Shaking Through It is a staple in rock journalism to romanticize the hard-working, unsung backing musician. We deplore this tendency; now that the drum machine has been perfected, Riff Raff looks forward to the time when a lead-singer machine will achieve a similar currency. That said, we note with respect the departure of Bill Berry from R.E.M. The band's most recent albums have been disappointing, its last tour a charade. But in the 1980s, the group helped to re-establish the stature and tone of American rock by grafting an alluring brand of songwriting onto the energy of punk; over a long and improbably successful career, the individual band members have acted with impressive restraint and grace. Besides Michael Stipe's artsy leanings and Peter Buck's record-geek riffs, R.E.M. had going for them the secret-weapon musicality of Mike Mills and the steady foundational skins work of Berry. Mills and Berry played for years in cover bands around Athens before meeting up with Buck and Stipe. They knew soul, knew funk; they were no Sly and Robbie, but their swinging assault at once implicitly acknowledged the importance of dancing (which there used to be a lot of at R.E.M. shows), even as it refuted the laziness of some of their indie compatriots. Berry's departure is not, contrary to perception, the first breach in the band's organization: R.E.M. always considered themselves a gang of six -- the four band members, manager Jefferson Holt, and lawyer Bertis Downs -- and Holt left under somewhat odd circumstances in 1996. (A Los Angeles Times report said he'd been accused of sexual harassment.) Berry, who suffered a brain aneurysm on tour in 1995, essentially says that he doesn't want just to go through the motions. His departure isn't the end of R.E.M., just the end of a unit that, barring perhaps Pearl Jam, was possibly the last traditional American rock 'n' roll band of any significance. The remaining members are already talking brightly about their drum-machine experiments. We, uh, can't wait. (B.W.)
Come and Get It Not one to offer an easy endorsement, especially of a commercial institution, Riff Raff nevertheless welcomes Amoeba Music to its new Haight Street digs. The massive music store -- a fraternal twin to the 7-year-old Berkeley shop -- opens this Friday in the suitably cavernous 24,000-square-foot spot formerly occupied by Park Bowl. We know some bemoaned the loss of the venerable Rock 'n' Bowl, and that some neighborhood folks couldn't stand the thought of a terrific music store with an imposing selection of new and used titles on the Upper Haight corridor. For the former, we point to wonderful lanes in South San Francisco; to the latter, we say go back to your own record shop and sulk. (J.D.P.)
Banda on the Run San Francisco was good to Los Super Elegantes, but Mexico City was better. In less than a year and a half spent in the Mexican metropolis, the Elegantes signed with a major label, recorded their first album, and even got themselves booked at a music and arts festival in Johannesburg. And that's not even the real news: The group's also produced a pilot for a TV soap opera starring itself and has a couple of big names -- filmmakers Pedro Almodovar and David Lynch -- interested in doing more. OK, the whole story is a little bizarre -- kind of like Los Super Elegantes' mariachi-punk performances -- so we're going to play it slow. Martiniano Crozet, who grew up in Buenos Aires, and his partner, Tijuana native Milena Muzquiz, met a few years back at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. The band was formed as a lark in 1995, but was well enough received for the pair to keep at the sound, which combines their Spanish vocals with hyper rock songs and Latin guitar atmospherics. They did fine in the Bay Area, but Crozet says the duo knew they could do even better in Mexico. In Mexico City they put together another set of musicians, and before long were working on a record, Devorame, for the very major label BMG. Not just a record -- a concept record, the soundtrack to an imaginary TV soap opera. That and the pervasive soap opera devotion in Mexico got the band thinking: Why not write a real soap opera? The pair came up with a plot loosely based around the band. The two singers, of course, star: Muzquiz as a virginal innocent, Crozet as a karate teacher. The two end up on the wrong side of the law and go underground by joining a band and touring. They funded the pilot themselves; now they've got MTV Latino and others bidding on it. Meanwhile, through a convoluted set of circumstances, Muzquiz and Crozet ended up talking with Almodovar (the flamboyant auteur of Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down and many other wild films), who said he'd been looking for a vehicle for a Twin Peaks-style TV series. (An early Almodovar film, Labyrinth of Passion, is about a Middle Eastern terrorist who hides out in a rock band.) Almodovar told them to call his pal Lynch, who has since expressed interest in designing the band's stage set and by extension the look of the series. They're taking a meeting with him in January. Whew. Los Super Elegantes finished a smallish U.S. tour at the Paradise Lounge two weeks ago. For the next month they'll be in Mexico City, then Spain, and finally, Los Angeles, where the two plan to settle. Muzquiz says they're deeply influenced by both Almodovar and Lynch and are beside themselves at the chance to work with either. She notes that the directors are getting something out of the deal, too. "For them, in those high places, you know -- they want to work with club people, with people on the street, punks." (J.S.)
Riff Raff riffraff: Robert Arriaga (R.A.), Johnny DiPaola (J.D.P.), Karl D. Esturbense (K.D.E.), Jeff Stark (J.S.), Silke Tudor (S.T.), Heather Wisner (H.W.), and Bill Wyman (B.W.). Send Bay Area music news, band stories, or petty gripes to firstname.lastname@example.org, or mail it to Riff Raff, c/o SF Weekly.