The Impending Monument

The first volume of Mark Lewisohn‘s Beatles biography has finally been announced, and you can even pre-order it.

You think I’m not going to ask for it for my birthday? Of course I am. My big worry is the nature of the question that Lewisohn, on the book’s official website, is claiming to ask:

It all boils down to this. They were four war babies from Liverpool who really did change the world, and whose music and impact still lives on in so many ways, after all these years. I say, let’s scrub what we know, or think we know, and start over: Who really were these people, and how did it all happen?

But is Mark Lewisohn the guy who can answer that question? His archival research has been, as far as I know (insofar as, lke most people, I don’t have access to the EMI archives and haven’t been able to check up on it), immaculate. His chronicling has been indefatigable. But knowing what exactly the Beatles did every day of their lives doesn’t enable you to understand how they came to do it. This is a pretty basic issue in musicology, as normally practised, and especially as articulated by Joseph Kerman and anyone who agrees with him that a critical musicology is as necessary as a purely scholarly one — it’s one thing to know what happened when, but knowing why it happened when it did, or what someone meant by it, calls for a different set of skills.

I am not yet convinced that Mr. Lewisohn, surely the most important Beatles scholar of our time, is qualified to write their biography. I hope I’m wrong. I look forward to reading it. If nothing else, it’ll be the culmination of his life’s work and every Beatle fan interested in what the band actually did already owes him a debt we can never pay back.

The Impending Monument

The Company They Kept: The Beatles’ recordings in context #1

The Beatles revolutionised popular music, yadda yadda yadda. People who don’t like them get tired of hearing that over and over again (and if you’re one of them, you really need to read Nitsuh Abebe’s hilarious article on how to write an effective anti-Beatle rant before you post a comment.) This blog assumes that, like me, you find the Beatles interesting. But perhaps, like me, you get a bit impatient with talk of how the Beatles ‘changed the face of’ popular music, or whatever. I was curious about whether or not it could have seemed like that at the time. On thinking about it, I realised that I didn’t know what the face of British popular music in 1962 looked like.

Everything gets revived sooner or later, or at least it seems to. Look at Richard Hawley, who’s got to where he is by conducting his entire career as though there hasn’t been any popular music since around 1963. This is the only explanation for why he would want to collaborate with Hank Marvin (on what’s admittedly a very pretty track.) But Hawley is an unusually intelligent and talented fan of pre-Beatles pop music. For most fans of the era, it’s simply a cue for nostalgia. Nostalgia being a longing for something that seems better in retrospect than it was at the time, Beatles fans who were actually around while the band was making music tend to feel nostalgia with tragic intensity. The most conspicuous example is the late Ian MacDonald, whose Revolution in the Head: the Beatles’ Records and the Sixties sought to put the band in its historical and cultural context. It’s a great book but its flaws are great too, and they’re deeply bound up with MacDonald’s overall take on the Beatles, which has to do with his sense that all of cultural history since the Beatles’ breakup was a sad falling-away into empty meaninglessness. MacDonald’s great failing as a critic was one he shared with Sainte-Beuve, an inability to see the good in his contemporaries, especially if they were the coming thing, as opposed to something he’d grown up with. Hence his bizarre contempt for Bill Hicks, who he dismissed as — if memory serves, since I don’t have a copy of the review in question — ‘a speeded-up version of Lenny Bruce’, a wisecrack which registered Hicks’ idealism but missed his comic materialism, his irrepressible Goat-Boy persona.

Gah! I’ve let myself be sidetracked into writing the critique of Ian MacDonald that I wanted to do some other time. What I really want to do is something that the print-bound Ian MacDonald would surely have liked to do: offer a direct sense of the cultural context of the Beatles’ early releases, instead of just write about them. This is the first of a series of posts in which I’ll be presenting some Beatles’ recordings in the context of the UK top 20 charts, at the times that their earliest recordings were released, and also when they reached their highest position. The Beatles’ recordings didn’t get issued in the USA until later, and we’ll deal with that a bit further on.

We can do this because of the UK Singles Archive, which gathers together the singles charts as compiled by Record Retailer back in the day, and Spotify, which at this point has gathered together every nanosecond of music ever recorded — with one notable exception. The Beatles’ music isn’t on Spotify, except for Love Me Do, which is the only recording of theirs that’s in the public domain, and it might not be there for long. Still, I’m guessing that most of you will have their music available in some form or another (and even if you don’t, it’s on iTunes) so you can slot it into a playlist where necessary. If you don’t have Spotify, you can get it for free, or else you can look up all these songs on YouTube. They’re all there.

