R.E.M.
Green
Warner Bros.

R.E.M. were one of the first of the darlings of the underground of 1980s college radio to move from the indies to the big leagues.  Document, from 1987, had closed out their career with I.R.S. records, and what a closing out it was.  Many consider this to be R.E.M.’s finest album.  It is a fair argument, beginning with the towering ‘Finest Worksong,’ and perhaps their most famous track, ‘It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).’  It also was their first album with producer Scott Litt, and he deepened their sound for Document, giving them a richer and heavier sound.  He also brought Michael Stipe up higher in the mix.  Stipe was famous in the 80s for mumbling his lyrics, changing them live, and generally doing his best not to draw attention to himself.  That kind of ended with Document.

Meanwhile, the record label problems.  R.E.M. were I.R.S.’ biggest band, and they say they felt a lot of pressure from the label to sell a lot of albums, which could also then be used to float the lesser-known bands on the label.  But I.R.S. was distributed by MCA, and the band felt that they were never MCA’s priority.  And, well, they did want to sell more records, and they wanted to sell more records outside of the US, and I suppose Canada, where they were an increasingly big deal.  ‘The One I Love,’ the first single from Document nearly overdosed on heavy play on rock stations in Canada’s major markets, to say nothing of MuchMusic (I think I can still imagine the entire video for that track in my head), and our college radio stations.

Warner Bros., in a foreshadowing of what would happen with underground bands signing with major labels in the late 80s/early 90s, did not offer the band the most money, but they did offer total creative freedom, which was also weaponized by R.E.M. against critics who claimed they were selling out.  This was also the model that the likes of Sonic Youth, Nirvana, and Soundgarden, amongst others, would follow when they signed with major labels.

In February 1988, R.E.M., or at least three quarters of them, headed into Robbie Collins’ Underground Recording Studio in their hometown of Athens, GA.  And there drummer Bill Berry, guitarist Peter Buck, and bassist Mike Mills laid down the basic tracks. But along with the basic rock’n’roll drums, guitar, bass, they also laid down an alternate track of percussion, mandolin, and accordion.  R.E.M. wanted to be a folk band! (I’m kidding).  Once these demos were mixed, they took them to their management, and Stipe began to use them for his vocal arrangements.  Most of these demos didn’t end up translating to the songs on Green, or they did in other forms, different chord progressions, beats, instrumentals.

And one month after signing with Warner, they headed over to Memphis to lay down the basic tracks in late May/early June 1988.  Litt met them there.  And then later in June, they all reconvened in Bearsville, NY, at Bearsville Sound Studios.  They recorded some more songs, and this carried on into September, which ended up being about two months before Green was released.

Peter Buck went onto say that this album didn’t have any typical R.E.M. songs, and musically, he is bang on correct.  Lyrically, not so much.  Mills agreed.  Stipe had apparently told them to try writing new songs, not R.E.M. songs.  Mills also claimed this was an experimental record, and for a band like R.E.M., it was, and it laid the groundwork for their true commercial breakthrough on 1991’s Out of Time and 1992’s Out of Time.  It also lay the groundwork for the musical directions of their two best-selling albums.

I had fallen for R.E.M. when I was still a kid.  I happened to catch the video for ‘Driver 8’ from 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction on MuchMusic one night.  The video has trains in it.  I love trains.  But it was more than that, it was unlike anything I had ever heard.  It had jangly guitars and the singer had this annoying voice like Neil Young but as the song went on, I realized that I was deeply drawn to Stipe’s nasal stylings.  A few nights later, I tuned into the University of British Columbia radio station, which I was just getting familiar with as a kid in the Vancouver suburbs, CiTR.  And lo and behold, not only did I hear that song, but I also heard a block of four or five R.E.M. songs: ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull,’ the first track off Fables, ‘Superman,’ from Life’s Rich Pageant (1984), ‘So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry) from 1983’s Reckoning, and ‘Driver 8.’  I had a new band, and for awhile, they became my favourite band at times from 1985-1994.

