I’ve been thinking about revisiting some discographies lately, mainly the ones of bands I used to listen to obsessively back in my youth. One of the inspirations for this was the reissue of REM’s Chronic Town EP a few weeks ago, their first release on the IRS label.
I’ve always been an early-era fan of the band up to and including 1988’s Green, and it’s been ages since I’ve listened to those first albums other than hearing the occasional single on the radio (usually “The One I Love” or “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”, but occasionally I’ll hear “Superman” as well). Me and my high school friends were big fans of the band and taped each other’s copies of their albums into our own collections. But I haven’t listened to Lifes Rich Pageant in ages, and I used to play that one a ton in my college years.
So how is this different from any other time I obsess over 80s alternative rock? Well, instead of slinking back into the memory banks to relive those times or attempting to work on the Walk in Silence book, this is just…for fun, just like before.
I think part of it is tied into what I was talking about in the previous post, in which I find myself so constantly wrapped up in New Releases every week that few songs are actually sticking in my head. Which leads to the question: how is it that these REM songs (and Smiths songs, and Love and Rockets songs, and so on) stick like Gorilla Glue where the new songs don’t?
I think it’s partly because I’m not allowing those new songs to anchor themselves in the first place. It’s like I’ve forgotten how to do that somehow. The focus has gone from the music to the procurement of it. Which of course feeds into my obsessive tendencies, but doesn’t really move me emotionally, does it?
I’ve been trying to figure out how to change that these last few months. How do I let these songs into my psyche when I’ve forgotten how to do that? What do they have to anchor to? Moments in time, memories in the making? So many of those songs are fleeting, great to listen to but never quite moving me emotionally. Produced too clean, given airplay to a station that smothers us with its constant repetition. Caught in a race with millions of other songs, all trying to enter my subconscious at the same time.
It’s time to revisit how I made them stick in the first place. Allowing the song to percolate and simmer for a while in my mind, to allow it to latch onto a moment in my life. Keeping myself from getting constantly distracted by yet another song that sneaks up behind it. Allow the song to become a part of my own personal and private world rather than chasing after several songs at once as they go by.
REM’s first release for their freshly-inked deal with Warner Bros Records, having moved on from their indie years with IRS, usually gets passed over due to the albums surrounding it: 1987’s Document features two of their biggest commercial hits, “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)”, and 1991’s Out of Time features “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People”. What does 1988’s Green have, though? It’s a bit disjointed (on purpose), it’s a shift away from their classic pastoral folk sound (on purpose), and even its lyrics are less obscure and more understandable (again, on purpose). But it’s a hell of a fine album with some absolutely stunning and gorgeous tunes from start to finish.
REM has always worn their politics on their sleeves (this particular album contains a recurring theme of environmentalism), and in the release of Green was actually timed to coincide with the 1988 Presidential election with a brilliant promo postcard sent to record stores and radio stations:
While the ’88 election may not have finished the way they’d hoped, that didn’t stop them from continuing to use their voice for progressive reasons. Though this particular album may not be as overtly political as some of their previous releases, it certainly did bring issues to light by revising how they wrote their music. Singer Michael Stipe had requested the band “not write any more REM-type songs” in order to change their style.
As was becoming habit, the album kicks off with a lively, upbeat pop song, literally called “Pop Song ’89”, welcoming the listener to tune in and have a bit of fun. The video for the single (released in May 1989 and directed by Stipe himself) is goofy fun, featuring four topless dancers — including himself. When MTV asked to censor the video for airplay, he cheekily responded by providing an edit with black bars on all four bodies.
It’s quickly followed by another uptempo rocker, “Get Up”, which seems to actually be about asking someone to get up and out of bed. [Wikipedia states that in the late 90s, Stipe told an audience that this is indeed the case and was about bassist Mike Mills, who had been oversleeping during the sessions.] It became the fourth single from the album, and while it didn’t dent the charts, the video did start the career of one CalArts student named Eric Darnell, who went on to be a successful director of several CGI-animated movies like Antz and Madagascar.
Next up is a change of pace, hinting both at their earlier folk sound and later mandolin-heavy sound, with “You Are the Everything”. It’s a simple love song, but it’s a gorgeous one, and one that I’m pretty sure I used on a mix-tape to my then-girlfriend some months later.
Returning to the upbeat pop sound, they return with the fun and goofy “Stand”, right up there with “Can’t Get There from Here” as proof that the band definitely has a sense of humor. It’s such a chipper song that it’s hard to take seriously — even Stipe cracks himself up at the end of the video. This would be the second single from the record, and still gets airplay to this day.
