R.E.M. formed at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, in January 1980. Discovering they had similar tastes, vocalist Michael Stipe (born January 4, 1960 in Decatur, Georgia) and guitarist Peter Buck (born December 6, 1956 in Berkeley, California) began working together, eventually meeting bassist Mike Mills (born December 17, 1958 in Orange County, California) and drummer Bill Berry (born July 31, 1958 in Duluth, Minnesota). In April 1980, the band formed under the name Twisted Kites to play a birthday party for their friend Kathleen O'Brien, rehearsing a number of garage, psychedelic bubblegum, and punk covers in a converted Episcopalian church. By the summer, the band had settled on the name R.E.M. after flipping randomly through the dictionary. Around the same time, the band met Jefferson Holt, who became their manager after witnessing the group's first out-of-state concert in North Carolina. Eventually, the band members dropped out of school to concentrate on their musical career.
Over the next year and a half, R.E.M. toured throughout the South, playing a variety of garage rock covers (including tourmates Mission Of Burma's 1979 single, "Academy Fight Song") and folk-rock originals. At the time, the band was still learning how to play, as Buck began to develop his distinctive, arpeggiated jangle and Stipe ironed out his cryptic lyrics. During the summer of 1981, R.E.M. recorded their first single, "Radio Free Europe", at Mitch Easter's Drive-In Studios. Released on the local indie label Hib-Tone, "Radio Free Europe" was pressed in a run of only 1,000 copies. The single became a hit on college radio and topped Village Voice's year-end poll of Best Independent Singles. Their country/folk sound was contradicted by a driving bassline and an urgency that suggested The Who in their early mod phase. Paired with the distinctive voice of Stipe and his indecipherable lyrics, R.E.M.'s sound was unique in the post-punk era of the early 1980s.
The I.R.S. years (1982-1987)
Favorable response to the "Radio Free Europe" single earned the band the attention of larger independent labels. In early 1982, the band signed to I.R.S. Records, and set to work on their debut EP, Chronic Town, (again with Easter). The release illustrated R.E.M.'s signature musical style: jangling guitars, chords played in arpeggio, murmured vocals, and lyrics that often avoided the standard topics of popular music. To promote the release, the band flew to California and taped a video for "Wolves, Lower", which largely featured the band synching their performance with the studio recording. Stipe felt he looked foolish, and vowed to never lip-synch in a video again.
To record their debut album, the band was initially paired by their label with producer Stephen Hague, but the band objected after recording only one song. During their session, Hague pressed Berry through countless takes, then added synthesizers to the track once the band finished recording their parts. I.R.S. subsequently agreed to a "tryout" session, allowing the band to return to North Carolina and record "Pilgrimage" with Easter and producing partner Don Dixon. After hearing the track, I.R.S. gave the green light, and the band set to work selecting and recording songs from their accumulated catalog of original material.
The completed album, Murmur, was greeted with wide critical acclaim, with Rolling Stone declaring it the best album of 1983. The album was warmly received by college radio, and its success there pushed the album into Top 30 on the Billboard album chart. A re-recorded version of "Radio Free Europe" was the lead single from the album. Other notable tracks included the piano-led "Perfect Circle", "Sitting Still" (a re-recorded version of the Hib-Tone b-side), and "Talk About the Passion", which was re-released as a single in 1988. The success of the album scored the band its first national television appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, where they performed a new, unnamed song.
The unnamed song, eventually titled "So. Central Rain", became the first single from the band's second album, Reckoning. The band once again returned to work with Easter and Dixon, resulting in a work not far removed from its predecessor. The band spent a mere twelve days recording the album, allowing their significant road experience to guide the sessions. As with their previous work, Stipe kept his lyrics ambiguous, leaving many fans guessing as to the songs' meanings. One of the clearer songs was the second single, "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville", written by Mills about a love-interest who was being called back home by her parents after they had gotten wind of her disappointing grades. While mainstream radio deemed the album too uncommercial, college radio embraced it, allowing the band's reputation to grow within the underground.
