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R.E.M.'s Chronic Town: enigmatic jangle rock that sounds like a portal to the ghost dimension

R.E.M.'s formative indie-rock EP Chronic Town belatedly makes it to compact disc

REM - Chronic Town cover art
(Image: © IRS/UME)

Back then, alt. rockers, to the source. Issued for the first time as a standalone CD for its fortieth anniversary, R.E.M.’s debut EP Chronic Town was recorded with producer Mitch Easter (who provides sleeve-notes here) in 1981 and released the following year as a broader sample of the amorphous, enigmatic jangle rock introduced on their debut single and college radio hit Radio Free Europe

As such it’s often considered the founding point of college rock, if not (for all its Cure, Neil Young, Byrds, Patti Smith and new-wave influences) indie rock in general. Four decades on, the alt.pop bedrock is unearthed in these five raw and engrossing tracks. 

The songwriting may be rudimentary 60s-indebted indie rock. Michael Stipe’s frail vocals are either indiscernible or incomprehensible (according to guitarist Peter Buck, Gardening At Night is about “the uselessness of everything, but if you didn’t get that I’m not surprised”). The guitars are urgent yet restrained, and the reedy production lower-fi than most bottle banks. 

But from the art-house feel of the record originates much of the alt.rock aesthetic, as Carnival Of Sorts (Boxcars) attempts to emulate the cranky carnival scene from The Elephant Man, and sporadic bursts of psychedelic clatter and noise open up like portals to the ghost dimension. 

With a sound set to be deepened to legendary effect on the band’s 1983 debut album Murmur, Chronic Town’s achievement was to highlight the magic in murk and minimalism, and that magic undoubtedly lingers.

Mark Beaumont is a music journalist with almost three decades' experience writing for publications including Classic Rock, NME, The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph, The Times, Uncut and Melody Maker. He has written major biographies on Muse, Jay-Z, The Killers, Kanye West and Bon Iver and his debut novel [6666666666] is available on Kindle (opens in new tab).