R.E.M. – LET’S TALK ABOUT THE PASSION
There’s little romance in succeeding – that is saved for the beautiful losers. Bands such as The Replacements, Echo and The Bunnymen, The Smiths, The Stone Roses, etc., were maybe one record away from global domination. Half of them admitted to wanting it, and those who kept quiet, I suspect, secretly wanted it. R.E.M. made it, they continued working hard and writing wonderful song after wonderful song ”â the mainstream came to them.
Britain had The Smiths. America had R.E.M. The similarities between the two were uncanny: literate, sexually ambiguous frontmen, Rickenbacker wielding guitarists who could stand-up for themselves, care free drummers, and musical bassists.
Every member of R.E.M. added something special. Peter Buck – a former record store clerk who absorbed all those classic LPs that surrounded him, and channeled them through the jangle of his jetglo 360. Buck’s playing, especially on the IRS era records, is akin to Roger Mcguinn overdosing on speed and joining The Ramones. A great guitarist who plays for the song – a songwriting guitarist. A guitarist who knows the guitar is there to support the song, a bent note during the bands early days was no-go territory for Buck.
Mike Mills – the secret weapon – the most musically accomplished of the four – bassist, guitarist, pianist. A man who wrote (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville, the music to Nightswimming, played the guitar and wrote the music for Be Mine. Bill Berry – the carefree drummer who was just as happy sitting on his tractor as he was behind the drum kit. Perfect Circle, Man On The Moon, Everybody Hurts – music written by Bill Berry.
Going backwards and listening to early R.E.M. ”â it’s like discovering a new band. What R.E.M: ’80-’87 and R.E.M: ’88-2011 do share, of course, is a complete mastery of the magic ingredients of rhythm, harmony, melody and lyrics. I just mentioned lyrics – this is where a lot of the band’s mystique came. It’s nigh on impossible to decipher what the hell Michael Stipe’s singing/mumbling about at times. There were fanzines, and then websites dedicated to transcribing them – with much guesswork.
Murmur: the debut, the great underground record. Rolling Stone’s album of the year. It was released the same year as Michael Jackson’s juggernaut ”â Thriller. There’s a unique southern beauty all over Murmur. Perfect Circle is one of the records many stand outs ”â children are seen out playing in the evening sun, the song mourns that free abandon ”â it will never be felt in adulthood.
The dark Fables Of The Reconstruction, produced by Joe Boyd, and recorded in London. This was the mid ”Ë80s, the cult of Nick Drake was in its infancy, but Buck was a rock ”Ën’ roll encyclopedia, he knew the connection. Fables”Â¦ hosts a song which is often seen as the quintessential early R.E.M. number ”â Driver 8.
Next up was Life’s Rich Pageant. Stipe’s singing was now taking centre stage. Fall On Me, and Cuyahoga are stunning. The former being one of Stipe’s favourite R.E.M. songs ”â it would be engraved into their set lists.
If R.E.M. had called it a day after the records they made between ’83 – ’87, (I’ve not spoken of Reckoning or Document) they would still be in the running as one of the great rock ‘n’ roll bands – just listen to the beauty of the songs not mentioned: So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry), Wendell Gee, Time After Time, The One I Love, the list goes on.
When they signed to Warner Brothers after the I.R.S. contract had expired, it was on their own terms – Green doesn’t sound like a huge U2 rock record. Warner’s may have wanted it too: Joshua Tree proportions with sales to match. Green is a mixture of minor chord pop songs, and songs of gentle beauty.
What really made them special was the finesse of their music. You Are The Everything – all accordions, acoustic guitars and an instrument, which would later give them their biggest hit – a mandolin. World Leader Pretend, revealing Peter Buck’s mastery of a chord change: the lyrics of which were the first to be printed on an R.E.M. record. You hear the song going one way, and it veers off to somewhere magical. ‘Pretend is followed by The Wrong Child. It’s a chilling song – minor mandolin chords back Michael Stipe’s lyrics of alienation in childhood.
The band needed to take a break from touring and recording. If they continued to write and play songs at the breakneck tempo of the early years – they would all have been pushing daisies before their 40s.
Losing My Religion: a song with a mandolin as its lead instrument – and a song without a chorus – made them huge. They were now on the way to becoming the biggest selling band in the world ”â Out Of Time knocked Mariah Carey off the top of the American charts. It rarely happens, but the best band in the world was now the biggest band in the world. Out Of Time also includes Shiny Happy People. A bubble-gum pop song in the same vain as Sugar, Sugar: it’s not a song they’d want to be remembered for ”â they never played it live.
Remembering R.E.M. for this, is like remembering Diego Maradona for his first goal against England, but having amnesia when it comes to the sheer exquisiteness of the second. The tenth song on the album picks up the ball on the halfway line, and dribbles past everything in-front of it, slotting the ball effortlessly into the goal. That song is Country Feedback.
They moved straight onto the next album. This was now a band that was incapable of writing anything less than sublime. The songs on Automatic for The People, (a dark record which chronicles loss) speak of life’s demise, loves lost, loss of – sometimes a physical state ”â sometimes a geographical place. It flows wonderfully, it just washes over you. Man On The Moon, Nightswimming, Find The River: The majority of bands would lob off a limb just to have written one of them in their whole career ”â they were Automatic’s last three songs. Oh, I forgot to mention Everybody Hurts. Here, they wrote an American classic ”â it’ll go on to be a musical standard.
The next two albums were Monster and New Adventures In Hi-Fi. Monster was their last huge selling release. It includes Let Me In, a song Stipe wrote about his friend, Kurt Cobain. The album was dedicated to another casualty of fame, actor, River Phoenix. New Adventures In Hi-Fi has a guest spot from Stipe’s heroine, Patti Smith. Their duet on E-Bow The Letter is among the bands finest moments ”â dark and brooding. At times, a bare-bone of a record, Be Mine and Electrolite startle in their simplicity.
When Bill Berry left – during the making of UP! – things were turned upside down. The record, compared to previous efforts, sold poorly. The casual R.E.M. listener had jumped ship ”â it was their loss. Up! is flawed, but wonderfully so ”â it is one of their best records. At My Most Beautiful, Sad Professer, Daysleeper, Diminished, Falls To Climb. It’s the R.E.M. record I have probably listened to the most. For two years it didn’t leave my Discman.
R.E.M. went on to release four more albums, (Reveal has its admirers ”â it’s a lush sounding record with many great songs) but you could just feel Bill Berry’s absence more and more with each release. Berry was, after all, more than a drummer ”â he knew what made a song truly special.
A few years ago I was watching M.T.V. and Zane Lowe, while banging on about how great Papa Roach were, (Remember them? I thought not.) questioned whether R.E.M. were still relevant. R.E.M. will always be relevant. It maybe a bold statement, but I wholeheartedly believe they are the greatest band to come out of the U.S.A. – just listen to their glorius back-catalogue.