How R.E.M. Got Their Name

Parting ways on good terms in 2011, Athens, Georgia college-rock band R.E.M. were among the few from their generation to cross over from critical darlings to mainstream arena success (per Billboard). Over a string of hit albums and singles, the indie rock band — who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007 — managed to maintain some mystery, thanks in no small part to the quartet's enigmatic singer who also wrote the lyrics, Michael Stipe (via The Guardian). The mystery that Stipe (pictured) fosters even extends to two competing theories about how the Grammy Award-winning group got their name. Stipe plays a part in both of them.

As the story goes, Stipe met R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck at an Athens, Georgia record shop and they quickly bonded over a shared love for punk music. Shortly after adding bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry, and after they even played a few gigs, it was time to pick a name, according to Britannica. R.E.M. was quickly a hit in the verdant Athens college rock scene alongside bands like The B-52s, perhaps the next most successful band to emerge from Athens at that time, as Britannica also notes elsewhere.

Rapid Eye Movement

The most commonly accepted theory for how R.E.M. got their name is that Stipe picked R.E.M. at random from the dictionary. In this context, R.E.M. stands for rapid eye movement, or the point in sleep when eye movement continues although the brain picks up no visual signals. During REM sleep there's some brain activity, and this is also when dreaming most often happens, as WebMD explains.

As American Songwriter notes, R.E.M. was not the first name the band considered, one of which was Twisted Kites. Dr. William Dement, the scientist who first used the term REM sleep (with no periods, as the sleep science term is often stylized, via The New York Times) even reached out to the band once they became successful. At that point, Stipe allegedly denied that his band R.E.M., periods included, derived their name from the sleep stage, after all, which casts this first version of the band name's origin story in doubt.

Could they instead be a different artist's initials?

According to Pitchfork, another possible theory as to how R.E.M. got their name comes from Athens resident William Orten "Ort" Carlton, who knew the band in their early days. As Carlton states, rather than naming themselves after the sleep stage picked at random from the dictionary, R.E.M. were also the initials of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, a Kentucky-based photographer with a cult following at that time (per Fraenkel Gallery).

As Carlton goes on to note (via Pitchfork), Meatyard signed his prints "r.e.m.," though also according to Pitchfork, there's no smoking gun that links Meatyard to the R.E.M. band name. Stipe, also from the south, is a known photographer as well as a musician, which does offer some evidence the R.E.M. singer could be aware of Meatyard's work (via ArtNet). Also according to Orton, he discussed Meatyard's work with Stipe around the same time that R.E.M. first got together, as Pitchfork goes on to report.