It was an early evening approaching the end of the summer and the last of the tired light dragged itself across the patio slabs at the back of my friend’s parents’ house. The day was coming to an end and soon it would be time for me to go home. His sister, older by four years and thus a generation of life away from our thirteen year old end of innocence, had just got back from her Saturday job at Woolworths. She liked working there, listening to the rustle of her polyester uniform as it frazzled against her skin, against the plastic surface where she propped her elbows up and rested her chin in her hands to distractedly watch boys even older saunter past outside in the central square, underneath the wilting fountain waters. At some point in the non-too distant future I would want to be one of those boys in leather and demin hanging around with not much to do, but not that afternoon. I was interested in the girls in my class, I liked how their body shapes were beginning to change, but I didn’t really understand why. It was easier to just sit around the bedrooms of other just about teenage boys listening to worn down cassettes of AC/DC’s Highway to Hell and Anthrax’s Spreading the Disease, and Megadeth’s Killing is my Business...and Business is Good copied from library loans, thrashing our non-existent long hair with jerky neck throbs.
But the main reason she loved working in Woolworths was because she got a discount on new records and tapes and CDs. She’d got a CD player the previous Christmas and the staff reduction made the otherwise prohibitively expensive albums within reach. “But only for special albums,” she’d said. “The ones that matter. Everything else, I’ll still get on tape.”
That evening she clasped her latest purchase by a band I’d never heard of. The cover showed some odd drab grey spiked cube, like a tool for demolishing houses but with added spikes; an industrial mace; an extension to a space station. She put the album on and gently jangling guitar that sounded lazily tedious echoed across the room and a soft vocal gave us arcane instructions: “smash, crack, bushwacked, tie another one to the rack, baby.”
I didn’t think much of it.
The album was Automatic for the People, the band were REM.
It feels odd to think today that there was a time when I neither knew who REM were nor thought much of their music. The band, all their albums, but that one in particular, came to soundtrack a lot of my life, always dipping away and then returning fresh and ready to play over whatever events were taking back and now they’re gone. REM, once the biggest band in the world, after fifteen albums and thirty-one years have gone home for good.
Curiously, for a band who were once straddling the planet with singles which were inescapable and smart albums that both rocked and tugged on heart strings their passing seems to have been met by a mixture of satisfied “good, should have gone years ago” and surprise that they were still active, despite Collapse into Now being released earlier this and reaching number 5 in the UK charts. Perhaps that in itself is a sad indicator of how easy it is to top the album charts in these days of single track downloads unlike when Monster, Out of Time and New Adventures in Hi-Fi sold millions in the mid nineties.
Unlike many of today’s bands they also took it slowly. Whilst debut album Murmur is brilliant not too many people thought so at the time. It sold moderately well and they continued to tour and release records, but it wasn’t until The One I Love, with its frequently misunderstood chorus of sexual misanthrope, was an unexpected hit from album number five that they edged towards the big time with barbed, smart and rocking songs of loss and times disappeared. Now, even more so than then, debut albums seems to explode onto the scene and acts fade from view without the time to grow.
Despite giving a foundation for most guitar-based music over the last twenty years, from grunge to Britpop and then the slew of nu-indie a few years ago, REM seem to be continually accused of musical irrelevance. To whom should they be relevant? There seems to be an endless need to stay forever young only to be eventually reborn as an elder Statesman able to give sage, gravely-voiced, emotionally cracked advice to the younger peers, but then, REM were never a normal band. An intelligent group who sang songs on obsession and environmental concern and pleas against suicide and tributes to long-gone comedians, relevance be damned they nearly always had something to say without descending into tedious he loves she doesn’t stadium rock filler.
And anyway, those much maligned latter period albums after Bill Berry’s aneurism and then retirement aren’t as bad as they’re often derided to be. Sure, they had strong competition – not least within in their own back catalogue – and despite the occasional bit of fluff there are good songs to be found. Up, may be a bit of a muddled mess, but Daysleeper is a great song and At My Most Beautiful is self-fulfilling in its title. Reveal is a little too sugar addled for my tastes, but All the Way to Reno is wonderfully lost. Around the Sun may be musically tepid, all heavily programmed keyboards set to soggy scope, but Michael Stipe is at his lyrical best singing mournful tales of heartbreak and the collapse of a national ideal. Accelerate is all punky aggression and energy almost shocking for men hovering around their fifth decade to be sweating out.
