REM: Remembering Earlier Magnificence

Just to let you know: there isn’t some fault with your monitor making every other word look blue, it’s just that I might have gone a little over the top with the number of links to videos of songs…

As you may have heard, REM have announced they are splitting up.  They were one of my favourite bands of all time, so the fact they’re splitting makes me sad.  Not sad so much for what that means in the here and now, as for the necessity for saying a final farewell to a younger version of them, and a younger version of myself.

The band’s career lasted 31 years, and I’ve been a fan for 22 of them – how in the hell did I get to be so old? – but I still feel like a Johnny-come-lately.  That tells you something about the kind of band they were, and something about the kind of fans they attracted.  There’s always been a part of their fanbase that sneered at us newbies: if you weren’t a fan before Document you were to be pitied; if you didn’t get into them while they were still signed to IRS then you were scum.  But there was something to that besides typical indier-than-thou posing.  In some indefinable way the real REM died when they got successful, and what was left was still great, but somehow a memorial of the real band.  Like Michael Stipe sang on 1993’s ‘Nightswimming

I’m not sure all these people understand,

It’s not like years ago.

It was what gave the mid-period of the band – the time of their greatest success, from the late 80s to the late 90s – it’s air of gentle, wistful melancholy.  Even as they produced new music, even as they sold ever greater numbers of albums, they were in some way seeped through with nostalgia, as though they were inviting you to join them at their own wake.  They became the products of their own mythologizing.

The first REM memory I have is of seeing the video for ‘Orange Crush’ on The Chart Show; this would have been in 1988 or 89, and I would have been 15 or 16 years old.  It grabbed my attention, not just because the lingering black and white footage of the topless ‘soldier’ (though that had an impact, of course – even as a teenager I was a remarkably shallow person), but because of the song’s air of brooding menace.  I didn’t know what it was about then – I’ve learned since that it’s to do with Stipe’s lingering guilt about his father’s role in the Vietnam war; Agent Orange was the highly toxic defoliant chemical sprayed by the US air force to ‘crush’ the Viet Cong, and it poisoned the land for decades after – but I recognised there was something more to it than the bulk of chart music around at the time.  I was intrigued, and so primed to pay attention when a friend of mine lent me their then-current album, Green, on cassette.

It had a huge effect on me.  You have to understand that I was musically very unsophisticated at the time – if you’d asked, I’d have probably told you my favourite record was Queen’s Greatest Hits.  I remember being very taken with ‘World Leader Pretend’ – the lyrical substitution of ‘I razed the wall’ for ‘I raised the wall’ struck me as possibly the cleverest bit of writing I’d ever come across.  The real standout track for me, though, was ‘Hairshirt’.

Not the REM original, which is impossible to find in decent quality online, but a very faithful cover.

Musically, I had never heard anything that sounded like that.  I still haven’t, and it still sends shivers down my spine.  Lyrically, I remember being unnerved by the way Stipe could sum up feelings I experienced so deeply, and thought were only mine:

I could walk into this room

And the waves of conversation are enough

To knock you down with the undertow.

I’m so alone, so alone, in my life.

Catering portions of teenage angst there, of course, to react so deeply, but one of the great things about REM was Stipe’s ability to capture and express a mood.  Technically he was never the greatest singer, but his ability to perform a song, to engage deeply with a mood and express it, was amazing.  He seemed to lose that ability in the last few years – he lost the ability to write new lyrics that would draw out those performances, but he also lost the ability to do it with older songs – but in his heyday he was astonishing.  Take a listen to ‘Country Feedback’, probably the most depressing song ever composed (take that, Leonard Cohen…), or ‘Fretless’, the most depressed song of all time, written and sung from inside the skull-cracking depths of despair.

After being introduced to Green, I started trying to get hold of REM’s previous albums.  The central library back in those days had CDs you could borrow for 50p, and it seemed that whoever was responsible for their purchasing decisions was an REM fan; certainly over the next few months I managed to get hold of all five of their studio albums to date (and the compilations Eponymous and Dead Letter Office).  I found there were songs I liked on all of the albums – the haunting ‘Perfect Circle’ from Murmur; ‘Maps and Legends’ and ‘Wendell Gee’ from Fables of the Reconstruction; ‘Fall on Me’ and ‘Cuyahoga’ from Life’s Rich Pageant; ‘The One I Love’ and ‘Finest Worksong’ from Document – but the album that really stood out amongst them all was 1984’s Reckoning.  Not so much for individual songs – although ‘So. Central Rain’, ‘Pretty Persuasion’, ‘Camera’ and ‘(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville’ are all great – but for the general effect of the whole thing.  It was the first time I’d heard a record with sections of the band messing round in the studio deliberately left in, but it was also the first time I’d ever really found myself thinking of an album as a single piece of work rather than just an anthology of songs.  REM had shown me the first inkling of my adult taste in music with ‘Hairshirt’, and now they were teaching me that this kind of music could be a long-form composition.