For its third album, Fables of the Reconstruction, the band decided to change direction completely. After considering such wide-ranging possibilities as Van Dyke Parks, Elliot Mazer, and Hugh Padgham to produce the record, the band eventually settled on Joe Boyd, perhaps best known for his work with cult favorite Nick Drake. The band travelled to England, arriving just in time to enjoy a cold and rainy London winter. The band found the sessions unexpectedly difficult. Tensions emerged, later blamed on the weather and homesickness, and the band reportedly came close to breaking up. The gloominess surrounding the sessions ended up providing the context for the album itself, influencing an album darker and drearier than the band's previous efforts. Lyrically, Stipe began to emerge from his shell, creating storylines in the mode of Southern mythology, noting in a 1985 interview that he was inspired by "the whole idea of the old men sitting around the fire, passing on ... legends and fables to the grandchildren". 
While Fables' singles were again mostly ignored at mainstream radio, the band found their audience at college radio continuing to grow. Four years of relentless touring began to return significant dividends, with the band finding themselves performing at larger and larger venues as the tour progressed. By the turn of 1986, R.E.M. had emerged as the quintessential college rock band.
For the ensuing album, the band decided to aim for a hard-driving rock album. They enlisted John Mellencamp producer Don Gehman to helm the sessions. The result, Lifes Rich Pageant, was later cited by the band as the marking post for the second stage of their career. Without intending to be more commercial, the band's music became more accessible, with Stipe's vocals finally coming to the forefront. Buck discussed the difference in a 1986 interview with the Chicago Tribune: "Michael is getting better at what he's doing, and he's getting more confident at it. And I think that shows up in the projection of his voice."
At the same time, Stipe finally decided that he had something to say. In a 1991 interview with MTV, Stipe related that if his vocals were to be out front, he might as well talk about what was on his mind. Over the course of Lifes Rich Pageant, Stipe's lyrics touched on a wide variety of themes, with a greater emphasis on politics and the environment. "Fall on Me" covered the concerns of air pollution, while "Cuyahoga" touched on the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, a river once so polluted that it famously caught on fire in 1969. The album also featured a cover of The Clique's "Superman", sung by Mills, which became a popular single on college radio. The album continued the trend of each album outselling its predecessor, and eventually peaked at number 21 on the Billboard album chart.
Following the success of Pageant, I.R.S. issued Dead Letter Office, a compilation consisting of numerous tracks recorded by the band during their album sessions, many of which had either been issued as b-sides or left unreleased altogether. The album featured numerous covers, including three Velvet Underground songs ("There She Goes Again", which was nearly included on Murmur, "Pale Blue Eyes", and "Femme Fatale"), Aerosmith's "Toys in the Attic", and "Crazy" by fellow Athens band Pylon. The album concluded with an "alcohol-soaked" run through an uncommissioned commercial for an Athens barbecue restaurant, which devolved into a cover of Roger Miller's "King of the Road". Of the latter, Buck joked in the liner notes: "If there was any justice in the world, Roger Miller should be able to sue for what we did to this song." For the CD release, I.R.S. added Chronic Town, its first issuing in the format. Shortly thereafter, I.R.S. compiled R.E.M.'s music video catalog (save "Wolves, Lower") into the band's first video release, Succumbs.
For their last album for I.R.S., the band entered what would become a decade-long relationship with producer Scott Litt. Again eager to make a hard-driving rock record, the band eliminated many of the elements that had played so prominently on their first albums, including Buck's arpeggios and Stipe's mumbling vocals. Reacting to the conservative political environment of the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan, the album featured some of Stipe's most openly political lyrics, particularly on "Welcome to the Occupation" and "Exhuming McCarthy".  The completed album, Document, began the band's rise into the mainstream.
