R.E.M.'s "Driver 8" 45 sleeve

R.E.M.  “Driver 8″  b/w  “Crazy” (I.R.S. Records #52678, 1985)

Alternative rock became a saleable commodity in the 1990’s, but back in ’85 it was mostly confined to non-commercial college radio stations, dorm-room record-players, frat-house keggers and a string of musky all-ages clubs that stretched from Jacksonville to San Diego.  Acting as a genuine “alternative” to all the Poison, Warrant and Cinderella gumming up the airwaves, down-to-earth acts like The Minutemen, Husker Du and The Replacements provided a much-needed sanctuary for those of us whose favorite Saturday night records were Marquee Moon and Pink Flag, and whose favorite Sunday morning record was The Velvet Underground & Nico.  By simply being themselves, Athens, GA’s R.E.M. rose to become the intelligent, headstrong, always forward-looking and never-reluctant centerpiece of this phenomenon, and their championing of other great bands who influenced them was second to none.  Along with being an R.E.M. fan came the bonus of others’ great music too.  At the time of release, I saw this week’s featured single as a mature talisman from wizened elder-statesmen.  Looking back, I see that it was only just the beginning.

The back of R.E.M.'s "Driver 8" 45 sleeve

If you say it fast enough, the title “Driver 8″ could be mistaken for “Gyrate,” which was the name of a popular LP by Athens art-dance-rock pioneers Pylon some five years prior (around the same time as Gang Of Four’s Entertainment! and The B-52’s’ Wild Planet, to put it in context).  And our boys hold very true to that influence in the song itself, which intercuts Michael Stipe’s oblique Southern storytelling with the same kind of terse, jerky, stark rhythms and wiry guitars patented by their new wave Georgian forebears.  And the train conductor says, “Take a break…”

Watch the video for \”Driver 8\” by R.E.M. on YouTube

“Driver 8” was the 2nd of two singles pulled from R.E.M.’s third LP, the Joe Boyd-produced Fables Of The Reconstruction (or Reconstruction Of The Fables, depending on which way you hold the record), an album which focused less on the reverberating, ringing jangle of their previous efforts (which nearly ignored the caffeinated agit-prop of their early live shows) and more on the solid, dense rock foundation that was about to bring them worldwide success.  More Tom Verlaine and less Roger McGuinn, one could say.  The house wasn’t fully built yet, but the cornerstones were well in place.

R.E.M.'s 1985 LP "Fables Of The Reconstruction"

Side B serves up more Pylon in the form of a straight-up cover of their 1981 single, “Crazy.”  It sounds so good that I wish they’d done a whole album of Pylon covers.  This recording later appeared on R.E.M.’s Dead Letter Office CD (a great collections of B-sides, and also for the longest time the only way you could get their brilliant Chronic Town EP). You can check out a live concert recording from ’89 here, but even cooler is this more recent footage of Pylon themselves performing the song at KFJC Los Altos last November, keeping very true to their original vision.

Pylon's classic "Gyrate" LP

I don’t need to tell you what became of Rock & Roll Hall-Of-Famers R.E.M., but Pylon broke up and reunited several times over, releasing three albums-worth of heavenly, danceable, overlooked genius, plus one best-of collection (appropriately titled, “Hits”).  Guitarist/songwriter Randy Bewley died this past February, after suffering a heart attack while driving, sadly putting an end to all things Pylon.

NEXT WEEK: The farther one travels, the less one knows.