It was well nigh impossible to buy an R.E.M. album at the two suburban malls at my disposal, Coquitlam Centre and Lougheed Mall.  The only record stores I had access to were Sam the Record Man and A&A Records & Tapes, both at both malls.  There was no R.E.M. section in any of the four stores and the teenaged, zit-faced rocker loser at A&A at Lougheed told me R.E.M. were ‘f** music.’  I was undeterred.

When they hit it bigger with Document, it all of the sudden became easy to find R.E.M. albums at those four craptastic suburban record stores.  But the Sam’s at Coquitlam Centre had copies of both Document and Reckoning.  And by 1987, I had discovered the genius of Columbia House, Canada’s mail order record and tapes scam.  Or at least it was a scam if you were into mainstream music.  The deal was they gave you 12 albums for a penny, but then you had to but, I think it was seven, albums at full price over the next two or three years.  If you were into mainstream music, their prices for albums were horrible, $11.99 or $12.99 for what you could buy at Sam’s for $8.99.  But if you were into alternative, punk, hip hop, and post-punk, Columbia House was genius.  I found all kinds of underground music this way, including R.E.M.’s entire back catalogue.

I remember seeing the video for ‘Orange Crush,’ the début single for Green, which was released on an unsuspecting public in December 1988, a full month after the album came out.  This was the first I head from the album, and I was floored.  Starting with a rolling drum, the song explodes into this roiling bass and Buck’s jangling guitar.  But Buck had discovered a new trick, he now sounded ominous and slightly threatening.  The video, as with most R.E.M. videos made absolutely no sense, some guy getting a buzz cut, some wood all in black and white.  Whatevs, man.  It was the music.  This was quite possibly the most glorious song ever recorded! It was amazing!

The song was never actually released as a single in the US, but it was in the rest of the world and it soon become ubiquitous on Vancouver’s rock station, 99.3, The Fox (The Fox Rox!) and the classic rock station, Stereo 101 (or whatever the fuck it was called in 1988).

I bought the album immediately.  It was raining the day I did.  It rained all the time in Vancouver.  My last winter in Vancouver, 1997-98, it was rained for 63 days straight. I know, because I counted.  And then it cleared up for a few days, and then rained 35 days more. I was doing my Master’s degree at Simon Fraser University.  For those of you who don’t know, SFU is on top of Burnaby Mountain, a big hunk of concrete on top of a mountain in a rain forest.  Looking out my office window one day in January 1998, I couldn’t see anything, the university was in the clouds.  This was a bad idea, this university.  But then again, on the three clear days each winter, the view was stunning from that high up in the sky.

Anyway.  I bought the album at Sam’s at Coquitlam Centre, taking my time on my way home from school.  It was those days at home, when I didn’t want to be there.  The Old Man was going off the rails again, and I just didn’t need to be around that.  I had enough rage and fury of my own, I was a teenage boy!  But I slipped it into my Walkman, and I pressed play.  I was sitting on a bench outside the mall, sheltered from the constant pissing rain.  No one bothered me, no one even saw me.  I think I had a Coke in my hand.

‘Pop Song ’89’ burst into my ears, classic Buck guitar, with this shimmery riff reminiscent of ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull,’ and Berry’s drums all scattershot and insistent, Mills’ bass underpinning it all, holding it together.  And Michael Stipe saying hello, trying to recall where he knew me from, and wondering if we should talk about the weather or the government.  He decided the latter was a bad idea.  The sound was just so big, as compared to anything R.E.M. had done before.  Warner’s budget, as compared to I.R.S. had at least got this album brilliantly and crisply engineered.

And then that flows into ‘Get Up.’  I don’t think R.E.M. didn’t write and record R.E.M. songs here, and as ‘Pop Song ’89’ was an R.E.M. song, so, too, was ‘Get Up.’  But the difference was the sound. Berry’s drums were louder, crisper, his style coming more to the fore, and we all realized that Bill Berry, along with one of the fiercest monobrows in rock (the brothers Gallagher had nothing on him), was also one of the premier drummers in the game.  Mills’ bass was emerging as the glue that kept the band together, and his backing vocals gave some levity (and not in a comedic sense) to Stipe’s.  And Buck.  This was also the album, because of the production and engineering, that we also realized he was one hell of a guitarist.

