May 24 – When We Found Out What Yoko Sings Like?

The 1970s had Ray Stevens “The Streak” and disco. Put the two together loosely perhaps and you might come up with something like a big hit from 42 years ago. The B-52s were surfin’ to the top in Canada this day in 1980, with “Rock Lobster” going to #1 there in 1980. It was a novelty song inspired by a disco.

The band was an odd one from the start, which for them was 1976 at the University of Georgia in Athens. Brother and sister Cindy and Ricky Wilson formed an avante garde band with their friends, poet Fred Schneider, as well as Kate Pierson and Ricky Strickland. Rather like another famous Athens band, R.E.M., their first show was a somewhat impromptu set at a friend’s party. For them that was on Valentine’s Day, ’77.

They developed what they termed a “thrift shop aesthetic”, with a mix of old – early rock and roll influences – and campiness, as shown in their hairdos and lyrics. They got popular around the university town and put out “Rock Lobster” as an indie single in 1978; it did well enough that Warner Brothers signed them and it was re-recorded for their debut, self-titled album. Schneider says the idea came to him while at a disco called “2001” in Atlanta. “I was at a disco that had pictures of lobsters and children playing ball,” he recalls. “’Rock Lobster’ sounded like a good title for a song.”

The quirky song runs nearly seven minutes on the album, but was edited as a single, to just under, or just over four minutes depending on which release you had. Fred sang lead, and worked in some of his cowbell; Cindy and Kate sang backup and Kate added the bass via a synthesizer. While it was a big success on college radio at home, overall it failed to quickly find a spot on hit radio in the U.S., getting to only #56. However, to the north in Canada, radio was quickly opening up to new wave sounds (mostly from Britain at that point) and it became a smash on Toronto’s CFNY in 1979. In fact the album was that station’s #2 of the year and its prominent DJ Alan Cross would later rank it as the ninth best “classic alternative” song in a book he wrote on the subject. The popularity on that station led other Toronto ones to begin playing it, the band to get a headline gig at the huge Heatwave Festival near there in the summer of ’80 and eventually stations all over the country to play it. It managed to usurp Blondie’s “Call Me” from the top spot for one week (Blondie would be #1 for three weeks before, and three weeks after “Rock Lobster.”)

Although it wasn’t a big hit in the States, it did very well “Down Under”, getting to #3 in Australia and helping the album go platinum in New Zealand. Over time though it became elevated to something of “classic” status in the U.S. as well, with Rolling Stone listing it among the 200 greatest songs of all-time. That mag says “the B-52s invented new wave weirdness with this slice of buoffant pop (with) Yoko Ono-ish vocals.”

They weren’t the only ones who thought that. John Lennon is said to have loved the song and also commented it sounded like his wife’s music and in fact it’s one of the things which inspired him to get working on Double Fantasy with Yoko. She returned the favor, singing it with them onstage once in 2002.

April 27 – Kate’s Wild Cosmic Ride

OK, let’s all feel old now- old but shiny and happy! But not before wishing Kate Pierson a very happy 74th birthday! The lovely beehived voice (as well as at times keyboardist and bassist) of the B-52s was born in New Jersey way back in 1948 but of course is best known for her part in the great Athens, Georgia scene of the late-20th Century.

Kate was friends with Cindy and Ricky Wilson down in Athens in the ’70s, and much like fellow Athenians, R.E.M., their band (the B-52s) came together rather spontaneously, playing an impromptu show for a friend’s party on Valentine’s Day, 1977. Their quirky, humorous lyrics and unique sound, as well as their passion for retro clothing (not to mention the over-the-top beehives hairdos on the gals) got them noticed and soon, a record deal. The 1979 debut album went platinum in the U.S. and gave us the memorable single (which was a surprise #1 hit in Canada),”Rock Lobster”. The band endured the death of Ricky Wilson from AIDS and actually had their greatest success after his passing, with 1989’s Cosmic Thing – an album where Kate shone doing the lead vocals on “Roam”, their last top 10 single in North America, although they got to #3 in the UK in ’94 with the suitably jovial “Flintstones” theme.

