
R.E.M. released its first single, “Radio Free Europe,” in 1981. And in 1983, the group released its debut LP, Murmur, and continued to rise to fame. In 1987, the band released one of its biggest hits, “The One I Love,” which cemented their status. In 1988, the group signed to Warner Bros. Records. And in 1991, the band released its most successful album, Out of Time. In 1994, they released the LP, Monster, to continued success.
Today, though they’ve been broken up for over a decade, they remain one of the biggest rock bands in the world.