But then, all of the sudden, the album shifts.  We move from rock’n’roll, to crickets in the Southern heat and a mandolin, some bass, and Stipe singing what has become one of my favourite songs of all-time, ‘You Are the Everything.’  The melody is carried by Mills’ acoustic bass, or maybe it’s Berry, as someone is also playing accordion, and Buck has the mandolin. But it was Stipe’s voice, so insistent, so passionate, so clear and bright, and his lyrics:

Sometimes I feel like I can’t even sing (say, say, the light)
I’m very scared for this world, I’m very scared for me (say, say, the light)
Eviscerate your memory
Here’s a scene
You’re in the backseat laying down, the windows wrap around (say, say, the light)
To sound of the travel and the engine (say, say, the light)
All you hear is time stand still in travel
And feel such peace and absolute
The stillness still that doesn’t end
But slowly drifts into sleep
The stars are the greatest thing you’ve ever seen
And they’re there for you
For you alone, you are the everything.
I think about this world a lot and I cry (say, say, the light)
And I’ve seen the films and the eyes
But I’m in this kitchen (say, say, the light)
Everything is beautiful
And she is so beautiful (say, say, the light)
She is so young and old
I look at her and I see the beauty of the light of music (say, say, the light)
The voices talking somewhere in the house, late spring
And you’re drifting off to sleep with your teeth in your mouth
You are here with me
You are here with me
You have been here and you are everything.
Sometimes I feel like I can’t even sing (say, say, the light)
I’m very scared for this world, I’m very scared for me (say, say, the light)
Eviscerate your memory
Here’s a scene
You’re in the backseat laying down, the windows wrap around (say, say, the light)
To the sound of the travel and the engine (say, say, the light)
All you hear is time stand still in travel
And feel such peace and absolute
The stillness still that doesn’t end
But slowly drifts into sleep
The greatest thing you’ve ever seen
And they’re there for you
For you alone, you are the everything
For you alone you are the everything.
As I got older, this song became especially prescient, as it turns out that Stipe wasn’t the only one very scared for this world, or about himself, for that matter.  And this song always brought me back down in the early 90s, in my hardcore days.  It was always there for me.  It gave me something bright and pure and glorious.  And then when I was much older, I lived in the South, first in Alabama and then rural Appalachia in Tennessee, and I had met the promise of this song, as I had someone who meant the everything to me (and still do, thank you).  But the crickets, the hazy heat of the Southern summer, this song felt like it came from the ground around me.

And then we hit ‘Stand,’ starting with a carnival organ, and then the music explodes, we’re back in rock’n’roll territory, but we’re not in R.E.M. territory.  This was also the second single, in late January 1989.  It was a big hit, at least in Canada.  It was also a glorious song, with a chugging bass line driving it forward, and Berry’s pounding, crisp drums.  And this wicked psychedelic guitar solo, the video had Buck in some funky shirt, John Lennon sunglasses, and flashing lights.  What a track.

 

And then we’re back to the acoustic music.  It turns out that Buck, when kicking back and playing with his friends, was into this kind of thing, Americana, folk music, and he’s the one who brought it back to the band.  ‘World Leader Pretend,’ which isn’t actually acoustic, but did not sound like an R.E.M. song in 1988, and then ‘The Wrong Child,’ which remains one of the most searing songs I’ve ever heard.
And then side two started with the explosion of ‘Orange Crush.’  In the context of the album it was even more explosive, so much louder, so much more ominous and threatening, especially the part that breaks down to some spoken word I’ve never deciphered that sounds either vaguely fascistic or vaguely communist, but it probably just the military.  But, of course, the meaning of the song is obvious.
And that segues into ‘Turn You Inside-Out,’ which starts with the guitar and Stipe kind of moaning, and then drums and bass, Mills once again holding it all together.  The guitar churns, it’s still jangly, but it’s still slightly more threatening.  At the start of the song, it sounds like Mills is singing with Stipe for a few lines (though the video suggest Stipe is singing through a megaphone), but his backing vocals are different here, also with darker undertones, which is kinda odd coming from Mills who seemed the everyday rock star.  But the lyrics were another classic Michael Stipe obliqueness:

