I promised a guest-blogger for this and I’m delighted with what I’m able to post today. My mate Jonny is in Australia at the moment and was eager to participate in this post – R.E.M. are something we’ve both shared, so I was happy for him to do so, knowing that he’d always intended to write a blog of his own. I have to say, what he’s produced knocks my post into a cocked hat – I’m really, really impressed; not just that our song-choices overlap a little, but with what he has to say. Find him, if you so wish, on Twitter at Jonny_11; well worth a follow. And this…this is well worth a read.
REM weren’t my first favourite band, merely because I hadn’t had access to them for the longest time when I was growing up. I used to listen to four LPs when I was a child: Money For Nothing by Dire Straits, Rocking All Over The Years by Status Quo, Fleetwood Mac’s Tango In The Night and a Muppet Show album that I bought for about 50p from a car boot sale. As I got a bit older, leaving the 80s behind, I eventually got my own CD player which opened up a window of opportunity to explore a bit more. No longer did I have to sit on the lounge floor in my Mum’s living room with the headphones plugged in to our Techincs HI-FI, I could shut my bedroom door and play what the hell I wanted, which was things that ranged from Oasis, to Limp Bizkit (oh the shame), to Nirvana and beyond.
I’ll start this list of by advising that I’m much more of a music guy than a lyrics guy; I listen mainly to the sounds of the instruments and vocals, then I tend to absorb lyrics and their meanings much later.
- What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? – Monster
Monster was the first REM album that I listened to cover to cover. I remember doing so really vividly – I was at my friend’s house, where I used to go after school and it was in the CD player. I’d heard some REM tracks on the radio but never really took note of who was singing them. Monster changed that forever. I remember being blown away and really excited about what the next track would be as I’ve always preferred rock music to any other genre. With What’s The Frequency Kenneth being the first track on the album, I couldn’t not have it in this list. Raging guitars, a crying solo and a kind of attitude about it that I was hooked on.
- Carnival Of Sorts (Boxcars) – Murmur
When my Mum got wind that I liked REM, she bought me, for Christmas, The Best Of REM from the IRS years. I really couldn’t wait to listen to it and felt like I was at the beginning of a long road when I finally was allowed upstairs to listen to it. It was the first REM album that I owned myself (I just had random songs taped from the radio up until then) and, much in the same was as What’s The Frequency Kenneth?, Carnival Of Sorts is the opening track of this compilation. I was magnetised to the drum beat, driving on and on with tempo and purpose and the Peter’s guitar work is still up there with my all time favourites. It’s a quick song, up there with one of REM’s quickest, but perfectly placed and balanced, in my opinion.
- Laughing – Murmur
I remember the first time I heard this on the radio, Gideon Coe was playing it one evening and I didn’t recognise it. I remember getting half way through the song and thinking that it sounded a lot like Stipe singing and that it was, perhaps, in my opinion, the most stereotypical and perfect REM song I’d ever heard. Then Gid announced that it was, indeed, from Murmur. The thing I love about this track the most is the repeated crash of music during the verses; like the whole track is being picked up by the scruff of its neck and scattered, much like a baker would throw flour on to their work surface before setting to work with the rolling pin. I will admit that I felt I should have known this song before I did but it was a welcome addition to my playlist on my phone and got me listening a lot closer to Murmur. It’s possibly my favourite of the lot.
- 9-9 – Murmur
I rediscovered this track after acquainting myself better with Murmur. I love its aggression, murkiness of the bass line and how heavy it is; not necessarily in a ‘heavy metal’ way, but, to me, the track feels like it has a lot of momentum that takes a great amount of effort and force to resist. It really does pack a punch and it’s a great song for listening to while you’re either in a bad mood or driving. Or both. It was between this track or Sitting Still to make this list and that, readers, was quite a tough choice to make.
