A year and a half later, with Berry in rude health, I interviewed Mike Mills, the band's bassist, and as he spoke of his friend's near-death experience, he repeated an old REM covenant. "At that point it was pretty much up to Bill if he felt like he could continue being a drummer. If one of us were to leave the band, we'd either break up or at the very least change the name, because that would, in fact, be the end of REM." And a year after that, in October 1997, Bill Berry left the band.
This was, to use a tasteless but appropriate expression, mind-blowing. REM had had the same line-up since they met in Athens, Georgia, in 1980. It was the input of four individuals - Berry, Mills, Michael Stipe and Peter Buck - that made the group the success they'd been. No other band in the world is currently as successful.
In commercial terms, REM are almost unmatched. More than that, they have sold over 35 million albums while making exactly the music they want to, thereby retaining their artistic credibility longer than any international pop stars you can name. They are renowned for their integrity, their idealism, their ability to be in the spotlight without losing their dignity. They have pumped out quality albums at a steady rate, averaging one every 18 months, and they've kept going while the other bands who could have been contenders - the Pixies spring to mind - have fallen to pieces. As a bonus, they have taken delivery of lorryloads of money and vanloads of awards. You can bet that, at the end of next year, they will top the polls as the Band of the Decade. Surely, if you were fantasising about the perfect pop career, this is roughly what you'd end up with. REM have got this rock-group business right.
So what's the secret? In part, it comes down to the pressures of stardom being balanced on four pairs of shoulders. Each member plays more than just his "name" instrument. Each contributes songs and ideas, so when one has writer's block, another can take the strain. (Berry, far from being the Ringo of the set-up, composed "Everybody Hurts.") While most magazines would prefer just to interview Stipe, the band's sexy-alien frontman, REM share promotional duties. They are a true collective, rather than one talent and a few boneheaded sidemen. It's what makes the difference between a good band and a great one.
Mills's multi-instrumentalism and Buck's obsessive pursuit of musical and literary knowledge are at least as essential to the team as their bass and guitar parts. Stipe, of course, is known for much more than his voice/lips/eyes/cheekbones. He is a skewed style guru - every band needs one - always careful to ensure that a record-sleeve photo is printed upside down, that he has a cryptic slogan written on his hand, that he's looking cool even when he attends an award ceremony wearing pyjamas. He has also been burdened with the title of "voice of a generation." His lyrics work out, approximately, as half gibberish, half poetry, but they are usually bubbling with obscure concepts and touching confessions, and are oblique enough to allow "diStiples" to pass many a pleasant hour trying to divine the meaning of "Butterfly decal rear-view mirror dogging the scene".
Stipe's tongue-twisters help to shroud REM in an all-important fog of mystery. Generous interviewees they may be, but one reason why they've never been scarred by a brutal backlash is that they are a moving target. They released two global smash-hit albums at the start of the 1990s; but declined to tour either one. They have spoken up for Democratic presidential candidates and ecological causes; but, just when they were being pegged as a tubthumping politicos, they brought their activism down to a local level. (If only U2 had thought of that, for their sake and ours.) And, as they're never sick over supermodels outside Hollywood clubs, the tabloids have had little to get their claws into.
Musically, they're hard to pin down, too. They discard stacks of material, they boast, simply because it sounds like REM. They have kept stretching themselves, kept hoping that each album would be the best ever made, and never stopped believing that theirs was the best job in the world. Radiohead's Thom Yorke is openly in awe of their equanimity. Kurt Cobain commented that they "dealt with their success like saints".
"I think we've dealt with our success like intelligent people," says Mills of this canonisation. Unlike Cobain, REM had time to get used to the idea of seeing their faces on T-shirts. All their albums have been critical and commercial hits, but it wasn't until "Losing My Religion" in 1991 that REM became household initials. Stipe has said that if global fame had come to him as quickly as it did to Nirvana, he'd be dead. The years it took the group to get here from there have been a blessing. How many new bands have that patience today? How many record companies?
Recently, some public problems have crept into the narrative. 1994's Monster is now written about as the REM album that didn't quite come off. The subsequent tour was marred not just by Berry's aneurysms, but by intestinal surgery on Mills and a hernia for Stipe. ("Everybody Hurts" was a prophetic title.) Soon afterwards came a bitter split with Jefferson Holt, REM's co-manager, and a man so central to their organisation that he was listed on album credits as their fifth member. Their next album, 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi, was born out of time. Fans who loved the magnificent production of their Nineties work (including me) were nonplussed by a record buried under the scratchy guitars of REM circa 1984. It has sold five million copies, compared to 10 apiece for the previous two. This is still a phenomenal number, but by REM's standards, they've had an unprecedented run of bad luck. When Berry laid down his drumsticks, the end of the band as we know it seemed inevitable. Its members had hit a mean age of 40. Perhaps the only way they could continue to be the ideal band was to call it a day.
And a year after that, REM are releasing a new album, Up. The thing was, when Berry left, the group had already commenced work on the record, and they knew it had the potential to be one of their finest. The pledge to disband turned out to be one of those promises - like Paul Daniel's emigrating if Labour came to power - which are completely sincere as long as they aren't put to the test. The first single from Up, "Daysleeper" is released tomorrow. "A three-legged dog is still a dog" goes the Stipean epigram. "It just has to learn to run differently".
It has. The last two albums were REM as a live band: four guys playing guitar, bass and drums. Berry's decision to swap drum stool for tractor seat has forced them to return to the rich, un-rock'n'roll layering of Automatic For the People. It's a warm, tender sound for those winter nights ahead; REM at their most beautiful. You can bet that, at the end of December, it will top the polls as the Album of the Year. The three-legged dog is still walking unafraid along its own path, rarely putting a foot wrong.
'Up' (Warner) is released on 26 October.
FACTS TO REM-ember
The heroine of Jay McInerney's Story Of My Life bemoans her fate: "I don't have cabfare. I don't have shit. Thirty-five cents, four cigarettes and a barrette. Reminds me of that R E M song, 'It's The End of the World As We Know It'."
At the start of Independence Day, a man in a hi-tech monitoring station spots some UFOs on his scanner. On the radio is, yes, "The End of the World As We Know It".
When Tank Girl transferred to the big screen, the moviemakers insisted that she had a proper name. Her creators picked Rebecca Buck, in partial tribute to REM's Peter.
"It is surely not difficult to establish the superiority of Cole Porter over REM; one only has to look at the incompetent voice-leading in 'Losing My Religion', the misunderstanding of chord relations, and the inability to develop a melodic line ..." According to Roger Scruton in the Times.
The theme tune of Ally McBeal is played on a mandolin. Blame the influence of Peter Buck.