Kate made friends with R.E.M. along the way and is front and center in their single (and video) “Shiny Happy People.” She’s worked with other Athens’ musicians like Matthew Sweet as well as non-Georgians like David Byrne and Iggy Pop (with whom she had the major alt rock hit with “Candy” in 1990). Pierson’s not showing signs of slowing down, putting out a solo album, Guitars and Microphones in 2015, an album produced by current sensation Sia. The record didn’t sell much but got decent enough reviews, such as Rolling Stone‘s which pointed out she didn’t veer much off the B-52s formula but liked “the feisty Jersey girl (and her) private Idaho … a collection of brassy manifestations about independence and naturally, outer space!” the next year she put her take on the ’60s & ’80s hit, “Venus”, which is about the last new material we’ve heard from her.

Kate’s a well-known LGBT advocate and finally in 2015 she got to marry her girlfriend Monica Coleman. Together the pair run a B&B in upstate New York these days. We hope they’re having a terrific party by the fireplace there today! And getting ready for an even bigger party… or parties.

The B-52s are back in the news with word of a tour this fall – “the final tour ever of planet Earth!”. It is set to kick off in Seattle in August. Pierson says of it “it’s going to be one hell of a farewell party at these concerts…who knew what started out as a way to have some fun and play music for our friends in house parties in Athens in 1977 would evolve into over 45 years of making music and touring the world? It’s been cosmic.”

April 5 – The Kegger That Reverberated For 30 Years

It was a party for the ages on this night in 1980 in Georgia. But I doubt many realized it at the time – they were too busy getting drunk and just having a good time!

Some hit bands are put together by committees (think the Monkees); others are built to be super-groups from the best of other bands (Asia, Led Zeppelin). Many get there by a group of people determined to be stars who studiously practice and write together for years (maybe Toto, for instance). Then there’s R.E.M.

The most successful American alt rock band, and the pride of Athens, Georgia came together by accident on this day 42 years ago. The four knew each other somewhat; Michael Stipe hung out at Peter Buck’s workplace (Wuxtry Records); Mike Mills and Bill Berry were friends at the University of Georgia there. Presumably they all knew one another and had some level of common musical interest and as we now know, some musical talent. However, they really didn’t come together with an aim to change the face of the musical landscape. They just decided to jam together a little to add some background noise to a friend’s party!

So it was that on an unseasonably cold spring night, what would become R.E.M. and about 300 others, mainly from the UofG, jammed into an abandoned Episcopal church on Oconee Street in Athens to throw a party for Kathleen O’Brien, who was celebrating her birthday. O’Brien worked at the campus radio station which no doubt endeared her to the boys in R.E.M. A good time was had by all by the few accounts, and the quartet played a handful of rather unmemorable covers of artists from Jonathan Richman to the Sex Pistols to the Stones. They played a couple of originals, rough versions of tracks that could eventually make the Murmur album like “Perfect Circle“.

And that might have been the end of the story if not for some unknown person’s greed. Or thirst. In true college form, the party was a “kegger”, with beer aplenty. Someone actually stole several kegs from the party. Poor student O’Brien had put down a deposit on the metal kegs and was on the hook for quite a few dollars. The musicians felt bad for her, and arranged to play a local bar – Tyrone’s OC – on May 6 to raise funds to pay her beer losses. In the meantime, they practiced a bit and haphazardly settled on the name that would take them into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame some 25 years later!

Tyrone’s bar burned down a couple of years later, but the music tourist can still see the steeple and part of the ruined church to this day.

While the band broke up after 31 years, various members have at times worked together since and they seem on amicable terms. Ironically, they saw a sudden resurgence in popularity of their ’80s single “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” in the early days of the pandemic  (it hit recharted on iTunes in early 2020). Mike Mills said of that, “we certainly never saw that coming with this song…you just never know how it’s going to work out.” Same goes for starting a new band, or any other venture, but in R.E.M.’s case, that kegger turned out pretty well!

February 26 – R.E.M. Helped Alt Rock Take A ‘Stand’ On Mainstream Radio

They’d already crossed over to a major, worldwide powerhouse label (Warner Bros.), now R.E.M. were ready to cross over to major worldwide radio play. They took a step towards that on this day 33 years ago when “Stand” hit the U.S. top 40 on this week in 1989.

