Thursday, 22 September 2011

Life and how to live it

I don't suppose many people were entirely surprised when REM announced yesterday that they were jacking it in for good. Recent albums had been thoroughly underwhelming (everything since New Adventures In Hi-Fi, I reckon, and that was, what, 1996?), and there was just a sense that the music world had moved on without them.

But (and I warn you, I'm about to start sounding very "It were all fields round here when I was young") it's impossible to overstate just how important they were back in the 1980s, and early 1990s.

I can't claim to have been in there at the beginning. When their first single, Radio Free Europe, came out in 1981 I'd have been 11 or 12, and their debut album Murmur would have passed me by completely. When I was in the sixth-form, though, sometime in 1987 I reckon, I kept noticing their name in both the US singles and albums charts that they used to publish on Teletext (remember that?). In the absence of the internet, I had no idea what they were actually like, but I bought the compilation Eponymous the following year purely out of curiosity.

This was a time when 'indie' music, in the original sense of independently produced and released music, was almost unheard of in the UK charts. There was The Smiths, of course, and the Jesus and Mary Chain and New Order both occasionally flirted with mainstream success, but that was it. So, those 12 songs were a total shock to the system. Musically, the nod in the direction of The Byrds and late 60s folk-rock was easy enough to get your head around, but Michael Stipe's lyrics, by turns both funny and menacing, and always elliptical and buried low in the mix, were truly the stuff of poetry. "I believe in coyotes, and time as an abstract", anyone?

Within a few months, they were in the UK charts too, with Orange Crush, the standard-bearer of the album, Green, that really propelled them into the bigtime. I'm not as huge a fan of it as some REM fans I know, but when it's good (the aforementioned single, Pop Song 89, World Leader Pretend, You Are The Everything) it's very good indeed. And seeing them on the likes of Top of the Pops, with Stipe singing through a megaphone, was huge. Indie kids all over the UK felt, rightly as it turned out, that the Stock, Aitken and Waterman-manned walls were coming down, although we're probably all less enthusiastic now that 'indie' has too often come to mean generic, jangly anaemic guitar music.

By this time I was at university, playing that compilation to death while working my way back through all their albums up until that time. Among those, Life's Rich Pageant was my favourite, and remains, I think, their best album, although the first four tracks of Fables of the Reconstruction are also pretty great, being unfortunately let down by large parts of side 2.

One lunchtime, I came back from lectures to find a note on my door from a girl in one of the adjoining halls. As we were both in the habit of wearing REM t-shirts (far from common then), we'd chatted about the band previously. She wrote that she'd heard REM's UK tour announced on Peel's show the previous night (note, I'd missed Peel - that's how massively far from cool I was), had gone straight down to City Hall in the morning and bought tickets, and did I want one? I flew across the quadrangle to her room.

The date of the gig, May 26th, 1989, is still etched on my memory. In the morning, I had my first 1st-year exam (Europe since the Second World War). Afterwards we went to the union, had pizza and beers in the blazing sunshine, played football at the back of Newcastle United's St James's Park ground (you could have a kickabout right up against the stand), then made our way down to City Hall - me, Gaz, JB, Mark, Kirsten and John the Gooner.

Now, I'd have to say, the support act, The Blue Aeroplanes were pretty great. A singer who was a cross between Lou Reed and a beat poet, a dancer (before the Happy Mondays thought of it), umpteen guitarists, and a bunch of great songs (Weightless and Jacket Hangs, for starters - I think the awesome Colour Me came a bit later).

They were nothing, though, compared to what followed. I can't remember how long the set was, except that it seemed just right, but throughout it the band were exactly what you hoped they'd be. Stipe, enigmatic and utterly charismatic. Peter Buck, goofily and knowingly throwing rock-star shapes. Mike Mills, earnest, down to earth and simply a great all-round musician. Bill Berry, solid and reliable. Peter Holsapple filled in on second guitar and occasional keyboards, but Berry, Buck and Mills also swapped instruments with astonishing regularity and facility.

Stipe had his face daubed with paint, and regularly introduced songs with acapella snatches of other bands' songs (I can remember Gang of Four's We Live As We Dream, Alone featuring). He sang superbly, especially on You Are The Everything and a personal favourite of mine, I Believe, and a version of Gershwin's Summertime was memorable for having him on piano. Not playing it. Just on it, standing on the top, back to the audience. Other highlights included a great, sprawling version of Feeling Gravity's Pull.

I still don't think I've seen a better gig. I know my perspective is fogged by nostalgia and sentiment - one of the friends I went with is dead, others I've lost touch with for years now - but it was still as near to perfect as I can imagine a gig being. The band were harder and edgier than I'd expected, and yet more embracing and welcoming too. This was very definitely, at that time, right at the cutting edge of the 'alternative', but there was never any posing, of any sense of the band setting themselves up as smarter, or cooler, than us out there in the audience. Instead, you felt like you were being let in on a wonderful secret, a great movement in its embryonic stages, one that would grow and grow.

And it did. Out Of Time was huge, poppy and mainstream, yet still full of more invention than most bands muster in a whole career, and Automatic For The People cemented their position as superstars. It's not perfect - Everybody Hurts still annoys the hell out of me - but I think it's stood the test of time well.

After that, well, I find it easier to pick out individual songs. What's The Frequency Kenneth? might have been their best single, and New Test Leper opens with a great lyric, but by 1996, they'd just become less essential to me. Hey ho - it happens.

What remains is memories not only of great records and gigs, but of an attitude that shouldn't ever go out of fashion. You sometimes used to hear the band express their political philosophy as "think global, act local", and that sounds like pretty good advice to me, but their example is better than any slogan. I can't think of any band in my lifetime that has reached such a wide audience while still retaining their principles, and a sure, solid connection to their roots. I wish them all the best, and I hope their influence continues to be felt for a long time.

* Want discussions of REM song lyrics? This website is pretty excellent.
** Want to see that memorable 1989 tour? Tourfilm is the best seven quid you'll ever spend.


Roy said...

Enjoyed reading this Matt, a fitting tribute.
I caught on to them around the same time as you and still love 'Exhuming Mccarthy' and 'Fall on me' although they are both in the attic now. Must get that turntable out..

Matt Merritt said...

Cheers Roy. Exhuming McCarthy is my favourite song on Document, and Fall On Me would have to be in my REM Top 10 too.