But those very early records, Document, Murmur, Fables of the Reconstruction: no wonder they became cult heroes of the alternative scene for they genuinely offered something different, something almost classical compared to shallow hair metal, shock rock and the pop scene. Van Halen didn’t write songs about famine (Talk about the Passion), the futile waste of Reaganomics (pretty much all of Document) or oppression (Fall on Me).
They may have a reputation for making music that people who don’t like music like to listen to, but they made them listen to the barbed perfect plastic pop of Shiny Happy People and the frequently misunderstood ballads like Everybody Hurts period and Losing My Religion (surely the most popular song to feature a mandolin) which, whilst now somewhat irritating, at the time sounded like Stipe was drowning under the weight of what he was supposed to be. They then followed up those maudlin, couples coupling friendly, yet still staggering beautiful albums with fuzz rock and weird open American skyscapes; here was a band that made the music in their head not necessarily the music other people wanted to hear.
I saw them live twice. Once touring the quiet Up in Earl’s Court, where the concrete behemoth swallowed them whole. At one point Stipe paused and looked around. “Wow. We never thought this place would be so horrible.” On the Around the Sun tour they played Hyde Park and were barnstorming, pushing otherwise gentle songs with barbed lyrics to their very edge, Peter Buck’s guitar playing was like razor wire running through the grass. At the end Stipe, his face smeared with a blue paint eye mask that was dishevelling itself around his bald head like a tribal warrior from a lost island, a prophet speaking out from madness, said: “Thank you. We’re REM and this is what we do.” Quite, defy expectation – I’d thought the gig to be as shambolic as it had been years before, that the open sky would soak up the slow songs, but I was happily wrong.
That ability to remain timeless and to defy expectation is what keeps them relevant, if they do need to be any such thing. Over the past sixteen years or so they’ve sound-tracked my endless car journeys across dust speckled open highways and tightly wound Welsh hillsides, formal dinner and open house parties, foraged sexual encounters, relationships cracking apart into tears and bruises and were used as a yardstick to identify intelligent girls with good music taste in the late nineties, the more obscure their favourite track, all the better. They gave a sense, as a teenager when music is most important, that both anything is possible and the whole world is falling inside itself around you. They were a band whose records I would think I’ve listened to enough, that there is nothing else I can glean from them, and then I’ll idly put an album on and hear something that I never noticed before. Another glimpse of a mumbled half truth, another second of heartbreak or pump of adrenaline to a cord. They leave a fine body of work that I’ll listen to, probably, for the rest of my life, that there will always have a suitable song for the moment. Unlike Anthrax.
Five great REM songs:
Living Well is the Best Revenge: A spiky number from their penultimate album. I listened to this a lot at one point; exceptionally good life advice.
Nightswimming: A simple, elegant piano driven song with one of Stipe’s most plaintive vocals. The mourning of the song isn’t, as is often presumed for a lost love, but for the innocence and ease of youth slipping away.
It’s the End of the world as we know it (and I feel fine): My personal favourite. A marvellous celebration of impending eco-collapse and apocalypse; Stipe sings so fast it’s almost impossible to keep up with the scale and range of the disasters. The best moment is when, as he desperately reels off the portents of doom, he can’t quite believe that this is all really happening: ‘Right?’ he asks hoping that the answer will be in the negative. ‘Right’ affirm the band with a growl.
Pop Song ‘89: The whole of Green, their major label debut, was pristine pop covering up something much smarter and with greater depth than the facade. Pop Song ’89 was intended to kill of the impression that they needed to be more commercial to fulfil their potential; perhaps as Shiny Happy People followed shortly afterwards it wasn’t the killer blow, but it was a mortal wound well struck.
Don’t go back to Rockville: Deep South country-style plea for a girl to not abandon her lover, bassist Mike Mills, by heading back to the city. She goes, but this more than any other song is about where REM came from; it exemplifies their Georgian roots, letting them coil around the song in stranglehold that pleases rather than kills it. Whilst by no means their debut track, it’s hard to escape the feeling that everything else grew from here.