REMEMBERING R.E.M.’s MONSTER: a 20th anniversary retrospective
For the twentieth anniversary of ‘Monster’, Alternative Nation looks back at the recording, release, and critical reception of R.E.M.’s ninth studio album as well as the often-problematic world tour that followed, drawing from archived print and film publications.
On September 27, 1994, R.E.M. released their ninth studio album, Monster, via Warner Bros. The highly-anticipated follow-up to their commercially successful and critically acclaimed albums Out of Time and Automatic For The People, Monster was loud, layered, and heavy. The album’s distorted, sludgy tone and loud electric guitars were calculated changes from the mostly acoustic, songwriter-driven sound of its immediate predecessors. Monster was R.E.M.’s ‘return-to-rock’ album; gone were the poppy radio friendly hits, gone were the intimate ballads and mandolins, and gone were the politically-charged, outspoken lyrics of vocalist Michael Stipe.
By 1993, R.E.M. had grown from cultish college radio status into one of the premiere rock acts of the time. R.E.M. had managed the seemingly unachievable task of gaining commercial success and critical acclaim without compromising their artistic vision and integrity. The band had sold over 30 million units in the previous two years, opting not to tour behind the mostly acoustic albums. Meanwhile, pressures from the media and the band’s growing fan base mounted. Although the band was admired by their contemporaries for their masterful control of the media in protection of their intensely private personal lives, their experience often proved difficult. With the trials of rock-stardom came swirling rumors in the media.
In April of 1993, R.E.M. convened in the resort getaway of Acapulco, Mexico to discuss the future of the band. The band had not been on tour since 1989 and the band had spent the first three years of the ‘90s laboring in the studio. With their recent lack of touring in mind, the four bandmates agreed to record a tour-friendly album that “rocked.” Drummer Bill Berry was the most eager to tour. Halfway through the recording of Automatic For The People, Berry had told his bandmates that he would quit R.E.M. if their next record didn’t rock. Just two days later in Acapulco, R.E.M.’s agents were planning the band’s next two years for them, already booking tour dates for 1995.
Under the supervision of Bob Dylan producer Mark Howard, R.E.M. began writing their untitled new album in September 1993 at Kingsway Studio in New Orleans’ French Quarter. In New Orleans, the band wrote songs like “I Took Your Name” and “You.” Rather than letting the album grow organically like previous albums, the band already had a specific goal and sound in mind before recording: to make their next album tour-friendly and electric.
Peter Buck: “We just kind of knew that we were excited about doing something a little bit more energetic, and what that meant, we had no idea. So, it was a process of me sitting in this little apartment that I was living in, in ’93, tiny apartment, about 4×10’, and just banging on the guitar really loudly until the neighbors knock on the wall. Bringing these little ideas in and showing it to Mike, and Mike showing me his ideas and Bill showing me his ideas, and all of a sudden we kind of had this idea.” [“Box Set: R.E.M.,” VH1]
Mike Mills: “When you’re in a band long enough, you want to try different things. On past albums we had been exploring acoustic instruments, trying to use the piano and mandolin, and we did it about all we wanted to do it. And you come back to the fact that playing loud electric guitar music is about as fun as music can be.” [“Monster Music,” Time Magazine, 1994]
Peter Buck: “I played guitar really loud. It was a little like Spinal Tap … you know, crank it up to eleven.” [Monster press release, Warner Bros, 1994]
As the band’s instrumentalists began preproduction for the album, vocalist Michael Stipe faced malicious rumors in the press. While the band’s fandom increased, scrutiny on its lead vocalist’s personal life was ramped up. Members of the press began to investigate Stipe’s sexuality, with some reporters suggesting that the singer had been diagnosed with AIDS.
Michael Stipe: “It was widely rumored that I had AIDS, or that I was HIV-positive. Which is not the case. I didn’t answer those rumors for a long, long time because I felt like making a big deal out of saying no would stigmatize people who are HIV-positive.” [“Everybody Hurts Sometime,” Newsweek, 1994]
While R.E.M. began work on Monster, Stipe’s life came to a halt when his close friend River Phoenix died of a drug-induced heart failure outside of The Viper Room in Hollywood on Halloween in 1993. Phoenix’s death put a hold on the writing and production of R.E.M.’s new album.
Michael Stipe: “I lost a friend in October — River Phoenix was a very, very close friend of mine. And I’ve never suffered such a profound loss. I couldn’t write for five months. We had started the record in September. I’d written two songs and then River died.” [“Everybody Hurts Sometime,” Newsweek, 1994]
R.E.M. reconvened five months later at Atlanta’s Crossover Soundstage. Mark Howard had sent material from the band’s New Orleans sessions to producer Scott Litt, who had worked with the band since 1987’s Document. With engineers Pat McCarthy and David Colvin also in tow, the recording of the album began. The majority of the album was cut at Crossover.
