No new band gave me greater pleasure in the eighties than R.E.M.. I went to see them a couple of times (and was utterly charmed when they all swapped instruments for one song) but I was quite late discovering them really. It was my Omnibus colleague Andy King who turned me on to them around the time of their fourth album in 1986. He’d been banging on about them at work and very kindly made me a cassette of Murmur which sat around my flat for a week or two until I got around to listening to it one Saturday night when I’d got back from the pub and skinned one up, on my own and in the mood for some music I’d never heard before, loud through cans, before I called it a night.
Mmmm, what have I been missing, I remember thinking, as ‘Radio Free Europe’ and ‘Pilgrimage’ filled my head. When ‘Perfect Circle’ came on I realised that Andy was right. One of the things I came to learn about R.E.M., something that either fascinated or annoyed in equal measure, was that you never knew what Michael Stipe was singing about, not until much later in their career anyway. It wasn’t that his voice was low in the mix (like Mick Jagger on most Stones’ records) but his words were oblique, ethereal, strung together like tone poems, and not designed to convey a message or tell a story but simply to sound pleasing to the ear regardless of whether they made any sense or not. “Put your hair back, we get to leave/Eleven gallows on your sleeve… Standing too soon, shoulders high in the room.” Don’t ask me what he’s on about but it doesn’t matter a jot because these meaningless words float above such a gorgeous melody that R.E.M. seemed to me to have invented a kind of music wherein the vocals were simply part of the instrumental wash, projecting a strange, haunting quality that was shrouded in a blanket of deep harmony.
Back in the flat I was nicely mellow by the time ‘Shaking Through’ came on and it was at the moment towards the end when Michael Stipe sings the words “in my eyes” and repeats them as the vocals all fold together in a deluge of harmony that I really got it. I got R.E.M. for the first time and it was a great moment. I stopped the tape, rewound it and listened to that 30 seconds again. It was like being immersed in a warm bath. (Lyrics on the internet, unavailable when I first heard it, state Stipe is singing “In my life” here, but I don’t think it matters what he sings. With R.E.M. it’s what you hear that counts.)
The next week I bought all R.E.M.’s CDs up to that point, the first four albums, and the Chronic Town EP, and of course they sounded much superior to Andy’s cassette. To digress for a moment… this was around the time that the record industry was making a big fuss about home taping, but the fact is that it was thanks to a ‘home tape’ that I discovered R.E.M. and went out and spent £50 or so on their official recordings which I might not have done otherwise. Before long, because no ‘best of R.E.M.’ album had been released, I made up my own cassette of R.E.M. favourites to play on my Walkman and in cars and, like Andy, banged on about them to everyone I met, and even gave cassettes away. Maybe they did for others what Andy’s cassette did for me. Either way, I went on to buy every single CD they ever released, and they’re all on my iPod, some 274 songs now. And it all began with a home tape.
Like many others I was seduced by Out Of Time and Automatic For The People, at which point they became huge. There’s so much R.E.M. to choose from now that I find it hard to pick later favourites but ‘Nightswimming’ always gets to me, as does ‘Find The River’, which closed Automatic. Although the lyrics on albums from Green onwards tended to be easier to interpret, it’s never straightforward to decode what Michael Stipe is singing about but, as always, the melody on their slower songs sucks you in so that it doesn’t matter, and on ‘Find The River’ it seems to me that Michael is singing about leaving somewhere, heading off on his travels, while his bandmates create a combination of pathos and fulfillment, sad to see him go but wishing him bon voyage as they wave him on his way. Beautiful backing vocals enshrine the song in an initial well of sadness that by the end of the song has somehow moved from a dark tunnel into bright sunlight, like the night turning into day.
Somehow I wasn’t all that surprised when R.E.M. called it a day. They’d always seemed to me to have integrity to spare and in this regard were never the kind of band that would hang in for the money, which they didn’t need anyway. Like others I was frustrated by some stuff after … Hi-Fi, though I think they ended on a high with the live album recorded in Dublin, Accelerate and Collapse Into Now.
But whatever else, my love for this great band really goes back to hearing Murmur for the first time on Andy’s home tape that Saturday night in Hammersmith, lying back on my couch at around 1am, listening to ‘Perfect Circle’ and ‘Shaking Through’… “Yellow like a geisha gown… In my eyes”.
Tomorrow I’ll post an extract from Tony Fletcher’s R.E.M. biography Perfect Circle, originally published as REMarks in 1989, and subsequently updated several times until retitled Perfect Circle in 2013, this final edition covering the dissolution of the group in September 2011.