Divide your cultured pearls in haste
I’m looking for to lay to waste
Of all the things I cannot taste
And this is not the racy race, they spoke loud.
It’s what you do
(I believe in watching you).
I could turn you inside-out
What I choose not to do
I could turn you inside-out
What I choose not to do
Given the choice
Given the heart
Given the tool
Given the word
Given the cheers
it’s what you do
(I believe in watching you)
I, I, I, I, I
I could turn you inside-out
What I choose not to do
I could turn you inside-out
What I choose not to do
I believe in what you do
I believe in watching you
I believe in what you do (given the choice)
I believe in watching you (given the heart)
I believe in what you do (given the tool)
I believe in watching you (given the word).
And then it’s ‘Hairshirt,’ which, musically, sounds like an out-take from Led Zeppelin IV. But it doesn’t actually sound like Zep because, well, Michael Stipe has a powerful voice, like Robert Plant, and he can draw out notes, hit high notes, and he owns his songs like Plant did with Zep, but, in a whole different way.  Green seemed like the album where Stipe realized the power of his voice, and where the band and Litt decided to let his voice lose on the music.  His entire performance on Green is dominating and powerful.

‘I Remember California’ is an ominous-sounding track, built up from Mills’ bass, through Berry’s drums and Buck’s guitar.  And then Stipe remembers things from California.  But, musically, this is one of Berry’s best performances across the entirety of R.E.M.’s oeuvre.  And Mills keeps the bass low and ominous, which is a sensation echoes with Buck’s guitar.  This is the classic deep cut, the obscure song buried deep on Side Two, towards the end of the album.  It’s the song the casual listener isn’t going to notice.  But it’s the song on the album that most benefits from repeated listenings.  It is also the song on Green that ties R.E.M. back to its I.R.S. days, this is the most R.E.M. of R.E.M. songs the band could’ve written, but that is not a bad thing, it is some familiarity in the midst of all this new direction.
And then we echo out with the drums of ‘Untitled,’ which sees Stipe and Mills in a beautiful call and answer vocal pattern.  This is the moment I always wonder what Mills could’ve done as a front man. His voice is clear, it is sharp and it is the more beautiful of the two men’s voices in this band.  The songs that he took the lead, like ‘Superman,’ he change the sound of R.E.M. with his higher-pitched, though still masculine, voice.  But, clearly this is not what he wanted.  And R.E.M. were all the better for that.  For just as much as Stipe’s voice was so distinctive, so, too, was Mills’.
This was R.E.M.’s biggest selling album to date, going double-platinum in both the US and Canada.  The tour was insane, they were a rock’n’roll band now.  And this was the springboard that made R.E.M. one of the biggest bands in the world in the early 90s, as it saw them discover new sounds that were further explored on Out of Time, and, especially, Automatic for the People, a more acoustic-based, and gorgeous album.  Those two albums also went quadruple platinum in the US and seven-time platinum in Canada.  When they returned to a rocked-out sound on their heaviest album, Monster, in 1994, they continued selling albums like mad, another quadruple platinum outing in the US, but only six-times platinum in Canada.  And that was the signal.  Canada was the canary in the coal mine.
Their days as top sellers were over.  They continued to hit #1, beginning with 1996’s underwhelming New Adventures in Hi-Fi, but their record sales went into decline.  That reflected an artistic decline, quite frankly.  I was done with R.E.M. with New Adventures.  By then, Virgin Music in downtown Vancouver would let you listen to anything before you bought. And, man, am I glad I did.  I hated this album the first listen.  I did return, briefly, for their 2008 album, Accelerate, which was a rocked-out, politically-charged late career masterpiece, I thought.
But Berry had packed it in in 1997, no longer interested in the grind of being in a rock’n’roll band, though he was still involved with R.E.M. on the business side and he played the odd concert until they finally packed it in in 2011.