They’d long been the darlings of American college radio, and not surprisingly, “Stand” had already hit #1 on Billboard‘s then young Alternative Rock charts, as had the album Green‘s first single, “Orange Crush”. In fact, between the two they dominated that particular chart for 10 weeks in the ’80s, more than any other artist. Add in their friends the B-52s and you had the top spot for 17 weeks in less than a year between late-’88 and mid-’89, showing how vital the Athens, Georgia scene was to modern rock back then.

However, that hadn’t always meant huge mainstream recognition. The then quartet had one prior top 10 hit (“The One I Love”) but “Stand” took it to the next level, going to #6 in the U.S. and #8 in Canada and becoming the first one of their songs to garner extensive airplay on mainstream rock and pop stations and be played in supermarkets. It helped Green go double platinum in North America, their best showing to that point (but only a hint of the success they’d score over the following three or four years.)

Love it or hate it – this writer loves it, but a recent poll of R.E.M. fans suggests it’s one of their least popular singles – “Stand” was a fun single with an offbeat fun video. Who among us of a certain age haven’t spent time trying to perfect that stand/jump/turn dance? It was an offbeat sound the band wasn’t known for. Guitarist Peter Buck says of it “it’s the stupidest song we’ve ever written. That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he points out and compares it to “Louie Louie” or the simplicity of songs by The Ramones, whom he says write “the best songs.” Singer Michael Stipe agreed, more or less. He says the song was an homage to “bubblegum” acts they all liked growing up like The Monkees and Archies.

They threw these super bubble-gummy songs at me. I said ‘I’ll raise you and see you one’ and wrote the most inane lyrics I could.” To add to the effect, Buck pulled out a wah-wah pedal for the solo, which Rolling Stone call “ridiculously wanky.” For all that, there is an added depth to the song, and video. Stipe says it’s “about making decisions and actually living your life rather than letting it happen.” Buck at the time, arguably the least socially-active of the band, told Rolling Stone it, and the album in general, reflected that idea of standing to make a difference. “We have curbside paper recycling (in Athens),” he notes, “which is pretty cool…we go to city council meetings and vote on things.”

So, today’s a good day to make a “stand” and do something worthwhile. Including maybe listening to one of the ’80s great bubblegum pop tunes!

October 31 – 40 Watt Shone Brightly In Georgia Music History

Great art doesn’t always come forth out of lovely, or state-of-the-art places. In fact, in music sometimes the opposite is the case. And case in point, the musical “hub” of new rock in The South flipped on the lights for the first time 42 years ago… perhaps not bright lights though. In fact, possibly just a 40 Watt bulb. Athens, Georgia’s 40 Watt Club came into existence this day in 1979. Just as the grubby CBGB club in New York City was essential to the creation of the vibrant new wave/punk scene in that city in the late-’70s, the 40 Watt Club was the place that got things going in Athens great ’80s scene.

University of Georgia is located in Athens, and while its sometimes known for its college football, UG is also a major arts school. But in the late-’70s, there were only four clubs in the city that had live music. Two offered only rock cover bands, and another was usually limited to folk music, so really kids wanting to hear anything different, or bands wanting to play, had to go to Tyrone’s OC. Tyrone’s had a decent reputation, but presumably competition was stiff to get booked there and there’s only so much one bar can do.

Come Halloween ’79, Curtis Crowe decided to have a party. Crowe would become the drummer to popular underground band Pylon, his sister Rhett would join Guadalcanal Diary soon also. So Crowe found an empty space in an attic above a sandwich shop on College Ave. and held the party there, with some friends in a short-lived band being the entertainment.

Our band was called Strictly American,” Murray Attaway told me. “Myself, Jeff Walls (later in Guadalcanal Diary), Curtis Crowe from Pylon and a couple of other friends. The venue wasn’t an official club yet, but it was named the ’40 Watt Club’ for that specific night and they continued to use the name ever after.” A few months later it moved to a different spot about a block away and opened officially.

