‘Chronic Town’: R.E.M. Bids Farewell To The Underground
Their first release for the influential I.R.S. imprint, this unsung five-track EP was key to the band’s future development.
The August 1982 release of the Chronic Town EP marked an important milestone in R.E.M.’s history. It wasn’t the band’s first vinyl outing, but it proved to be the first of many legend-building releases they would issue through Miles Copeland and Jay Boberg’s I.R.S. imprint over the next five years.
“When I hired Jay as the vice-president of I.R.S, he fell in love with R.E.M.,” Copeland told uDiscover Music in 2021. “So I let him concentrate on them. I’m very thankful to R.E.M… I look upon them as one of the label’s greatest achievements. And it wasn’t just me, either – they had everybody at the label fighting for their success.”
Listen to R.E.M.’s Chronic Town now.
The record company’s unshakeable belief proved critical to the band’s development. When R.E.M. signed up in 1982, the label was an extremely hip name to drop; it had created a roster of hot alt-pop acts including The Go-Go’s, Wall Of Voodoo, and The Cramps. But all those groups had track records, whereas R.E.M. – with just 18 months of active service under their belt at that juncture – were still relatively embryonic. Indeed, prior to I.R.S’ involvement, R.E.M.’s original plan for Chronic Town was to issue the EP through Dasht: an independent imprint set up by their first manager, Jefferson Holt, and his business partner, David Healy.
The recording of Chronic Town
With this plan in mind, R.E.M. returned to Drive-In Studios in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in October 1981, to record the songs for Chronic Town. The session was overseen by the studio’s owner, Mitch Easter, who had already engineered and co-produced the “Radio Free Europe” single. “We knew each other a little… so we did stretch out a bit artistically,” Mitch Easter said in 2021. “It was great fun for me. I have better memories of Chronic Town than ‘Radio Free Europe’ because doing the single was just a whirlwind.
“On Chronic Town, we got to actually talk about stuff,” he added. “The record I’d been listening to right before I got the studio was Low by David Bowie. Which was kind of a crazy record and very sonic. You can’t always get rock bands to want to take those kind of chances. So on Chronic Town, I suggested a lot more weirdo stuff. Tape loops and doing stuff backwards. And they were totally into it. That was great fun.”
R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck also had vivid memories of the two-day Chronic Town session, recalling that the band “cut about seven or eight songs and we threw the kitchen sink in on everything” in a September 1984 interview with Trouser Press. “There were hundreds of guitars, backward guitars, backward vocals,” he added. “It might not sound like it, but Chronic Town is a busy record. We were looking for a claustrophobic effect, like you’re struggling into a world where you don’t know what’s going on, and you have to figure it out by using clues. It was a learning experience.”
R.E.M. may still have been finding their feet in the studio when they recorded Chronic Town, but the results suggested they were already alchemizing something truly distinctive. Though brittle and sometimes slightly ragged around the edges, the EP’s five jangly, guitar-driven songs fizzed with nervy, post-punk energy and youthful idealism.
The strident “Gardening At Night” was arguably the pick of the material, though “1,000,000” and “Carnival Of Sorts (Boxcars)” were equally seductive, with the latter further elevated by an engaging call and response routine, wherein Michael Stipe’s mumbled lead vocal was pitted against bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry’s more linear harmonies to startling effect.
In retrospect, the only thing which still seems hard to fathom is why I.R.S. insisted on substituting “Ages Of You” for the (equally compelling) “Wolves, Lower.” The label had fallen in love with the latter, asking the band to go back in the studio and record a slower version for the eventual release.
The legacy of Chronic Town
Chronic Town was eventually released on August 24, 1982. The collective critical reaction to the EP proved highly positive – at home and abroad. In the US, the record came in at No. 2 in the year-end Top 10 of the prestigious Village Voice’s EP poll, while in the UK, a glowing review with influential rock weekly NME said the record consisted of “five songs that spring to life full of immediacy and action and healthy impatience.”
Despite the critical consensus, Chronic Town isn’t often talked about in the band’s rise to fame, but it’s one of their most pivotal releases. In making it, Michael Stipe and company had begun to hone their enigmatic, yet accessible jangly pop sound, which would soon grant them a much broader audience. Indeed, just months later they teamed up with Mitch Easter again for the debut album proper, Murmur, and began to make an impression on the international stage. From then on, the only way was up, as R.E.M. slowly but surely transitioned from college rock outsiders to mainstream rock stars as the 1980s wore on.
“It’s still amazing to me that I got to work with R.E.M.,” Mitch Easter said in 2021. “The fact that we got along and we made things that people actually enjoyed. You really cannot plan on this stuff or force it to happen. The fact that it was so casual makes it even better. There was none of this having to follow up a big hit or any additional pressure. The expectations were all reasonable and we were all just hoping we could do something good. It was an ideal time for them and me.”