REM 1987: The Birth Of Alternative Radio By Ted Cantu

 

Alternative Radio Turns 27 1967 - 1987 Ann Arbor, Michigan Revisited

When REM’s album, “Document” came out I knew it was going to be big. There were about seven guys huddling around in a small dorm room in University of Michigan and I was in attendance. My memory is a little fuzzy but I think we were in the Mary Markley building. There was a magazine on the bed and it was laying wide open showcasing the grim faces of four serious musicians. These guys were young but seemed to carry a sense of intelligence that I couldn’t quite grasp. Rolling Stone magazine had just featured an article on REM and even featured the band on the cover. This was kind of a big deal even for Rolling Stone. You see for years they only focused on the most obvious art director favorites like Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and I had grown so bored with them that I let my subscription lapse. I stopped caring about music in 1986…. Until now.

It was the Fall of 1987 and REM just announced that they were going to go on tour. I couldn’t get my head around what was happening but there was talk about this new tour being super big. REM just released another album around the same time of odd B-sides and covers from bands like The Velvet Underground, Aerosmith, Wire and the underground favorite Television. Apparently this was a big deal. The second album was called, “Dead Letter Office” and this had to be like serious head candy to the editors of Rolling Stone Magazine. The guys in the dorm were talking about how we could all score tickets to see this show. It was like a life and death situation…. I mean, it was so serious. I knew I was going to get in no matter what. When things like this went down I would always find a way in. The tour was set to his Ann Arbor, Michigan on Oct. 27th, 1987. I would be there…..

The radio droned on in those early Fall 1987 nights with the warbling sounds of Bruce Springsteen, Heart, Mister Mister and other FM friendly bands. I couldn’t relate to anything outside of the IRS Records realm and those bands never got any airplay. Ever. But that was about to change…. The REM song, “The One I Love” was played on a local radio station and I was in a car with a friend of mine driving down Stadium BLVD. It was a quiet Sunday night and ironically we were driving right by Crisler Arena where the band was scheduled to play in October of that year.  We grinned and looked at each other and said, “Woa… its finally happening !!”

We didn’t have ticket resellers on the web like today. We didn’t even have the web… if you wanted a ticket you had to know somebody who had connections. At this point I didn’t care if I was in the first row or not. As long as I could get into the building I could manage the rest from there.

ROCK COMES FULL CIRCLE – AND READY FOR THE MASSES

20 years earlier Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground came to Ann Arbor, Michigan and played at Hill Auditorium. The idea was to take inner city culture and bring it to the masses. This was a tour and it was high art. There were projections of independent film maker Paul Morrissey and the music of Nico and Lou Reed. Andy Warhol sat up in the projection booth autographing posters and meeting fans. I found bits and pieces of news here and there about the public reception of that event. To my surprise it was quite poor and misunderstood. The Michigan Daily even hailed it as pretentious. In other accounts I read about the public actually walked out during the performance.

As an artist I was always mesmerized by the ideology of a complex style of kunst. This would include multiple sensory things going off at once including film, projections, sounds, light, and performance. The Ann Arbor audience was not ready for that in 1967. This show by the way was a major hit at the Dom in New York and it was a substantial money maker and ran for weeks. Warhol also had a significant name in NYC and his immediate circle would later be featured in the Hollywood film, “Midnight Cowboy” staring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman.

When the Velvets came to Ann Arbor the audience was said to not know, “What to do….”. Some hung out in the hallways and other kids stood along the sides of the theater looking at the stage. And some other kids jumped on the stage to dance while the crazy film projections went on. The complaints I read about was that the band was not doing a complete show but rather doing brief sets of three songs at a time. There seemed to be no cohesive format. Some people even said the band sounded horrible. There was a huge drug component to this event that the local people were missing out on. In New York this show was not only accepted but it was a drug fueled hang. To the kids at U of M in 1967 Andy Warhol and his whole gang were from another planet.

Skip ahead 20 years and now we are standing in front of a large stage setting in Crisler Arena, Ann Arbor. This was about 2 miles down the road from the much smaller Hill Auditorium. Half the kids in this place never heard about the Velvet Underground or the predecessor concert that had occurred years earlier. And that’s the truth. As for Andy Warhol, we knew that he died recently but he was before our time. I would later be a rabid fan of all the whole package in the following year.

