Begin the Begin: R.E.M.'s Early Years

Rock and Roll Book Club: "Begin the Begin: R.E.M.'s Early Years"

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A Heckler Stirs Up R.E.M. During Fabled 1985 Gig

R.E.M. / The Go! Team / Jlin (with Robert Dean Lurie)

There's much to learn about R.E.M.'s early years. Though there have been many books about them in the past, there has never been a biography like this. It takes you back to their roots in Athens, Georgia, in the 1980s and shines a light on the local bands who boosted them in the early days. Surrounded by a thriving music scene and pioneering groups like Pylon, the B-52s, and Love Tractor, R.E.M. were seen as a pretty average band at first. From Michael Stipe's first performance at a high school battle of the bands, to Bill Berry always wanting to be a farmer, there's stuff in this book that even the biggest fans won't have heard about. Outside of R.E.M., Stipe was always interested in experimental music and Begin the Begin also delves into his many side projects. In 1981, he played solo under the name 1066 Gaggle O' Sound, with looped dub sounds. A very well written and detailed account of one of America's biggest college rock bands.  - Alfie Taylor

R.E.M. were always a more interesting proposition than their later career chart success might suggest, and for many fans, the Athens, Georgia band were a portal into everything from post-punk and psychedelia to surrealism and folk art. Robert Dean Lurie's Begin the Begin is a timely contribution to the literature on R.E.M., tracing their rise from student party band to the cusp of major label stardom.  - Stewart Smith (read the complete review in the print edition)

R.E.M. in the USA

Four Star Review

As late as the 1992 release of their eighth album Automatic for the People, all four members of REM were still living in or around Athens, Georgia, the moderately small college town where they played their first gigs just over a decade earlier. This engrossing book largely focuses on the band's formative years and first footholds towards global success, up to and including the last of their "indie" LPs, Document, before the megabucks Warners deal, and is as much an examination of Athens itself as it is the stadium superstars-to-be.

Geography informs much of the material contained in those first five albums on IRS Records, an ever-broadening campus rock template imbued with the atmosphere of a both real and mythic American South. Author Lurie (who went to college in Athens in the 90s) evocatively draws upon specific local history and Georgia folklore generally as a backdrop for his detailed portrait of an unassuming quartet who strived to stay "normal" once fame came calling.

Though he doesn't speak to band members themselves, he still unearths revealing details of them as younger men through interviews with old girlfriends, roommates, key figures in the town's music scene, and lifelong Athens inhabitants. What becomes clear is just how much the time and place seeped into the songs that set REM on the path to global dominance.  -Terry Staunton



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Described by some as the South’s Greenwich Village, the tree-lined college town of Athens, GA, has produced influential alternative rock bands including the B-52s, Neutral Milk Hotel, Of Montreal, and, most famously, R.E.M.  Lurie (No Certainty Attached) has written the definitive biography of R.E.M.’s early years, from its formation in a converted church in 1980 to its last independent label release, 1987’s Document. Although Lurie didn’t interview group members for the book (quotes are taken from past interviews), he presents a valuable record of the band’s Athens tenure by seeking local sources untapped by most biographers, such as historian William Orten Carlton and scenesters Paul Butchart and Keith Joyner.

VERDICT: Lurie’s investigation of R.E.M.’s beginnings challenges established myths about the group that will interest fans, and provides a valuable history of Athens’s arts scene in the early 1980s, when R.E.M shared the spotlight with bands such as Pylon, Side Effects, and Love Tractor.

Reviewed by Amanda Westfall, Emmet O’Neal P.L., Mountain Brook, AL , Jun 06, 2019

I saw R.E.M. twice back in 1982 at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC, though my initial enthusiasm—I’m a sucker for jangly guitars, muddy mixes, and cut-and-paste lyrics—wilted once lead singer Michael Stipe’s unendurability bloomed. But I’m enjoying the hell out of Robert Dean Lurie’s Begin the Begin, his new book on the band’s early years. I don’t care if you love or loathe or exist in blissful ignorance of R.E.M., this book is a gem. It’s as much about a place and a time and a milieu as it is about this Athens, Georgia–nurtured quartet. Lurie recreates the Athens of the late ’70s and early ’80s with an eye and an ear for the Beat and the offbeat. He writes with a relaxed confidence and a sure command of the material; I can’t imagine a better guide. The band’s prelapsarian records were sonic artifacts of the old weird Athens, and by extension the localist and populist DIY music scenes in Buffalo, Minneapolis, Hoboken … ah, the memories. Read Lurie, then put Chronic Town on the turntable and drift away.  -Bill Kauffman

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Begin the Begin: R.E.M.'s Early Years Book Review

Begin the Begin: R.E.M.'s Early Years

Begin the Begin: R.E.M.'s Early Years


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