As a teen in the 1980s learning to play drums and hunt for cool records, I made an important discovery not long after my mom reluctantly agreed to subscribe to cable and MTV — I discovered the I.R.S. Records Cutting Edge program, hosted by the hilariously hip Fleshtones singer Peter Zaremba. A once-a-month, late Sunday night, one-hour show that spotlighted the college radio underground and post-punk music scene in Britain, the Cutting Edge predated the popular 120 Minutes and was one of the only shows that played the likes of Echo & The Bunnymen, The Fall, Tom Waits, Jonathan Richman ... and I.R.S. Records's own early-era R.E.M.
The newly-compiled When the Light is Mine... The Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982-1987 Video Collection, released by Capitol Records on DVD last month in conjunction with the band's induction to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, provides a comprehensive overview of R.E.M.'s earliest clips for I.R.S. Records. The setlist includes 11 music videos, five live song performances (three from UK's stiff The Tube program), candid MTV interviews, and terrific footage from their two Cutting Edge appearances in 1983 and '84.
Drummer Bill Berry, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and singer Michael Stipe signed on with IRS Records in early '82 and Chronic Town was properly released on Aug. 24 of that year. The record immediately established R.E.M.'s signature "jangle rock" sound and vocalist Michael Stipe (barely 20 at the time) as a major character in the field of college radio rock.
R.E.M. began to gradually establish themselves as a highly unique rock band capable of clicking bits of post-punk, classic pop, and poetry all into place.
Unlike the majority of flashy acts plopping out of the rock industry meat grinder, they didn't make a big splash on the national scene with a fancy, high-dollar debut. In fact, it took a number of years for the world-famous Athens band to even hit the charts and heavy rotation on MTV. Back in its early years, R.E.M. took its time and played out in small venues. The band got tight, gained confidence, recorded and wrote original tunes, released four full-lengths for I.R.S. — and found time to film and videotape some pretty cool stuff.
When the Light is Mine... finds the guys in and around the painter studios, cow pastures, and junk gardens of Athens, clad in bolo ties, raggedy tuxedo shirts, and art-school britches, looking darn weird for the times. The compilation's strongest clips are the lowest-budget. "Wolves, Lower" (from Chronic Town), "Talk About the Passion" and "Radio Free Europe" (both from Murmur) look like art films ... and footage of students making art films. "Harborcoat" (curiously listed here as "Left of Reckoning") and "So. Central Rain" (both from Reckoning) include footage of the late Rev. Howard Finster's art gardens — and Peter Buck's and Bill Berry's short-lived Maynard G. Krebs-style goatees.
Some might remember the video for "Fall on Me" for the large-text lyrics across the screen. In fact, it was on the lighthearted "Can't Get There From Here" where the band first included the lyrics — and in creepy backwoods font, to boot.
Of the killer "extra" footage, two highlights include a very stoned acoustic jam session in their old downtown Athens practice space, drawl-y testimonials from townies, and an eloquent introduction from a sunglasses-clad Zaremba. Oh yeah, those were the days.