Document's first single, "The One I Love", caught on at Top 40 radio. In the ensuing months, listeners who misunderstood the song's meaning made the song a popular radio dedication to loved ones, relying on the main lyric, "This one goes out to the one I love." However, they missed an ensuing line: "A simple prop to occupy my time"; the song was not particularly a love song. Stipe related to Rolling Stone, "I've always left myself pretty open to interpretation. It's probably better that they just think it's a love song at this point."  Despite the confusion, the song became the band's first major single, reaching number nine on the Billboard singles chart. The album's second single, "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)", was a pre-apocalyptic rant reminiscent of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues". While not a particular success on mainstream radio, the video for the song became a popular favorite on college radio and on MTV's 120 Minutes.
The band's I.R.S. years were summarized in the 1988 compilation Eponymous. The release included most of the band's singles as well as a number of rarities, including the original Hib-Tone version of "Radio Free Europe", a version of "Gardening at Night" with Stipe singing the song full-voice rather than the more subdued version from Chronic Town, and a version of "Finest Worksong" with horns, which Buck thought might have made Document "had instinct prevailed at the time".
Rock superstars (1988-1997)
In 1988, R.E.M. signed for a five-album contract to the major label Warner Brothers Records and released Green. This was the band's first time with heavy promotion, and they toured large arenas worldwide in 1989. Some fans from the I.R.S. days complained that R.E.M. had become too commercial and that the quality of the music had decreased, but the band had now been brought to international attention, with radio hits like the top 10 "Stand," and continued their political interest with the anti-war anthem "Orange Crush" and "World Leader Pretend," the first R.E.M. song whose lyrics were printed in the album sleeve. In 1990, a mid-'80s side project between Berry, Buck, Mills, and Warren Zevon, the Hindu Love Gods, had a record of blues covers released by Giant Records without the R.E.M. members' consent or participation; a cover of Prince's 1985 hit "Raspberry Beret" received some modest radio airplay.
R.E.M. reconvened in mid-1990 to record their seventh album, Out of Time, which was released in the spring of 1991 and became the band's first chart-topping album in both the U.S. and U.K. A lush folk and country-tinged pop album, Out of Time boasted a wider array of sounds than the group's previous efforts, including a collaboration with rapper KRS-One on "Radio Song." Out of Time's enigmatic, hypnotic lead single, "Losing My Religion", became the group's biggest pop hit, reaching number four in the U.S, and remains perhaps their best known song. Its music video was the last featuring Stipe in which he did not lip-synch his vocals exactly. The band also scored a Top 10 hit with "Shiny Happy People," one of three songs on the album to feature vocals from Kate Pierson of fellow Athens, Georgia band The B-52's. Two songs featuring Mills on lead vocals, "Near Wild Heaven" and "Texarkana," received considerable airplay as well, the latter becoming a hit on album-oriented rock radio. Since the band were exhausted from the Green Tour, they chose to stay off the road. Nevertheless, Out of Time became R.E.M.'s biggest album, selling more than four million copies in the U.S. and spending two weeks at the top of the charts.
After spending some months off in 1991, the band returned in the studio quickly to record their next album. In autumn of the following year they released the dark, meditative Automatic for the People (1992). Though the group had promised a harder-rocking album after the softer textures of Out of Time, Automatic for the People was if anything slower and quieter, with many songs graced by string arrangements by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. Mandolin was again heard on some songs, as well as melodica and piano played by Mills; the more acoustic sound was mostly due to the influence of Buck, who had recently produced Uncle Tupelo's March 16-20, 1992. Like its predecessor, Automatic was a quadruple-platinum success, generating the Top 40 hit singles "Man on the Moon," "Drive," and Stipe's anti-suicide anthem "Everybody Hurts", whose music was written by drummer Bill Berry. Automatic for the People sold 15 million copies worldwide in spite of its cryptic lyrics on such melancholy themes as death, politics and sexual jealousy. It remains R.E.M.'s most universally-acclaimed recording.