The mood in the theater was tense. You knew something big was about to happen. U of M kids signed up to be ushers and this allowed them to get into the building and see the show for free. That was always a big thing. I don’t even think they even had a clue as to what was about to happen. There was a large screen built behind the stage. It  was a large square movie screen and it was odd for 1987. There was no large stage props like at a Pink Floyd show or a Van Halen concert.

The lights dimmed and the crowd cheered loudly and we were in total darkness. Then the stage came alive with black and white projections of film and lights behind the band. There were flickers of white strobe lights that matched up to the frenetic blinding beat pound of the drums. Lead singer Michael Stipe bellowed into the mic and opened with, “The Finest Work Song”. The effect was immediate and hypnotic. There was no mistake about what this show was going to be about. It was loud, deliberate, bombastic and exact. There were no kids wandering around the theater lost or confused. They were all in their seats with their eyes glued on REM and that large overbearing theatrical projection that showcased a dizzying blur of words, film images, effects and still shots. The driving bass delivered the song deep into your senses and made your chest pound. I don’t think anybody knew what was going to happen or what to even expect. The song had a booming quality to it and the rackety guitar sounds echoed through the towering loudspeakers filling up every empty sound in the hall. This was a sound so whole and solid that you could not escape it. When the song came to a thundering end the kids went manic and I knew this was going to be the beginning of something bigger.

It was all about the art and all about the performance. Michael Stipe wasn’t even a rock star yet by any definition. That would come a little later. For many of the kids in the crowd being this close to Stipe made the whole experience that much more real. Up until this point people have really only experienced REM in random video clips on MTV. They had very little media presence. He was something that was only experienced on vinyl in most cases. As fans we only knew the name and his reluctance of stardom. He often mumbled his lyrics into the microphone. In his television performances he would wear his long hair over his eyes so he wouldn’t have to look at the audience. In this show he seemed to have a pony tail and you could actually see his face but was he wearing eye make up? He had this raggedy white long sleeve white shirt and was so thin. When he moved his arms around to that manic dancing he looked like a ghost on the stage.

It was one of those things that you wished you could experience twice. I don’t think I could ever forget it. This just grabbed you by the shirt collar and shook you and screamed, “Listen to me !!”. The other thing I couldn’t get out of my head at that time was this was going to shake up everything. Not just pop  music but how we experienced it and how the public would interact with it. This show was so mechanical and when you think about the digital age we now live in there was no comparison. This was analog equipment all the way. It’s still impressive when you look back on it. There was film projection. That film had to be shot and processed with a real film camera. From there it had to be processed into a video and then projected over the band to create an effect. This performance also had to do two things….

First, it had to pick up where earlier rockers and artists left off and usher this style of performance into the new age. Second, this band had to re-establish rock music for a new age.

The radio stations had no idea what to call it so they just called it Alternative. In pop culture we have to label everything and put every classification into neat little categories. But what could you really make of REM? They borrowed from everyone and the sounds were so familiar but then they would do these offbeat and quirky combinations that were not radio friendly. They didn’t compromise with anyone and at times would later prove to be very difficult to work with. It is one of the reasons why the album, “Document” to this day is very listenable. It aged very well. It took a lot of thought and dedication to create an album with such emotional and musical complexity. A lot of bands don’t want to take that journey and do anything that soul bearing. It is much easier to thrash on your instrument and utter toneless statements about how much you hate the system. Dull and boorish is what packs the pubs on the weekends. No inspiration. That is not what we are talking about here with REM. We are talking about drive.

For years I couldn’t really talk about what happened that night in 1987. I didn’t even want to revisit it. Maybe it was too precious. Maybe it’s taking me this long to comprehend about the significance of what really happened at that performance. It blew the doors off of convention and ushered in a mind blowing new wave of music and culture that has never been tamed.

The idea of doing large projections behind a band is where it’s at and I have seen it used at countless shows including Oasis, Van Halen and the WHO. The big takeaway moment for me was Van Halen. For years these guys were into props and hanging large banners on the stage. The last tour for, “A Different Kind of Truth” showed the band bare bones on a stage with a large black digital screen. Once the house lights dimmed the blank black screen filled up with digital lights showcasing close up video shots of the band. This now became a staple in the on stage theatrics of headline entertainment. Oasis and The Who followed this format and delivered their shows in pretty much the same way. Now, I am not going to lie to you and say that these shows weren’t dramatic. They were. But that show didn’t change my life or my mind on what popular music could be… that REM show did.

