Thirty-one years is a long time for any group of friends to stay together, especially when they’re in a rock band. Which makes R.E.M.’s long, earnest, relatively train-wreck-free career all the more noteworthy. Keith Richards trashed singer Mick Jagger left and right in his memoir, even though they’re still in the Rolling Stones together. But if the members of R.E.M. were at each other’s throats when announced their breakup Wednesday, they did a great job of hiding it. “We feel kind of like pioneers in this,’’ member Mike Mills declared on the band’s website. “There’s no disharmony here, no falling-outs, no lawyers squaring off.’’
The lack of drama was typical for a Georgia band whose folk-influenced music and inscrutable lyrics appealed to literature grad students and physics grad students alike. The very banner under which R.E.M. and so many other independent-label bands once played - “college rock’’ - suggested that shocking the Man wasn’t priority number one. Still, other bands of the same era succumbed to the usual rock-star temptations and personality clashes. Nirvana ended when Kurt Cobain shot himself in a heroin-fueled haze. Boston’s celebrated Pixies, capturing both the discord and the state of technology in their final days, broke up via fax.
Not R.E.M. The quartet became a trio in the late ’90s, when drummer Bill Berry left after suffering an aneurysm. Five albums later, the remaining members decided they had nothing left to accomplish. While R.E.M. pioneered the incomprehensible chorus, their amicable split makes them a groundbreaking act in more ways than one.