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Music

The moment R.E.M. knew they should split up

Neil Sedaka had a hit called ‘Breaking Up is Hard to Do’ — and he wasn’t wrong. A quick survey over the years will show some surprising evidence. Paul McCartney entered into a near drunken stupor when John Lennon walked out on their partnership, Brian May wrote an album detailing the loss of Queen, and Jimmy Page struggled to pick up a guitar in the months following John Bonham’s death. Stretching further into other genres, Take That vocalist Howard Donald contemplated taking his own life, but thankfully he didn’t follow through with that plan.

And then there’s R.E.M, the indie outfit who prevailed from one decade to the next, who called time on the band in 2011. What made the breakup even harder was the hurdles they had conquered, not least when Bill Berry – drummer and harmony vocalist – retired from the band in the late 1990s. Responding to the decision, vocalist Michael Stipe said: “I guess a three-legged dog is still a dog. It just has to learn how to run differently”.

And yet they soldiered on for more than a decade, conquering music festivals and preaching aphorisms and truths to the band’s following in their wake. Radiohead guitarist Thom Yorke regularly turned to Stipe for counsel, and the two enjoyed a friendship that kept each other afloat in the years ahead of them.

For my money, R.E.M improved as a live act throughout the 2000s, although they had peaked creatively with Automatic for the People. I’m guessing they knew that too, as they wished to respect the integrity of the ship they had built together. And unlike The Beatles, it doesn’t sound like the band walked away with anything but tremendous respect for one another.

“Technically, the band broke up,” guitarist Peter Buck once said. “But we didn’t really. We’re just not making records or touring. We own a publishing company. We own the masters to our Warner Bros records. We own buildings. We own a warehouse with tapes and stuff that I haven’t even seen. Why go to a warehouse?”.

Asked a similar question in 2017, bassist Mike Mills replied: “I think we all came to the similar realisation during the ’08 tour.” Sitting across from Mills was Stipe, who can be seen nodding approvingly in the clip below. “I remember the last show was in Mexico City, and I remember going out onstage by myself after it was over thinking, ‘I’ll probably never do this again'”.

Furthering the analogy, Mills highlighted how united they all were behind the decision. One of the reasons for performing in Mexico City was that it excited them all as a band. One gets the sense that R.E.M view each other as a brotherhood, as opposed to a band of jobbing musicians looking to pay for another ranch.

“We own the triumphs, and we own the disastrous failures of our 32 years together,” Stipe counters. The beard masks much of the emotion, but there’s a wobble to his voice, which does suggest that this breakup, like all breakups, held a bittersweet aftertaste to it.

More happily, the trio still enjoys each other’s company and can enjoy interviews together. Mills points out that the band broke up to remain friends, and if that is what it takes to maintain a friendship, well, good for them.