- Imitation Of Life – Reveal
I love to sing along in the car and I think that this is probably the ultimate sing along song made by REM. It’s also a song that I can rarely sing along to without getting a lump in my throat, given it’s strong lyrical content and how positive it is. ‘…I’m not afraid…’ is repeated throughout the song after a number of testing scenarios. ‘…No one can see me cry.’ A great song to listen to if you’re feeling, maybe, a bit negative about the world. You can also hear how much Stipe appears to enjoy trying to gee everyone up and put positive thoughts and feelings in to the listener’s mind, like he’s smiling himself as he sings.
- Sad Professor – Up
Up is a weird album to me, perhaps the least ‘accessible’ material that the band recorded, but parts of it are utterly, utterly beautiful both sonically and lyrically. Sad Professor has some really strong juxtapositions in it, starting off really introvert and lost which summit in the most amazing, sudden use of Stipe’s higher reaches. In the chorus it flips from a gloomy minor song, to a positive, major key with direction, like a beam of light has been shone upon it. I do love a good juxtaposition. This song takes Walk Unafraid’s place on the list to add a bit of variety which, when played live, is the most spine tinglingly beautiful song; pure chaos but a real chest pumper.
- Daysleeper – Up
I’m a bit surprised that I’ve included two tracks from Up on here, but I just could not leave this out. I remember feeling as though a new dawn of REM had been born when I first listened to this song, which was almost definitely caused by the departure of percussionist Bill Berry from the band. Another awesome sing along song, I remember being delighted when I learned to play the guitar part to this myself and I played it over and over at school. Daysleeper is just another beautiful track which, for me, can’t be described any other way. It paints quite a vivid picture in my mind of industry and a port and its around the clock operation where people work there because it’s all they know.
- Orange Crush – Green
I remember being really frustrated in my attempts to not properly hear this song all the way through for the longest of times. It was sometimes played on the radio but I always seemed to catch the end of it. Eventually I bought Green and switched straight to track seven, Orange Crush. I know that the song is about war and it’s what it immediately makes me think about, like you’re watching a 80’s or 90’s war film about ‘Nam. Helicopters flying over, colonels barking orders, everyone fighting for the cause together, as a team. For me, a very impactful track and full of meaning and soul.
- Near Wild Heaven – Out Of Time
I love it when another member of the band gets to take lead vocals. It’s nothing against Stipe at all, but I love Mike Mills’ flexibility in the band. Is there anything this guy can’t do? Near Wild Heaven is a really positive song, which feels, to me, high and light. I almost imagine being with my head in the clouds, some how flying when I hear this and the image that’s painted in my head is really similar to the clouds in the opening sequence of The Simpson’s. There you go.
- Strange Currencies – Monster
I was a fairly decent guitarist while I was at high school and sixth form. I used to play every day at lunch time and again when I got home. I always got asked to play Everybody Hurts by people who knew of my love for REM, to which I occasionally obliged, but Strange Currencies was always and still is my REM ballad of choice. “These words, ‘you will be mine’, all the time”. ‘Now with love comes strange currencies’ and the begging for forgiveness in life because nobody is perfect and everyone makes mistakes is exactly my experience of love and what it brings. It’s utterly amazing when it’s right but heartbreakingly upsetting when you feel like you’ve done something wrong and it’s just something that I can completely relate to. This probably isn’t the best structured description of a song I’ve written because it’s coming straight from my heart, almost bypassing my head. I refuse to go back and make it smoother.
I owe a lot to REM. They’ve given me a hell of a lot over the years and when I heard that they’d broken up, I had to pull over the car for a couple of minutes. Especially because I was listening to a sports show at the time and the presenter completely mocked the band saying that it was about time and hadn’t they split up about a thousand times already? I haven’t forgiven him since.
They’re the band I’ve seen most times live and, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, if someone asks me what my favourite band is, REM is always the answer. From the industrial New Adventures In Hi-Fi, to the softer, prettier Up, to the heavier Monster, to the most amazing debut Murmur, they’ll always hold a special part in my heart.
Some ‘almost made its’ are:
Half A World Away, Walk Unafraid, Leave, Binky The Doormat, Circus Envy, Let Me In, Star 69, Ignoreland, Monty Got A Raw Deal, Find The River, Undertow, Driver 8, Tired Of Singing Trouble, Fall On Me.