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