Why did the Beatles’ music take off the way it did? Against what musical backdrop did they appear? Why did people think that they were so cool? Without wanting to alienate fans of the below artists — and I enjoy some of the music in these lists, if not all of it — I think that hearing the music that was in the air when the Beatles came along helps us to understand the nature of the impact they had at the time. If you love this music, please feel free to ignore my more negative commentaries. (I’m not looking for a fight and if you attempt to pick one, I won’t rise to it; comments are moderated.)

The Beatles’ first single, Lennon & McCartney’s Love Me Do, was released in the UK on 5 October 1962. The week beginning 29 September 1962, the UK Top 20 was this:

1. Elvis Presley – She’s Not You

2. Cliff Richard and The Shadows – It’ll Be Me

3. The Tornados – Telstar

4. Frank Ifield – I Remember You

5. Ronnie Carroll – Roses Are Red (My Love)

6. Bobby Darin – Things

7. Brian Hyland – Sealed With A Kiss

8. Adam Faith – Don’t That Beat All

9. Neil Sedaka – Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

10. Tommy Roe – Sheila

11. The Shadows – Guitar Tango

12. Ray Charles – You Don’t Know Me

13. Little Eva – The Locomotion

14. Shirley Bassey – What Now My Love?

15. Pat Boone – Speedy Gonzales

16. Jet Harris – Theme from The Man With the Golden Arm

17. Duane Eddy – Ballad of Paladin

18. Lonnie Donegan – Pick A Bale of Cotton

19. Mike Sarne with Billie Davis – Will I What

20. Billy Fury – Once Upon A Dream

So this is, from the Beatles’ perspective, the competition. Elvis’ She’s Not You is the King in country-by-numbers mode. Cliff Richard was the biggest thing in UK pop music before the Beatles, but his most convincing hit, Move It, was from 1958 and by 1962 he was doing this rather bombastic cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’ It’ll Be Me, not helped by the song’s ungainly structure. The way I hear it, each verse has two extra beats at the end of every third line to include the title phrase (‘If you hear somebody knocking / on your door / If you see somebody crawlin’ / cross the floor, baby, it’ll be me / and I’ll be lookin’ for you’), which makes the song seem like it’s taking too long to get to the point — not that this has stopped plenty of other people from recording it.

Frank Ifield crops up a lot in the early 60s charts, and is a good example of the kind of musician whose career was destined to be pounded underfoot by the hordes of post-Beatle guitar bands. His yodelling croon was perfectly suited to this kind of widescreen standard. The harmonica-led country-pop arrangement was obviously designed to capitalise on Ifield’s background as an Australian stockman, as close as UK pop had to an authentic cowboy, but I can’t help thinking for all that he sold a lot of records (this one sold a million copies), the melancholy of his material must have seemed a bit stuffy and grown-up, compared to the Beatles’ lusty immediacy. I Remember You, written by Victor Scherzinger and Johnny Mercer, belonged in the 1960s to the kids’ parents’ generation: Dorothy Lamour originally sang it in 1942’s The Fleet’s In. Amusing irony department: The Beatles themselves used to do this song, and it’s featured on their maddeningly elusive Live at the Star Club album from 1977.

Ronnie Carroll’s Roses Are Red is a slice of stodgy Norn Irish country, and presumably well-loved by people who like that kind of thing. Bobby Darin’s Things is entirely forgettable, falling between his earlier finger-snappin’ swing hits and later earnest protest-folk (I mean, come on, who calls a song ‘Things’? It’s like calling a song ‘Stuff’.)

Brian Hyland’s drenchingly minor-key Sealed With A Kiss came as a surprise to me, who only knew his upbeat yet squicky Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini. Again, Sealed With A Kiss sounds way too maudlin for teenagers; instead of lamenting separation from the object of desire, the Beatles preferred to celebrate being in the same room as her (I Saw Her Standing There).

