R.E.M.

September 28, 2011

R.E.M. announced their end last week and it’s taken me until now to ponder that news. That alone is evidence of how much I’d lost touch of a band that, for a good half decade or so, was a fixture in my world.

Now that I do reflect on the career of the Athens, Georgia quartet, I realize that R.E.M. was arguably the ultimate college rock act for me and, like a lot of people from that period of higher education, we simply went in separate directions, unable to maintain a once seemingly unbreakable connection.

I’m unable to place exactly when I was introduced to Michael Stipe and company.

I discovered the modern rock of 97X during the autumn of 1983, six months or so following the release of R.E.M.’s debut Murmur. The station was undoubtedly playing Radio Free Europe and Talk About The Passion and I’m sure that, on those evenings when I could get reception, I heard the songs, but to little effect on me.

I do know that by the following spring, when Reckoning was issued, my buddy Bosco sing the band’s praises and I was reading about the band in Rolling Stone.

Still, R.E.M. and I existed in blissful ignorance of one another.

By the summer of 1985, I had begun to hear R.E.M. on the radio as one of the rock stations I was listening to gave some airplay to Driver 8 and Cant Get There From Here from Fables Of The Reconstruction.

Neither song really resonated with me and neither did the critical adulation. However, it didn’t go unnoticed that my girlfriend’s older brother, home from college for the summer, was enthusuiastic about R.E.M.

A summer later, Lifes Rich Pageant was issued and as I headed to college that fall, R.E.M. had finally connected with me through the songs Fall On Me and Superman, the latter a cover of a song by ’60s band The Clique.

I was hearing the songs in the dorm and at parties, seeing the videos on MTV, and reading about them in each and every music magazine I’d pick up.

Oddly enough, though I was now in college, I didn’t have access to a modern rock station as I had in high school, so my growing interest in R.E.M. wasn’t being nurtured by radio even though the group was a cornerstone of the burgeoning college radio boom of the ’80s.

R.E.M. was definitely a part of my world for the next four years and change as the group broke through to the mainstream with hits like The One I Love and Stand but remained eccentric and enigmatic enough to be cool to me and my college peers.

I went back and purchased much of the band’s catalog.

We all but played the life out of those albums in the record store where I worked. When I worked a shift with my friend Jess, it became Pavlovian for us to catch each other’s eyes when Stipe reached “Leonid Brezhnev” in It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).

We might be on opposite ends of the store, but that lyric never failed to crack us up.

The classic Out Of Time reached the store in 1991. I can still, vividly, picture the rainy spring day that I took home the CD, sprawled out on the couch of my last college apartment, and listened to it for the first time.

By summer, Losing My Religion had helped Out Of Time become the R.E.M.’s biggest-selling album and I, having graduated the previous December, had relocated, the cassette probably in the Walkman.

Automatic For The People was a deservedly feted album and a cassette dubbed from the CD spent a lot of time in my Walkman as I trudged to work in late 1992, but it was clear that the relationship had changed in some undefinable way.

It was like the friendships with college friends that were reducing to phone conversations which were less frequent, more brief, and increasingly disconnected.

I hung with R.E.M. through Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi, but, when Up arrived in 1998, I was living in London with little money and I didn’t even bother.

I’m not sure what I’ve missed in the past decade from R.E.M. Reviews I’ve read lead me to believe that the years that the band has soldiered on without drummer Bill Berry and me have been a mixed bag.

R.E.M. and I weren’t destined to grow old together. Like most of my college friends, it was meant to be a brief relationship, providing more than a few songs to the soundtrack of that time.

I can’t say I’ve listened to much R.E.M. in quite some time aside from a track popping up on shuffle. I was a bit surprised to find that I had near two hundred songs from the band.

It might be time for a reunion.

Here are a half-dozen that caught my eye…

R.E.M. – Radio Free Europe
from Murmur (1983)

I had to have heard Radio Free Europe on 97X, but I can’t recall. If I try to imagine what I would have thought of the song as a fifteen-year old kid, I’m picture myself shrugging, puzzled.

Of course, Michael Stipe’s vocals and/or lyrics were oft noted as being indecipherable and inscrutible. Radio Free Europe is an excellent example, but the song bristles with garage rock energy and I find myself singing the words that I do know.

R.E.M. – So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)
from Reckoning (1984)

The jangly, mysterious So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry) has long been a must on any R.E.M. compilation and I’ve always loved the lyric “Go build yourself another dream, this choice isn’t mine.”

R.E.M. – Superman
from Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)

R.E.M. performed a lot of covers during their career – everyone from Leonard Cohen to Cyndi Lauper – but it was their take on a song by a far more obscure band from Texas called The Clique that provided the band with one of its best-known early songs.

Bass player Mike Mills took the lead vocals on Superman, and though the lyrics were as moody as their originals, the music was ridiculously upbeat and catchy.

R.E.M. – Orange Crush
from Green (1988)

Orange Crush was about Vietnam, the title a reference to Agent Orange. The political overtones of the song allowed a lot of us at the time to feel politically active by listening to the groovy, rocking song which featured some cool, jagged, chiming guitars courtesy of Peter Buck.