“There was so much music coming out at that time, how could you not start a band?”, Randy Bewley of Pylon queried. The 40 Watt soon became the place to be seen if you were a new band, or to hang out to hear what’s new and cool if you were an ordinary student. By 1982 it had moved to a bigger, but still somewhat dingy, location, and several other moves happened through the years until settling into its current location in an empty grocery store on West Washington St. in 1991. No less a publication than the New York Times included it in an article on “must see” entertainment spots in Atlanta – 75 miles to the west! They describe it as the place which turned Athens into a “rock vanguard” and say “its street door opens directly into a simple, squarish room with a bar along one wall, a cigarette machine on the other, and quilts hanging from the ceiling.”

The 40 Watt Club became the center of the music scene in the city (and inspired others to open similar clubs, adding momentum to it) and was the “home base” of a number of that city’s famous, and not so, acts of the ’80s including Pylon, the B-52s, and a band that really put the city on the music map, R.E.M. They were regulars in there in the ’80s and then popped in somewhat regularly for surprise shows after they gained international fame. Helpfully, it was bought in 1987 by Barrie Buck, at the time the band’s guitarist, Peter Buck’s wife. Peter and her have since split, but Barrie still runs the club to this day. Later on, newer bands like Of Montreal and the Drive-by Truckers have carried on the club’s reputation. Outside of the hometown artists, it became a de rigeur place to play for touring alternative rock acts ranging from Nirvana to Iggy Pop to the Kings of Leon.

The 40 Watt Club is still operates in the old grocery store. They’re advertising a Halloween party tonight and shows by various new bands, plus Drive-by Truckers on the bill soon.

It’s too late to get a look at CBGB, but those wanting to see a true American alt rock breeding ground can still do that, have a pint or two and hear some music a few hours to the south, in that quaint college town of Athens.

October 6 – Acclaim For Great R.E.M. Album Was ‘Automatic’

On this day in 1992, R.E.M. put Weaver D’s restaurant in Athens, GA on the musical map with the release of their most acclaimed album, Automatic For the People. The album took up where Out of Time left off and then went to new heights, delivering a set of largely dark-themed lyrics set to incredible melodies.

Songs dealing with death were numerous and led to unfounded speculation that Michael Stipe was dying of AIDS. Guitarist Peter Buck gave some insight into the lyrics, mentioning there was some reflection from “that sense of turning 30…the world we’d been involved in had disappeared.” The result was great though, leaving us with several of their most popular album cuts, like “Nightswimming” and hits like “Man on the Moon”, “Drive” and “Everybody Hurts.” The latter was unusually straight-forward in its anti-suicide message, so much so that Nevada gave the band a commodation for providing a public service with it! Again Buck explained, “if you’re consciously writing for someone who hasn’t been to college or is pretty young, it might be nice to be very direct.” Michael Stipe said of it “this song instantly belonged to everyone except us, and that…means the world to me.”

The album won great reviews, with Rolling Stone giving it a perfect 5-star (“the Athens subversives reveal a darker vision that shimmers with new, complex beauty”), the NME similarly gave it 10 out of 10 and in 2006 ranked it the 37th greatest album of all-time. Melody Maker declared it “REM at the very top of their form” and the public agreed. It was their second #1 album in the UK, got to #2 in the U.S. and became their biggest-seller internationally. At 7X platinum in both the UK and Canada it’s their biggest in those countries and although it sold a few less than the predecessor in the U.S. it was still 4X platinum.

Their longtime associate Bertis Downs summed it up recently: “a really great record full of songs that mattered then and still matter now.”  Oh…and Weaver D’s? It’s a diner in their hometown that they loved. The album’s title was a phrase the owner often said when someone ordered – “cheeseburger and fried okra. Automatic for the People!”

(Read our personal review of the album from last year here.)

June 11 – B52s Last Biggie Predates Rock. Except Bedrock.

The ’70s was the “golden age” for TV show themes which became popular in their own right. Hit radio was dotted with the themes of hit TV shows, from instrumental anthems like “SWAT” and “The Rockford Files” to sitcoms galore. “Happy Days” anyone? By the ’90s however, that had more or less stopped. Many TV shows used only the most minimal of intro themes, and the record-buying public seemed less desirous of owning their own copies of the music. In fact, there was only one* real hit TV theme in that decade, the Rembrandt’s “I’ll Be There For You” from Friends. But wait… did I put an asterisk behind that one? I did, because there was another famous TV song which became a hit in the ’90s… long after the show itself had ceased. Longer still since it was set!

