R.E.M. played its first concert 40 years ago this weekend

Forty years ago this Sunday, April 5, four University of Georgia students — Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry — played their first concert together as band, at a friend’s birthday party in an abandoned Athens, Georgia, church.

The group, which soon took the name R.E.M., had formed few months earlier, after Stipe met Buck at the record store where Peter worked, then were introduced to pals Mills and Berry through a mutual friend.

It was the start of a 30-year journey that saw R.E.M. emerge as influential indie-rock darlings, then become one of the world’s most popular rock bands and, in 2007, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees, before breaking up in 2011.

On a recently taped episode of the PBS show Speakeasy, Mills recalls that R.E.M.’s first show “was crazy,” while noting, “Athens was a very tight, insular sort of crowd at that point, and…[e]verybody was there that knew each other.”

Mills also points out that he noticed that the group had a special chemistry from its very first rehearsal.

He remembers that he and Berry “had some songs that we’d written…before we moved to Athens. So we showed those to [Michael and Peter], and I was like, ‘Holy cow, I love what they’re doing with these songs that we had already written."”

Stipe, who also took part in the Speakeasy interview, agrees with Mills that “that spark, that ‘je ne sais pas,’ was there from the very beginning.”

Having said that, Michael, who initially was known for his introverted onstage persona, adds, “It took all of us a few years to learn how to play our respective instruments, and it took me at least three albums to figure out that I did have a voice [and]…a writer’s knack.”

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