Charles Cote: “R.E.M. would arrive at about 10 each day, run through their set of tunes as a warm up, then spend the afternoon tracking. The idea was to capture as many live takes as possible to capture the magic of R.E.M.’s live sound. Later during mixing, they could pick the parts that they wanted to keep.” [“The Making of R.E.M.’s Monster,” 2005]
Scott Litt: “I thought since they hadn’t toured in a while, it would be good for them to get into that mind-set -you know, monitors, PA, standing up.” [“Monster Madness,” Rolling Stone, 1994]
While the Atlanta recording sessions were going well, new issues for the band quickly surfaced and breaks in the sessions occurred frequently. Recording was delayed for a few days as Mike Mills got sick during a session and underwent an appendectomy. On another occasion, Bill Berry fell ill and had to take break in Athens. Michael Stipe’s sister had a child, as did Peter Buck’s girlfriend, who gave birth to twins.
Perhaps the most jarring interruption to the Atlanta sessions came in early April ‘94, when Stipe’s friend Kurt Cobain was found dead in his Seattle home. Cobain greatly admired R.E.M., publicly praising the band’s music and artistic integrity in interviews. In addition, Buck had recently moved to Seattle and lived next door to the home where Cobain lived with his wife and daughter. In the weeks leading up to Cobain’s death, Stipe attempted to draw Kurt out of his negative head space. The pair had exchanged ideas about new music, sent cassette demo tapes back and forth, and set up a recording session in Georgia. In reaction to Cobain’s death, Stipe wrote the grim, reflective “Let Me In.”
Michael Stipe: “Halfway through making Monster, Kurt died. At that point, I just threw my hands up and wrote “Let Me In.” That was me on the phone to him, desperately trying to get him out of the frame of mind he was in. In the most big-brotherly way — God, I hate that term — in the most genuine way, I wanted him to know that he didn’t need to pay attention to all this, that he was going to make it through. If R.E.M. had sold 5 million copies of Murmur, none of us would be alive to tell the tale. I really believe that. I’d have died with Quaaludes in my blood and a lot of Jack Daniels.” [“Everybody Hurts Sometime,” Newsweek, 1994]
Kurt Cobain: “I don’t know how [R.E.M.] does what they do. God, they’re the greatest. They’ve dealt with their success like saints, and they keep delivering great music.” [“Success Doesn’t Suck,” Rolling Stone, 1994]
Michael Stipe: “I sent him a plane ticket and a driver, and he tacked the plane ticket to the wall in the bedroom and the driver sat outside the house for 10 hours. Kurt wouldn’t come out and wouldn’t answer the phone. I was in Miami making a record…I didn’t feel like it was my place to get on a plane myself and go to Seattle. I was doing what I thought was the best thing to do at the time. And, you know, frankly I’m not great with heroin addicts. I tried heroin, but it was by accident.” [“Michael Stipe,” Interview Magazine, 2011]
In late April 1994, the band moved to Miami’s Criteria Recording Studios with producer Scott Litt. In Miami, Stipe suffered from an abscessed tooth that further delayed the album’s production. R.E.M.’s recording sessions at Los Angeles’ Ocean Way Recording later that spring found the band behind on their schedule. Their lateness, largely due to the band members’ personal issues, had been compounded by their complicated mixing process, Stipe’s continued lyric writing while the band was supposed to be mixing, and increasing tensions between band members. The four bandmates were staying at different locations in Los Angeles and were rarely present at the studio at the same time. Tensions within R.E.M. peaked at a mixing session at Scott Litt’s Los Angeles home studio Louie’s Clubhouse, where the band briefly broke up. The group’s pressures and personal issues had taken their toll. Eventually the mixing sessions reconvened once the bandmates ironed out their disputes and communication among the friends returned. Buck would later remark that the band wouldn’t have made it through the tough production of the album if they hadn’t been such close friends.
