“This flower is scorched, this film is on, on a maddening loop, these clothes, these clothes don’t fit us right”
To put REM’s place in the annals of musical history into some sort of context, you must remember they are a band who formed in 1980. A band that Kurt Cobain labelled as a major influence on Nirvana, a band who formed while Ian Curtis was still alive, a band formed half a decade before I was even born.
They were to all essential purposes one of the original alternative rock bands. When REM first toured the country, the entire concept of a touring circuit did not exist. Whilst they themselves took influence from the likes of Patti Smith, Television and The Velvet Underground, arguably REM’s own influence was greater than any of those artists. Whilst post-punk had found success by ripping up the music that had come before them, and taken huge swathes of music out of fashion, REM were one of the first bands to bring the tuneful bliss of the 1960s back into fashion.
In a fascinating interview with Rolling Stone, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke explained his love of REM.
But what I liked about watching R.E.M. – and this is something our band picked up straight away – was how they allowed shit to happen, not trying to add to it but just fucking stand there,. waiting for the fire to start,” Yorke goes on. “Sometimes it would be mid-set, and it’s still not kicking off yet. But no one’s freaking out. They’re staying with it” – Yorke pauses dramatically – “and then bang!”
“That was the first time I’d seen that in a big environment,” Yorke says. “You see it with little bands in small places. But to do that in a large space and get away with it, without using any tricks, was cool. I’ve seen the same thing in Neil Young – standing there, stamping his foot, looking down as he plays, just letting that do it. It’s very purist. It ain’t Lady Gaga.”
REM are a band that bands love, and ultimately is their any higher praise than the respect of your peers? Well I imagine selling more than 85 million records worldwide probably goes down pretty well too.
However I must admit, my first impression of REM wasn’t entirely positive. Stumbling into their early 2000’s work, via their album Reveal… it was a little underwhelming, not awful by any means, but the lead single Imitations Of Life aside, it didn’t grab you around the throat and say “this band matter.” I must admit at that point even going back to earlier work such as New Adventures in Hi-Fi and even the critically lauded Automatic for the People, feeling at the time that I was missing something. I liked bits and pieces, enjoyed tracks that were good, but never felt moved to declare any sort of great love for them. I saw them play live at Glastonbury, or saw some of their set at Glastonbury then wandered off to see what else was going on. I was never an REM hater, but I felt like I’d arrived 20 years too late, like maybe the bands that had come after them had taken their blue-print and lifted it way beyond the quality of the original.
However a few years back, for reasons I don’t recall, I decided to listen back to Automatic for the People, I took it all back, I was wrong, this was brilliant, this was essential! I loved every second of it, I listened to it properly, I pressed play over and over again. Then I forgot about it all over again, until the other week. The other week, again for reasons I don’t recall, I put the “10 Years Later with Jools Holland” dvd on and sat through the whole thing. I knew Nick Cave’s version of God Is In The House was incredible, I knew The Blind Boys of Alabama doing Run On was one of the great blues moments, what I didn’t know, or perhaps didn’t recall, was just how brilliant and moving REM’s 1998 version of Country Feedback was, it’s just jaw droppingly brilliant!
Michael Stipe’s a bundle of poised, energy and sadness, B.J.Cole joining the band on pedal steel a stunning counter point. The music meanders, never forming a chorus, but slowly taking us on a wonderful journey, without ever out shining the undeniable star of the performance. Seeing Michael Stipe sing this, his favourite REM song, is to see what a stunning frontman he is. For all the sparkling eye make-up and throwing on and off, of his ear piece, he comes across not like an over-dramatic showman, but as a brutally honest, heart on sleeve frontman, he means every word, every vocal inflexion, every single note seems to mean the world to him. He looks close to tears throughout, maybe I’m just falling for a very good showmans tricks of the trade, but I choose not to believe that, for me he’s too convincing to be anything but entirely genuine.
Lyrically the track is something of a wander through Michael’s thoughts, though there’s lines here and there dotted around that hint at the depth of thought anyone who knows REM would have come to expect. There are hints of a relationship gone wrong, little heartbroken half sentences “I’m to blame it’s all the same” in the opening verse, “you wear me out” in the third, later on “I had control, I lost my head” It’s amazing how these tiny statements can carry such weight, it takes a special vocal talent to give such meaning to these words.
There is a verse where it becomes almost like a staccato beat poem “we’ve been through fake-a-breakdown, self-hurt, plastics, collections, self-help, self-pain, EST, psychics, fuck all” if that sounds like rambling, it is, but it’s so obviously loaded with pain and emotion. The story goes that Michael Stipe arrived in the studio with a piece of paper, just a few words written on it, sang it, and left the studio. As Peter Buck put it “it’s exactly what was on his mind that day. It was real” The take was so good that they didn’t have to re-record a single note. Perhaps more music should be like that, just perfect, snapshots of a time and a place, recorded there and then in one swoop, if it’s good enough for REM, it’s surely good enough for almost anyone?
The closing salvo, the repeated simple lines “it’s crazy what you could’ve had, crazy what you could’ve had, I need this, I need” are so simple, so beautifully delivered, it’s perfection. A compelling, simple song from the heart, it surely doesn’t get any better than that.
Country Feedback appears on REM’s 1991 album Out Of Time