After piecing together almost two albums in the studio, R.E.M. decided to return to being a rock band. Though the record was conceived as a back-to-basics album, the recording of the grunge-influenced Monster (1994) was difficult and plagued with tension. Monster featured guitar playing by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore on one song, "Crush With Eyeliner," while "Let Me In" was a lament for Stipe's late friend Kurt Cobain. The single "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" proved to be a crossover hit and Monster their fastest-selling album to date, debuting at the top of the U.S. charts and earning strong reviews from critics, but many eventually soured on the band's self-conscious foray into glam rock, seen as a disappointment after the depth of their previous work.
Experiencing the widest popularity of their career, R.E.M. began early in 1995 their first tour in six years, beginning several collaborations with famed stage and lighting designer Willie Williams. Two months into the tour, Bill Berry collapsed on stage during a performance, suffering a brain aneurysm; he had surgery immediately and had fully recovered within a month. R.E.M. resumed their tour in Salt Lake City two months after Berry's aneurysm, but his illness was only the beginning of a series of problems that plagued the Monster Tour, causing it to live up to its ironic name. Mills had to undergo abdominal surgery to remove an intestinal adhesion in July; a month later, Stipe had to have an emergency surgery to repair a hernia.
Despite all the problems, the tour was an enormous financial success, and the group recorded the bulk of a new album while on the road. The band noted that they borrowed the recording process for their album from Radiohead, who recorded some of the basic tracks for The Bends while on tour. The band brought along eight-track recorders to capture their shows, and used the recordings as the base elements for the album. As such, the band's touring musicians, including Nathan December and Scott McCaughey, ended up appearing on the album. After the tour was complete, the band entered the studio and recorded the last four additional tracks.
Shortly before its release, which was going to fulfill their contract, the band re-signed with Warner Brothers in 1996 for what was, at the time, the largest recording contract advance in history: a reported $80 million for five albums.
New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996), their longest album to date, was a decidedly bleak, roughly produced and uninviting effort. The album featured the seven-minute "Leave", the band's longest song to date, which was composed by Bill Berry. Another notable track on the record was its single "E-Bow the Letter," a collaboration with the legendary Patti Smith, who had been one of Michael Stipe's earliest influences. New Adventures in Hi-Fi is a favorite of many fans, as it showcased most of the band's incarnations throughout their career. Critical reaction to the album was mixed. Several critics lauded the album for it rich diversity, while some critics, including Melody Maker, criticized the album's empty and flat sound caused by recording in arenas. However, in light of such a huge contract sum, the album marked a considerable downfall of the band's commercial success. Though it debuted at number two in the U.S. and number one in the U.K., the album failed to generate a hit single in the U.S and has sold half of the sales of Out of Time.
In 1996, R.E.M. parted ways with their long-time manager Jefferson Holt, allegedly due to sexual harassment charges levied against Holt by a member of the band's home office in Athens. The group's lawyer, Bertis Downs, assumed managerial duties. (Holt denied the accusations of the harassment and insisted that it was an amicable separation between him and the band.)
In March 1997, the band convened at Buck's holiday home in Hawaii. Gathered in the host's front room, the quartet began recording demos of material written in Athens the previous month. The band took the opportunity to reinvent their sound, incorporating drum machines and Buck's vintage synthesizers from the 1960s and '70s. Berry was asked to come up with some patterns on the drum machines between that point and their next meeting, which was to be in Athens in October. Stipe used the eight-month period to come up with melodies and lyrics. For inspiration, he went back to Fables of the Reconstruction, Out of Time, Automatic for the People, and New Adventures in Hi-Fi. In early October 1997, R.E.M. met up at their West Clayton Street studio to begin rehearsals for the new album and to do some recording. Berry, however, was nowhere to be seen. "They had been recording for about a week, and Bill wasn't there, and I was going, you know, 'Where's Bill? Why isn’t he here?'" explained John Keane on Behind the Music. In the words of the narrator, Jim Forbes, "Bill finally does show up, but not to make music. After seventeen years in the band he loves, he tells his closest friends that he is leaving R.E.M. for good."
