R.E.M.'s 'Man On the Moon' Nearly Didn't Happen: Band's Producers Reflect
"'Man on the Moon' was not going to get finished," Scott Litt recalls of that frenzied day in 1992.
What would become one of R.E.M.'s quintessential hits was dangerously close to not making it onto the band's masterpiece, "Automatic for the People." The song was done, its instrumentation already committed to tape. But Michael Stipe, the band's enigmatic frontman, lacked those Andy Kaufman lyrics until the last minute. "We kind of made him finish it," says Litt, who produced six R.E.M. albums between 1987 and 1996. "When I hear that on the radio, I'm very thankful for that one day."
No other American rock band in history has managed to move quite like this: Conceive the canons of alternative rock; transport college radio to the arena; lose a veteran and soldier on; merge politic with melody; and declare the end of the world.
Since 1980, R.E.M. has stood for democracy, in both art and life. Every choice along the way was unanimous; early on, for instance, they refused to take an advance from I.R.S. Records. Through the years they shuffled up producers and shifted their sound whenever they saw fit. Even after drummer Bill Berry's 1997 departure -- which could have easily ended the group -- bassist Mike Mills, guitarist Peter Buck, and singer Stipe agreed to keep it together. This week though, almost 30 years since they recorded their first project, "Chronic Town," the trio decided to "call it a day."
R.E.M.'s Rolodex of producers remembers the band as a democratic gang of four, a rational family that avoided acrimony and made every decision as one. Even the wrong ones.
Take that time in 1985 when producer Joe Boyd invited R.E.M. to London to record "Fables of the Reconstruction." "Those four guys, from the very beginning they approached everything differently," Boyd says. But with the band geographically outside its Athens comfort zone and Boyd unfamiliar with the studio, the producer admits he never achieved the sound he was after. "I just never got Michael's voice to pop -- it just kind of felt murky and buried in the tracks," he remembers. Years later, when Boyd offered to remix the album, R.E.M. decided to preserve "Fables" as-is, warts and all. No remix necessary.
Stipe's vocal emerged from the mud and landed at the forefront of the Don Gehman-produced follow-up, "Lifes Rich Pageant." Its barn-burner opener, "Begin the Begin," seemed to say everything.
"I just felt he had such a unique-sounding voice that, at the least, it needed to be heard and appreciated for its richness," Gehman says. "Our compromise was that he allowed me to make the words more definable, and to make his voice more present."
PHOTO RETROSPECTIVE: 31 Years of R.E.M.
That voice presence soon traveled beyond the studio and onto the soapbox. Suddenly Stipe was outspoken, spitting social commentary on Reagan-era society even as radio success began to happen. By 1987's "Document," producer Scott Litt realized "there was a statement being made." After all, a song called "It's the End of the World As We Know It" was in regular rotation on MTV.
As the decade came to a close, the mainstream audience took to R.E.M.'s more danceable numbers, like "Stand," "Losing My Religion," and "Shiny Happy People." Not only were these socially relevant songs moving people; they were moving them from the waist down.
"There was a rhythm to it, there was a feel to it. It wasn't all cerebral," Litt says. "It swung a little bit, even the ballads."
By the time the group released the haunting and textured "Automatic for the People," perhaps the only ballad to encourage any foot-tapping was the one that almost got away.
Seeing "Man on the Moon" to the end stands as one of the defining band decisions in R.E.M.'s ambitious 31-year career. The group might have prevented its own success had the other three members not pushed Stipe to wrap up that one last song.
"It's taken me a while to realize that they've been around for thirty years," reflects Mitch Easter, who produced the band's earliest material, "Chronic Town," "Murmur," and "Reckoning." "And now it's going to take me a while to realize that they're gone."
"Their timing was really impeccable," Litt says of R.E.M.'s success, adding a note on the band's final collaborative choice: "It's definitely time."