I learned so many other things from REM over the years.  I fell in love with the sound of Peter Buck’s guitar on those early records, and finding out why started me off down the road of learning to recognise and appreciate the different tonal qualities of different guitars: the jingle-jangle of Buck’s early-period Rickenbacker; the grunt and snarl of a Gibson at full-throttle; the Bourbon-soaked warmth of a Gretsch; the surgical precision of a Stratocaster.  I am the World’s Worst GuitaristTM – and, to be honest, pretty lacking in actual knowledge; still, why let a little thing like ignorance get in the way of opinionated venting? – but I can bore like a pro on the subject of different guitars.  If you’re putting them in chronological order, this was probably my second geeky obsession: after Star Trek, but before computers.

I learned about production and arrangement from listening to REM, too.  Overdrive is a kind of distortion.  It was created originally by overloading a guitar amp – literally overdriving it.  These days it’s more often created with an effects pedal which allows the effect to be turned on and off, and also allows for the degree of distortion to be finely controlled.  How ever the effect is achieved, it blurs the clean edges of the sound, making it rougher and more aggressive sounding; this video gives a pretty good idea of what it sounds like.  As you can tell from the video, overdrive is a loud effect – it’s a standard part of the armoury of heavy metal and hard rock guitarists.

But now take a listen to REM’s 1992 song ‘Drive’.  This is a quiet masterpiece, possibly the best song on the album Automatic for The People, and it benefits from a perfect string arrangement by John Paul Jones, but the real revelation is the way Peter Buck and REM use overdrive, especially in the latter parts of the song:

They’ve taken overdrive, that heavy-rock staple, and mixed it into the background and out wide on both sides of the stereo image.  It’s so quiet you can hear the acoustic guitar over the top; in fact, listen to it on headphones and you can hear the squeak of Buck’s fingers on the fret-board as he plays the acoustic guitar.  What is usually in-your-face is relegated to the background as a kind of tuned roar, without overwhelming the pin-sharp quality of the rest of the instrumentation.  It makes the song an understated epic, and gives Stipe’s intentionally banal lyrics an air of tragedy.  An amazing, amazing piece of work – and the song that taught me to pay attention to the way a recording was built up from its constituent parts.

As you’ll have gathered from that little pean to ‘Drive’, I remained a fan of the band after delving through their back catalogue, and stuck with them as they released their new albums.  I got hold of Out of Time when it came out: hated ‘Radio Song’ with a passion I still feel; loved ‘Losing My Religion’ for a time, then got sick of it, then learned to like it again, then got sick of it – an on-again/off-again relationship I maintain to this day.  Then it was Automatic for the People, and that strange, broken-backed album – combining the brilliance of ‘Drive’, ‘Everybody Hurts’, ‘Nightswimming’ and ‘Find the River’ with the dross of…well, every other song on it, to be honest – was pretty much the soundtrack to my student years.

By this stage it was dawning on me that REM weren’t going to be the kind of band where I loved every album.  It was obvious it was going to be a case of finding maybe no more than a couple of songs on some albums, while hoping that the one after would be better.  That lesson was learned just in time, since their next release, Monster, is probably my least favourite album of theirs; after the acoustic introspection of their last couple of records they wanted to prove they could still “rock out”, but the act of trying so hard dooms the attempt to failure.  Only one track, written following the suicide of Kurt Cobain, ‘Let Me In’, has really stood the test of time.  The nadir of the album, probably, is ‘Strange Currencies’ (which is more or less a note-for-note reworking of ‘Everybody Hurts’), although ‘Star 69’ comes a close second (especially when you know that *69 is the US equivalent of 1471 – the number you dial to find out the last person to call you).

Most of the rest of their albums are candidates for limited discussion, I think.  New Adventures in Hi-Fi (their coolest title – though it would have been cooler still if it’d been called REM’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi) has some good songs on it – I’m especially fond of ‘Leave’ and ‘Be Mine’ – but suffers from rushed and unimaginative arrangement and production, recorded as it was during the Monster Tour.  I can’t comment on their most recent release, this year’s Collapse into Now, because I haven’t got round to listening to it yet, but their other post-2000 albums – Reveal, Around the Sun, Accelerate – are competent but uninspired, and show the band doing little more than moving in circles.  There are some songs from this period I’d be sad not to have heard – especially ‘The Outsiders’, which never fails to make me cry, filled, as it is, with the ghosts of their glory days; even Peter Buck’s jingle-jangle Rickenbacker makes a spectral appearance.

