R.E.M.

TrackAlbum / EP
Gardening At NightChronic Town
HarborcoatReckoning
Maps And LegendsFables Of The Reconstruction
Fall On MeLifes Rich Pageant
World Leader PretendGreen
Find The RiverAutomatic For The People
Strange CurrenciesMonster
LeaveNew Adventures In Hi-Fi
HopeUp
Sad ProfessorUp
The Great BeyondMan On The Moon
I'll Take The RainReveal

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R.E.M. photo 1

R.E.M. (l to r): Peter Buck (lead guitar), Mike Mills (bass/vocals), Bill Berry (drums), Michael Stipe (lead vocals)

 

Contributors: Jeremy Robertson & Joel Dear

R.E.M. (up to Automatic For The People)

In their 90s stadium heyday, when you could not switch on the radio without hearing Losing My Religion or Everybody Hurts, it was hard to remember that R.E.M. had, to coin a book title of their career, “crawled from the south” as a low-key college rock band. The people who bought Out Of Time and Automatic For The People were often ignorant of the Hibtone single of Radio Free Europe or the Chronic Town EP. However, there was a clear line from the Rickenbacker guitar of Gardening At Night to the mandolin of Losing My Religion. I would love to say I was there at the beginning but it really is not true.

Sometime in late ˈ84 or early ˈ85, a guy who lived in my college house lent me a cassette. Each side was a complete album by this rather strange US band. Their jangly guitars were the antithesis of the Duran Durans and Spandau Ballets that dominated the charts at the time. Part of them seemed to channel the Byrds while at other times they were the Velvet Underground.

Side A of the cassette was Murmur, their first full album. At the time I thought it was OK (!); tracks such as Radio Free Europe and Sitting Still stood out but it was the second album, Reckoning, on side B that soared. Has any album had such a great opening four tracks? The drum intro to Harborcoat set out the stall for the album. The rather fey production of Murmur was left behind with a far more crunching sound although both were the responsibility of Mitch Easter and Don Dixon.

I wish I had more space for top songs as I would definitely include Pretty Persuasion here as well. When I saw the band at the Newport Centre on the Green Tour in 1989, at a pause in proceedings I cried out “Pretty Persuasion!”. Michael turned, pointed to me and said “You got it”. One of those great moments in my gig-going career!

So, after that intro to the band, surely I was a huge R.E.M. fan? Well, no actually. I handed back the cassette, left college and they rather fell off my radar. Even seeing them support U2 at Milton Keynes in June ˈ85 did not really rekindle my early love – but that was probably due to the grim weather and the fact that they were promoting the rather downbeat Fables Of The Reconstruction. To be honest, I remember far more of Billy Bragg who was below them on the bill. Revisiting Fables today, it is not nearly as bleak as it’s often portrayed. Driver 8, Life And How To Live It and Maps And Legends are lively stomps. Perhaps the album’s reputation stems from both the band’s rather unhappy narrative of its recording and the stuttering start of Feeling Gravity’s Pull, a very different opening from either Radio Free Europe or Harborcoat.

The moment that rekindled my love of the band came in 1986. While on holiday in the Scottish borders we visited Edinburgh. On display in HMV Princes Street was R.E.M.’s latest release, Lifes Rich Pageant. I’d seen a number of positive reviews and heard the haunting lead single, Fall On Me in which Stipe begs the sky not to “Fall on me” while Mike Mills questions “What is it up in the air for?” I thought I’d take a risk and buy it. It was almost a week until I was able to get home to play it but I can still remember the moment when Begin The Begin burst from the speakers. This seemed like a new band, far stronger, far more polished. Part of this was due to the production of Don Gehman but also the band seemed to want to ‘say something’. Gone were the earlier mumbled vocals and suddenly Michael Stipe was pronouncing on environmental or political matters on songs like Cuyohoga: “Let’s put our heads together and start a new country up.” It was here that R.E.M.’s later activism seems to have found its voice. Certainly, if you locked me up and asked me to pick one R.E.M. album to live with, I’m pretty certain I’d choose Lifes Rich Pageant (although I do love Reckoning…).

