“A three legged dog is still a dog,” said Michael Stipe, with some panache, after the departure of founding R.E.M. member (and drummer) Bill Berry in 1997. At the time of Berry’s unexpected retreat from the heady world of show business, the quartet – completed by guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills – were at the top of their game. Having enjoyed years of critical success – building from relatively humble beginnings as a college rock band straight out of Athens, Georgia – they were finally fulfilling the commercial promise that almost no one (other than themselves perhaps) had predicted, becoming an all-conquering globe-trotting stadium-filling outfit of quite gargantuan proportions. Their achievement as musicians and songwriters was all the more remarkable too, given the fact they had rarely pandered to the masses even as their big musical spaceship – powered by the albums “Out of Time” and “Automatic For The People” – soared majestically into the stratosphere.
R.E.M. pulled off that elusive trick of crafting songs with integrity, power and heart whilst at the same time managing to “cross over” and connect with a much wider audience. To have 30,000 punters drunkenly belt out the words to “Losing My Religion” or “Orange Crush” at their concerts was no certainly no mean feat, and Bill Berry, it would seem, was a key ingredient in that success. From R.E.M.’s first album “Murmur” through to “New Adventures in Hi-Fi”, Berry was constantly referenced as a driving force behind the band. Indeed, he was said to have been largely responsible for the group’s biggest hit “Everybody Hurts”. And yet all was not well. He suffered an aneurysm on stage during a performance in Lausanne, Switzerland on the Monster Tour in 1996 and – although he carried on for another album – suddenly it was time to get off the bus.
That Berry insisted he wouldn’t leave unless his bandmates continue without him was perhaps testament to just how much he still cared for R.E.M., but there is no doubt that his departure messed badly with the crucial element that all bands who succeed desperately need: chemistry. Some bands are lucky enough to enjoy a whole new creative renaissance when one member departs for whatever reason (the unfortunate departure of Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett allowed for Dave Gilmour and Roger Waters to discover new depths to their songwriting well; Brian Jones’ passing brought the Jagger/Richard partnership even closer; and AC/DC defied all expectations by managing to find a worthy replacement for the almost incomparable Bon Scott); whereas others struggle with their identity (The Band just wasn’t The Band without Robbie Robertson; and Wilco – although still magnificent – could have charted altogether different territory had the talented Jay Bennett been alive today).
R.E.M. suffered too. The albums that followed Berry’s departure – from 1998’s “Up” through to 2011’s “Collapse Into Now” – were interesting, at times lovely, but never quite with the same focus, determination or energy. The three-legged dog was still a dog, but there’s no denying it had to learn to walk differently. The creative spiral, that began when four became three, ended with more of a whimper than a bang as the remaining members split after nearly 30 years of playing together. But there is no doubt that in that time the band offered up some truly great moments in their history, and we’ll celebrate by hearing them Live on Arrival on The Roddy Hart Show this week. Add to that some sublime covers of Nick Drake’s body of work for Undercover,