Thursday, 22 September 2011

It's true, I'm not cool

Yes, in a stunning blow to my carefully-crafted aura of cool, I'm going to confess… to being sad that R.E.M. have split up. Despite most of the recent albums (with the exception of Collapse Into Now) being low-par to put it kindly, I'll miss them. At least they knew how it worked:
"We always tried to publicly acknowledge that we were just a part of something much bigger that was happening [in the 80s], and maybe not even the best part … The fact that we've carried on doesn't make us a great band. It just means we're persistent and stubborn." 

My first encounter with R.E.M. was Automatic for the People. Exiled in a boarding school, I'd barricaded myself into a small room with a 1940s cabinet radiogram for company. Great for listening to the Peel show and Radcliffe and Lard at night, not so great for collecting music. Which was OK, because I didn't have access to money anyway. However, my friend Andy had a cassette tape of Automatic, which we played on his Walkman over and over again. Trapped in a dank, isolated, Philistine Hereford holding camp, the world evoked by Stipe's lyrics and their melange of rock and country held the promise of better, weirder times ahead. Of all the many gifts I've been given over the years, Andy presenting me with that battered, stretched tape stills ranks as one of the most significant sacrifices I've encountered: four months later it, and The Best of Vaughan Williams constituted my entire music collection when I turned up at university.

After that, my tastes widened and deepened, but I didn't forsake R.E.M. I'd heard bits of Out of Time and even 'Orange Crush' from Green in indie clubs and friends' houses by now, but I wanted more, and reached back to their older, weirder albums - the ones I now venerate as high points of indie musical culture: Murmur would be the highlight of any band's career: as a debt album it's little short of astonishing, so musically, culturally and lyrically assured it is. Through R.E.M. I discovered the Other America, the one that felt itchy and doomed by the political posturing and paranoia of Reagan's 80s. The buried singing implied that there were deeper forces at work than the bright, shiny ad-breaks, yet when the band moved on to a 'pop' sound, they dignified the genre - like New Order and St. Etienne - by using it as a subversive vehicle for meta-commentary. Rather unfashionably, I loved their post-Automatic work: Monster is a shiny, dumb, fun rock album, while New Adventures in Hi-Fi reminds me of Pulp's later This Is Hardcore: the sound of a band disenchanted with what they thought they wanted from pop. It's a claustrophobic, often hypnotic album which reaches back to their early work but adds a kind of weary experience learned from the fame treadmill.

Yes, they could be pompous occasionally, and the later albums were clearly the sound of ageing men trying to keep up with a mainstream culture which has (rightfully) little regard for heritage, but it's also true that the relentless commodification of music and popular culture meant that there was no room for bands who saw their work as art, or as meaningful contributions to public culture.

Bands have their period in the sun: it's usually random. Their sound, look or lyrics happen to coincide with a label's outlook, with a mood in the media, with radio stations' priorities for a brief period, with a public sensibility and they're arbitrarily popular. Just as arbitrarily, their moments cease. For some bands, that's OK: they have a limited stock of quality songs. Others have the strength to accept fame and fashion as welcome but not assured: they carry on honing their art to a diminishing group of fans who aren't so susceptible to fashion. I guess R.E.M. fell between the stools. When global stardom called they utilised it while it lasted, but their reserves of inspiration eventually ran dry.

Here are some of my favourites. As soon as I hit 'publish post' I'll curse myself for not including many others, so don't take this as a definitive list. Apologies for some of the sound quality: major record labels are too good at removing copyrighted recordings.

I love this song for the backing vocals.

I'd love to post 'I Believe', solely for the cracking accordion drone backing, but there's no decent version online.

There are no decent versions of anything from New Adventures online, so I'll finish with a loud, dumb rock song from Monster:

And on a final note: R.E.M. were always perceived as one half of the U2-R.E.M. sensitive postmodern rock juggernaut pairing. Looking back, it's clear which one's a bloated, selfish, tax-evading, musically bankrupt bunch of pompous chancers, and it's not the boys from Athens, Georgia.


ed said...

Nice post Vole. Have to admit, with the exception of 'Daysleeper' and 'Imitation of Life' everything post-Automatic leaves me a little cold. Though I'm also mighty sad that they're no more, and that I never saw them live.

I fear that only a silver bullet to Bono's forehead will stop U2 from putting out another record.

Ewarwoowar said...

One of your best posts for a long time Vole.

I loved REM when I was about 14 but to be honest I haven't listened to them for about 5/6 years. They had their time, and when I heard the news yesterday the first thing that came to mind was "I had completely forgotten they were still going."

Favourite record? I really like 'Bad Day' and, just for the way the first minute lulls you into a false sense of security, 'Leave'. Anything apart from 'Shiny Happy People' to be honest.