NEW YORK -- Don't tell REM about hit records.
'We've never even thought of making top 40 records,' said guitarist Peter Buck after finishing 'Document,' the sixth LP by the Athens, Ga.-based group. 'I wouldn't know how to.'
REM has become a minor sensation in the 1980s by working against the grain of a formularized record industry. The band's starkly uncommercial stance has won REM a hard core cult following that promises to make the shows on this current U.S. tour special events.
'I think a lot of our fans see us as a kind of alternative to the hit thing, Madonna, Huey Lewis or Bruce Springsteen,' Buck said.
'I like Madonna,' he added. 'I respect her even though I don't listen to her much. Every band has their place, and it would be fair to say that ours probably isn't in the top 10. We try to exist outside of that. If we dart in and have a hit single that's fine, but I don't necesssarily want to go after a commercial sound. Neither do I want to be the loyal opposition. We just make records and then see what happens.
'The problem with rock 'n' roll is that there's too many formulas. We really can't even think what's popular, that would kill us. People tell us, look at U2, streamline your stuff, but we're really not that anthem type of band.
'We're making our way, we have a gold record, we can ignore the marketplace. Sometimes I'll listen to, say, a Bangles record and I'll see how it's a hit. But the stuff that I buy is a whole lot weirder than that.'
Buck cites a number of other bands who've taken the approach REM swears by. 'When I first heard Talking Heads,' he said, 'I thought they're never gonna get within spitting distance of having a hit single, yet they've made themselves into an indispensable band.
'I admire people like Van Morrison, he's a guy who works from his heart, it doesn't seem like he even bothers to put covers on his records. Someone else must because they're such horrible covers, but the records themselves jump between inspirational stuff and junk within the space of a minute. I really respect him for that, there's no editing process. He's going for the feeling and he sometimes finds it and sometimes not.'
Buck is pleased with the way 'Document,' the most guitar-oriented REM record yet, turned out. 'This one is a little more scattershot, which I like. Since it's a diverse record there isn't a center to it. It's more like a bunch of snapshots.
'Some of it has a kind of Orwellian feeling. It's a chaotic record because its been a chaotic year for the whole world, America especially.'
A number of the songs strike a decidedly political tone. 'Exhuming McCarthy,' for example, suggests a parallel between the Reagan-era policies carried out by Oliver North and the politically motivated witch hunts of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.
'The right wing is back,' Buck said. 'We're fighting all these foreign wars. This is the kind of year Joe McCarthy would come back. People would start hailing him. If he was still alive he'd be a hero.
'I just about kicked in my TV set watching Oliver North testify with that smug little look on his face. He was breaking the law, he had no right to be so smug. And that Fawn Hall, I'd like to kick her in the butt. I wish they'd put the two of them in irons. He's a hero by breaking the law. We don't have the right to pick governments in this continent. What we should do is help out.
'It's hard to believe that people can live in a time like this and not be concerned. It makes my stomach churn to read the newspapers.'
Buck feels that rock bands have a responsibility to use their influence on young audiences. 'Rock 'n' roll is supposed to be about personal freedoms,' he argued. 'How can you do this and act like a clown, jump around in striped trousers, and then just go home and not worry about it because you've got your million? That's just sickening.
'I'm not saying you have to make social messages, but the Motley Crues and Van Halens, they have a tool to talk to every disenfranchised lower middle class kid who works in a garage and tell them something about what's happening to them, but all they tell them is 'go ahead and jump.' A lot of these bands make it on rebellion, but it's really safe rebellion. All the kids raise their hand in the air and yell and drink a bunch of malt liquor for about three hours, then they go right back home and go to the mall.'