Dances with chickens

Minstrel, martyr, Messiah: Michael Stipe has used video to reinvent himself again and again... and help REM shift a lot of units in the process. By Ryan Gilbey

There are two REMs. The one in real life, which comprises a mature student type plus three blokes your dad might know. And the one in your head, which is a chaotic meeting of everything that you associate with the band: what you've read, your passion for their music, memories that you hang on individual songs - when you played "Get Up" first thing every morning, for a month, or when you left hospital and you couldn't find a busker that wasn't playing "Losing My Religion". These things are what the band have become to you. Not what they are, but what you want or need them to be. Video has played a big part in this. They wouldn't be half the band you think they are if no one had pointed a camera at them and said play along to this.

REM have been making videos to accompany their music since the 1983 single "Radio Free Europe". That video wasn't very good. It featured the band walking around some gardens, gesturing at handicraft. It was like a nature ramble with Huey Lewis and the News. But REM videos have always been statements of intent, and this one was far enough out of step to feel like treason.

As REM spent the Eighties carving out their niche - like the Go-Betweens, they had years as jangly johnny foreigners fawned over by critics, but greeted by most of the world with a resounding "Who?" - they continued to collaborate with avant-garde film-makers. Apart from the goofy Can't Get There From Here in 1985, these efforts were generally shot on grainy 8mm, sometimes in painful slow motion, and usually in black and white. Everything, in fact, to ensure their absence from The Chart Show.

As sales rose, so did budgets and ambitions. "The One I Love", from 1987's Document album, marked a significant change in REM's approach to making videos. It told a story. Sort of. A woman pines for her lover, who used to rest his head in her lap while her feet were cooling in a bowl of water.

All right, so it wasn't "Sledgehammer". But it was an important marriage between art and commerce. And between the old REM, adored by over-serious undergraduates, and the new model, a barnstorming rock and roll behemoth. It's no coincidence that in "Pop Song 89", one of REM's first videos after signing to WEA, Michael Stipe agreed to lip-synch, a practice he had once regarded with the kind of disgust that most people reserve for child pornography.

And yet Stipe's playfulness kept his integrity intact. "Michael is purposely sloppy with lip-synching," says Peter Care, who has directed four REM videos, including "Drive" and "Man on the Moon", as well as the band's new concert film, Road Movie. "It's his way of saying, this is just pretend."

In "Pop Song 89", Stipe mimed only to selected parts of the song, didn't dance when you expected him to, did when you didn't, and responded mischievously to MTV's request to render the video a nipple-free zone: he blacked out his own offending protuberances, as well as those of his female co-stars. The video announced, I am a pop star. But I am not your average pop star. It was a juicy contradiction. Magically, the band had utilised the video to sharpen their fuzzy image. And to reinvent themselves. "Pop Song 89" revealed something integral to REM, something previously overshadowed by their sombre esoteric image: a sense of humour.

This wasn't quite so apparent in the images that accompanied "Losing My Religion". But that song shifted REM up another gear. Your kid sister bought it. The lad who washes your car was always whistling it. And they all loved the video, which intercut religious tableaux with shots of Michael Stipe dancing like a chicken.

It was an earnest affair. But watching it made people feel they'd done something enriching, like visiting an art gallery or helping the poor. Suddenly, REM had penetrated the real world. Their influence was explicitly felt in videos by The Cranberries, Metallica and Wet Wet Wet, and when a pretend Michael Stipe showed up on Stars in their Eyes, he was doing that chicken dance. What must Matthew Kelly have made of it all?

It would not have come as a great surprise if the videos had got worse as they got more expensive. That's how it goes. Money rots art. But not in this case. Among the six videos for the Automatic for the People album were the finest that REM had made. Remember "Drive"? That was where Stipe did a Peter Gabriel and had his body passed across a sea of hands while the rest of the band got drenched by a water cannon for no reason other than to make them look interesting.

"Everybody Hurts" brought REM their biggest hit, and a breathlessly beautiful miniature movie, in which a camera patrols the cars stuck bumper to bumper and employs subtitles to read the thoughts of those people sweating it out in the traffic. Baring the influence of Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire and the thriller Falling Down, it evoked an atmosphere of contemplation which was like holding a mirror up to the music. Has any video ever functioned so finely in tune with the song it's promoting? I don't think so.

"Everybody Hurts" was also the culmination of Michael Stipe's efforts to forge a different persona for himself. Even in the band's early years, Stipe had attracted a reputation as a capricious bohemian, and something of a latterday minstrel. The characters he has adapted on video have compounded this, and lent him a religious aura that has been fed by hero worship: the Messiah-come-martyr in "Drive", the preacher-type figure in "Everybody Hurts" and "Strange Currencies", the artist among the people in "Near Wild Heaven". These are the things of which legends are fabricated, and egos enlarged.

Video has also helped Stipe to transmit coded messages. Most of last year's interviews with him focused on his sexual proclivities, but nine years ago when he directed the overtly homoerotic video for "Finest Worksong", his sexuality was as much of a mystery as his lyrics. As with the Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant in pre coming-out promos like "Rent" and "Domino Dancing", video became an area where Stipe could explore desires which, for whatever reason, he had yet to articulate elsewhere.

The tender images of the young shirtless skateboarder in the video for "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)", recently prompted dissent from the gay American writer Paul Rudnick, who accused the singer of promoting "paedophile chic" along with film-makers Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho) and Larry Clark (Kids). Rudnick's attack is hard to substantiate. Instead of voyeurism, there seems to be a real joyfulness in those videos where Stipe is surreptitiously divulging another self. Why else do you think he looks so happy as a hitchhiking cowboy who gets picked up by a trucker in the video for "Man on the Moon"?

But as Peter Care confirms, REM are shedding the play-acting for now: "With `What's the Frequency Kenneth?' it was fuck art, let's just show the band performing. Having nailed the avant-garde independent style, they wanted to do a straightforward video full of really banal shots. And with the new album, they're reacting against everything and going back to their roots, working with those avant-garde directors again."

Indeed, the video for the latest single, "E-Bo the Letter", reveals a definite absence of characters, narrative and effects. So have REM grown weary of themselves? Are they drained of illusions, all storyboarded out, turning their backs on the visual for the good of the aural? And what's the concept to this new video anyway? "The concept for this video," says REM's bassist Mike Mills, "is to sell more records." Of course, let's try to keep that in mind.

n `REM Roadmovie' is released on Warner Music Vision on 30 Sept

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game