Michael Stipe: “It was pretty rough. There were a lot of life things happening around us–births and deaths. It was a very intense record.” [“Retail, Radio Expect R.E.M.’s Warner Set To Be A ‘Monster,” Billboard, 1994]
Scott Litt: “That’s why it’s been taking so long to mix. We’re trying to figure out how raw to leave it and how much to studiofy it.” [“Monster Madness,” Rolling Stone, 1994]
Michael Stipe: “We broke up. We reached the point where none of us could speak to each other, and we were in a small room, and we just said ‘Fuck off’ and that was it.” [Reveal: The Story of R.E.M., Johnny Black, 2004]
Mike Mills: “We had a band meeting after the session last night. We have to begin working as a unit again, which we haven’t been doing very well lately.” [“Monster Madness,” Rolling Stone, 1994]
After significant turmoil, R.E.M. finally completed their new album, now entitled Monster, by the summer of 1994. The album’s noisy, electric, and heavily-layered rock sound successfully achieved the band’s initial tour-friendly album goals. Its intricate sonic textures reverberated in a way that completely reversed the intimate, acoustic nature of its predecessors. Songs like the lead single “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” and “Crush With Eyeliner” exhibited R.E.M.’s consistent songwriting within significantly more distorted, rocking tunes.
With this grungy dirge in play, the band’s material found Stipe’s lyrics being pushed back into the mix, a closer reflection of the band’s earlier work. Monster found lead singer Stipe writing lyrics in various characters, a lyrical style he had not explored before. These lyrics found Stipe confronting the band’s recent success and the media pressures that followed. On “King of Comedy,” which was initially titled “Yes, I Am Fucking With You,” Stipe sings: “I’m not your television / I’m not your movie screen / I’m not commodity.” Monster also found the singer reflecting on his sexuality and the rumors regarding this topic that were published in the media: “Make it charged with controversy / I’m straight, I’m queer, I’m bi.”
Michael Stipe: “A lot of records are cerebral, a lot of records are from the heart, this one’s more from the crotch.” [R.E.M. documentary Rough Cut, 1995]
Peter Buck: “This rock record is about space, it’s about noise, it’s less songwriter-ly than our past records. It’s more kind of riff and groove-oriented and, you know, it seemed to be a lot more fun, we were just having a great time playing.” [“Box Set: R.E.M.,” VH1]
Michael Stipe: “It was a good time. A lot of things happened, kind of life things happened, while we were making the record that made it a little more difficult. It was a very challenging record to make.” [Flagpole interview, 1994]
Meanwhile, the album title of Monster, which Stipe insists was selected at random, presents an interesting metaphor for R.E.M. in 1994. The band’s ‘monster’ was manifested in the turmoil that surrounded the album’s recording, in the album’s hard rock sound, and in the recent events that were emotionally draining for R.E.M.’s band members.
Monster, R.E.M.’s ninth studio album, was officially released on September 27, 1994 via Warner Bros. The album, dedicated to River Phoenix, debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, as well as at no. 1 spots in Canada and the UK. The album’s second single “Bang and Blame” debuted at no. 1 the following January and was the band’s last-ever Billboard Top 40 hit. The initial critical reception was largely positive, with glowing reviews coming from Rolling Stone and Blender. Not every review was positive, with some journalists calling the album’s stylistic change “distant” and “diverting.” Rolling Stone awarded Monster four and a half out of five stars, highlighting the band’s successful stylistic change.
Robert Palmer: “The two or three softer tunes that might not have sounded out of place on previous outings are pointedly sandwiched in the middle of the disc, surrounded by the sizzle of overdriven amps, snarling distortion and aggressive rhythms…Don’t misunderstand: R.E.M.’s exceptional pop craftsmanship, their luminous melodic inventions, their sense of mission – in short, everything fundamental – are still there and shining more brightly than ever.” [Rolling Stone review of Monster, 1994]
Following the largely successful release of the album, R.E.M.’s band members, including the usually private Stipe, cycled through numerous press interviews and media appearances. The band then embarked on their sold-out, stadium-filling world tour in the first weeks of January 1995. The Monster tour included stops in Australia, East Asia, Europe, and the United States. R.E.M.’s bandmates faced the tour with the idea that the band might never embark on such a massive tour again, and their entertaining, let-loose performances reflected this attitude.
Peter Buck: “I’m really looking forward to touring. We’re all kind of excited by it. It’s going to be really great. It’ll be different. It’ll be fresh. I haven’t done it to death” [“Monster Madness,” Rolling Stone, 1994]
Michael Stipe: “I’m dreading [touring]. That’s about all the thought I’ve been able to give it. I love performing, and I love traveling, but the two combined are pretty poisonous.” [“Monster Madness, Rolling Stone, 1994]
David Fricke: “For someone typically depicted in his press clippings as enigmatic, sullen and utterly devoid of pop-star smarm, Michael Stipe is back on the road with R.E.M. for the first time in five years — and having a great time fucking with our expectations.” [“Monster On The Loose,” Rolling Stone, 1995]
Daniel Geller: “The band hit the stage with the enthusiasm and energy of men half their age and rocked like there was no tomorrow…On this evening, Michael Stipe finally seemed to let his guard down and go back to the frolicking, dancing fool we all remember from previous, less-jaded R.E.M. tours. He flailed and sang and did that thing with his hands real well.” [Monster tour review, 1995]
While the Monster tour succeeded at first, with all four band members firing on all cylinders, personal and medical issues ensued in the same fashion that delayed the album’s recording. One of the band’s medical issues was significantly worse this time around. On March 1, 1995, R.E.M. was performing in Switzerland when Bill Berry fell ill with an intense migraine during a performance of their song “Tongue” and was rushed to the hospital.
