The other day I suddenly remembered that I was once completely obsessed with REM. You’d think that’s the kind of thing I would remember, but apparently not.
You see my journey with REM was that I was basically a die-hard fan for about 10 years, then I almost completely moved away from them, with only occasional listens now and again for the next 16 or so years, but they were largely off my radar and forgotten about. Then one June evening in 2018 I find myself in floods of tears watching old videos and interviews thinking, “oh my god I love them, they mean so much to me, how could I ever forsake them??!” Ok even now a couple of days later I realise this is melodramatic and my hormones contributed a fair amount to the heightened emotional response, but the basic sentiment is true. Somehow I had forgotten how much I had loved them. How good the songs were. How much a part of my formative years they had been.
It all started (again) with a podcast. I was a big fan of “U Talkin’ U2 To Me?” the U2-based podcast hosted by Adam Scott and Scott Aukerman, even though I pretty much hate U2 (apart from the songs that are good, I like them, but still kinda hate the band – I wrote about it here). However there was mercifully little U2-related content in those podcasts, it was mainly the 2 guys, and occasional guests exchanging stories about their experiences with music, gigs etc. It was hugely entertaining, and clearly both guys are really into their music. That series came to an end, then suddenly it was announced that they would be re-launching with “R U Talkin’ REM Re: Me?” an REM-based podcast series. I already knew that Adam Scott was a huge REM fan, so I was excited to see what would come of this.
Every couple of months I travel down to Preston for study, so I listened to the first few episodes on those long journeys. I was so unbelievably psyched to hear people talk about this band with the passion, enthusiasm and attention to detail that I had back in the day. They take the same general approach, discuss 1 album each episode, sometimes taking an episode to talk about other significant topics in the band’s timeline. It is still hugely entertaining, still contains lots of asides and off-topic chat, but there is more time dedicated to the actual band in question which is a good thing in REM’s case.
With each episode I listened to the relevant album again, re-discovering the earlier stuff (Chronic Town, Murmur, Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction and Life’s Rich Pageant) that I tended to opt for if I if I did put on REM in recent years. It was interesting to spend time focusing on each song, as I had mostly had these albums on in the background while I worked/studied/pottered about the house, so I had never really given them a great deal of attention. The guys go through track by track, with a bit of background, analysis, critique and throw in relevant contextual info. I have never been able to indulge my passion for early REM with anyone in real life, so it was wonderful to hear Adam and Scott talk about these albums in this way, with real insight and understanding. Songs like Talk About the Passion, Driver 8, Fall On Me and Swan Swan H are beautifully constructed songs, with gorgeous arrangements and harmonies and are among my favourite REM songs. Once we get into Document which I listened to a lot more back in the day, Finest Worksong is probably one of my favourite songs of all time by anyone. I could feel the connection to these songs and what they once meant to me re-awakened and a sense that this was going to be quite an emotional journey for me.
As they got to the Green/Out of Time era, which is where I really came in as a fan, I was taken back to that time of my life. It’s hard to overstate how much of an impact discovering REM made on me, surrounded as I was at the time by friends who loved boybands and who kept making me listen to New Kids On The Block. I had zero interest in NKOTB. Zero. Then I heard Losing My Religion on the radio and was obsessed with finding out who these guys were. I had never heard anything like it and was immediately completely in love. I got Out of Time, then Green and listened to little else for a very long time. Consider the time, when all the info I had on this band that opened up a whole new world for me, was the sleeve of the cassettes (oh yes, it would be quite some time before I even got CDs. I have up to Monster on cassette… and don’t even talk to me about bringing back cassettes, they were shite) which was precious few words and even fewer grainy photos. Maybe the odd magazine article and even rarer snippet of tv appearance. I had next to nothing to go on, but held on to it for dear life, reading and re-reading the cassette inlay and 3 or 4 magazine articles over and over. When Automatic came out they were more ubiquitous, but still it was hard to get hold of stuff, especially when you had to pay for every magazine, cassette and VHS tape etc and I was only 13 years old. I still love Green and Out of Time, although until listening to the podcast I hadn’t really realised how odd Out of Time is as an album. I first got acquainted with it when I was 12 so hadn’t really developed critical thinking in that area yet.
When Automatic for the People went stratospheric and they were labelled the biggest band in the world, with multi-million dollar contracts etc I was glad they were more accessible, but at the same time I struggled to reconcile this with the fact that people I knew still weren’t really into them. They might have enjoyed the songs and bought the album, but I still couldn’t talk to anyone about how Automatic was so different from Out of Time, or how amazing Orange Crush and World Leader Pretend were. It still felt lonely being an REM fan.
After Automatic I remember being ridiculously excited to hear Monster, and even more ridiculously excited at the heavier guitar sound, which I was generally getting more into at the time. Around then I got given a VHS tape of interviews, performances and stuff and again would watch it as often as I could to get more of an insight into this exotic band from a far off land. Bearing in mind the only VHS player in the house was attached to the main tv in the living room of the family home so I had to wait til everyone else was out until I could watch it. Which wasn’t often, but I relished every second. I also bought a Monster t-shirt and wore it as often as I could get away with, accessorised with multiple pendants with leather cords -* Grampa Simpson voice * – which was the style at the time. I wore it on one school trip, when an older boy both made and ruined my day but noticing (yay!), complimenting (yay!) then shaking his head and saying it was a shame Stipe was going to die of Aids soon. I was devastated and it was years before I realised it wasn’t true.