It was a win/win.

R.E.M. – Belong
from Out Of Time (1991)

Probably my favorite of all R.E.M. songs, Belong was the song that caused me to hit repeat the first time I listened to Out Of Time. The song drew me in.

It’s a dreamy, spoken-word fable with thumping bass, ringing guitar and soaring, wordless harmonies.

R.E.M. – Fretless
from Until The End Of The World soundtrack (1991)

Fretless was included on the soundtrack to the little-seen Until The End Of The World, a fascinating and flawed, futuristic road trip of a movie from the director of the classic Wings Of Desire.

A stellar array of alternative acts contributed songs specifically written for the film, resulting in one of my favorite soundtracks. For their part, R.E.M. bestowed the lovely, downbeat Fretless .

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September 25, 1982

September 24, 2011

As the contents of my head need to settle back into place, I’m pulling up a Billboard magazine Hot 100 chart from the early ’80s – a period of my initial infatuation with music and radio – and checking out the debut songs for that week.

So, here are the eight songs making their first appearance on the chart during this week in 1982…

Billy Preston – I’m Never Gonna Say Goodbye
from Pressin’ On (1982)
(debuted #90, peaked #88, 3 weeks on chart)

For a man known to some as the “Fifth Beatle,” I know surprisingly little about Billy Preston.

I knew that Preston performed on the Apple rooftop with the band, had some legal and health issues, and passed away several years back. As far as his music, all I know is Nothing from Nothing and With You I’m Born Again – the ballad sung with Stevie Wonder’s then-wife Syreeta.

I’d never heard I’m Never Gonna Say Goodbye, but it sounds like a song that James Ingram might have done a few years later if you added a twist of stalker and a bit more melodrama.

Karla Bonoff – Please Be The One
from Wild Heart Of The Young (1982)
(debuted #85, peaked #63, 7 weeks on chart)

Singer/songwriter Karla Bonoff had a hit during the summer of ’82 with Personally. I didn’t really like the song at the time – and it got a lot of airplay – but now I find the catchy song’s bounce and playful vibe appealing.

Bonoff sang back-up for Linda Ronstadt and Please Be The One has a slow, sultry vibe that is reminiscent of Ronstadt to me. I didn’t remember the song until it reached the chorus and rarely heard it on the radio in ’82.

Jeffrey Osborne – On The Wings Of Love
from Jeffrey Osborne (1982)
(debuted #83, peaked #29, 18 weeks on chart)

I would come across Jeffrey Osborne’s On The Wings Of Love often during the autumn and winter that year when I got to the lighter rock stations on the dial. I’d stop long enough to identify it, but would only sit through it when it appeared on American Top 40.

I liked the light-funk feel of Osborne’s I Really Don’t Need No Light, and, though, On The Wings Of Love is pleasant enough, it just doesn’t appeal to me.

The Go-Go’s – Get Up And Go
from Vacation (1982)
(debuted #82, peaked #50, 9 weeks on chart)

The Go-Go’s were seemingly everywhere overnight in 1982. Their debut Beauty And The Beat had topped the album chart in the US with two massive singles – Our Lips Are Sealed and We Got The Beat – becoming instant classics.

Vacation was released toward the end of the summer with Beauty And The Beat still on the album charts. Vacation was an immediate success and the infectious title song was a hit, but both seemed to fade quicker than that summer.

The band seemed to vanish overnight – gone as quickly as they’d arrived – and I didn’t hear a new song by The Go-Go’s on the radio until Head Over Heels two years later.

(an eternity in that era)

Get Up And Go has a nifty opening that echoes Bow Wow Wow and, like most Go-Go’s songs, it is fun, but it isn’t in the same class as the earlier trio of hits by the band.

Survivor – American Heartbeat
from Eye Of The Tiger (1982)
(debuted #79, peaked #17, 16 weeks on chart)

Survivor had had the song of the summer of ’82 with their mammoth hit Eye Of The Tiger and American Haertbeat was culled as the follow-up to the band’s theme from Rocky III.

American Heartbeat was sleeker, built around pulsating keyboards, but still retained a rock edge and, though it certainly fit alongside stuff like Journey and Foreigner hits of the time, the song – not surprisingly – was unable to replicate the success of Eye Of The Tiger.

I dug the song, not that I think I heard it more than a few times on the radio at the time despite it reaching the Top Twenty.

Stevie Wonder – Ribbon In The Sky
from Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I (1982)
(debuted #76, peaked #54, 7 weeks on chart)

Stevie Wonder had released the double-album retrospective Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I in the early months of 1982. During that spring and summer, two of the album’s new songs – the yearning That Girl and joyous Do I Do – had become sizeable hits as well as Wonder’s duet with Paul McCartney, Ebony And Ivory.

Ribbon In The Sky was tapped as Original Musiquarium‘s third and final single. Unlike the previous hits from the set, the song was a gentle, lovely ballad that might not have found similar radio acceptance but has endured as a favorite among fans.