They could make a lobster rock, so why not have them rock a dinosaur…and his owner and his neighbors. Perhaps that was the thinking behind the makers of live-action movie remake of The Flintstones, and their picking the B-52s to do the theme song. The song gave the Athens, Georgia funsters their fifth and final top 40 hit, and it was sitting at a peak of #33 this day in 1994.

The movie was a chance to reboot what had been TV’s first prime-time cartoon. The Flintstones ran from 1960-66, made by cartoon-classics’ creators Hanna-Barbera. That pair, along with Hoyt Curtin, had written the theme song for the cartoon which echoed through most young Baby Boomer and older Gen X childhoods… “Flintstones, meet the Flintstones, they’re the modern stone age family…” The movie had John Goodman play Fred, Rick Moranis as Barney and Elizabeth Perkins for Wilma. To critics it was deader than a dinosaur, but it was a box office hit, and like most fun box office hits of the era, it had a soundtrack that was designed to sell. They got Was Not Was’ ’80s hit “Walk the Dinosaur” as well as, not surprisingly, the Screaming Blue Messiahs ’80s college rock hit, “I Wanna Be a Flintstone”, as well as some offerings (all appropriately Bedrock-themed) from the Crash Test Dummies, Shakespeare’s Sister and Big Audio Dynamite. But for the title track, who better to call than the Athens funsters with the big hair? The B-52s answered the call… or the “BC52s” as they relabeled themselves for this offering.

The fun rockers kept pretty close to the original other than adding an instrumental in the middle to make it seem more like a full-length song. Buyers of the vinyl or CD single got both a “Fred version”, the album one, and a “Barney version.” Diehard fantatics could get a 12” edition with dance mixes applauded by Billboard. “Props to remixer Junior Vasquez,” they wrote, “for a valiant effort in handling the task of turning a novelty tune into a hip jam with agility.”

The public thought so. The song did even better in Canada, where it got to #19, the UK, where it made it to #3, and much of Europe in fact where it made it into the top 10. In New Zealand, it earned them a gold single…although we wonder if it might have been made of bedrock, just to fit the theme.

The B52s are still going, having toured in 2019 and apparently looking forward to more in the future. As for movies, one can only wonder if we’ll see a live action Jetsons… and if we do, if they’ll get the band Space together again to do the theme!

March 12 – R.E.M. Made Kate Shiny & Happy

Warner Bros. gamble paid off in a big way 30 years back, as R.E.M. launched into the bigtime with the release of Out of Time on this day in 1991.

It was the Georgia band’s seventh studio album, but second one with Warner after signing a famously large contract with the label about four years earlier. R.E.M. had wanted to retain control over their musical direction, and Out of Time seemed to prove that at no small risk, as it saw them largely eschew the jangly guitar-based rock that so dominated their earlier works and see them explore new directions. A number of the tracks (“Country Feedback”, “Half A World Away”) seemed more country than rock; one song (“Radio song”) had a possibly ill-advised rap break from KRS-One. They brought in strings on a handful of tracks, John Keane to play pedal steel guitar on a couple more, and began playing some new roles themselves. Bassist Mike Mills took up the organ and piano on several songs and replaced Michael Stipe on lead vocals on a pair of tracks (“Texarkana” and “Near Wild Heaven”, that being the only single they ever released where Mills was the lead) while guitarist Peter Buck added some mandolin, most notably on the album’s surprise smash single “Losing My Religion.” Still for all of that, the one track that was probably the most surprising – and most devisive – song on the record was one with something else new … a female singing along with Stipe. Today we’ll look a bit at “Shiny Happy People.”

Now, the band had experimented with an upbeat “bubblegum” type of pop song on the previous album, Green, in “Stand.” But that couldn’t hold a candle to “Shiny Happy People” when it came to over-the-top cheeriness and downright silliness. And there’s the lady, Kate Pierson from another Athens band, the B-52s. While the band had been known largely for rather dour messages when the lyrics were clear enough to decipher (pollution and acid rain on “Fall on Me”, military evils on “Orange Crush”, the evils of group-think and political oppression in “Exhuming McCarthy”… even “Stand” itself doubled as a reminder to recycle and not exploit nature) this one was just 100% sunshine and cheer. As Vulture put it, “it gave Michael Stipe his bubblegum Davy Jones moment” along with Pierson, “the human embodiment of sunshine.” The B-52 recently gave that publication some insight into the song.

