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Why R.E.M. performing live again is such a big deal

R.E.M. band members, from left, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Michael Stipe and Bill Berry attend the Songwriters Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Gala
R.E.M. band members, from left, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Michael Stipe and Bill Berry attend the Songwriters Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Gala Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Jonny Walfisz with AP
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R.E.M. took to the stage at the 2024 Songwriters Hall of Fame induction ceremony to perform an acoustic rendition of their hit ‘Losing My Religion’.

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Even those who faithfully believed R.E.M would one day perform again had all lost their religion since the band’s last performance in 2008. So sure was Michael Stipe and his bandmate’s insistence that the pioneering alt-rock band would never reform.

Yet that faith was shaken last night when R.E.M. took to the stage at the 2024 Songwriters Hall of Fame induction ceremony to perform an acoustic rendition of their hit ‘Losing My Religion’.

Just earlier in the day, bassist Mike Mills had said it would take “a comet” to get the band to reunite on stage again.

It seems that shooting stars do occasionally land on Earth, as that’s exactly what happened after they accepted their honours alongside Steely Dan and Timbaland at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York City.

“We are R.E.M.,” Stipe said on stage. “And this is what we did.”

The entire band was at the ceremony to recognise a new cohort of songwriters to the Hall of Fame. Alongside Stipe and Mills was guitarist Peter Buck and drummer Bill Berry, who left the band in 1997 following an on-stage brain aneurysm in 1995.

R.E.M. last performed in 2008, two years after they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Their final tour was in service of their 14th and penultimate studio album ‘Accelerate’. The band played 77 shows across North America, Europe, and South America, performing for the last time in Mexico City on 18 November 2008.

Another album would come, ‘Collapse Into Now’ in 2011 and shortly after announced that they were “calling it a day as a band”. The decision came nearly 30 years after their first album ‘Murmur’ had been released in 1983.

“A wise man once said, 'The skill in attending a party is knowing when it's time to leave.’ We built something extraordinary together. We did this thing. And now we're going to walk away from it,” Stipe wrote at the time. “I hope our fans realise this wasn't an easy decision; but all things must end, and we wanted to do it right, to do it our way.”

Michael Stipe, singer of US band R.E.M., performs on the stage during a concert at the Arena in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2005.
Michael Stipe, singer of US band R.E.M., performs on the stage during a concert at the Arena in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2005.LAURENT GILLIERON/AP

It’s a rare thing for a band to have a break-up that is as definitive as R.E.M.’s without it being predicated on a fallout, but that’s all part of their charm. They were on good terms, but the drive to continue the project had dissipated. Instead of beating a dead horse, they put it out to pasture.

Only a few other groups have had such amicable break-ups. Talking Heads come to mind, although there are reports that their dissolution in 1991 was down to frontman David Byrne’s individual decision. A more similar example is perhaps The White Stripes, who also announced their break-up in 2011. Jack White cited the desire “to preserve what is beautiful and special about the band” as the main motivation at the time.

In an interview with CBS ahead of the Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony, the band remarked on how the decision to disband has strengthened their friendship in the years since.

“At that point, there wasn’t anything we could agree on musically. What kind of music, how to record it, are we going to go on tour. We could barely agree on where to go to dinner. Now we can just agree on where to go to dinner,” Buck said.

R.E.M. with singer Michael Stipe, left, and guitarist Peter Buck, right, perform at an open air concert in Dresden, eastern Germany in 2008
R.E.M. with singer Michael Stipe, left, and guitarist Peter Buck, right, perform at an open air concert in Dresden, eastern Germany in 2008MATTHIAS RIETSCHEL/AP2008

Stipe then interjected: “We’re also here to tell the tale and we’re sitting at the same table together with deep admiration and lifelong friendship. A lot of people that do this can’t claim that.”

It’s a charming admission and is a big part of why so many R.E.M. fans around the world are in shock right now that they performed again.

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So much of what made R.E.M. special was their sense of integrity. This doesn’t contradict that, but it does certainly lay a tantalising prospect of future concerts in front of those feverish fans, even if it’s still a far-off wish.

An R.E.M. tour would, of course, be seismic. For those unfamiliar with the band, their influence over contemporary rock music is hard to put into context. Forming in the early 80s, they were key in pioneering an entirely different way to make rock songs.

Their lighter touch on the instruments that were still rich in complexity and Stipe’s multifaceted near-spoken vocals, made them huge stars and defined the nascent alternative rock genre.

Alongside Pixies, R.E.M. are the definitive inspiration starting point for the next generation of rock legends, including Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, and then later Radiohead.

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Listening to them now, it’s hard to place when their songs were recorded. Their masterpiece 1992’s ‘Automatic For The People’ still stands head and shoulders above almost all alternative rock classics released in the 32 years since it came out.

Does this seemingly impromptu one song live performance signal more dates on the way? Probably not. But a fan can dream.

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