Classic Tracks: R.E.M.'s "So. Central Rain"

Feb 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Barbara Schultz


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R.E.M. in the early days, L-R: Peter Buck, Michael Stipe, Bill Berry and Mike Mills.

R.E.M. in the early days, L-R: Peter Buck, Michael Stipe, Bill Berry and Mike Mills.

“So. Central Rain” is one of those songs, like The Clash's hit “Train in Vain,” where the words in the title don't actually occur in the song, but you certainly know the song when you hear it. Remember Michael Stipe's plaintive, powerful voice singing, “I'm sorry…I'm sorry”? Now you remember.

It's not easy to put a finger on exactly what made R.E.M. so different, so great and so influential when this song became their first full-fledged hit in 1984. They had no gimmicks, no synths, definitely no hairdos and they didn't even seem that angry. They weren't retro, and they weren't punk or new wave either. But they became one of the few bands of the early '80s that managed to maintain counter-culture credibility despite becoming enormously successful. Their early albums also brought real guitars back to a new wave-weary indie scene, setting the stage for what would later be termed “alternative” music.

The members of R.E.M. met in Athens, Ga. Drummer Bill Berry and bassist Mike Mills were natives who had known each other since high school. A friend introduced this rhythm section to guitarist Peter Buck and vocalist Michael Stipe — college kids who had become friends because Stipe frequented the record store where Buck worked. The foursome began playing psychedelic and punk covers at parties, and in small venues around the Southeast, working on their sound and their chops, and beginning to write their own mysterious, jangly, rocking songs.

The band's first recordings were made in producer/engineer/guitarist Mitch Easter's garage studio, called Drive-In, in Winston-Salem, N.C. Easter, the frontman for the band Let's Active, ran a friendly place that was known as a laid-back, creative center for indie bands all over the East Coast.

“It was a classic little garage studio we had,” Easter says, “but little studios back then mostly had 8-track machines and we had a 2-inch, 16-track machine, which was more bodacious in every way! Punk and new wave scenes were spreading out across the country then, too, and the college radio stations were springing back into action, so all these local bands popped up who wanted to make 45s.

“My studio really came along at the perfect time because all these new bands that were springing up also had this idea that they had inherited the punk scene,” Easter continues. “They liked the idea of a studio that represented the music scene they were in, and my place somehow had that going for it, even beyond the local area. I did a lot of New York bands and Athens bands, including R.E.M.”

R.E.M. recorded the single “Radio Free Europe” with Easter. It was a college radio success that was to be come part of an EP, Chronic Town (all made at Drive-In), which was originally meant for indie release on the local Hib-Tone label. But IRS Records ended up signing the band, and the EP became R.E.M.'s first IRS release. Label reps then set about encouraging R.E.M. to make their first full-length album, but they did not want the musicians to use Drive-In.

“Back then, there were all these notions about equipment,” Easter says. “‘You've gotta have this if you're going to make a real record,’ you know? IRS said that it's got to be on 24 tracks, but I only had 16 tracks. It was like ‘the more tracks the better,’ so we went to this place called Reflection [in Charlotte, N.C.], which was a hell of a lot better than my garage studio, but we really did it because IRS demanded eight more tracks!” [Laughs]

Reflection certainly had plenty of tracks to offer. Easter recalls that studio owner Wayne Jernigan was also a pro audio dealer at that time and, in particular, an MCI rep. So the main recording gear at the studio included MCI JH24 and JH110 tape machines, and an MCI JH600 console. “It was a really nice console,” Easter says, “with maybe 56 channels and these fabulous light meters — maybe the best light meters anybody ever made! They were about 10 inches tall with a lot of elements in them and the best colors. It was like cosmic radiation was coming out of those things. It probably was! It probably made our hair fall out, but they were really pretty and you could switch them into other things like a spectrum analyzer or a peak meter. Most of the MCI boards had VU meters, but these were just beautiful.”

The band wanted Easter to engineer and produce their first album, but the label had doubts — and, actually, so did Easter. “I was a little intimidated by this,” he recalls. “I'd only been recording bands for like a year. So I asked Don Dixon to help me because I was too much of a pup to go into that big studio by myself!”

Bass player/producer Dixon was already known in the local music scene, having recorded and toured with his own band, Arrogance. He'd worked in Easter's studio, and he had recorded at Reflection numerous times as a musician.

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