“It seemed to me they were doing a little homage to the B-52s,” she explained. A reasonable assumption given both bands emerged from the Georgia college town around the same time and ran in the same circles. “I lived about five miles out of town,” she said, “so I rode my bike to a party and saw (R.E.M.) I was captivated… every band that came out of Athens has been so unique” but she figured they all shared a similar spirit of originality and artistic experimentation. So says she ran into Michael Stipe in a crowd at a New York show and he asked if she’d like to be on one of their songs. She agreed, and when she arrived at the studio, the song was mostly done. “They said ‘do whatever you want. Do your thing!’”

She did and the song was soon out for the public’s approval. “I love that song. It makes me happy…it’s a song about spreading love, which we could really use right now,” she added. However, not everyone felt so happy about it. Indeed, as she pointed out it was a little bit of a Bobby McFerrin “Don’t Worry Be Happy” moment for R.E.M. “Then it became a hit and they were a bit miffed (because) it made it seem like that was their direction”. Indeed, Peter Buck’s said how much he dislikes the song and Michael Stipe, cryptic as always has variously said “it’s a fruity song written for children” and also said it obliquely references the Tiannamen Square massacre in China. After performing the tune live on Saturday Night Live, they never played it again in concert, although they did revisit it in slightly modified form when they visited kids’ show Sesame Street. But the bottom line is “if there was one song sent into outer space to represent R.E.M., I would not want it to be ‘Shiny Happy People.’”

Although the single became their fourth American top 10 and first one in Britain and hit the top 5 in Ireland and Canada (where the national CBC radio network dubbed it the “song of the summer”), probably most might agree with Stipe. Q later listed it as one of “ten terrible songs by great artists” . All that didn’t stop the album from becoming their first #1 in the U.S., Canada and UK, selling over 15 million copies and winning them a trio of Grammy Awards. Plenty of reason enough for them to be shiny and happy…and for other bands to realize that Sheryl Crow might be right when she suggests “A change will do you good.”

January 15 – Bertis Downs Talks R.E.M.’s Monster & Buying Records From Peter Buck

<< A Soundday Exclusive >>

On this day in 1995, R.E.M. were likely feeling on top of the world…even though they were near the bottom of it, geographically-speaking. They were taking a day off after playing the second sold out night in Perth, Australia’s Entertainment Center to begin the tour for the Monster album. They’d be on the other side of the country the next day to play in Adelaide. It was their first significant tour in six years, Monster had become their second-straight album to get to #2 Down Under and back home, it had topped the charts and was already multi-platinum after only two months. They’d managed to rival U2 as the biggest “alt rock” act in the world, without selling out, continuing to win great review after great review as well as radio hit after radio hit. They had no reason not to feel great. But opening a major tour on Friday the 13th, as they did here, might not be the best idea.

“In some ways the Monster tour was the highlight of their career”, Bertis Downs told me this week, “except that three members had really serious surgeries all in a five month period.” Ah yes, the surgeries. We’ll get to that in a bit, but first … who’s Bertis Downs you might be asking. Indeed the more astute fan might notice that he’s thanked on almost every R.E.M. record and on the biggies Out of Time and Automatic for the People, he’s listed there with the band members. Pretty good going for a guy who didn’t take part in their studio sessions or write any of their music. But Bertis was and still is an essential part of the R.E.M. story, or R.E.M. family if you will, and so I was thrilled when he generously agreed to talk to me by phone and chat a bit about the band… and the state of the world too.

“Pretty good – no complaints other than the country falling apart,” he answered with a chuckle when I asked how things were down Georgia way. Downs has been the band’s legal consul since they were unknowns playing local dives in the Athens, Georgia area and eventually became their full-time manager. It dates back to when they were all young, some forty years or more back.

