Monday 26 September 2016

In Music #3: One Life Furnished in Early REM

I remember when REM split up.

On the one hand, I think I was glad they'd called it a day. A lot of bands don't and just soldier or on or go “meh” and don't turn up to practice one day (we hope that this was the fate of U2). On the other hand, I had long subscribed to the school of thought that they should have done it when Bill Berry left after New Adventures in Hi-Fi, which I never much rated.

And this presupposes that I should care. The fact is, I cared a lot when I was younger.

In about April or May 1991, when I was 15, I bought my first album for myself. I'd had stuff bought for me, but this was the first time I had bought anything for myself. I was a late starter. I was poor.

But I had a part-time job. And the first record I ever bought for myself was the cassette of the (now annoyingly) apostropheless Lifes Rich Pageant. That's not bad as a claim for first ever record, is it? Fact is, I went to the record shop expecting to buy Out of Time, which had “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People” on it. Except I only had about a tenner on me, and the cassette of Out of Time was twelve quid.1 I didn't have enough cash for Out of Time, and ended up buying Lifes Rich Pageant, because it was mid-price. £5.99.

And I thought, it'd sound the same, right?

Of course, it doesn't. The first time I listened to it, I didn't like it. But I had PAID for this bastard. I was going to like it. I did that with all of the first dozen albums I bought. The Velvet Underground and Nico might have sounded like it was recorded underwater by a bunch of people coked off their nuts but dammit, I paid with my own money and I was going to like it. If Robyn Hitchcock's Eye and Belly's Star are among my favourite albums, it's because I forced myself to love them because I hardly anything else to listen to.

So I listened to it all the way through and the more I listened to it, the more I liked it. By Monday, I was a fan. “Superman” and “I Believe” (in which Michael Stipe sings what still sounds like “I believe the voles are shifty”) were my theme tunes.

By the time Automatic for the People came out a year later, I was the worst sort of boring fan. They were my idols. I had managed to amass most of their back catalogue. I bought my first albums by Robyn Hitchcock (who would later supplant pretty much everyone else in my affections) and Billy Bragg because they had appeared on a radio show with REM.

Fables of the Reconstruction, Green, and Murmur were all obsessions of mine (but not for some reason Document, which apart from “The One I Love” and “It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” I didn't like as much as the others, and never really have). I made copies of them for the few mates I had, who were largely more interested in either hair metal or acid house. I was on my own, really.

Automatic for the People disappointed me a bit, to begin with. I didn't feel it had the same spark as Out of Time had. Of course, twenty-five years later, Out of Time has dated horribly – some parts of it even tend towards embarrassingly bad (the bit with KRS-One springs to mind), but then there are terrible songs on a lot of REM albums. On the other hand it's easy to see that Automatic for the People is a contender for the best record they ever did.

The REM obsession continued with me into university. Monster came out the day before I went away to Swansea for the very first time and that, along Robyn Hitchcock, Nick Drake (again, REM worked with his producer because they liked Nick Drake, and so I had to listen too), Belly and a very few other artists were the primary soundtrack of my first year in campus halls. I remember that time more fondly than perhaps it deserves to be remembered, but the music stayed with me.

Monster is, in hindsight, the first evidence that REM were losing the plot. I saw them play the old Cardiff Arms Park in July 1995 and it was the highlight of the year. It wasn't my first gig but it was, back then, the best gig I had ever been to and would be for years afterwards. Now you can look back at Monster and go, “there is far too much WTF on this album” or words to that effect, but even now nostalgia, that most impregnable of shields, defends me from its sometimes objective crapness.

I can listen to it even now and it reminds me of a time where, if I was not happy, I had begun a trajetory towards happiness. And that's good enough for me.

Nearly every subsequent album REM would release would be hailed by the press as a “return to form”. Hardly any of them were.

By the time New Adventures in Hifi came out, I was starting out on finals (remember when we still had those) and I'd expanded my musical horizons, and I didn't like it. A couple of songs were, I thought, OK. “Leave” was good. “Electrolite” was pretty (but I was soon to discover Belle and Sebastian and recognise that “pretty” could be done far more effectively, although that affair too wouldn't last).

A while later, about a year I think it was, I heard that Bill Berry had left REM. I shrugged. I would listen to the older albums a lot – Lifes Rich Pageant and Fables of the Reconstruction still get a lot of play, and do come out every so often even now – but I ignored Up when it came out, something that would have been unthinkable a few years before.

I have a copy of it now, but I only picked it up years later, in a sale on a whim, listened to it twice and forgot about it. I never got hold of Reveal or Around the Sun.

In 2008, I got given REM tickets for my birthday. Again in Cardiff, they were playing to promote Accelerate, which was being described once more as a “return to form”. They played mostly things from their earlier records, representing pretty much everything before Monster, and apart from Accelerate, hardly anything after. They were tight, and although at times, you could tell they were tired, the show was again one of the best I have ever been to.

"Supernatural Superserious" hit me, as a song, with its viewpoint of adult reminiscence to unhappy youth.

And you cried, and you cried.2 

I liked Accelerate. I still do. It's the only one of their albums after Up I own. It has an energy, and it's short, like 28 minutes. It doesn't hang about. But it wasn't enough for me to pick up the other albums, and when I heard REM had split after doing one more album which – and here's how much things have changed – I can't remember the title of, it was like being told that a relationship had ended a decade or more after it had.

That's all.

1Which isn't too far from what it is now. Accounting for inflation, an album on CD or cassette by 1991 prices would be the equivalent of nearly thirty quid now. Funny how prices inflate and yet the value of some things changes, isn't it?

For example, I discovered from one of the people whom I support at My Other Place of Work that a ten-bag of weed, what back in the mid-nineties we called a "'teenth", costs the same now as it did in 1994. I remember that what little money I had was at that point going on books and music; most of my friends were stoners, but I never partook; I realised that unlike those guys I couldn't afford a habit. I had two friends in particular (both I am still fortunate enough to count friends) whose parents considered me a "good influence" on their sons. I was the one who got their sons home, who covered up and reassured them that no, the boys hadn't done anything. The one who kept watch. It only recently occurred to me that far from being a good influence, I was an enabler. (back)

2I last cried in May 1991, roughly about the time this story begins. I had been ambushed on the street outside of school by two boys in my class. They beat me up, a reprisal for my losing my shit and punching one of them earlier that day, itself a response to having been pushed further than I could take for longer than I could remember. I remember the sunshine, the way that people walked by without stopping them; I remember spitting my own blood into the face of one of them, can see it even now trickling down his face, onto the collar of his shirt, where it made a spreading stain. I haven't shed a tear since then. (back)