John Peel

R.E.M. AND THE LOST LETTER

You’d miss R.E.M. all the same, wouldn’t you ? Easily one of the best, certainly one of the most prolific and without doubt one of the most subversive of them all stepped off of the travellator for the last time in  2011, thirty-one years after they’d assembled in Athens, Georgia, from where they launched some of the most breath-taking and influential records in the entire history of popular music. And although the quality of some of the band’s later material definitely tailed off – I’d point to a dilution of structural tension before anything else, if pushed – at least ten of R.E.M.’s fifteen studio albums should, by any standards, reside in any self-respecting music collection.

Once they’d found traction and, literally, their voice, on ‘Fables Of The Reconstruction’, their third album, released in 1985, they remained a real threat until the very end and, as recently as the band’s last elpee, ‘Collapse Into Now’, were freely minting the magic :- ‘Walk It Back’ is easily one of their best ever songs on a record that’s much, much more than a mere swansong. R.E.M. might well have been struggling to maintain the all-killer consistency that had long hall-marked them but it wasn’t overly difficult, after twenty-five years at the crease, to pardon them ;- very few will ever again come close to their batting average.

It’s easy to point to the departure of the group’s chief architect, drummer Bill Berry, back in 1997, as a nail in their tube and the start of a slow puncture. But while the loss of their founder – and maybe the band’s spiritual leader ? – certainly impacted on R.E.M.’s complicated blood circulation system, I’d be mindful of an over-simplistic diagnosis. Berry was certainly an under-rated writing influence and many of the band’s more impactful offensives were launched from behind his traps. But it’s worth considering the following question :- name one band or artist of such distinction and influence – and I include Bowie, Dylan and Neil Young here – whose body of work retained its earlier consistency beyond ten albums ?

There was much about R.E.M. that set them apart during their three decades together, but leaving the stage with the same easy command of their craft on ‘Collapse Into Now’ as they did on arrival, albeit through a far narrower lens, on the ‘Chronic Town’ mini-album and then the ‘Murmur’ album [1983], is one of their greatest definers. During which time they crawled from the south to become the unlikeliest biggest band in the world, ever. And in my more introspective moments – and there have been more and more of those this last twelve months as my children grow older and the world struggles for order – I often think about the damage that R.E.M. might cause were they still actively recording in this, the year of the venal, racist, neo-liberal sociopath ?

Thirty years ago, ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’ [1986] and ‘Document’ [1987], the band’s fourth and fifth albums, were powered on many levels by the darker shadows of Ronald Reagan’s American presidency and the many unsettling, often inflammatory, policy positions adopted by his administration at home and abroad during his term of office. That R.E.M. crossed over into the mainstream during the Reagan years and released its angriest, most insurgent and best records during the presidency of George H. W. Bush, who held office between 1989 and 1993, may not be co-incidental either.

I was a recent college graduate, mooching the streets in search of a start and, like many others like me, was as comforted and confounded by those records as I was informed and scared by them. R.E.M. were taking sharply-informed, highly-charged political and social rhetoric into the arenas and stadia without once sounding like an over-earnest, empty-at-the-bottom rock band in search of a slogan. Of which, during the 1980s, there were far too many, few of whom showed any grasp at all of nuance and subtlety. R.E.M., masters of this sort of carry-on, routinely wrapped nail bombs in the softest of suggestion and allusion.

I’ve obsessively gone back to both ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’ and ‘Document’ over the last six months ;- like David Szalay’s novels or any of the Father Ted episodes, new dimensions still emerge within their work on every engagement. But while R.E.M. brought astute, often implied political messaging, their range carried far higher and much wider. They routinely dealt with the far more complex politics of human engagement too and are responsible for some of the most bewitching love songs in the history of the genre.

Many of which, like the bulk of the band’s canon, have dated extremely well. Even on their first, tentative albums, ‘Murmur’ and ‘Reckoning’ [1984] their shyness – parts of their debut, Michael Stipe’s vocals especially, are buried to the point of being barely audible – there was always a real intent deep within the sound of their silence. Manifest from early on the likes of ‘Talk About The Passion’, ‘Perfect Circle’,and ‘Camera’ and on numerous junctions thereafter.