The fact that R.E.M. were moving from a cult band to the mainstream came with the release of Document. To mark its release in 1987 the band played a short European tour including one date at the Hammersmith Odeon – still one of my favourite gigs. It sold out in double quick time and they ended up playing four encores having been joined by Robyn Hitchcock. Considering the audience had not heard most of Document at the time (it was released two days later) the tracks were greeted like old favourites. If Lifes Rich Pageant had hinted at a new, stronger direction then Document confirmed this. Finest Worksong and It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) both showed this off to great effect. Perhaps the strangest track was The One I Love. This is one of those songs that often gets played at weddings yet really should be avoided at all costs! The lyrics are not a declaration of affection but rather a cynical view of a relationship in which the partner is just “a simple prop to occupy my time”. Certainly not much love there.

With the release of Document, R.E.M.’s contract with IRS Records came to an end and they moved to Warner Bros. The first album for their new label was Green, the title of which cemented their environmental credentials. Everything that had been promised on the previous two albums came to fruition here, reinforced by the huge world tour that followed, including thirteen dates in the UK. The last of these was an appearance at Wembley Arena, added after the tour sold out. One of the highlights of the tour was Stipe using a metal chair frame as a percussion instrument on album highlight, World Leader Pretend.

If Green had suggested that R.E.M. were now breaking away from their college roots, what came next made them one of the biggest (and greatest, according to Rolling Stone magazine) bands in the world. As ever, certain moments stand out. This time it is Radio One’s “Round Table” programme in February 1991. I believe it was Phil Oakey (my apologies to him if it wasn’t) who picked on the new R.E.M. single, saying that he’d never been a fan and didn’t think this single was going to do much. Sitting in my parents’ living room I remember the mandolin intro and the chorus “That’s me in the corner…” After just one listen I found the chorus was hugely memorable and it seemed that the rest of the world agreed. Losing My Religion became an enormous hit, helped by the iconic video of Stipe with angel’s wings.

Arguably, this is the point when R.E.M. stopped being a four piece band and instead became Michael Stipe and three musicians. For a front man who always seemed to shun the limelight, suddenly he blossomed into a crazed performer in bizarre makeup. However, after the rigours of the Green tour, the band promoted the album, Out Of Time, with various radio promos and, in the UK, just two nights at the Borderline in London, performing under the name Bingo Hand Job.

If Out Of Time sold enough to make R.E.M. into world stars, Automatic For The People only increased their reputation. Launched with the slightly contrary, downbeat single Drive, the album’s sales eventually dwarfed those of Out Of Time.

If The One I Love became a wedding anthem then Everybody Hurts became a funeral song. Man On The Moon was a tribute to comedian Andy Kaufman while The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight was rather too much of a retread of Shiny Happy People from Out Of Time. Peter Buck felt it was too lightweight, even though it was on the album to contrast with the prevailing downbeat mood. The fifth and final single off the album was Find The River and became the first R.E.M. single to miss the Top 40 since Get Up from Green. However, it is a hidden gem, tucked away at the end of the album.

By now, R.E.M. were winning Brit Awards for Best International Group (it made a change from U2) and everyone knew who they were, a far cry from those early days of jangly Rickenbackers, muffled lyrics and obscure album sleeves. However, unlike so many bands, they seemed to have retained their artistic integrity. With the pressures of global stardom it remained to be seen whether this could continue.