Adam Faith’s turgid Don’t That Beat All is pushed towards the bizarre by a weird scrapy violin part, played as if by the arranger’s illiterate hick cousin. Neil Sedaka’s hit starts ‘Doo doo doo dum doobie-doo dum dum, kama kama dum doobie-doo dum dum, kama kama dum doobie-doo dum dum, breakin’ up is hard too-oo-oo do’, a curiously casual way to talk about the death of love. I’ll admit to a slight grudge against Neil Sedaka, whose 1975 hit Laughter in the Rain will always remind me of being five years old, watching TV, seeing this song on heavy rotation and being both bored and saddened by it — bored because I couldn’t empathise with the emotion, and saddened because it was the first time I realised that music had the power to repel me. (I have to admit that the key-change into the chorus is effective, dammit.) He’s also notable for being someone who had to leave a band before it could become successful, his high school band The Tokens having a hit four years after his departure with The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

Tommy Roe’s Sheila is essentially a riff on Buddy Holly‘s Peggy Sue, down to the softly pattering drum part, but it has some interestingly snarly guitar (by either Wayne Moss or the great Jerry Reed.) In March of the following year, Tommy Roe was unlucky enough to find himself headlining a package tour with Chris Montez, and the Beatles further down the bill. According to Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Chronicle, the Beatles so brutally upstaged everyone else that the organisers were forced to place them in the headliners’ slot after the first night of the tour.

The Shadows’ Guitar Tango is nimble faux-Hispanic nonsense. Ray Charles’ You Don’t Know Me, easily the greatest track here, comes from his classic album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, and it may not exactly be country and western, but to paraphrase what Samuel Johnson said of Oliver Goldsmith, Ray Charles touched nothing that he did not adorn. The combination of power and vulnerability in his vocal puts most of the singers in this chart to shame, and the arrangement remains sensibly discreet; even the heavenly choir in the middle eight sounds like it’s taken a step backwards out of respect for Ray Charles’ greatness.

Little Eva does the Locomotion, and there’s just no stopping her; it’s rubbish, it’s silly, it’s naggingly catchy, it’s completely brilliant. Shirley Bassey is equally unstoppable, in her own way, but this too sounds to me like parent music. Pat Boone’s Speedy Gonzales is probably Pat Boone’s finest hour, which isn’t saying much, since Pat is upstaged by his own backing vocalists: session singer Jackie Ward has great fun with the self-consciously idiotic La-la-la’s and, yes, that’s Mel Blanc himself as Speedy, gleefully heaping ethnic stereotype upon ethnic stereotype.

Former Shadows bassist Jet Harris throws himself at a rather tasty surf-flavoured remake of Elmer Bernstein‘s raucous title music from The Man with the Golden Arm — I miss the blaring horns of the original, but in terms of bringing rock bottom-end to jazz sleaze, this is at least dreaming fitfully of the towering Barry Adamson version from 1988. Duane Eddy’s The Ballad of Paladin, however, is an insane (and not in a good way) mashup of knightly nobility, sax sleaze and guitar twang.

Lonnie Donegan makes picking a bale of cotton sound like something we could do right here in the barn, guys! After a minute and a half I want to say, alright, just pick the f***ing cotton, already. Mike Sarne’s Will I What makes my skin crawl, even though it’s a comedy record (with an amazingly sexist punchline). The weird thing is that although Mike Sarne, like John Lennon, was only 22 when this was recorded, he sounds terrifyingly middle-aged. Finally, Billy Fury’s record shows that the initial energy of British rock & roll was, by late 1962, pretty much spent. This isn’t ‘Billy Fury’. This is Ronald Wycherley wondering what’s happening to his career.

So, that’s how things were when Love Me Do first went on sale. Our next post will be about how things looked when it reached its highest point in the charts, no 17, just after Christmas 1962, when Beatle fandom was beginning to break out of the North. In the longer term we’ll be covering Please Please Me, their first major hit, and From Me To You, their first undisputed number 1 single. I’ll look at later singles and early albums if there’s enough enthusiasm for the project, but right now I think that a project like this is likely to be confined by its nature to the first couple of years of the band’s success; after a certain point the singles charts start to look very familiar. (Although it’s still worth checking out the charts from later in the decade: the UK top 20 from late June 1967 contains, besides Procol Harum, The Kinks, The Supremes, The Mamas and Papas and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, also Vince Hill, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich, Engelbert Humperdinck, the New Vaudeville Band and Topol. And yes, Topol is awesome, but If I Were A Rich Man belongs to the ages, not so much to the summer of ’67.

Hope you enjoyed this snapshot of history. The next one will be along soon. Happy listening.

