On November 7, 1988, after five increasingly successful albums for IRS Records, R.E.M. ushered in a new era by releasing Green. their first album under a new long-term deal with Warner Brothers. While exact details have never been made public, it is widely rumored that Warner Brothers offered the band a $10 million advance and full creative freedom in exchange for the level of worldwide distribution that the band felt IRS had lacked.
As a fan of the band - especially the two albums that preceded Green (Life's Rich Pageant and Document) - I remember thinking that the move to Warner Brothers signified a very bold move away from the little-band-that-could aesthetic that had propelled the band to great heights while at IRS.
Still, I had no idea what band I would find within the grooves of this new record so dropping the needle on the new R.E.M. platter on that cold and rainy day in November came with a certain amount of excitement and trepidation. In fact, it was a bit of an event, with a handful of friends having gathered for the occasion.
As if the title itself wasn't a dead giveaway, album opener "Pop Song 89"announces with distinct clarity that this is a bigger, badder R.E.M. intent on swinging for the fences. It's hard to imagine this same band just a few short years writing, much less releasing, a song as blatantly commercial as this. "Get Up", with its chugging guitar refrain and Mike Mills chorus call-and-response, all but confirms that R.E.M. has taken off the gloves and is fully embracing their unofficial stance as America's biggest band of the time.
After all, Rolling Stone had already declared them "America's Best Rock & Roll Band" on the cover of their December 3, 1987 issue. That might sound highly suspect now, knowing how far that once-revered publication has fallen along with the rest of the music and publishing industries, but back then, such a declaration was quite the big deal. What made it all the more impressive was that this wasn't just hype. Anyone who'd seen this band live knew this was a band on the verge of a huge breakout.
That a band from such meager beginnings - a song recorded in a garage and released on the tiny Hib-Tone label, leading to a contract with the artist-friendly indie label IRS - would successfully amass such a fervent grass roots following one album at a time - each one increasing upon the musical scope and commercial reach of the one before it - was an amazing thing to behold.
R.E.M.'s success proved that you didn't have to sell out to a big record label to make it. Heck, Stipe proved you didn't even have to enunciate, but the R.E.M. that recorded Green was an entirely different animal. For starters, Stipe's vocals were now fully up front and every lyric could now be heard and fully understood.
Even with such obvious concessions to the mainstream, the band still managed to throw a few curves into the mix, such as "You Are The Everything", with its use of mandolin foreshadowing their future acoustic leanings on 1991's Out Of Time.
As a fan, I remembered reading an interview where Mike Mills had been asked why he never locks in with Bill berry's kick-drum as so many other bassists do from time to time and Mills' response had been that it just wasn't his style. I thought of that the first time I heard his bass locking in with Berry's kick drum on "Orange Crush" and felt a certain sense of confirmation that all bands with a unique sound can't help but emulate that which they initially disdain as they become better musicians.
The same can be said of U2, whose transformation from evocative war-torn anthems to more mainstream fare such as "With or Without You" and "One", made them very much a contemporary to R.E.M. at the time.
The 27 years that have passed since the release of Green reveal some of the limitations of the album's arena-rock production courtesy of Scott Litt, the strength of songs such as "World Leader Pretend" and "Turn You Inside Out" stand unblemished.
That's not to say that every song on the album works, but the fact that the band was still willing to take some very big musical chances on this, their big-budget major label debut, is what made R.E.M. a band worth listening to at the time.