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 ”“ 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. ”“ 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 ”“ Thriller. There’s a unique southern beauty all over Murmur. Perfect Circle is one of the records many stand outs ”“ children are seen out playing in the evening sun, the song mourns that free abandon ”“ 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 ”˜80s, the cult of Nick Drake was in its infancy, but Buck was a rock ”˜n’ roll encyclopedia, he knew the connection. Fables”¦ hosts a song which is often seen as the quintessential early R.E.M. number ”“ 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 ”“ 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 ”“ 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 ”“ 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 ”“ 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 ”“ they were Automatic’s last three songs. Oh, I forgot to mention Everybody Hurts. Here, they wrote an American classic ”“ 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 ”“ 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 ”“ it was their loss. Up! is flawed, but wonderfully so ”“ 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 ”“ 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 ”“ 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.

1 COMMENT

  1. In 1996 Warner Bros records was in a state of flux. Word was that Madonna was unhappy and, in withdrawal was now concentrating more on running her own label. Ice T had been bringing nothing less than Presidential bad press to the company recently and Prince was making no bones about the apparent fact that he was now nothing more than a slave to its increasing demands and restrictions. No one seemed happy; artists, label suits and even record buyers suddenly appeared apprehensive during a period of change at the once great company. Down in Athens GA, the town’s most famous sons and Godfathers of the thriving alternative rock movement REM were pondering over the biggest professional decision of their career. They had just delivered New Adventures In Hi-Fi, the final album of their existing Warner Bros contract and were now officially a free agent.
    REM and their management can’t have been too concerned when the company that they signed to in 1988 was soon after virtually bought out by a publishing company called Time. And so with a new generation of employees Time Warner was born and at the top of the first agenda was addressing the considerable debt that had been accumulated to finance the takeover. Old executives at the company, or ‘music men’ from the pre Time era were being urged to take a back seat towards retirement and let the younger guys take over with their new ideas, especially those concerning the commercial performance of the organisation in light of both the debt and new competition from the likes Geffen and Sony. Madonna and Prince let it be known that they weren’t happy but for REM that didn’t matter since allegedly in the band’s contract, there had been, formally stated or otherwise, a clause allowing the band total artistic freedom. Guitarist Peter Buck stated that they hadn’t been especially smart or stubborn, they just wanted to make their own mistakes. And so they might have done, but there certainly hadn’t been many.
    Having originally signed to Warners for $6 million REM almost instantly leapt from cult heroes to being critically and commercially the world’s number one alternative rock band. Their albums Green (1988), Out Of Time (1991), Automatic For The People (1992) and Monster (1994) had between them sold over thirty five million copies in little more than five years and had done so with an image of the band that warranted nothing but reverence in the most high profile and competitive era for alternative rock. What seemed like five minutes ago only fanzines and American college radio championed REM, but by the mid 90s they were simply a shining beacon for music that was both very good and very popular. And they weren’t just a money tree either, they were also a dazzling example of how with talent, application, luck and shrewd management you could reach the top without compromise. Like Sinatra, REM did it their way.
    Warner Brothers were only too aware of their prestige as the company’s own turmoil continued. Corporate heads were hired and fired with alarming regularity and factory floor redundancies were also creeping up, and though the company had performed an exceptional job advertising and distributing REM’s records around the world, there were concerns that the lack of stability at the label would influence the band’s immanent round of contractual negotiations. REM was the company’s most prominent rock act, and if they’d chosen not to resign the sheer weight of the resulting bad press would be fatal to both the reputation and morale of the beleaguered label.
    Shortly before New Adventures… was released it was announced, to the relief of many, that REM had renegotiated their deal for another five albums. For their troubles they would reportedly be paid 80 million dollars. The arty, modest and politically leftwing band who always championed the little guy was now contractually the highest paid act in music history, and while no one’s saying that REM weren’t at the top of their profession by the mid 90’s, the sheer size of the deal was clearly not just a reflection of the money their sales had been generating. They had been aware of the company’s desperation to produce some good press for a change, and no doubt played hardball with this when negotiating for all they could get.
    In hindsight the deal worked out worse for the company. Right around the corner for REM was for a generation the death of their genre of marketable alternative rock and, more devastatingly still, the advent of one off single sales and digital file sharing thanks to the likes of Napster and iTunes, ultimately meaning that the reliable tens of millions of LPs that the industry shifted previously was now a thing of the past. What turned out to be the next, and indeed final five REM albums Up (1998), Reveal (2001), Around The Sun (2004), Accelerate (2008) and Collapse Into Now (2011) all arrived with great promotional and artistic merit, but sales declined and eventually levelled off leaving Warner Bros no doubt disappointed to have suffered from the shrinking marketplace after investing so much.
    If REM had not completed their contractual obligations would they have chosen to disband when they did? Never. As artists they will always make music; it’s natural to them, it’s just hard to imagine them sitting down to enter negotiations for a third time with what was now a very different company in a very different industry to the one they began in. Maybe they didn’t want to damage their legacy by adding too much to their catalogue, maybe the time was simply right, but one thing’s for certain: whatever was said about them being sellouts for taking such a big deal back then, they proved that with timing, and a thorough knowledge of both your own self-worth and the position of your employer, you can actually get what you deserve. Therefore, REM’s resigning with Warners in ‘96 might be the only occasion in the history of the major music business when the artist actually exploited the company. And for that they must surely be commended.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here