My 13-15 year old self was becoming increasingly obsessed with Michael Stipe as an individual, as well as REM as a band. As someone who oftentimes struggles with expressing myself, I have always been drawn to creative, expressive people. Again, at the time I hadn’t come across anyone quite like Stipe. I knew he had a lot of artistic input into the band’s videos, album art etc and found this fascinating, as I didn’t really know of any all-round creative types like that. He was weird, but in a way that I kind of understood, wasn’t alienated by. Although I couldn’t have communicated this at the time, he exuded a strong male energy, as well as displaying some more feminine elements, that combined to make, for me, an extremely attractive human being. I read an article around the time I was 15 or so when there was still tedious media speculation about his sexuality, that he fell in love with people, their gender was immaterial, it was the person that was important. At first, this was revelatory, but then it started to make sense. I don’t recall if he said it or I inferred it, but it made sense that human sexuality was more of a spectrum than strictly one thing or another. How some people still can’t grasp this 20+ years later is baffling. Although I didn’t identify as gay or bi, I certainly didn’t fit in with gender norms, just as he didn’t, and this was comforting as much as it was eye-opening. For me he embodied many things that I admired – creativity, morality and self-assuredness, wrapped up in an other-worldly physically awkward yet elegant body with a captivating voice and accent.
Unfortunately, after Monster came New Adventures in Hi-Fi, which I thought was dreadful. Apart from Electrolite, I could barely listen to it. 20 years later I can still sing along to the songs from Green and Document, I couldn’t even tell you the names of songs on Hi-Fi. It was the beginning of my drift away…
Despite being disillusioned with Hi-Fi, I still bought Up and Reveal. I can’t remember if I had heard the songs first and knew they were more promising, or was just determined to give them another chance and stick with my favourite band. In any case, both those albums have some good songs – Walk Unafraid, Daysleeper, Imitation of Life are all as good as anything REM have ever done, but I didn’t listen to them nearly as obsessively as the others. Partly to to the timing – I was leaving school, I took a year out to work in Sweden, then returned to Scotland to start university, so there were other things to focus on. I drifted further away. In fact I drifted away from music generally for a few years as I discovered other pursuits. I do remember also buying Around the Sun and completely losing interest. I’m not sure I listened to it more than once the whole way through. I was pretty much done with REM.
A few years earlier, though, in 1999, the band played a concert at Stirling Castle. I had never seen them live, they didn’t come to Scotland very often and I had been too young on previous occasions. I was tempted, but ultimately decided not to go, because I couldn’t bear if they didn’t live up to my expectations and completely burst what remained of my bubble. I really couldn’t bring myself to see them in case that whole thing about meeting your idols came true. I regret that now, but they really meant that much to me at the time and the 8 years leading up to it that I didn’t feel I could risk it.
I finally saw them in 2005 when a hastily re-arranged concert had some tickets available and I got over myself and went for it. Even then, I was still nervous. In the end, it was a pretty terrible gig, because it had been rearranged not in the SECC, but in a marquee on Glasgow Green and it rained like the bloody arc was about to set sail. We were drenched, the stage was drenched, the band were not happy, the crowd were soaked, even inside. Then the water evaporated and huge steam banks filled the marquee. It was ridiculous. They also played a ton of songs from Around the Sun which I still didn’t know or like particularly much. But I saw them nonetheless and although it wasn’t the experience I had dreamed of, I saw them and I’m glad I did before they split up.
When they did part ways I wasn’t upset, or particularly surprised. I agreed that the time was right. I read a couple of articles but pretty much got on with things, they hadn’t been a part of my life for years.
Until I started listening to a podcast.
Then it all came flooding back.
So the past few weeks have been a journey of re-discovery, listening to the albums, reading articles and watching videos and interviews. Crying at performances on Jools Holland’s show. I can revel in geeking out along with Adam Scott at the lesser-known trivia of how a song was recorded, what inspired the lyrics, the band’s creative process and the unacknowledged beauty of a buried album track. Marvelling at hearing Stipe’s isolated vocal tracks. I still harbour resentment that I was never allowed to join the REM fanclub, but am grateful to at last find out what bounties it provided as they play unreleased fanclub singles. I at last feel among kindred spirits as the guys spin demos, alternate versions of songs and acoustic versions and debate which is best. It will be interesting to re-examine those later albums that I only partially know, as well as the last 2 that I have never heard at all. In the meantime I am making my own “best of REM” playlist, and a “lively REM” playlist that I will introduce my daughters to. I have even persuaded my bandmates to have a go at covering Orange Crush next time we practice.
I have been through some pretty major life changes in recent years, so it has been nice to remember who I once was, because that is still me. Those years, that music, those people informed me, shaped me, influenced me and I have brought them with me, whether consciously or subconsciously. And I promise never to forget that again.