Peter Buck: “It was wintertime in Europe, and we were cold the whole time, and everyone’s head hurt, and everyone’s stomach hurt, and no one was eating. But none of us had ever collapsed onstage, so we figured Bill must really be sick.” [Alec Foege interview, Rolling Stone, 1995]
MTV News: “90 minutes into the concert at the Lausanne’s Patinoire Wednesday night, Berry was stricken by a migraine and was taken to the hospital. As Joey Peters, the drummer from Grant Lee Buffalo finished up R.E.M.’s set, Berry underwent an emergency craniotomy to clip off the aneurysm, which was on the right hand surface of his brain. There was no internal bleeding reported, and Berry, 36, is expected to remain in the hospital for the next week to ten days.” [MTV News report, 1995]
R.E.M. cancelled their tour dates through April 20th and the future of the Monster tour, as well as the future of the band, was in limbo.
Peter Buck: “First thing I thought was, ‘We probably won’t ever play in public again.’ If the doctor said, ‘Bill just can’t tour,’ then we would have said, ‘Fine.’ We would have come home and made records. I’ve always known this could just go at any minute, so it wasn’t totally a shock to me.” [Alec Foege interview, Rolling Stone, 1995]
Miraculously, Berry made a quick and successful recovery from his aneurysm and craniotomy and the Monster tour soon continued, quickly interrupted again by Mills’ surgery to remove a benign intestinal tumor. With their health still relatively in check, R.E.M. began making light of their constant medical problems. Stipe once joked during a concert: “Welcome to the Aneurysm Tour ’95!” Later that summer, Stipe required surgery to relieve a hernia.
Michael Stipe: “[The hernia] comes from singing. The doctors told me that. Hard singing. The force of singing is like the beginning stages of labor. It takes a lot to push the notes out.” [Tom Moon interview, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1995]
Although the Monster tour was the band’s most financially successful venture in their 31-year history, it did not come without significant personal and physical struggle.
While Monster received mostly positive reviews immediately following its initial release in 1994, the album is now often seen in a negative light. It seems that although the album achieved the band’s goals in creating a tour-friendly rock album, this abrupt stylistic change forces the album in the shadow of its hugely successful predecessors. The album contains strong songwriting and interesting instrumental work, particularly from guitarist Peter Buck. However, fans might have seen this as a departure from what made them enjoy the band’s work in the first place.
Mike Mills: “If [fans] come expecting “Shiny Happy People,” I hope they’re disappointed. That song is an aberration. If that’s all people know about R.E.M., they’re certainly in for a shock and a surprise.” [Brian Armstrong interview, “A Current Affair,” 1995]
Michael Stipe: “We managed as people to not ever feel like we were compromised by external forces, to not feel like we capitulated to an idea of what a pop band should be, or what a rock band should be, and to not give in to the industry or the market” [Gry Blekastad Almås interview, NRK, 2011]
Sean McCarthy: “While I was fishing through the ‘R’s, one girl next to me said ‘One thing you can count on when you go into a used record store is at least five used copies of R.E.M.’s Monster will be on hand.’ At that moment, I saw a solid brick of orange CDs, proving her point.” [“Strange Currency,” PopMatters, 2010]
R.E.M. was a band that never compromised its artistic vision and integrity, even in the face of commercial success, critical acclaim, and rising fandom. When you view Monster in this light, it becomes easier to see why it’s become classically-maligned in recent years: fans of the band were probably expecting more songs like “Everybody Hurts” or “Nightswimming.” The mid ‘90s found the band reeling from their immense success and returning to their rock roots to craft a noisy, sometimes dirge-like album that exists in sharp contrast to their pop albums of the early ‘90s. Although it is not R.E.M.’s greatest album, it achieved the band’s goals and expectations for the record and produced strong, worthwhile rock and roll material. The album and the extensive tour that followed found the group dealing with enormous personal and medical issues, tensions between bandmates, a laborious album recording process, and growing pressure from fans and journalists. What is important to note is that the band persevered through it all, continuing to stay true to their craft and overcoming their ‘monsters’ until the band’s disbandment more than sixteen years later.