R.E.M. were booked in to start recording their new album on October 20, but the sessions were cancelled. A week later, the band informed Warner Bros. that Bill was leaving the band. The label's president, Steve Baker, flew to Athens from Los Angeles. "I thought he was insane," said Buck. "I was like, 'Bill, you can't be in your right mind if you’re thinking that.' But he talked to us and convinced us all that he was in his right mind - he wasn't depressed, he wasn't reacting to anything - he just didn't want to do it anymore." Mills, Berry's best friend since high school also reflected this: "He made a very courageous decision," added "No matter how much you’re disliking it, to throw it all away is amazingly difficult. And he did what he wanted to do and now he's doing what he wants to do and he’s happy as a clam, and I'm happy for him." Berry himself explained: "I would have gone through therapy or something. Really, I would have stayed. I wasn't going to let the band break up over it. And they weren't going to do that. They wanted to keep doing it, I didn't, so everybody's happy."
With his departure, the band lost more than just their drummer. Berry regularly contributed elements such as guitar, bass, vocals, keyboards, and piano on studio tracks, and made notable songwriting contributions (including "Everybody Hurts", "Find the River", and "Leave"). Michael admitted that the band will be different without a major contributor: "For me, Mike, and Peter, as R.E.M... are we still R.E.M.? I guess a three-legged dog is still a dog. It just has to learn to run differently."
R.E.M. after Berry (1998-present)
After taking a time-out to gather their thoughts, rest, and travel, the remaining members of R.E.M. returned to the drawing board, at Toast Studios in San Francisco, to work on their next album. They parted ways with producer Scott Litt, ending their decade-long collaboration. In his place, the band commissioned Pat McCarthy to produce the record; he was assisted by Nigel Godrich for the engineering, fresh off his work with Radiohead's much acclaimed OK Computer. Rather than hire a permanent replacement drummer, the band made use of drum machines on the album, and drafted ex-Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin and Beck touring drummer Joey Waronker for handling session duties.
The recording process was plagued with a great deal of tension and the group came close to disbanding completely. Also, Mike Mills played guitar and keyboards more often than his typical bass duties, which are more often than not played by lead guitarist Peter Buck. Led off by the single "Daysleeper", Up (1998) debuted in the top ten in the US and UK. However, the album sank quickly, reaching only gold status in both countries and producing no major radio hits. Although by this time Stipe had been singing clearly for a decade, Up was the first R.E.M. album to include complete printed lyrics, seen as a departure from the band's tradition of ambiguity. It was also their second-longest record, and its dreamy, often electronic sound apparently put off many longtime fans still mourning Berry's departure.
A year after Up's release, R.E.M. contributed a song, "The Great Beyond", to the soundtrack of the movie Man on the Moon, which starred Jim Carrey in the life story of comedian Andy Kaufman. (The film was itself named for the 1992 R.E.M. hit that referenced Kaufman in the lyrics.) The track marked the first R.E.M. studio appearance by drummer Joey Waronker, who had been the band's touring drummer for the previous year. A major U.K. hit and a minor U.S. hit, "The Great Beyond" garnered greater radio airplay than any of R.E.M.'s singles from Up. The band also wrote the instrumental score for the movie, a first for the group.