The Company They Kept: The Beatles’ recordings in context #1

Sheldon Cooper and mumbling

Anybody who’s become a fan of The Big Bang Theory will have become so partly as a result of Jim Parsons’ brilliant performance as the intellectually brutal but socially disastrous Sheldon Cooper. But just as the quality of the show’s writing has slumped in the current season, Parsons has been (perhaps unconsciously) signalling as much with an actorial tic.

I wouldn’t have spotted it if I hadn’t worked in theatre for a long time, but in the past season or so, Parsons has taken to prefixing his lines with a single, short, blurred, half-syllable, a sort of ‘Ahm-‘ or ‘Mbl-‘ or ‘Wll-‘. He usually does this when he’s about to deliver a line that should be good but isn’t. (I recognise that this would be a great moment to point you towards a YouTube montage of moments where Sheldon makes a weird noise before starting his lines, but I have neither the technology nor the time to put such a thing together.) It’s a thing actors do on stage when they don’t really have confidence in their own lines; it pulls focus towards them, so that by the time people have switched their attention towards the actor, they’re primed to pay attention to what the actor is about to say. It’s less noticeable in a theatre but on TV it’s glaringly obvious, and I’m surprised that nobody on Big Bang Theory has called Parsons on it. Unless they think it’s cute, which it isn’t.

Sheldon Cooper and mumbling

R.E.M. vs Interpretation

Anybody who loves REM needs to be aware of Matthew Perpetua’s remarkable labour of love, Pop Songs 07–08. It’s a commentary on every song REM ever recorded (up until 2008), and all kudos to Matthew for following it through with such dedication. He even got Michael Stipe in for a series of Q&As, which are an invaluable resource for anyone who’s followed the career of this endlessly lovable yet perplexing band. Go check it out. Now. I’m serious. Then, if you like, come back and read about my problems with it.

I am older than Matthew Perpetua, who I think is in his very early 30s, and I go back a little further than him with this band, but not all that much further. I first encountered them flukily early, in 1983-84, when I was about 13. RTE, the Irish national television network, was looking to expand its overseas coverage and it seized on the output of the then all-new MTV. For three hours every Saturday morning, RTE would broadcast a programme called MT-USA, a selection of videos then on rotation on MTV, selected by an Irish DJ named Vincent Hanley, known to listeners (or at least he liked to think he was known to listeners) as ‘Fab Vinnie’, now sadly dead. Hanley would present the show to Irish viewers, more often than not from some pavement in New York in order to give us the impression that he was where the action truly was. In practice, what we got was a lot of videos of songs we knew anyway, as well as videos by bands who had no following in Ireland at all; I can remember sitting patiently through songs by the likes of REO Speedwagon, Dennis de Young (‘Desert Moon’) and Steve Perry, hoping that something cool might come along in a minute, which is of course the state of mind that everyone watched MTV in, back in the day that we had to wait for the good stuff to happen. And once in a while, something cool did come on; MT-USA was probably the first time Irish TV audiences encountered ZZ Top, for example, in the form of their splendidly sly videos for Eliminator.

But there were also stranger and darker and odder things to be seen on MT-USA, and one of the strangest and darkest was a blurry, enigmatic video by a band calling itself REM. The song was ‘Radio Free Europe’, and the video – we know now – was the recut version that IRS insisted on, with inserted footage of the band in concert, instead of the original Arthur Pierson cut of the band ambling around Howard Finster’s place and all meeting up at the end, to see Rev. Finster release a small doll that tumbled arse-over-tip down an inclined plane.

REM and their song stayed with me, though I never found out much about them – at the time I was coming out of a phase of liking 60s rock and moving into liking Talking Heads and Television. Then, a few years later, I was watching some actual rock program some night and REM came along again. This time, it was the video for ‘The One I Love’, and I was hooked.

I went out and acquired their entire back catalogue (with some difficulty in the case of Chronic Town, which I could only get on cassette). I am, therefore, of the generation that discovered REM via Document. I was happy when they signed to Warner Bros. I looked forward to hearing Green, and I was elated when it sounded like a masterpiece. I went to see them in Dublin, on the Green tour, at the RDS Simmonscourt Pavilion in 1989, the gig which was notoriously attended by U2, at which REM, fully conscious of who was in the audience, basically staked their claim to be best band in the world, and was acclaimed as such by at least one UK newspaper (the Observer) shortly afterwards.