“I was a law student at University of Georgia law school, and I knew Peter (Buck) from the record store downtown, and he was very knowledgeable.I remember buying records from him…it was always vinyl at the time – well before CDs. I would buy a lot of Neil Young and Peter was the guy…he would guide me. And I knew Bill (Berry) from the Concert Committee at (school). We brought concerts in.

“They started a band, and the word of mouth on the street was good,” he explains, so he began going to their shows regularly. “A couple of years later, I was getting out of law school and officially was a lawyer, so I could advise them.” Soon that became a fairly full-time commitment for him. “I helped them run the business. They wanted to be artists and write songs and tour, but they wanted people (to help them make business decisions). We had a small staff of people based in Athens.”

As for some of his specific responsibilities, he says he dealt closely “with the label, based in London or L.A. or wherever they were, our agent who was in Nashville.” Things like signing that big deal with Warner Brothers or setting up world tours takes some planning and no small amount of paperwork…all the stuff that ended up on Bertis’ desk.

“I was the person to take what they were doing artistically and make it work, on some level, commercially. So that was my role. They were generous with credit and considerate,” he says explaining why he’d be listed along with Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe on the record sleeves. But his influence didn’t extend to the music itself. Although he was a big fan, “I was not a part of the artistic process and didn’t need to be. There were plenty of cooks” what with the four band members, record producer and engineers. He also diplomatically says he didn’t have a favorite album or era in the band’s 30+ year run. Each album was good, each era had its high points and challenges. Challenges that increased while on the road. “One time we played Russia,” he told me. “The border, the guards. The bombing in London (when the band was in town) – there were times that were fraught.” And illnesses.

So those surgeries he mentioned? Well the Monster tour was supposed to last most of the year, running 165 shows across Australia and New Zealand, southeast Asia, Europe and North America. They were playing sold out arenas in many cities and outdoor sports stadiums in many North American and British cities. Things went fine up until March 1, when midway through a show in Switzerland, drummer Bill Berry had a sudden and awful headache. It got so bad he couldn’t continue and was taken to hospital, while the band limped on through the end of their set with Joey Petes of Grant Lee Buffalo, the opening act, filling in on drums. Berry had suffered an aneurysm which could have been fatal, but thankfully a high quality hospital near the show diagnosed him and he underwent emergency surgery. The band had to cancel the next 30 concerts, including most of the European leg and the first few American ones, before finally resuming May 15 near San Francisco. A downer for them and the fans, and a load of paperwork dealing with insurance and promoters for Bertis.

Continue reading “January 15 – Bertis Downs Talks R.E.M.’s Monster & Buying Records From Peter Buck”

December 17 – REM-arkably Versatile Mike

Happy birthday to one of the more talented and more down-to-earth stars of the Alternative Rock world. Mike Mills was born on this day in 1958 in California. Luckily for the music world, as was the case with bandmate Peter Buck, his parents moved the family to Georgia when Mike was young and he met drummer Bill Berry in Macon, formed a group and then met Michael Stipe and Peter Buck when they went to Athens for university. The rest, as they say, is history.

Mills was likely the most-talented musician in R.E.M., playing bass for them but also capable of handling drums, keyboards of all variety and even guitars to assist their main six-stringer, Peter Buck at times to. While he added the distinctive counter-melodies to Michael Stipe on a number of their hits, he also sang lead on a few of their memorable tunes, including covers of “Love Is All Around” and “Yellow River” and two great ones from Out of Time: “Texarkana” and “Near Wild Heaven.” As to their success, he told the Guardian a few years back that “it’s a balancing act. You want to be grateful and graceful (but) not let it go to your heads. That was one of the reasons we never moved to New York City. Staying in Athens helped us keep our feet on the ground.”

Never one to let dust settle under his feet, when not with R.E.M. (and since then) he’s worked with artists like Warren Zevon, Robbie Robertson and the Indigo Girls and recently has been touring with a violinist, Robert McDuffie and a classical ensemble, plus members of the Drive-by Truckers in a mix of classical and rock .Noteworthy enough is it that the Wall Street Journal reviewed it, calling it “strong on melody but weak on classical fluency.” When not making music, Mike’s likely watching sports – he is a fantasy football star and has written articles about his beloved Atlanta Braves for publications including Rolling Stone.