Given that both R.E.M. and U2 both represented the rise of alternative rock in the 1980s, it’s surprising that their musical styles rarely, if ever crossed.
U2 often sang of the political problems of the moment and perfected the rock anthem, Bono’s emotional voice ringing above the Edge’s chiming guitars. R.E.M. – well, for the first five years, nobody knew what Michael Stipe was singing, and Peter Buck’s guitar playing paid homage to the Byrds. Let’s take a closer look at their musical styles.
U2 is from Dublin, Ireland, and it’s hard to believe that their musical style was not influenced by their country. Fiercely patriotic with a history of political and economic troubles, U2 reflected their society in their music. Bono’s passionate vocals are usually very clear and descriptive, whether he was speaking of Bloody Sunday (“And today the millions cry / We eat and drink while tomorrow they die”) or Martin Luther King, Jr. (“Early morning, April 4 / A shot rings out in a Memphis sky”)
Musically, the melody usually carries the song, with simple bass lines and chords; one of their most enduring songs, “Bad” from The Unforgettable Fire, consists mainly of two notes in the bass. “With or Without You,” their biggest hit, has four chords played over and over. The choruses are usually anthemic, with Bono holding long notes for dramatic effect (“In the n-a-a-a-me of l-o-o-o-ve”; “With or Without Y-o-o-ou”), usually by himself, with no harmonies. It makes it easy for audiences to sing along.
R.E.M. could not be more different. In the early years, Michael Stipe’s lyrics were indecipherable; fans held listening parties to try to decipher his warbling and mumbling, and even when one could understand the lyrics, you still couldn’t tell what it meant. (“They called the clip a two-headed cow”? Is “Fall on Me” about nuclear war or acid rain?) Once Stipe’s lyrics became clearer, he began to enunciate his political views more, but the jabs were more subtle than Bono’s.
But Stipe did tend to get more lyrics into a song, whether it was reading the liner notes of a gospel album (“Voice of Harold”) or rattling off nonsensical phrases (“It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”). Their music tends to be more complex, with bassist Mike Mills singing harmonies or countermelodies with Stipe.
The music was usually upbeat with R.E.M.; while they didn’t come up with the most hummable tunes, there were very few subpar songs. Until their later years, they were remarkably consistent. And they never took themselves too seriously.
Well, that got us nowhere. Let’s try to face each band member one-on-one to see who’s better:
Vocals: Both are the undisputed leaders and spokesmen for their group, although neither would acknowledge it. Both have a distinctive voice that one instantly recognizes as the sound of the group. Bono is more of a showman – no, a diva, with his now trademark sunglasses and his many alter egos onstage. Stipe says little during concerts, and his off-stage persona is shy and quiet. In the early years, his vocals were buried beneath the music, but as his voice and pitch improved, he waws brought more to the forefront.
Who’s more annoying? Bono. Who’s the better singer?…Bono.
Guitar: Both the Edge (U2) and Peter Buck (R.E.M.) have developed their own styles that, like the lead singers, give the group a signature sound. The Edge’s guitar playing is set with a delay that makes it sound like a train sometimes, clanging and chiming and echoing into nothingness and creating an atmosphere on which Bono lays his vocals. In its time, it was unlike anything being played in popular music, but it has since been copied by other groups such as Radiohead and Coldplay.
Peter Buck’s style is a little more derivative, having shaped his sound from the Byrds. It’s an arpeggio-styled “jangle” (R.E.M. has been put in the “jangle pop” genre) that fills in the holes between Stipe’s ramblings and adds an extra layer of texture. They’re both indispensable. This one’s a toss up.
Bass: The only clear winner in this face-off. Adam Clayton of U2 has been described by some as the luckiest person in rock; he has three marvelous musicians to hide behind. As described above, the bass lines in U2’s songs are simple, giving Clayton an easy job. But if you listen closely to “All Along the Watchtower” off of Rattle and Hum, a song with only four notes in the whole song, played the same way over and over, he still messes up.
Mike Miills, on the other hand, is an accomplished musician. His bass lines are often complicated and alive, and he assists the band in playing keyboards and background vocals. Mike has also written and sung lead on several songs as well. Mike Mills in a landslide.
Drums: Hmmm… This one’s a tough one, given that I know very little about the art of drum playing, and what constitutes good drumming. I notice Larry Mullen Jr.’s (U2) playing more, from his rat-a-tat-tat snare in Sunday Bloody Sunday to his booming tom-toms on The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree. He even survived U2’s foray into electronica. Bill Berry of R.E.M. complements the band, rarely taking stage center. So at first glance, it seems that Mullen gets the nod. But when Berry left R.E.M. in 1997, the band fell apart, releasing one bad album after another. Perhaps he is more valuable.
Sigh. Another tossup. U2 – 1, R.E.M. – 1, and two ties.
Part 3: My own personal journey with both groups. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Part 1