Monday, 30 December 2013
122 Eponymous - REM
Purchased : April 1989
Tracks : Radio Free Europe / Gardening At Night / Talk About The Passion / So. Central Rain / Rockville / Can't Get There From Here / Driver 8 / Romance / Fall On Me / The One I Love / Finest Worksong / It's the End Of The World
This was the next purchase from Britannia. You may have noticed above that there was a bit of a gap since the last one and there is a story behind that. After umming and aahing throughout 1988, in January 1989 I bought my first car, an ex-army left hand drive Vauxhall Chevette estate for £550. Coming home from its first away trip to Doncaster in early February I crashed it in Barnsley where I mistook a green light signifying the end of a pedestrianized period for the way ahead and cut straight across another vehicle as our road actually swung sharply left. In mitigation the road markings were a little worn at that point as well. As I'd only bought fire, third party and theft insurance I had to pay half the purchase price again to get it repaired which put me briefly into an overdraft situation so LP buying had to stop for a short while. As a nice postscript my two companions Carl and Sean who didn't know each other before that day bonded over the trauma and were friends for years afterwards.
OK, on to REM. This is the first chapter in a story that only ended fairly recently and so another landmark purchase. I think I first heard the odd track on David Jensen in the early eighties but they really came to my attention in 1984 when a guy in my Hall of Residence called Mike Hughes started raving about them particularly after their gig at the Refectory that spring. Mike was a Stalinist NME reader who liked whatever they told him was good and vice versa ( When I first came across Marcello Carlin on Popular I thought it might be Mike writing under a pseudonym ). After he'd trashed Talk Talk I wasn't going to listen to any of his recommendations and the following year Andy Kershaw arrived on Whistle Test and included them in his list of bands you should hear. So now there were two barriers to appreciating REM. What changed were the two 1987 singles "It's The End Of The World As We Know It" and "The One I Love " which I heard on The Chart Show and loved and it was on the strength of those that this was purchased.
"Eponymous" is a sort of "Greatest Hits" ( if they'd had any ) album marking the end of their association with IRS after five albums and their signing for Warners in a big bucks deal. Ironically they were just beginning to break through to a bigger audience as well; "The One I Love " was their first flirtation with the British charts. The break seems to have been amicable enough; it's clear from the sleeve that the band were willing participants in this exercise although Warners can't have been too thrilled that it was released just a month before the band's first album on their label. The tracks are roughly in chronological order so you can follow their progress from student peddlers of wilfully obtuse Americana to stadium rockers in waiting.
I have a decision to make now on writing about early REM. I bought Marcus Gray's It Crawled From The South in 1992, an exhaustive tome which manfully attempts to get to the heart of all the band's music up to that point even where the band themselves claimed that the "lyrics" were phonetic nonsense. I'd sooner the blog was "all my own work" but then it seems pigheaded to ignore such a useful source of insight. Let's see how we go.
The album starts right at the beginning of their career with the original version of "Radio Free Europe" as released on the independent label Hib-Tone in 1981 making it the US equivalent of New Rose. Some took it as a protest about the tyrannical conservatism of US rock radio but it's actually a quizzical song about the radio station set up during the Cold War to broadcast propaganda to the Eastern Bloc. Michael Stipe's lyrics are usually elliptical and this one's full of non-seqiteurs although you could argue that it represents the babble of a radio station that was always getting jammed. The influence of English New Wave is apparent in the music with Mike Mills's pulsing bass and Bill Berry's crisp drumming making it sound like an early Cure song although Stipe's mumbled diction isn't really comparable to anyone else.
"Gardening at Night" was the lead track on their first release for IRS the "Chronic Town" EP in 1982. The first few bars sound like New Order's Ceremony but abruptly Peter Buck's guitar switches to a melodic Byrdsian riff and REM's trademark sound is born. It's driven along by Berry's punchy drumming save for two quiet passages when he marks time with rimshots. Berry has said it was inspired by another member using the phrase as a euphemism for needing a leak when they were driving. There are a number of different interpretations to the song but I think it's a general metaphor for a hopeless undertaking and the mournful melody supports that.