Jeremy Robertson

 

 

R.E.M. (after Automatic For The People)

If you leave me, I’ll be left like R.E.M. in 1993: there’s good stuff ahead, but the best records are behind me. We’re gonna get bigger, we’ll end up headlining Glastonbury, but there’ll be people there just wanting to hear stuff written before 1993. Should we play Automatic For The People a thousand times, or should we concentrate on records that aren’t so great and just get by?” (from “Flavor Flav” by The Superman Revenge Squad Band)

One of my favourite things about R.E.M. is the fact that they simply don’t have a best album. Ask a random fan which of the band’s 15 full-length efforts they like best, and not only will their selection likely differ from that of the next fan you ask, it will probably differ from their own selection when you ask them again tomorrow. What was R.E.M.’s crowning achievement? From mysterious, mumbly Murmur to politically-charged Document to achy, all-conquering Out Of Time, there are simply too many right answers to pick just one.

That said, it’s not like all of their albums enjoy equal acclaim. Rare is the R.E.M. fan who favours the more recent half of the band’s back catalogue; everything that came after Automatic For The People is, broadly speaking, seen as inferior to everything that came before. Automatic itself sits smack-dab in the middle of the band’s discography, and it’s tempting to view that album as the high water mark, the absolute peak of a career that went into decline immediately thereafter.

Perhaps there’s some truth in that version of events. But while I agree with the general consensus that, by and large, R.E.M. made better music before 1993, I’d argue that the run of albums spanning from Monster to Collapse Into Now offers a more ‘interesting’ listen than the band’s golden era. Instead of trying to make another Automatic For The People, R.E.M. responded to that record’s success by becoming a left-turn band: that is, an act that takes another left turn with each new LP, thus aiming to keep the audience curious and remain fresh over a long period of time.

And so, in 1994, R.E.M. traded the muted miserabilia of Automatic for the trashy glam-rock of Monster, which was followed by New Adventures In Hi-Fi (the ultimate roadtrip album) and Up (a foray into electronic music). After the turn of the millennium came Reveal, a summery set that was somewhat closer to the ‘classic’ R.E.M. sound; Around The Sun, the dullest and almost certainly the least well-liked album in the band’s catalogue, broke the streak of left turns, but in doing so it set the scene wonderfully for Accelerate, yet another sonic shake-up. This LP was praised as the group’s most invigorating in years.

In 2011, R.E.M. released one last album (Collapse Into Now, a bit-of-everything smorgasbord of a CD) and decided to call it a day. This was sad news, not just because we were saying goodbye to the band who gave us Losing My Religion, but because until the very end, it was nigh-on impossible to predict what Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe were going to do next.

R.E.M. photo 2

R.E.M. (l to r): Peter Buck (lead guitar), Michael Stipe (lead vocals), Mike Mills (bass/vocals), Bill Berry (drums)

 

Here are six of the best tracks from R.E.M.’s post-Automatic years:

I’ve seen Strange Currencies (Monster, 1994) dismissed as a retread of Everybody Hurts, but even if their arpeggiated guitar lines do share some DNA, Strange Currencies has always done far more for me than its older, better-known cousin. Where Everybody Hurts simply reels off a series of comforting platitudes from nobody’s point of view in particular, Strange Currencies presents us with the thoughts and feelings of an actual character, albeit one who’s mistaking harassment for high romance.

This song was on the setlist when I saw R.E.M. at the Millennium Stadium in 2005 (the first gig I ever attended!) and that was when I decided it was one of my favourites; I was fourteen years old at the time, and Strange Currencies seemed like the perfect encapsulation of what it was like to be a teenager with a hopeless crush. Obviously I can now see that it’s a creepy stalker love song in the same league as Death Cab for Cutie’s I Will Possess Your Heart, but the difference is that DCfC’s Ben Gibbard genuinely doesn’t seem to realise that “How I wish you could see the potential, the potential of you and me” sounds like something a guy might post on a men’s rights forum shortly before shooting up a high school. Michael Stipe’s lovelorn narrator, on the other hand, seems to know how cringey and awful and pathetic are his pleas for love, and the fact that he’s saying them anyway imbues Strange Currencies with a desperation that’s kind of hard not to feel for, even when you consider what it must be like for the poor person on the receiving end of all this unwanted poetry.

