This happened: while the pioneering band R.E.M. were transitioning from weird-people fame to normal-people fame, their bass player Mike Mills was booked to appear on Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee. Hosted by former Joey Bishop second-banana Regis Philbin before he morphed into his final form as the launching pad of a billion “Is that your final answer?” jokes and sidekicked by Kathie Lee Gifford, a woman so oppressively chipper she became a national punchline in her own right, Live! was a daytime talk show geared toward the dwindling sedentary-housewives-at-home-all-day demographic.
R.E.M., at the time, had leveled up from college-radio darlings to for-real arena rock stars, thanks to the albums Green and Out of Time and the improbable global success of the single “Losing My Religion.” (I worked at a record store at the time, and I once retrieved a copy of R.E.M.’s full-length debut Murmur for a yuppie who asked if we had “their first album.” He was baffled—he wanted Green, and had no idea the band had been releasing music for ten years. Among normals, he was far from alone.) But their newfound popularity aside, even in the wake of the Nevermind deluge, there was a real frisson to a band known for moody music and challenging, cerebral lyrics (snobs: feel free to nerdfight about “Shiny Happy People”) to make inroads to the gleeful wide-eyed vapidity of daytime talk.
This is messed up: I actually saw this when it was broadcast. I have no idea what I was doing at home during the day in February of 1992. I have no idea what class I was blowing off. I have no idea why the TV was even on at all, let alone why it was on the channel that broadcast Live! of all things, but there it was. Odds are good I was baked. And I when I caught the words “R.E.M.” and “Mike Mills” coming out of the mouth of Regis fucking Philbin, I was transfixed. Mills has always seemed a good-natured guy, so he responded with aw-shucks aplomb to the banal interview questions—seriously, high school newspapers ask bands how they got their names, so it’s a shame Mills couldn’t inform them that the band had previously been called “Cans of Piss.” But then, surely in defiance of some publicist’s grave warning of certain doom, Mills does a marvelous acoustic rendition of “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville,” a song from their second LP Reckoning, which was eight years old at the time. Surely a small army of American homemakers dropped their cheesecake and drove straight to the mall to buy it. Right?
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
The Ramones on ‘Regis and Kathie Lee’