"Talk About the Passion" is from their debut LP "Murmur" and like many of their early songs it has only one repeating verse for hypnotic effect. It's a mid-paced jangly pop song with a fat bassline and hummed backing vocals from Mills and in the latter half of the song some cello and violin to fill out the sound. The words , relatively clear here , seem to be expressing doubt about the liberal conscience shared by all four members- "Not everyone can carry the weight of the world".
The next two tracks are from second LP "Reckoning". "So. Central Rain" is a chiming folk-pop song beefed up by Berry's powerful drumming. It's a break-up song with Stipe mumbling through the verses before an agonised cry of "I'm Sorry" by way of a chorus. The coda with Stipe wailing wordlessly over violent keyboard stabs emphasises the turmoil at the heart of the song.
"( Don't Go Back To ) Rockville" is untypical of their early work in its lyrical simplicity. It's an unambiguous plea from Mike Mills ( though Stipe sings it ) to a female student in Athens not to return to her home town. Although a little mean-minded in parts "You'll wind up in some factory " the naked honesty is palpable and it's set to a lilting country rock backing with a rousing chorus. It's just a shame it's not been a hit for anyone as it would be so easy to substitute "Rochdale" into the title and sing it at any ex-manager or unpopular ex-player we came across.
"Can't Get There From Here " was a single release from their third and most demanding album "Fables Of The Reconstruction". The lyrics are a daunting challenge with cryptic references to band friends and places but the general message seems to be Athens is a good place to sort your head out. The chorus has overlapping lines with Stipe singing the title while Mills confidently asserts "I've been there I know the way". The music admits some new influences with Buck playing some clipped funk guitar in the verses and the horns in the chorus suggesting Stax.
Side Two commences with "Driver 8", also from "Fables" and an absolute belter. Buck lays down one of his best ever riffs to lead into a train song that drips with Southern Gothic atmosphere. On one level it's just an impressionistic poem about the sights to be seen from a locomotive cab ( shades of Jimmy Webb at his best ) but the music infuses it with palpable dread. What exactly is the driver taking a break from and where's the destination ? One of their very best songs.
I can't say that about "Romance", originally a Murmur outtake but re-recorded in 1986 for the forgotten film Made In Heaven. The pounding drums and angular bassline on the verses are reminiscent of Drums and Wires era XTC and while the chorus is more recognisably REM it's not one of their strongest. This is also one of their songs where the band's claim that the lyrics have no meaning rings most true.
"Fall On Me" is the only track from fourth album "Life's Rich Pageant". When they played it on Unplugged in 1991 Stipe introduced it as his personal favourite and he's not far wrong. It's almost a duet between Stipe and Mills with the latter singing a counter-melody during the second verse and taking over the bridge. It started out as a song about acid rain and then became about aggressive capitalism -"Buy the sky and sell the sky " generally. The chorus is anthemic with Berry's drums punching the title home.
The album concludes with the three singles from their final IRS album "Document" which saw them start to post serious sales figures. "The One I Love " made their first mark on the UK singles chart reaching number 51 at the tail end of 1987 ( and 16 on re-release in 1991 ). The band have mentioned 10cc in interviews and this song reverses the message of I'm Not In Love ; where Stewart's feeble denials emphasised how deep he was in , Stipe's coldly drawled "a simple prop to occupy my time" destroys the idea that the song is any sort of dedication as if Buck's incendiary churning guitar wasn't evidence enough.
"Finest Worksong" actually got one place higher in the UK although it's nowhere near as familiar a song. It's heavily indebted to the Velvet Underground built around a circular guitar figure that mirrors the grind of the average working day. Stipe always keeps his politics close to his chest but the line "Throw Thoreau and rearrange " suggests he's not advocating just dropping out as a solution.
"It's The End Of The World As We Know It ( And I Feel Fine ) " is their update on Subterranean Homesick Blues with a parade of stream of consciousness images and phrases delivered at breakneck speed by Stipe with the aid of Mills before a killer of a chorus. Different interpretations abound but I tend to favour it being a pre-Coupland critique of the MTV generation and its political apathy. From Berry's introductory drum roll to the false ending it's the most exciting song in their repertoire and a great way to finish off a superb compilation.