In theory, Leave should have been the worst, most unlistenable song in the R.E.M. catalogue. If I were to give an accurate description of it here – ‘It’s seven minutes long, you guys! And there’s a really loud siren noise that runs pretty much the whole way through it!’ – I’m pretty sure it would make you want to never, ever listen to it.

So I’ll just say this: Leave (from New Adventures In Hi-Fi, 1996) is a song about committing suicide, but instead of playing it all quiet and contemplative, R.E.M. created a turbulent, noisy beast of a track that far more accurately evokes the swirling chaos of a mind on the brink. A song that could have been dirgey and miserable instead conjures up images of a man standing on the edge of a skyscraper, trying doggedly to collect his thoughts as helicopters swarm around him and searchlights arc across the sky. It also rocks harder than almost any other R.E.M. track, and honestly, that siren sound works far better than you’d ever expect.

You know how, earlier on, I said that R.E.M.’s post-1992 albums tend not to be anybody’s favourites? There are days when Up (released in 1998) is my favourite R.E.M. album. Sure, it’s a little inconsistent, but I think it was the perfect response to the departure of Bill Berry: instead of just replacing him and carrying on as normal, the band used their sudden drummerlessness as an excuse to try other approaches and deviate ever further from the standard rock template. With Up, the band acknowledged that the face of popular music was changing, and made an honest attempt to keep up.

And so R.E.M.’s last album of the 20th century brought a whole array of new dishes to the table: we got ambient opener Airportman, sleepily sexy Suspicion, and numerous other kit-free gems like You’re In The Air and Falls To Climb, songs that probably wouldn’t have happened were it not for Berry’s decision to vacate the drumstool. Hope is perhaps the greatest triumph on Up; the band nicked the melody from Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne (Cohen is actually credited as a co-writer) and turned it into a dense, skittering piece of electronica that’s both immediately satisfying and superbly rewarding upon repeat listens. There are so many different layers of sound in the mix – and so many layers of potential meaning in the lyrics – that you’ll still be noticing new things even on your hundredth play.

Another of my favourite things about Up? It’s where the characters who populate Michael Stipe’s lyrics are at their most affecting and three-dimensional. The sleep-deprived suit from Daysleeper, the cute couple from At My Most Beautiful, and the murderer in Diminished are all fine examples, but my personal favourite is Sad Professor, a gorgeous character study that juxtaposes the self-lacerating thoughts of a lonely old alcoholic against a soaring, achy smudge of acoustic and electric guitars.

The Great Beyond (Man On The Moon soundtrack) was actually the first R.E.M. song I ever heard. I was still in primary school in 1999; my mum used to come and pick me up at 3.30, and she’d listen to Steve Wright’s afternoon show on Radio 2 as we drove home. The Great Beyond got a lot of airtime on Radio 2 that autumn, and so my young ears were subjected to its chorus (“I’m pushing an elephant up the stairs…”) again and again and again.

And I loved it. Even when my mum was getting sick of it – even when Steve Wright himself was complaining, on air, about how often he’d heard it – I still felt a thrill every time I heard that voice singing that chorus. And the way it escalates the second time around (“I’m breaking through, I’m bending spoons…”) sounds just as dramatic and just as brilliant to me now as it did when I was 8 and I scarcely even knew what music was, let alone who that wonderfully nasal voice belonged to.

I’ve seen some R.E.M. fans state that their fondness for the band dwindled as Michael Stipe’s lyrics became more and more intelligible over time. I can understand that: albums like Murmur and Reckoning have a murky mystery that’s very alluring. Yes, you’ve no idea what Stipe is singing about, but that’s all part of the appeal.

