Re-falling in love with REM

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.



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….