Right?   Right.

I’m choosing this moment to talk about an Anniversary on an odd year…. It’s the 27th Anniversary of Alternative Radio. It’s an odd number for an offbeat movement. It’s rough on the edges and not perfect and not easily defined. There have been many bands who rushed through that door once REM kicked it open. The Fall of 1987 was exciting. Right after that Echo and the Bunnymen came to Hill Auditorium and did a show there in the winter of 1988. The kids showed up in droves and you could see a real revolution happening. To this day I never seen so many trenchcoat wearing youths in one event. The kids even had the same kind of hair that the lead singer Ian McCulloch had. People were actually trying to emulate their local underground heroes.

After REM they all rolled into town like dominos. We saw an amazing assortment of bands come into town including The Replacements, Husker Du, The Dead Milkmen, The Pogues, Game Theory, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Cramps, Robyn Hitchcock, Mighty Lemon Drops, The Ramones, X, The Exploited, The Pixies, and eventually the return of Lou Reed, (from the Velvet Undeground). When Lou Reed came back it was kind of a hero’s welcome. He played at the Michigan Theater for the, “New York” album that was a pivotal point in his career. There was no mention of any of the old Velvet Underground days in the paper when Lou came in. That fan base had scattered to the four winds and the public consciousness was now focused on something that was being touted as – Alternative Rock Radio. If anything people came to celebrate what Lou Reed did after the Velvets with his 1972, “Transformer” album.

Once the doors were kicked apart other bands came rushing through. Many of these bands were fantastic but their careers were incredibly short lived. Some of these included Flesh For Lulu, The Thrashing Doves, Fishbone, and House of Freaks just to name a few. Other bands had come onto the airwaves waving the same banner of originality at a whirlwind pace including Green Day, and the Smashing Pumpkins. And there was other movements taking off left and right under many independent labels. There was so much Alternative now that the original bands like Echo and the Bunnymen and REM were considered to be the mainstream.

THE AFTERMATH
The 1987 Document Tour was a well timed and calculated event with the impact of a well placed atomic bomb. Now in the information age the average person on the street knows what CBGB’s was, (I made my pilgrimage there in 1989). What you have today in the public populace is unlimited choice. There are so many independent bands running around and mini music festivals that it is hard to keep track of them all. It was the dream intent of IRS Records founder Myles Copeland. It was the original intention of Punk Rock impresario Malcom McLaren. Would this have happened without REM?

Absolutely. Would popular music look the way it does today without their catapulted influence?

ABSOLUTELY NOT. It would look distinctly different.

 

Ted Cantu
May 2014  -- HOT METRO FINDS

“A VISUAL ASSAULT: REM Dissected Scene By Scene

The bottom video was shot in 1989 and is the closest thing I could find to what the original show opener was like in 1987. This was a departure for REM as much as it was for the audience. Just when you thought you knew the band they changed on you in a new and exciting way. It would take some time to recognize them once again. In the case of, “Document” the album had to grow on me. I noticed this sort of thing happening with the Smiths too.

There was one sequence in the video, not shown in this edition, when the words – “Want” and “Need” come on screen. The words flipped interchangeably and morphed into a strobe that said, “Need Weed” and I remember the crowd going a bit wild over that. This was Ann Arbor after all. There is some talk about the set list being accurate. I do not believe, “Orange Crush” or “Pop Song 89” was performed in 1987. Those songs were released after REM went to Warner Brothers. “Document” was the last album created under the I.R.S. Records label.

There is another version of, “The One I Love” done on the live tour. Stipe starts out with a slow intro and for a minute I thought the whole song would be done slow. It then kicks into the tempo we all know. The stage was also bathed in an eerie red light. How this song got perceived as a love song I’ll never know. It was about a sick love obsession.

Over the years I hear the young kids go, “Oh who cares about that stuff, REM was long before my time.” Trust me, you wish you were there. This show was nothing but historic.

 
 
 
 
REM in 1987 and the Birth of Alternative Radio in Ann Arbor, Michigan - Crisler Arena.
 

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