The more curious among us were well and truly under the band’s spell from the first bars of ‘Radio Free Europe’ onwards. As well as the songs –  most of which were stellar – the band itself was remote and mysterious enough for those who were instinctively dragged to the margins and who preferred their music served at an angle. Myself and my friend, Philip, spent hours poring over R.E.M., particularly their first four albums, which we adored and which were released during that period in our friendship when we lived, pretty much, in each other’s pockets. And during which time we made numerous attempts to decipher some of R.E.M.’s enigma, of which there was an awful lot.

Basic as it sounds, but we spent far too much time trying to work out, from their mug-shots on the back of ‘Murmur’ and ‘Reckoning’, exactly which of them was which. Their names, ‘Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe’ – always in alphabetical order and briefly, on ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’, with added initials – quickly became embedded in our vernacular, tripping off of the tongue as easily as any of the band’s songs. [A special nod here, for the anoraks, to the mysterious N. Bogan, who received a once-off writing credit on ‘West Of The Fields’]. R.E.M. rarely, if ever, succumbed to the obvious and, on those early sleeves, are deliberately playing with their identity and with how the band fronted-up ;- they look completely different, Berry’s distinctive eyebrows apart, on the first two albums.

Indeed it wasn’t until the band appeared on the BBC music television series, ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’, in November 1984, during which they performed a fully live version of ‘Pretty Persuasion’, from ‘Reckoning’, and debuted a new song, ‘Old Man Kensey’ [from ‘Fables Of The Reconstruction’], that we first caught sight of them behind their instruments and were able to definitively join the dots.

Identity – for R.E.M., for myself and Philip – was often a common puzzle during the years when The Paisley Underground, the flag of convenience under which several terrific American guitar bands traded briefly during the early to mid-1980s, was in its pomp. Many of the key figures in that cluster were involved with, or circling around, several other bands at the same time and some of the associations extended far and wide. And although R.E.M., given their Byrds/Love tenor, were only ever loosely aligned to this party, they quickly grew to dominate it and so, on their prompting, we were soon seeking out new music from the likes of Let’s Active, featuring R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter, The Long Ryders, Green On Red, Love Tractor, the imperious Jason And The Scorchers, Oh OK [featuring one of Michael Stipe’s sisters, Lynda] and Guadalcanal Diary, a powerful guitar band that also took root in Georgia. Some of which was very difficult to locate and for which we depended, for several years, on friends and acquaintances on J1 Visas in the United States, to import for us.

R.E.M. championed their lesser-known – and ultimately just lesser – peers at every opportunity and if Peter Buck didn’t physically contribute guitar to much of this output, then he certainly exerted a serious philosophical influence on it. And by so doing, made a household name of John Keane’s studio, initially a small recording facility local to R.E.M.  name-checked so routinely that it sounded like a magnet around which many largely unreported planets revolved.

We’d recently returned to school during the autumn of 1984 when I wrote to the P.O. box number listed on the inside sleeve of R.E.M’s second album, ‘Reckoning’. I sent a mournful note to the group – the first and only time I’ve done so with any band – explaining just how difficult it was to follow the fortunes of such an important, emerging outfit when, like themselves, I too was based far from the action in a regional outpost. I just knew that they’d understand.

And for my troubles I received, by return post some weeks later, a hand written reply ;- a free-form note on photocopied paper that also doubled as an artily-designed, type-written merchandising list enclosed within Airmail paper, no less, inviting me to their show in Dublin’s SFX later that year. The band would, the note said, set aside a pair of tickets for me on the night and were hopeful I’d be able to join them.

Irrespective of whether or not this was the work of one of the band, an office junior or someone’s fluffer, it didn’t matter. R.E.M. had heard me like, in my head, I always imagined they would do. And with that scrawled note, a lifelong friendship was forever hewn :- I stayed loyal, steadfast and besotted until the end. And long after the end.