And so, unlike Matthew Perpetua, I got to hear Stipe sing ‘Harpers’ and ‘We Live As We Dream Alone’, and I fondly remember the cheeky final encore of ‘Afterhours’, with Stipe strolling up and down the lip of the stage and giving cheesy Vegas winks and nods to imaginary friends in the audience. (Now I think about it, he may have been giving them to U2.) I had a perfect moment to ‘Perfect Circle’. I swear to this day that Peter Buck was looking directly at me during ‘King of Birds’.

I bought the albums as they came out…and then, only a year or so later, realised to my dismay that I didn’t really like Out Of Time. Automatic For The People struck me as only slightly better. I loved Monster, and much but not all of New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Then Bill Berry left, and the inexorable law kicked in that no rock band can stay creative without a permanent drummer. I have a difficulty with Up, the last REM album that I bought. I love it the way you love somebody that you had a painful breakup with.

None of this places me as a special kind of REM fan, and I don’t claim to be one. I know someone who is such a Morrissey fan that if he tours Scotland she will go to every gig, and when she first got to meet him backstage, she asked him to sign her arm, which he did, and she had his signature tattooed into her flesh. There was never a time when I would have wanted to do something like that with REM, even at the point of my maximum fandom, in 1990 or so. I happen to have a tattoo, but it’s Black Flag‘s logo, not Michael Stipe’s signature. That erotic thing that’s the mark of a certain kind of intense fandom? I did have that with Stipe, sure, but in 1989-1990, years before he had outed himself as an ‘equal opportunity lech’ and at a time when I myself was notably unsuccessful in the business of getting girls interested in me.

They played in Ireland after that, and I didn’t go and see them. Hell, they had a residency in the Olympia Theatre in 2007, which was literally five doors down the street from where I worked at the time, and I knew that they were playing there and even trying out new songs for a freaking live album, and I still didn’t go and see them.

And then they made a couple more albums and then broke up, and I would never be able to see them again – one of maybe three rock bands/pop groups that I’ve really been a passionate fan of, at one stage or other, as opposed to really loving the music. (The other two are the Beatles, whose fascination endures for me, and Talking Heads, whose music I still love but whose story no longer obsesses me the way it once did.)

That’s the story so far of my life as an REM fan, and I suspect it’s not all that untypical. Maybe I got into them a little earlier than some people, and maybe I stopped loving everything they did a little sooner than some of their later fans, but that’s just an accident of chronology; I didn’t stop liking them because they became popular. I would have loved it if my favourite band were also the world’s favourite band. (What am I talking about? That’s one of the pleasures of loving the Beatles. It’s nice to feel uncomplicatedly part of a community.) I stopped liking them because I stopped enjoying their music. Nobody could convince me that Out Of Time was as coherent and powerful an album as Green, even if ‘Losing My Religion’ was a Big Hit Single. Automatic For The People had its moments, but songs like Nightswimming and Everybody Hurts sounded banal to me. After Green, every REM album that I could bring myself to listen to would strike me as having roughly half an album’s worth of great songs, and the rest would be filler. The strange thing was that I would disagree with the consensus about what was filler and what wasn’t. And after a while, I just stopped listening. I haven’t listened to Reveal, Around the Sun, Accelerate or Collapse Into Now at all, bar the odd single.

So, to bring it all back to Pop Song 07–08. What Matthew Perpetua’s done here is, in my view, something immensely enjoyable; it’s really fun to dip and and out of, and his writing style is lucid, clear and sensible. In fact, that’s kind of the problem. MP, as I’ll call him (hope he doesn’t mind), is an eminently sensible commentator. But the best REM songs, and even some of the less good ones, resist this sort of treatment.

What MP does is this: he listens to the song and offers an interpretation of it, based on what he can make the lyrics out to be, and how, to his ears, the musical setting does or doesn’t support that. He seems to have checked out lyric sheets where they were available. But his method is at least grounded in a definite effort to determine what the song is ‘about’.

My problem with this is that REM, foremost among every band in the history of rock & roll, made the most undeniably successful efforts to frustrate attempts to determine what their songs are ‘about’; and yet, not only does this not diminish their appeal, it actually enhances it. Eddie Vedder put it beautifully when he inducted the band into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007:

There are a couple of things I need to address, the hardest one being Michael Stipe. How do you explain the dialogue between Michael and the listener? A dialogue that grew up, and we grew up with it. Such wisdom in the feelings of his songs that, I, I think — that they helped us find things that we knew were inside us, and I think he helped us find things that we didn’t know we had inside us, and I can say that personally, there are things that I hold and feel very deeply about inside here [pointing to heart], that Michael Stipe put in there himself. This all happens without ever being able to understand a f***ing thing he was saying.

