How the West Was Won and Where It Got us

The first time I ever saw or heard of R.E.M was from a videotape recording of an MTV show that played the black and white video of Pop Song 89. I was a very young teenager then, highly impressionable, a sucker for a good guitar riff and hook (which I still am), and taken in by the lyrics, hello, I’m sorry I lost myself, I think I thought you were someone else, which played on repeat in my head for days on end. I was particularly taken in by the song’s catch line, should we talk about the weather, should we talk about the government? – I wasn’t sure then if Stipe was singing about a shy boy deflecting conversation with a girl, or something deeper – perhaps the shallowness of pop music and celebrity culture, meaningless conversations, introductions that had no substance, forgettable encounters. I knew nothing about the band then. In the hot humid coastal town I grew up in, hardly anyone did. I just knew, listening to that song, that this was going to be a band I would like. Hi, hi, hi.

By the time I got the Document and Green albums (on cassette tape) in 1990 (already late – the albums had been out in the US long before)  I became an instant fanatic convert. Their music was unlike that of any that of other rock band around at the time (which was also the beginning of the Indie Rock/Britpop period). The guitar riff on The One I Love was like a virginal drug high, and even my total incomprehension of a lyric like I got my spine, I got my orange crush didn’t dissuade me from writing down all the words and make-believing that I was inducting my mind into following an imaginary league of an insider’s club that ‘got it’. We were, after all, agents of the free.

What followed in the 1990s (also my coming-of-age years) were some of R.E.M’s finest records, from Out of Time to New Adventures in HiFi, marked by the piano and violins of Nightswimming and wah-wah guitar that followed Stipe as he crooned What’s the Frequency Kenneth is my Benzedrine. To me, his lyrics were meaningful even as they were undecipherable.

Pretty soon the entire back catalogue of R.E.M’s IRS recordings adorned my CD rack, finding album gems like the great Murmur, and songs like Radio Free Europe, Gardening at Night, So. Central Rain, Swan Swan H, Begin the Begin and Perfect Circle. With the success that came with the Warner Bros releases, they had, without the pretty-boy-band-photo-ops or media spin earned the title, ‘America’s best rock n’ roll band’ (Rolling Stone magazine, 1987)

R.E.M.’s obsession with arcane bits of the American midcult didn’t much interfere with their musical memorability. Their political activism made them the obvious accompaniment to my adrenalinised  I’m-going-to-save-the-world twenties, and by the time they were being inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, they had emerged from their scrappy and low-fi beginnings to a group worthy of their legacy.  They stood for social consciousness, were anti-war advocates and campaigners on voter rights, human rights and feminism.

Stipe’s lyrics are unlike anything else in the entire archive of rock music – a sheer blunt candidness that has touched the nerves of millions. They wrote two songs about the wrestler-cum-showman Andy Kaufman, and both are compulsively listenable (Man on the Moon and The Great Beyond). The lead single off Monster is based on a paranoid and violent Dan Rather encounter that no one seems to remember. Let Me In is a plea to the late Kurt Cobain while Crush With Eyeliner an ode to his wife Courtney Love. Their catalogue is an treasure trove of quotable lines thrown around in their lyrics for fans to keep crooning on till the Second Coming. It’s easier to leave than to be left behind (Leaving New York). Will my make-believe believe in me? (I’ve Been High). The only thing to fear is fearlessness (Hyena). These rivers of suggestion are driving me away (So. Central Rain). Not everyone can carry the weight of the world (Talk About The Passion). All those stars drip down like butter … we hold out our pans with our hands to catch them (Let Me In)I’m pining for the moon, and what if there were two, side by side in orbit around the fairest sun? The bright tide forever drawn, could not describe nightswimming (Nightswimming)

Then there’s that song that everybody knows but can’t quite tell you what it’s about. The Anthem of Unrequited Love. The touchstone of alternative rock. The whisper of every waking hour. The choosing of confessions. That tries to keep an eye on you. Like a hurt, lost and blinded fool.

There will be a lengthy mourning period following R.E.M.’s demise. Their fanbase was huge, ranging from people who had them as the soundtrack to their youth to Gen X’ers who can probably only hum along Losing My Religion, but they were a band many people genuinely loved and admired. All good things do come to an end and R.E.M. leave the pitch in a very dignified manner with standing ovations from all sides.

It’s those rare occasions when it’s spot on to say that we’ll never see their likes again. There are very few bands of a similar ilk left in the game and, given the changes we see in the music business with every passing week, it’s becoming harder and harder to see how we can come across bands like this in the modern era, groups that start from humble beginnings and stay true to their style and music despite the success. They were one of the last remaining relics of music’s old world order. In this sad age of manufactured pop and Justin Bieber, having had them around to give us fifteen albums from Murmur to Collapse Into Now, including my No.1 favourite album of all time, their magnum opus, Automatic for the People, you couldn’t ask for anything more.

And Andy, in case you didn’t hear about this one, it is with stuff like this that the west was won.

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