That R.E.M. show in Dublin, on December 4th, 1984, has long dominated the colourful war stories of live music veterans in this country. I hear it still referenced to this day, and in the most unlikeliest of settings ;- it’s long been the centre of conversation among a cohort of hardy anoraks  in the small village of Ardfinnan, in South Tipperary, where I gift an annual quota of Corkness to my in-laws.

But in one of the most egregious acts of poor judgement in my entire life – and there have been many – I passed up the band’s kind offer to join them for what would be the first of many subsequent live appearances in Ireland. Given that the show was scheduled for a Tuesday night, far from home and during our final year in school, my formal education was deemed to have been more important and, like the Dublin senior footballers, fatigue and work commitments meant that I didn’t make the all-star trip.

It’s a wound that’s never entirely healed properly and one that’s been regularly salted over the years. To add insult to it, my letter from R.E.M. – in its own right as important a love note as anything Michael Collins ever wrote to Kitty Kiernan – has been long mislaid. Stuck, more than likely, inside an album that was loaned out to some fleeting love interest years ago in an effort to radicalise her, never to be returned.

But I didn’t have to wait too long to see R.E.M. in the flesh. They were back in Dublin the following summer when they appeared at Croke Park as part of the undercard at U2’s ‘A Sort Of Homecoming’ show when, in the late afternoon sunshine on July 29th, 1985, they were greeted with a shower of bottles. Their cause may not have been entirely helped by Michael’s decision to start the band’s short slot with his back to the crowd and, in an overcoat and pork-pie hat, to open proceedings with the very antithesis of stadium anthemry, the jagged ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull’.

And from our seats high up in The Cusack Stand, and having recently completed secondary school, we marvelled at the size of their necks. The fact that the partisan home support couldn’t find it in itself to extend the hand to them only drove the point home further :- R.E.M. had decent cutting, our instincts were soundly founded and they were far too subtle for the mainstream. I was, of course, far more careful about where and when I saw my favourite groups thereafter ;- once bitten, twice shy, I  always preferred R.E.M. indoors and always resisted the urge to ever see them in the open air again.

I’ve written previously about the profile of the radio presenter, Dave Fanning on RTÉ television’s youth magazine series, ‘Youngline’, that aired in February, 1984 and in which the then late-night disc jockey was shown spinning into his place of work in a battered old beater. He slips a random cassette into the car’s sound system and the life-affirming ‘Radio Free Europe’, the opening cut on R.E.M.’s debut album, ‘Murmur’, comes on. And it was on, and indeed for, those infrequent crumbs that myself and Philip sustained ourselves for years.

A crack Radio 2 squad of presenters that included Fanning, Mark Cagney and B.P. Fallon, were all early R.E.M. acolytes and more or less spun the band off the air as, from the get-go, did the BBC’s John Peel. Fanning and his producer, Ian Wilson, also nailed them for an excellent ‘Rock Show’ interview during that brief 1984 stop-over in Dublin which, far from affording me cold comfort, only succeeded in making my sense of solitary confinement back home seem far, far worse.

But we replayed it back incessantly anyway, our ears and eyes opened by the band’s drawly accents and the manner in which they dropped, as usual, the names of several other emerging groups from within their orbit. Philip took his devotion to them much further and, at some point in the early 1990s, made what was then an unprecedented leap when he attempted to grow what remains one of the worst ever beards known to man. This was just one of his many personal tributes over the years to Michael Stipe, who’d started to experiment with face furniture and body paint. And it remains one of a number of vivid, sometimes bizarre memories I have of my late friend, with whom I soldiered long and hard in the trenches, usually playing the gormless wingman to his ascetic, corduroy-jacketed people’s poet.

R.E.M. were one of a number of compelling, urgent and special groups that we discovered together and through whose many songs we played out the guts of a friendship that was forever as intense as it was complicated. And often at the expense of what we might, and maybe should, have been dealing with instead. But they were easily the most dominant band of that number because, apart from the music, they developed as a force as quickly and as fiercely as myself and Philip were growing up – and moving on – back in Ireland. Twenty-five years after the release of R.E.M.’s most remarkable and most vital album, ‘Automatic For The People’, and I don’t think I’ve ever missed them more. And I don’t think that I’ve ever missed him more either.