The REM completists among you may have noticed an oversight in this long account of their albums – 1998’s Up, the first release after original drummer Bill Berry had left the band.  Up is quite often chosen by REM fans as their least favourite album, but I think it’s brilliant.  Together with Reckoning and Green it forms part of my REM top 3, with so many great songs – ‘Lotus’, ‘The Apologist’, ‘Sad Professor’, ‘Why Not Smile?’, ‘Falls To Climb’ (which doesn’t seem to be available online).  Around the time the album was released, Michael Stipe gave an interview where he explained that REM without Berry was like a dog with three legs – it’s still a dog, but it has to learn how to run again.  That’s the thing that I love so much about the record – that it sounds like a band who’ve been forced back to the drawing board, and to come up with something new.  One of the big sadnesses of their late career for me is that they never really followed up on that new direction, falling back on a cosier, safer version of what they had been in the 90s.

I’ve been wittering on for thousands of words now, but I still feel like I’ve just scratched the surface.  REM mean so much to me because they’re woven into the fabric of my life, and it’s hard to think about them without thinking about myself.  My first real love affair was soundtracked by REM (we were both fans), and listening to some of their songs puts me right in the middle of that giddy, vertiginous feeling.  There are REM songs that take me further back, to my teenage years, and that feeling of starting to understand myself and the world for the first time.  There are REM songs that have several layers of memory – songs that cause me to remember a time when I listened to the song, and remembered a previous time I heard it – and are coloured with light and shade as a result.  Of all bands, REM are the one I’ve sent most time trying to puzzle out what their lyrics mean.  I’ve sat up late into the night arguing about Stipe’s semi-coherent mumblings on Murmur, and I remember those conversations vividly, even though I haven’t spoken to the person I had them with in 15 years.

I’m sad that REM have split but, like I said way back at the beginning of this post, I’m sad not so much because I thought they had more great music left to give, but because the fact of their splitting puts a lot of my life – the parts of it their music has accompanied me through – unambiguously in the past.  I’ll never again be that geeky, awkward, shy teenager sitting up in the dark listening to ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull’ for the first time on a borrowed CD.  REM’s music was with me on so many occasions, and the fact REM are now in the past means that those occasions have all slipped further back into the past – the only thing connecting them to the present, now, is me, whereas before it was me and REM.

There’s still so much I haven’t written about.  I haven’t told you that REM were my first stadium gig – the Monster tour, the summer of 1995, and the last opportunity for seeing the original line-up live.  I’m glad I had that opportunity even if, along with the rest of the audience, I held my breath during ‘Tongue’, because that was the song that had nearly killed Bill Berry with an aneurysm earlier in the tour.  But I think it’s time to bring this post to a close, even so.

I’ve been trying to think of the right song to round this off.  It’s not just a question of thinking of my favourite REM song – I have dozens of favourite REM songs, and you’ll find them scattered all through this post.  It’s a question of thinking of the song that’s most appropriate.  ‘Find the River’ would fit, with it’s meditation on the life of the world continuing after an individual life has ended.  But in the end I’ve decided to go for something else, something more unusual in REM’s emotional landscape.  This is one of my favourite REM songs, and it’s filled, by the end, with joy, and optimism, and hope.

Calm. Calm. Belong.

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4 Responses to REM: Remembering Earlier Magnificence

  1. Kapitano says:

    I must admit I hadn’t heard REM were splitting up. They always seemed like the kind of band who would happily go for years without performing or recording, then spring back into action when the mood took them. The kind of band who would never actually split, just not come back from their final sabbatical.

    They’re also the kind of band I always enjoyed when their music came on, but never actively decided to listen to. The two longest (and most dysfunctional) relationships I’ve been in were with REM fans – one lived on prozac, the other was an alcoholic. Whether that tells you something about REM fans or my romantic habits, I’m not sure.

    Either way, I got to know Out of Time, Automatic for the People, Monster, and the singles compilations pretty well. I’ve a feeling there’ll be a Michael Stipe solo project sometime.

  2. gun street girl says:

    r.e.m. was the soundtrack to the best years of my life. I have followed them since Murmur came out (which still makes me a n00b since the REAL fans bought the Hib-tone version of Radio Free Europe at Wuxtry’s the day it came out and wore out at least two copies (on vinyl) of Chronic Town). I went to grad school in Athens and although r.e.m. wasn’t the reason I chose to go there, having them around at parties and in the local bars was … awesome. I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve seen them live. I had to give up music almost entirely the last few years because most of it makes me too sad but not r.e.m. For some reason even their most melancholy songs soothe me. They are the only band I’ve ever listened to that has a song for every mood and emotion I know.

    I just wanted to tell you that I really appreciate your essay above. It is really beautiful. We have different favorites but I think we feel the same way. Thanks.

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    Kapitano – Well, I was on Prozac and its cousins for a good few years, and I went through a period of pretty heavy drinking, too… ;o)

    gun street girl – wow. Colour me impressed. :o)

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