How R.E.M.’s ‘Monster’ Signaled The End Of Alternative Rock

Here’s a book pitch: A sequel to Michael Azerrad’s venerable Our Band Could Be Your Life, in which the story of American indie rock’s roots in the ’80s continues by delving into the boom and bust of ’90s alternative rock.

One of the most fascinating chapters in this hypothetical tome would be about R.E.M., a subject of the original Our Band Could Be Your Life, who went from being an early pioneer of the so-called “Amerindie” scene to one of the most popular bands in the world after they signed with Warner Bros. in 1988. After concluding a successful though grueling marathon tour in support of their major-label LP, Green, R.E.M. opted to stay home for the next several years and create their lushest and most orchestrated music .

Only The Beatles had ever previously dared to essentially take themselves out of the public eye at the height of their fame, in order to focus on songwriting and honing their craft as record-makers. But with 1991’s Out Of Time and 1992’s Automatic For The People, R.E.M. somehow managed to become even more popular, selling more than eight million records combined as their artfully shot videos for folk-rock smashes like “Losing My Religion” and “Man On The Moon” played in constant rotation on MTV.

At a time when social media keeps pop stars in our faces at all times, R.E.M.’s ability to grow its audience while otherwise maintaining radio silence remains an unprecedented feat that likely won’t be duplicated. Looking back on this era more than 25 years later, R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck recalls feeling safely insulated from the ramifications of the band’s fame in the early ’90s.

“I lived in Mexico for six months after Automatic. And I was not talking to anybody, I was just hanging out. So, yeah, it wasn’t a big part of my life,” he said when reached via phone last week. “I was going through a particularly mobile two years of my life there. I had a car and a box of cassettes I listened to, and a leather jacket. And I just kind of moved around from place to place.”

Buck made himself available for a rare interview because he was promoting a new boxed set commemorating the 25th anniversary of R.E.M.’s ninth album, Monster, out today. Released in the fall of 1994, Monster proved to be the most controversial album R.E.M. ever made, as noisy, heavy-riffing, cynical, and dark as the two previous records were melodic, warm, commercial, and effervescent. The first single, “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?,” set the album’s tone — over Buck’s gut-level, buzzsaw guitar riff, singer Michael Stipe expressed disdain for the media while affecting an ironic remove from the horror-show unfolding before him on multiple screens.

“I never understood, don’t f*ck with me, uh-huh,” he sings, with a put-upon, in-character disaffection that recalled U2’s Achtung Baby. (Though he was also no doubt also drawing on his personal angst over persistent rumors in the early ’90s that he had contracted HIV.) Like U2, R.E.M. was using satire to help ease its transition from earnest ’80s alt band to ’90s stadium rockers.

For Buck, Monster represents “a time in all of our lives that was really crazy,” when R.E.M. decided to leave the safety of their private lives behind and embrace their strange new status in the outside world.