The four young men who went by the name R.E.M. had been a band for little more than a year by February of 1981. Their first gig was in April of 1980, where the group played covers and rough originals in a dilapidated church. Over the course of the next year, the band befriended their manager Jefferson Holt, dropped out of college, and began to play larger gigs in an around the Athens, Georgia area.
On February 20th, the group packed into the 688 Club in Atlanta, Georgia to open a show for Joe ‘King’ Carrasco. The band had yet to secure a record contract or even make a sizable dent outside of Georgia, but a fan with a camcorder managed to surreptitiously record history by focusing on the nascent R.E.M. just before they began to get big.
Starting in media res with a version of Buddy Holly’s ‘Rave On’, R.E.M. bring their signature jittery energy to the stage, with Michael Stipe, in particular, showing none of the shyness or reticence that was commonly associated with him in the band’s early days. Instead, he’s a captivating and entertaining presence, dancing and even talking to the crowd.
The rest of the band look incredibly young: Mike Mills seems like he’s no older than 13, while Peter Buck is a lanky and towering presence over the rest of the members. Bill Berry is hidden both behind his drum kit and under a hat, but he plays with complete precision. Also eerily precise are the harmonies between Stipe and Mills, who share the same nasally tone in the same high register.
The band play early material that would soon become classic songs in their repertoire: ‘Gardening at Night’ in particular is a pleasure. But it’s some of the lesser-known songs, like ‘Burning Down’ and the instrumental ‘White Tornado’, that make the biggest impact. These are songs that only owners of the band’s rarities album, Dead Letter Office, know well, and they separate the casual and more dedicated R.E.M. fanatics.
But if you really want to be in the one per cent of R.E.M. fans, you’ll delight in the early tracks that never made it onto any of the band’s official albums: ‘Dangerous Times’, ‘Narrator’, and ‘A Different Girl’, the latter of which is greeted by an audience squeal that makes Stipe chuckle in the middle of the song. ‘Narrator’ later appeared on the B-side of a Hindu Love God’s single, but that’s probably enough R.E.M. nerd-dom for one article.
Check out the rare 1981 performance from R.E.M. down below.