It’s followed up, however, by a one-two punch of darker, more somber songs to finish up the first side of the record, with “World Leader Pretend” and “The Wrong Child” — both songs that at first listen seem to be about other people, but in actuality are about the narrator. One focuses on the inner turmoil of breaking down self-imposed barriers, while the other focuses on the outer turmoil of social acceptance. Both are about the strength needed to change and accept the self despite its physical and emotional obstacles.
Side Two kicks off with one of my favorite REM songs and the most overtly political song off the album, “Orange Crush”, and the album’s first single. It’s powerful and relentless in its energy, even during the breakdown halfway through. It has a deliberately mixed message, seeming to be pro-military while consistently reminding us of its horrors (the title refers to Agent Orange, used as herbicidal warfare in Vietnam).
It’s followed up by another song that uses this deceptive messaging to great effect: the positive and upbeat “Turn You Inside-Out” may sound like a fun rocker of a track, but its lyrics barely contain its bile. Its message seems to be “I could make your life really fucking miserable right now, but I’m going to be the better man instead.” During a stop on their subsequent tour, Stipe would dedicate this song to Exxon, whose Valdez oil tanker had struck the Alaskan coastline and spilled thousands of gallons of oil.
The record comes to a close with three deep tracks that have their own special charm, starting with “Hairshirt”, with its tender message of remaining human in the most adverse of situations. [This seems to be about Stipe’s methods of dealing with fame and privacy; he would later have a conversation with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke about this very thing, inspiring Yorke to write “How to Disappear Completely”.]
It’s followed up with “I Remember California”, a surprisingly post-apocalyptic tale of a west coast decimated by rising oceans and climate change. It’s haunting in that it’s not so much about the destruction (or even the destructive powers), but the sadness about What Used to Be, through the eyes of someone who can no longer return.
The record ends on an unexpectedly high and positive note with an upbeat untitled song (officially called “Untitled Eleventh Track” on some discographies) where, at the end of the day, despite its struggles and frustrations, we are all here for each other. [It’s been said that drummer Bill Berry thought the drum pattern for this song was so stupid he refused to play it; guitarist Peter Buck fills in instead.] The song does seem a bit like an afterthought or an epilogue, but it does help bookend the album quite nicely.
I remember listening to this record a hell of a lot during my senior year in high school. I also remember quoting many of its lyrics on the blackboard in my first period Humanities class (a friend and I often wrote a ‘quote for the day’ before class started, and the teacher didn’t seem to mind at all). I would see them on tour in early April 1989, with Indigo Girls opening up — thus introducing me to yet another fantastic and long-loved band. The album has always stayed with me over the years as their most accessible and enjoyable from start to finish. It pretty much cemented my love for the band. It’s not their most popular, but for me it’s their most solid and most adventurous work.
Thirty years ago this month, REM released their album Document. It’s the one that contains their two hits that still get consistent plays on the radio to this day (one of them for somewhat trollish reasons, I’m guessing!), “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)”. It’s also the first REM album I actually bought, if you can believe that.
Document was, to date, their most commercial sounding album, and the last for the indie label IRS Records. They’d release one final record, the singles/rarities album Eponymous, before signing to Warner Bros Records and releasing Green in late 1988.
Interestingly, Document is also the first place I’d heard a Wire song, “Strange”, which was from that band’s seminal Pink Flag album. REM’s Michael Stipe was one of many musicians in the punk and college rock genre that sang the praises of Wire. By the end of 1989, I’d have nearly all the Wire albums to date in my own collection, declaring them one of my top five favorite bands. In early 1989 I and a few of my friends went to see REM at the Worcester Centrum, with a relatively new folk duo called Indigo Girls as the opener. Suffice it to say, I also became a huge fan of that band.
For a short time in the late 80s, I was obsessed by REM. I was definitely a fan of their early years, especially once I dubbed my the first four albums from my friends. I was a mad fan of Green as well — still am, to be honest — even while others complained that they’d sold out and become ‘rockstars’. They definitely epitomized that Athens GA sound that’s not quite country, not quite folk, not quite rock, but everything in between. And not a day would go by where I wouldn’t hear one of their songs on a college radio station.
I was a passing fan of 1991’s Out of Time, but by then their sound had evolved to a point where the songs didn’t quite gel with me anymore. I’d still follow them and pick up their albums, but after 1992’s Automatic for the People I was more of a song fan than an album fan of theirs. It wasn’t until their last few albums, 2008’s Accelerate and 2011’s Collapse into Now that I became an album fan again.
I do come back to them occasionally, especially if they’re played on the radio or if I see one of the band members surfacing here and there. [Michael Stipe, now wearing a full-on white Jethro beard, pops up in the news now and again, and Mike Mills is frequently spotted on Twitter.] They’re part of a fond memory of that era of late 80s college rock and close friendship for me, but they’re also amazing musicians as well.