Vedder added, as any fan would, that this of course referred to REM’s early years. It was, of course, a conscious move on the band’s part. Anyone who’s listened to bootlegs of their earliest rehearsal tapes (or the officially released ‘All The Right Friends’, a characteristic example of their early stuff) knows that REM began as a fairly meat’n’taters retro guitar band, playing jangly garage-rock songs about nasty girlfriends and permanent vacations, and then at some point early on they realised that there was much more to be gained by veiling themselves in mystery and obfuscation. The leap from the earliest tapes to ‘Radio Free Europe’ is a quantum leap. What made all the difference was that Stipe went from singing simple lyrics clearly to singing oblique and enigmatic lyrics in a voice that you couldn’t decipher.

It was this sense of mystery that made early REM so powerfully attractive. All successful bands offer a certain amount of space for you to project yourself onto, but REM offered more than most, and they framed it with an unusually crisp and pretty musical backdrop that emphasised the mystery and the promise and the sweet uncertainty, and (unlike the music of most of their peers) didn’t force you to feel one way rather than another about it. This was exactly the kind of thing about them that pissed off punk purists who wanted music that endorsed their own rage; but it’s also the reason REM meant so damn much to shy and confused teenagers like me. I was confused enough that, in my angriest moments, Black Flag meant a lot to me too; but Black Flag wasn’t the kind of listening experience I could share with anyone else, especially since they had fragmented by the time I got to listen to them. REM, however, spoke to anyone who didn’t know what to think or who to be, because you could never figure out exactly who REM were or what they thought. That’s why ‘Murmur’ was the perfect title for their first album. To murmur is to say something so quietly that whatever you said is less significant than the fact that you said it so quietly.

But you can’t conduct your whole career like that. Sure enough, as time went by, Michael Stipe decided that he wanted to be understood. On Reckoning you could hear the words, but you couldn’t make sense of them. On Fables of the Reconstruction the words ducked back into the mix again. On Lifes Rich Pageant the words, at last, rang out — and Stipe defined himself, one way or the other, out of what later seemed like a hope that we might define ourselves along with him. And we did, I suppose. At the 1989 RDS gig he spoke out about the recent Exxon Valdez disaster and how we should all boycott Esso products, and of course we all cheered. On the way home in the car, the friend of mine who’d driven me to the concert needed to fill her petrol tank and we made a Big Thing out of not filling up at an Esso station.

Some of REM’s best-loved later songs are of course blazingly simple. ‘Everybody Hurts’ would be an example, and it’s a much-loved song. MP greatly admires it: ‘[…] there is absolutely no use for ambiguity if the object of your song is to console the depressed and talk them out of suicide.’

I don’t like that song. I was 21 when I first heard it and maybe not quite as in touch with my tortured adolescence as I’d been a couple of years earlier, but I was still fairly unhappy, and yet this song (by a band I’d loved and still loved) didn’t uplift or console me in any way. Instead, it just sounded preachy and insulting, as if the most popular guy in school had briefly broken away from his group of cool friends to offer the miserable nerd a condescending shoulder squeeze and a glib ‘Hey, chin up, kid, you’ve got friends, you know’. Bah! Fuck off! It’s easy to say consoling things, but there are depths of unhappiness that ‘Everybody Hurts’ can’t touch. You can’t ‘take comfort in your friends’ if you’ve come to believe that your friends don’t like you.

No, it sounded hollow. Especially when the same album had one of Stipe’s darkest and most self-punishing songs about his own relationship with his audience, ‘Drive’. ‘Drive’ really plumbs the depths, from its D minor harmony (Buck tunes the low E string on his guitar down to a D, here) to John Paul Jones’ inspired string arrangement, which gives the song a sense of cosmic weight. MP says ‘The song poses a very serious question: Are you obsolete and irrelevant, or are you just being told that you are by people who don’t have a clue, or are seeking to marginalize anyone old enough to know better than insecure, immature teenagers, but not quite old enough to be the establishment?’