Summery Reveal – released in 2001, eighteen years after Murmur – had none of that murky mystery, but it did have I’ll Take The Rain, the perfect counter-argument to claims that R.E.M. were ruined when some sound guy decided to turn up Stipe’s vocals. This track contains some of my favourite R.E.M. lyrics: it’s a stunning, sad song that uses ‘taking the rain’ as a metaphor for leaving a relationship because your reasons to stay no longer outweigh your reasons to go.

I used to think, as birds take wing
They sing through life, so why can’t we?
You cling to this, you claim the best
If this is what you’re offering
I’ll take the rain, I’ll take the rain
I’ll take the rain

Granted, when I first heard this song as a teen, I hadn’t even had my first relationship yet, but fortunately the melancholy lyrics feel equally appropriate when summer is drawing to a close and you’re feeling a little bit wistful about it.

And if you’re still craving the ambiguity of those early albums, I’d recommend watching I’ll Take The Rain’s joyously bizarre music video (see above), which features a cartoon dog riding through the desert on a wooden skateboard with a face. Anyone who says R.E.M. got too ordinary in their later years clearly hasn’t seen that one.

Joel Dear

 

R.E.M. HQ

R.E.M. Fans United (on Facebook)

R.E.M. Rock – news, lyrics, discography etc

The R.E.M. Collector’s Guide

File Under R.E.M.

R.E.M. biography (iTunes)

Jeremy Robertson has spent far too much time buying music, going to gigs and reminiscing about all of it. He spent his early years in London and now resides in the wilds of Wiltshire.

Joel Dear lives in Cardiff and overthinks his favourite albums on a blog called The Album Wall. He also writes and performs his own songs under the name Shiny Tiger.

TopperPost #554

6 Comments

  1. Richard Warran
    Sep 20, 2016

    Probably the band I’ve liked the most ever. I remember buying Murmur after being told I should check out this new band REM by a mate who had pretty good taste and my REM journey continued right up till Collapse Into Now, pretty much every album bought on day of release and also seeing them live on many occasions. I could never pick a top 10, they just made too many good songs though Find The River would be a nailed on cert.

  2. Simon Sadler
    Sep 20, 2016

    Good to see Fall On Me in there, my favourite REM song. Otherwise, arguing about what I would or wouldn’t include is like saying which are your favourite three teeth. Suffice it to say REM were the band that rescued me from 80s metal and for that I will be forever grateful. And their Glastonbury 2003 set ranks among my favourite gigs by anyone ever. And Tourfilm is the best live music video film ever made.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Sep 20, 2016

    Jeremy and Joel, thanks for this fine list on a great band. Speaking for myself, though, I would have to have ‘South Central Rain’, ‘Don’t Go Back to Rockville’, ‘Orange Crush’, ‘Nightswimming’, ‘At My Most Beautiful’ and ‘Beat A Drum’ in my top ten, and ‘Cuyahoga’ which may be their single greatest song. But what to leave out here…

  4. Alex Lifson
    Sep 21, 2016

    Great piece gentlemen. I love the list as well as the overall analysis, Like Andrew, I have others that I would put in my Top 10 but then again, I didn’t write this. So just to include into the dialogue: South Central Rain and Radio Free Europe, which were the first two songs I heard from them and that I still listen to, to this day.

  5. Andrew Shields
    Sep 23, 2016

    Because of this list, have spent the last few days on a bit of a REM-binge. So thanks again. As a result, will throw in more: ‘You are the Everything’ from Green – have always loved the lyric though, like all Michael’s, its meaning is elusive… And, of course, there is ‘Swan, Swan Hummingbird’…

  6. David Lewis
    Sep 29, 2016

    I guess it doesn’t count, but my favourite of the REM stuff is the Hindu Love Gods – Warren Zevon on lead vocals. Their cover of Strawberry Beret is excellent, and slightly out of context, reminds me just how good they are.. I like the earlier stuff too though as a mandolin player, I must acknowledge ‘Losing My Religion’, even if it’s become ‘Smoke on the Water’ for the mandolin crowd…

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