Chicago – Love Me Tomorrow
from Chicago 16 (1982)
(debuted #74, peaked #22, 15 weeks on chart)

If Survivor’s Eye Of The Tiger was the song of the summer in 1982, Chicago’s Hard To Say I’m Sorry was arguably the season’s biggest ballad and a commercial comeback for the venerable band.

But, as Survivor would learn, it’s difficult to follow up to such a radio juggernaut without the song getting lost in the wake of its predecessor. I heard Love Me Tomorrow plenty and still feel that the song is the best of the group’s ’80s ballads, but it failed to resonate with the public as Hard To Say I’m Sorry had.

Billy Joel – Pressure
from The Nylon Curtain (1982)
(debuted #72, peaked #20, 17 weeks on chart)

When Billy Joel released The Nylon Curtain in autumn 1982, the singer was coming off a trio of albums – The Stranger, 52nd Street, and Glass Houses – that had sold nearly thirty million copies and made Joel a radio fixture.

The Nylon Curtain was edgier and darker, but received glowing reviews and praise for its mature subject matter. The manic, paranoid Pressure also reflected the burgeoning influence of synthesizers becoming prevelant at the time and, even though accompanied by a stylish video clip, the song and album would be a commercial lull before Joel returned with the massively successful An Innocent Man a year later.


The Arch-Nemesis

September 21, 2011

For a good decade or so, I have had an implacable foe, an entity which I have formally and officially declared to be my arch-nemesis.

Making this struggle more complex is that my arch-nemesis is the brother of a good friend.

In truth, I don’t know David very well. I’ve been buddies with his brothers for close to twenty years, but I’ve been around David no more than a handful of times.

Our rivalry has no origin other than a decision I made to declare him my arch-nemesis.

(it actually was encouraged by his brothers)

But David is a good guy, so this confrontation has gone no further than our mutual understanding of the conflict and our verbal acknowledgement of it on the rare occasions that we do meet.

Our relationship lacks the cold war sizzle that existed with my previous arch-nemesis –

The Dutch.

I had never had an arch-nemesis until a half dozen or so of us who were drinking buddies and worked at a record store together suddenly began hating the Dutch.

(it happened during an evening of drinks)

We took to the idea with enthusiasm, blaming the Dutch for all of the ills of the world several years before it was chic to blame Canada.

We would shuffle into the back room of the store, muttering expletives directed at the Netherlands under our breath after dealing with difficult customers.

If our usual barkeep at our favorite watering hole was not working and the music being played did not meet our approval, it was a plot originating in Holland.

But our distress over the Dutch was inexplicable.

I had assumed – for some reason – that it dated to the 1994 World Cup, which we had followed that summer.

One evening, during the 1998 World Cup, I asked one of my buddies why we hated the Dutch.

He proceeded to tell tale of another large record store where he had worked and a customer visiting from the Netherlands who threw a tantrum over some perceived grievance, bellowing to all who listen that his mistreatment was because he was Dutch.

“I figured that we must have some long-standing issues with the Dutch and I wanted to do the least that I could do,” my buddy said with a shrug. “It would have been unpatriotic to not hate the Dutch.”

Of course, we didn’t really hate the Dutch. We just enjoyed having an arch-nemesis.

Here are four enemy songs since arch-nemesis is a bit cumbersome to use in a lyric I suppose…

Swan Dive – Sweet Enemy
from Circle (1998)

Swan Dive’s music has been described as bossa nova pop.

Sweet Enemy is light, breezy, and sophisticated stuff, but its just a hint of the wonderous sounds made by the duo of Bill DeMain and Molly Felder.

The Waterboys – Be My Enemy
from This Is The Sea (1985)

This Is The Sea was my introduction to Scottish band The Waterboys. I’d been prompted to purchase the cassette after hearing the glorious The Whole Of The Moon before school one morning on a rock radio station out of Dayton.

(it might have been the only time I’ve ever heard the band on radio)

I was immediately smitten by their “big music” and the tape spent a lot of time in my Walkman that senior year. The rollicking Be My Enemy clatters alongs with a dizzying urgency that caught my attention and made me hit rewind a time or two.

(which, of course, drained the double-AA batteries rather quickly)

Roger Hodgson – Had a Dream (Sleeping with the Enemy)
from In The Eye Of The Storm (1984)

If you have followed my babbling on this site, you might be well aware of my affection for Supertramp (at least Breakfast In America). By 1984, founding member Roger Hogdson had left the band for a solo career that didn’t exactly pan out.

Had A Dream (Sleeping With The Enemy) got some airplay on some of the stations to which I was listening at the time. In truth, it could have been on Breakfast In America and not sounded out of place.

Rage Against The Machine – Know Your Enemy
from Rage Against The Machine (1992)

I didn’t immediately gravitate to Rage Against The Machine. I thought their politics to be somewhat half-baked. However, seeing them live, opening for U2 – a band for whom the same accusation could be made regarding politics – made me a fan of the sheer sonic force of Rage’s music.

A few friends and I bumped into the band before that show at a vegetarian restaurant. The might have made some angry music, but the band members and crew were quite polite and friendly.