But ‘Drive’ isn’t asking a coherent question like that, nor does it give the answer to one. It dramatises a mood, a mixture of fascination, seduction and contempt. The singer plays with the listener, lumping the individual into the mass of ‘kids’, mocking them with ‘Nobody tells you where to go’ and then luring them back to the singer’s side with that crooning ‘Bay-behhhh…’, as if Stipe were reassuring us, hey, kids, don’t take it personally, I do like you really. There is something profoundly creepy (and exciting) about this, and even when the wrath of the gods breaks out on that fuzz guitar interlude, as the stormclouds boil overhead (in the video, at this point, fire hoses are turned on band members and fans alike), the singer’s unruffled, slightly insolent cool is maintained on the old playground chant ‘Ollie, ollie in come free’. The video expanded on this mood by having Stipe held aloft by a crowd as if bodysurfing at a concert; he gets tossed this way and that, his shirt riding up his torso, as the crowd battles for who gets to hold him up. (Bodysurfing has its own terrors, quite apart from the comic risk of just falling to the floor. I read an interview once with Courtney Love in which she reported diving into a crowd at a festival and, in the ensuing chaos, feeling members of the audience tear off her underwear and stick fingers inside her.)

Now, I’m not trying to imply that Stipe himself harbours creepy, sleazy thoughts about his audience. What’s undeniable is that he’s using this mood to create a good song. It’s said that most REM songs began with Berry, Buck and/or Mills coming up with music which Stipe would then write words to, and if so, this further messes with MP’s picture of REM songs being personal messages from Stipe about himself, or his own feelings and fears. Stipe’s own rhetorical strategies would seem to confound that, which is why MP ignores them, wanting to make each song an argument or a question or a sermon or a plea. Elsewhere, even when a song seems to be extremely direct, MP often misjudges the tone: he describes the lyrics of ‘Star 69’ as ‘a bit goofy and friendly’ but how does that fit with ‘you don’t have to take the bar exam to see / what you’ve done is ignoramus 103 / what’ve I got to hang my hat on / you don’t have a pot to pee in / all this just to be your friend / I was there until the end / extortion and arson, petty larceny’? (Copyright © R.E.M./Athens Ltd., btw.) Moreover, Stipe, or Scott Litt, or someone, ups the tension and anxiety by feeding Stipe’s vocal through a delay unit with the level turned up very high, so that each line Stipe sings is echoed at the same volume exactly a beat later, as if the singer wants to drown out this pest with accusations.

In general, MP is fonder of talking about what the song makes him think about, than the song itself. His three paragraphs on ‘Oddfellows Local 151’ are mostly about disillusionment with the speed of social change, and try to imply that the song is about that too, which is pretty weird because this is actually an occasion where Stipe himself talked about what the song is about. In an 80s interview he described the song as being his effort to mess up and dismiss and generally be done with the approach he took on Fables of the Reconstruction, and this does seem to be borne out by the comic and rather foolish figure cut by Peewee, who sits on the wall at Oddfellows Local 151 and offers his ‘pearls of wisdom’ to the ‘boy and girl’. Here, Stipe is having fun with imagery from Southern literature; I’m thinking especially of Flannery O’Connor‘s tortured, wayward prophets who see reality more clearly than the half-assed liberal agnostic intellectuals, a trope O’Connor sometimes elevated to brilliant literature but which becomes a bit predictable if you read too much of her stuff in one go. This is hardly a controversial take on the song: Stipe even quotes O’Connor quoting Psalm II, in the line ‘Why do the heathens rage behind the firehouse’. But Peewee is no Hazel Motes. He’s a hapless drunk who falls over and has to have the blood and rum washed off him by the boy and girl he’s trying to instruct. We never learn what ‘proof’ Peewee is teaching. He’s a figure of fun. If this song does come from somewhere personal to Stipe, it’s perhaps an uneasiness with the slogan-shouting demagoguery that makes up much of the rest of the album (including such thrilling moments as ‘Finest Worksong’, ‘Welcome to the Occupation’ and the raucous ‘Fireplace’, which I think is one of REM’s best songs.) Peewee is how the narrator of ‘Life and How to Live It’ will end up. Fables is an album full of character studies, but if ‘Oddfellows’ is a character study it’s a very Beckettian one. (A further link from ‘Oddfellows’ to Fables is Buck’s angular guitar part, more reminiscent of ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull’ or ‘Old Man Kensey’.)

Still, Matthew Perpetua wrote about every REM song. Well, not all of them. He had the good sense to leave off at Reveal. I admire his common sense, and I’m in awe of his stamina.

R.E.M. vs Interpretation