R.E.M.'s 2001 album, Reveal, continued the band's more subdued vibe, its folk pop songs increasingly shrouded in layers of production effects. However, it also included the hit single "Imitation of Life," seen as a return to their classic style, and the album took heavy influence from the summery songs of Brian Wilson. Reveal included drumming by Waronker, as well as contributions by Scott McCaughey (a cofounder with Peter Buck of the band Minus 5) and Posies founder Ken Stringfellow, who also backed the band live in this era. Again, popular and critical response varied on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Reveal garnered mixed reviews in the U.S. but received numerous positive reviews in Britain, including Uncut, NME, and Q. The band continued to be a major commercial force in Europe and other parts of the world, even as they began to sink back into cult status in America, this time without the nonconformist image and college radio support of their early career.
In subsequent years, the band began revisiting some of their earliest material. "All the Right Friends", written in 1980, was re-recorded and contributed to the soundtrack for the 2001 film Vanilla Sky. The 2003 single "Bad Day", which was featured on the "best of" compilation In Time - The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003, started out as an unfinished 1986 demo called "P.S.A.", which itself was re-worked into 1987's "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)". Although R.E.M. had once said they would not consider releasing a greatest hits album (Eponymous had been released by IRS without their participation), the new compilation sold quite well worldwide and spawned a tour featuring both hits and obscure fan favorites, increasing hope for the band's future.
During a 2003 concert in Raleigh, North Carolina, Bill Berry made a surprise appearance, performing backing vocals on "Radio Free Europe". He then sat behind the drum kit for a performance of the early R.E.M. song "Permanent Vacation". The night marked Berry's first performance with the band since his departure. (Berry has since made two more appearances with the band, including a seven-song set at the October 2005 wedding of longtime R.E.M. guitar tech Dewitt Burton and a performance of "Country Feedback" (with Berry on bass) at an April 2006 concert in Athens, Georgia by Buck's side project The Minus 5.)
The band returned in 2004 with Around the Sun, which met with the mildest reception of any album in R.E.M.'s career, receiving mixed-to-negative reviews. Stipe had suggested the new album would be "primitive and howling," and the band had released a stark political protest song called "Final Straw" free over the Internet during the invasion of Iraq, leading fans to expect a return to roots. Instead, the album (and the final recording of that song) was ultimately more processed than even Reveal, although it featured some of Stipe's most personal songwriting. Singles from Around the Sun included "Leaving New York" (a Top 5 hit in the UK), "Aftermath", "Electron Blue", and "Wanderlust".
For the record and subsequent tour, the band hired a new full-time drummer, Bill Rieflin, who had previously been a member of Ministry. In the band's press release for the album, Stipe noted that Buck had brought Rieflin to the band in the hopes of pulling the band in a different direction. But Rieflin is not considered a replacement for Bill Berry, and the band remains an official three-piece.
In late 2004 the band toured with Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Bright Eyes and others on the Vote for Change Tour supporting U.S. presidential candidate John Kerry. Throughout 2005, the band embarked on their first full-length world tour since the Monster tour ten years earlier. During the tour, in July of that year, R.E.M. participated in Live 8. A scheduled R.E.M. concert at the same venue - Hyde Park, London - one week later, was postponed for an additional week in the aftermath of the 7 July 2005 London bombings. Thereafter the band took a long hiatus.
In May 2006, Bill Rieflin said that the band would go back in the studio around the autumn or winter to start work on new album: "The band's on hiatus. The idea at the end of the last tour, which ended in July, was really to take a year off, without having to even think about it. There was a three-year period of quite intense work, [so this is] some needed time off. There's some discussion about cranking things up in autumn, maybe winter."
EMI, which owns the IRS catalogue, will be releasing a compilation album featuring some of R.E.M.'s best songs from the IRS years on September 12th 2006. This compilation will be called "And I Feel Fine...The Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982-1987." There will also be a 2-disc collector's edition set that will include the aforementioned CD, as well as a bonus CD filled with demos, outtakes, and live versions of songs. On the same day, a DVD entitled "When The Light Is Mine: The Best Of the I.R.S. Years 1982-1987 Video Collection" will also be released. This DVD will feature every music video the band made from the I.R.S. era, in addition to live performances by the band, and "Left of Reckoning".