Here in New England it has been a damned cold week. Snow, cold - winter (though it's headed back into the 50s this weekend: NEw England!) - I have had enough. Time to cast our musical attention southward... it is good, then, that I have sort of gotten myself out of college in my Band of the Month series, and can write about R.E.M., 80s left of the dial darlings.
I first heard them on the radio, Radio Free Europe, some station or show playing underground music, probably fall of 1982. My Springsteen loving pal was something of a new wave fan (big into XTC and Elvis Costello, I recall), which spilled into punk and indie bands like REM - though more like X, one of his favorites. (He wore out Under a Big Black Sun as a sophomore, like we wore out The River as freshmen.) He sought out college radio and the like - that's where I heard Radio Free Europe; I don't remember what I thought - I liked it, but can't say it made too much of an impression. I think there was some hype, that I didn't quite get, but didn't turn me off. I filed them away, I think, for future reference. And then - a year or so later - Reckoning came out, the radio started playing South Central Rain - Dick Clark featured South Central Rain! I remember watching that with my brothers - they were very confused: Why can't he sing? they asked, or something to that effect. But I knew... It didn't take the kids long to catch up - one of them ended up getting me Murmur for Christmas, and the next summer I lived on Fables of the Reconstruction.... And later? I believe that Reckoning ended up being the first CD I ever bought; Lifes Rich Pageant, I think, was the first LP I replaced with a CD (like, a week after I got the LP). And so on. I saw REM in 1986 - but that experience factors more next month. And after that - I always liked them; I sometimes loved, them; I never liked them as much as I did in the middle of the 80s. But to the end, they made good music, and sometimes great music.
That's beside the point. It's also a function of the power of their music in that period. There aren't many bands who can measure up to those 2 records. I wore Fables of the Reconstruction out - I lived on it. I taped it, when I got it - I gave a copy to one of my friends, who kept it in his car, and we'd listen to it endlessly. (There were a bunch of tapes we listened to all the time: that one, The Good Earth, a couple Husker Du records, a compilation of stuff from the big Springsteen live box, Live at Leeds, Live at Folsom Prison and San Quentin, a couple Iggy Pop and Stooges records (old and new), a Ramones greatest hits, Motorhead's Ace of Spades - there was some Ministry in there somewhere, and various heavy metal acts he liked... all good.) It was good.
But it was more than good. It wasn't just the music, words, it was something about the feeling REM gave me. They always conjured up imagery in their songs - for all the jokes about Stipe's indecipherable lyrics, that is the most striking thing to me, how clear the imagery is. They are full of scenes: The smell is sweet the short haired boy woman offers pull up a seat... the walls constructed stone by stone... two doors to go between the wall was raised today... did you ever call, I waited for your call... I will try not to breath, I can hold my head still... that's me in the corner, that's me in the spotlight... I was wrong, I have been laughable... bank the quarry river swim.... Even when he's at his most opaque - it's not so much opaque as just stripped of the normal syntax, really. We knee skinned that river red - why not?
I admit the imagery their music conjures is not all Stipe's: their music, especially Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction, bring up almost irresistible images for me - memories, real and imaginary imaginary landscapes. The associations were odd ones - memories, in particular, of the places my grandparents lived - in rural Vermont and Canada, places with fields and woods, and old dirt roads overgrown with grass. I latched onto the natural images on those records - the fields divided one by one, the green growing rushes, the palpable feeling of hot summer days. They reminded me of being a kid, in the country, reading the Hardy Boys (The Secret of the Lost Tunnel! with it's old south setting, its Civil War treasure, its overgrown mansions and battlefields...) - imagining the stories in the real world. There probably isn't much else in common - but I can't help it: the associations are overwhelming, and always make me very happy.
Though getting away from myself - REM's songs never fail to impress. Stipe's impressionism never really loses touch with the world - real stories, real scenes, real people are in them. All of them are crafted just so. And the music is just as impressive. Especially those early 80s songs - the lush Rickenbacker guitars, Mike Mills' bass lines, his backing vocals, the steady, relentless propulsion - they are so good.
So it's time for the top ten - and another reminder of how horribly arbitrary these lists are. I mean - I like these groups because I like them! everything they do - their basic sound, style, the things they do, that make them who they are. So - yeah, maybe I can pick out 5 or 6 that are better, somehow, obviously necessary on a top ten list - but after that? something like "Moral Kiosk" come up on shuffle and I stop to listen cause I haven't heard it in years and think, this is not a song that I would think to include in a top ten, but - you know... if this was the best REM did, I'd still have most of their records, wouldn't I? That probably goes without saying - if the best thing The Who ever did was Eminence Front or Squeeze Box or Naked Eye, I'd have been a fan...
But that's not helping me now. Okay: I don't know if this 10 is better than the next 10 (beyond the top 6 or 7) but - I do have to resist the temptation just to put 5 each from Reckoning and Fables. That's not quite fair to the rest of their career, which has an awful lot of good work - but I have to say, I was completely besotted with those records, and it comes back every time I hear them now... But I did it with the Beatles - I can do it for REM!
1. Driver 8 (this is another of the all time great songs)
2. Little America
3. Life and How to Live It
4. Pretty Persuasion
5. Try Not to Breathe
7. 7 Chinese Brothers
8. South Central Rain
9. Country Feedback
10. Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)
...though that leaves off Don't Go Back To Rockville - that can't be right... I don't know. Whatever. Video!
Picking videos isn't any easier than picking the songs. They are well documented on YouTube - lots of excellent live footage out there. What can I do? I tried to find their American Bandstand performance, but had no luck - I think I remember it - band in shadow, Stipe with headphones on, buzzing away.... This will have to do - on Letterman, network TV debut and all that... YOu can see some of the group dynamic at work - Mills and Buck showing their composure, Stipe hiding, Bill Berry waiting patiently behind the kit...
And while we're on the Reckoning - here's 7 Chinese Brothers:
Though this - we have to have this. Same show, here's two (2) train songs! You can never have too many train songs.
And since it can't all be from the early days - Country Feedback:
Though I have to stop somewhere - so I will end here: Little America. The biggest wagon is the empty wagon is the noisiest... they were so goddamned young!