Ok yet another one of those times where I was thinking about stuff on the bus, have some half-formed ideas and even though it’s late and I need to sleep I want to get them down before I forget or get taken over by something else. But hey, what’s new?
So I’ve been listening to REM a bit lately. I haven’t really listened to them in ages, but various things have made me move towards them again. That band mean so much to me that it inevitably got me thinking.
REM were about the first band that I properly got in to, that I discovered on my own. I was trying to remember when exactly it was. It was before Automatic for the People, cos I remember that coming out. I think Losing My Religion was the first song that got me hooked, although I had been hearing The One I Love on the radio for a while without realising it was them. So around 1991, I was 11 or 12, leaving Primary School and entering Secondary School. Most of my friends were obsessed with New Kids on the Block. I couldn’t understand their appeal, and tried to get my friends to listen to REM but they were equally uninterested. Of course for them it was about the image and the boys and the Smash Hits culture. For me music was about music, and my music was actually good, but then again as I’ve discussed on here before I was used to being the uncool one and being baffled by my peers’ behaviour.
Anyway, I listened to Out of Time, then Automatic over and over. I went and bought Green and Document and other older albums – they were all on cassette tape, I didn’t have a CD player. I couldn’t get enough of them. Needless to say no-one else that I knew shared my obsession so I quitely tried to find as much information as I could about them myself.
These days if I discover a new band a quick search on the internet will lead me to their website, merch store, links to sample or download their tracks, bios, interviews, videos etc. Back in the early 90s I had no such luxury. I trawled music magazines for snippets, surreptitiously sneaking a peek then buying any that featured the band. I read and re-read all the info in the inserts in the tapes. Occasionally they would be featured on Top of the Pops or some other music show and I would get to see their videos.
For a birthday or Christmas one year I got an REM video. I can’t remember exactly what was on it, but I think some of their music videos and interviews etc. That small slice of insight into who they were and what they were like as people was fascinating to me. Even how they spoke – they had weird accents!
I would have given anything for YouTube or MySpace back then. The difference that the internet has made to a music fan is immense. I mean I always see depictions of music-lovers in the pre-internet days congregating in their local music store, finding that elusive vinyl LP, sharing records with fellow enthusiasts. But I was 12. I was a wee girl. I lived in Dundee, which undoubtedly had independent music shops, but none that I knew of.
I saved up my money and bought an REM t-shirt from the Virgin Megastore, and wore it whenever I could. I saw other people wearing them, but they were always much older, and invariably they were male, so I never worked up the courage to speak to them. One time on a school trip, one of the boys a few years ahead of me noticed my t-shirt and was visibly impressed, but then said to me, “yeah they’re a great band, it’s a shame Michael Stipe is going to die, isn’t it?”. I was devastated. I didn’t know anything about the rumours about him having AIDS or anything, and thought he really was going to die. The big boy said it so it must be true. Again, these days the internet would have meant that I would have known this, or if I didn’t I could quickly google it and find out. I was tormented by that thought for ages until I discovered what the hell he’d been talking about.
I found out that there was an REM fan club. I pestered my mum to let me join. She refused, cos it meant having to send a letter to Athens, Georgia. The very thought of sending a letter all the way to America just for some silly band was just too much for her. I was so upset, I tried to figure out how to do it without her knowing, but she knew the people in the post office and the local shop, they would surely make some comment to her if I went in asking for stamps to America. Then there was the fact that I’d receive post back from America, she’d see that and the game would be up. I had to accept I would miss out on the newsletter and poster and exclusive offers. Today I follow my favourite bands on Facebook and Twitter, get all the news and latest info straight to my inbox or phone. Kids these days don’t need their parents’ permission for that, it’s all within their control and immediately accessible. The man in the post office need never know.
I bought a poster,
it was among my most treasured possessions, it hung on the back of my bedroom door, followed me to University and eventually had to be thrown out after too many moves had ripped all its corners and the blue-tac and sellotape damage was too extensive. I was so sad to see it go, even though I was probably about 22 by that time. Today I have dozens of images of my favourite bands on my laptop and my phone. I don’t cherish any quite as much as I cherished that poster though.
By the time I was 18, I left home, and my obsession lessened a little. I continued to buy their albums when they came out, but didn’t feel the same about their new material as I did about their older stuff. Eventually I moved on entirely and barely listened to them at all.
Then when I was in London, in 2003, they released a best-of album, and I found out afterwards that Michael Stipe had been in London promoting it, and had been standing on a street corner near Marble Arch handing out copies. I live near Marble Arch! I was so gutted that I hadn’t known about it and that he was so close I could have met him. In the world of Twitter that news would have been out so fast, I’d have got it on my phone and sprinted down there. But then again so would hundreds or thousands of other people. So then he probably wouldn’t do that kind of thing today. Technology has changed how bands interact with fans as well.
Throughout all this time I had never seen them live. Partly because they rarely toured in Scotland and when they did the expense would have put it out of my reach. As the years went on I was apprehensive about the idea of seeing them live – what if they didn’t live up to my expectations? Then in 2005 a series of events led them to put on a concert in a 10,000 capacity tent on Glasgow Green and I managed to score tickets. By that time I was at the stage where I was disappointed with their most recent album(s) and felt maybe they were past their peak, so didn’t have high expectations of the gig. Despite it being June it was pissing with rain, the whole tent got flooded and there must have been a hazard with all the electrical equipment, but they were absolutely brilliant. They played all the hits, quite a few oldies, and even the newer songs that I hadn’t thought much of on the albums came into their own when performed live. Michael Stipe was showing no sign of being past his best (and was very much alive). I was so glad I finally got to experience them live.
So yeah, this was supposed to be a discussion around how technology and the intenet has changed the experience of being a music fan, but it has segued into an ode to REM. Oh well.
Now after a number of years I’m going back and listening to all their albums again. In many ways they are so familiar and comforting, it’s like going home. But I’m also able to listen with fresh ears and consider the music in new ways which is nice and refreshing. There are so many good songs that I had forgotten about, although in that strange way when they come on I still know all the words. Well, as much as you can do with REM. I swear some songs I’ve been listening to for 20 years and I still can’t make out what the hell Stipe is on about….