R.E.M.'s Reckoning: raw, mysterious and strangely melodic, refracting their influences through a murky Southern prism

Bill Berry, Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, Illinois, July 7, 1984
Bill Berry, Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, Illinois, July 7, 1984 (Image credit: Paul Natkin via Getty Images)

R.E.M. were the band to watch come the turn of 1984. Issued the previous April, debut LP Murmur had put the Athens, Georgia quartet at the forefront of a new strain of alternative American guitar-rock: raw, mysterious and strangely melodic. On one level, R.E.M. were leftfield classicists, drawing from The Velvet Underground, Patti Smith and 70s post-punk. But they were also markedly different, refracting their influences through a murky Southern prism that involved disjointed narratives and, in the case of enigmatic singer Michael Stipe, inscrutable lyrics. 

Despite selling less than 200,000 copies, Murmur made R.E.M. darlings of US college radio. Critics tended to adore the band too, with Rolling Stone declaring them winners of both Best Album and Best New Artist in their end-of-’83 polls. Their profile was further spiked by debut shows in London that November and their first national TV spot, Late Night With David Letterman

Refusing to let the grass grow under their feet, R.E.M. were already recording a follow-up album by the time the plaudits rolled in. Reckoning was nailed fast, taking little over a fortnight. The production team of Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, retained from Murmur, sought to bottle the wiry energy of the band’s live shows, putting greater emphasis on REM’s rockier side. Songs weren’t a problem. New compositions were pouring out at a prodigious rate. Guitarist Peter Buck later claimed that Reckoning was recorded quickly to avoid any bothersome interference from their I.R.S. label. 

The Letterman appearance had seen R.E.M. preview their most commercial idea to date – an unnamed mid-tempo tune that took form in the studio as So. Central Rain. Its lyrics alluded to Stipe’s late friend, photographer Carol Levy, who died in a car crash. Alongside a more overt Levy tribute, the moving, slo-mo Camera (‘Will she be remembered,’ sings the mournful Stipe), these two songs represent the more elegiac side of Reckoning

At other times, R.E.M. seem positively joyous. Second Guessing fizzes, powered by Buck’s trusty Rickenbacker and drummer Bill Berry’s delirious thump. Stipe seems to take aim at cultural faddishness, while also offering a simple declaration of arrival in the chorus: ‘Here we are, here we are.’ Pretty Persuasion had been in R.E.M.’s setlist since 1981 and had initially been cut during the Murmur sessions. In its revised form it positively leaps from the speakers – quintessential R.E.M. with bassist Mike Mills driving the harmonies. 

Mills is the instigator of another mothballed early song, (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville. It shakes off the punky thrash of its origins in favour of a more measured groove on Reckoning, its melodic sophistication serving as a pre-echo of the band’s 90s success. For now though, R.E.M. were still very much a cult concern.

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.