Hand Picked

It’s the End of the World As We Know It

Athens, Georgia has always had a very specific musical sound. The colleges in that area were a breeding ground for tangential thought and musical insurrection. R.E.M. came to exist from the soup of all of that insurrection.

The band has always been:

  • Bill Berry– drums, percussion, backing vocals, occasional bass guitar, and keyboards (1980–1997; guest performances in 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007)
  • Peter Buck– lead guitar, mandolin, banjo (1980–2011)
  • Mike Mills– bass guitar, keyboards, backing vocals, occasional co-lead vocals (1980–2011)
  • Michael Stipe– lead vocals (1980–2011)

They came into my life in the mid 80’s when I was given their album Murmur on cassette by a friend who thought that I might like it. I did. A lot. That record’s title comes from Michael Stipes’ insecure tendency to mumble his way through his vocal takes. Brilliant. The record blew my mind. One has to remember back to a time before “Alternative” became “Mallternative.” Before it was possible to hear the hidden music of America EVERYWHERE! These sounds were unlike anything anyone else had recorded. R.E.M. has earned every single record of the 85 million albums that band has sold. Every single one.

After Murmur came Reckoning, then Fables of the Reconstruction, followed by Life’s Rich Pageant, and THEN, in 1987, the monster that was Document. Ironically enough, the record called Monster was anything but, but I digress. Each of those albums were a year apart. That’s fucking ridiculous. The output of this band is not to be down-played. Don’t forget that each of those years were ALSO filled with touring America, TIRELESSLY. That is how prolific they were. The streak continued afterwards as well. Listening on through to records like Green, Out Of Time, and Automatic For The People, reveals a band whose song writing power is hard to match. Especially today. That’s eight albums, that span 11 years, and ALL are incredible. All are individual to them. R.E.M. created a sound that was THEIRS, and a million bands found inspiration in that sound. It is a strange thing that almost all of the huge Alternative bands of the day displayed similar skills. The Cure, Depeche Mode, New Order, and U2 all came ripping out of the 80’s and well into the 90’s with amazing discographies, leaving a wake of brilliant bands that emulated, borrowed, and stole, from them. What a fucking time to have been a music fan in America.

In April of ’87, the band entered Nashville’s Sound Emporium Studios to begin work on what would become Document. It was their first foray with new producer Scott Litt, who had been picked for his work with The dB’s. He would go on to work with them for over a decade. It was a powerful team and the sound of Document is testament to the fertile and creative environment that the band found themselves in that Spring.

The album features three songs that went on to shift a BOAT-LOAD of units for the band. More than they had ever envisioned prior. Their biggest success to date. “The One I Love” was a great intro to the band’s new, more muscular, and complete sound. It was everywhere! And REAL R.E.M. fans were justified in their excitement. One of my favorite moments is when a band that you are an early adopter of come out with new material that you just KNEW they had been capable of all along, you were just waiting for it, and now they were going to be ENORMOUS! I have no truck with fans who decry a band’s becoming successful, what a dumb perspective. This record, and that song, was IT! And then “I.T.E.O.T.W.A.W.K.I.” was released and it all goes BALLISTIC! Holy shite. You knew upon the first listen that it was gonna be a hit. And it was.

TO THE TAPE!!

Bill Berry. Badass. All you need to hear is the first drum hit of the song, and you know what it is. Being a drummer is a difficult place to find oneself, musically. How does one carve out an identity with this limited sonic pallet AND the responsibility of keeping it all together? All chugging along? The Post-Punk movement was a rebellion against all forms of musical bullshit, and drummers were no exception. Most of them smashed and bashed away with reckless abandon, but a few created their own thing anyway. Stephen Morris of New Order is a PERFECT example. Bill Berry was a creative drummer who formed the second half of the rhythm section with Mike Mills, and these two complement one another admirably. They are a perfect team. I particularly love the “Wipe Out” tom bits in the post-chorus sections before the verses crank back up. Bill is a player who creates PARTS for each section of the composition. It is an infinitely more complicated drum track than one hears at first blanch. I love musical drummers and Bill is one on a World Class level. He is the bedrock, the Back Beat, sure, but, also, he uses the ride to build drama in certain passages, his bass-drum pattern changes to reflect the energy of the moment, some great little fills to enunciate the breaks, and the entire song is a 4-minute CHARGE! Perfect.

Mike Mills? GTFO. If you are a regular reader of these missives, then you will have cottoned-on to the fact that I am a HUGE fan of bass-players. They are my favorite members of the band. The songs start and finish with the bass part, as far as I’m concerned. And THIS ONE!?! Beautiful. The verse is soooooo good and, then, the CHORUS!?! How the hell did he find THAT melody inside the guitar part that Buck constructed? It always amazes me when I hear something like this. Listen back to the attached audio and then listen to the song in its entirety and focus on the melodic drive that he provides with that funk-infused ridiculousness. His usage of the octaves to build excitement throughout the chorus turnarounds? The step-downs as each chorus ends, mimicking the guitar part? This is a VERY smart bloke writing very smart parts. He’s one of my favorite bass-players ever. It is Mill’s voice that is the most recognizable in the backing-vocals department, and its counterpoint to Stipe’s is a signature texture in all R.E.M. songs. He’s also a massive music fan who’s record collection consists of about 25,000 records, by all-accounts. Perhaps he needs some PS Audio bits to play it through? Oh, and he ALSO plays the piano parts on this song, too. Dude.

Peter Buck. Yeah. I got nothing. There are guitar players who play and then there are guitar players who have carved a niche that then changed the sound of the instrument from that point on. Buck is one such player. And that isn’t hyperbole. He took The Byrds, and the sound of a Rickenbacker, and placed them both in an entirely new context. He, pretty much, single-handedly created the “jangle.” That sound that rings through the songs of that era and beyond. That “fliiiiiiiingy-chimey-flingy thing!’ You know what I’m talking about. Madchester doesn’t exist without it. Most bands from the East Coast in the 80’s don’t exist without it, I’m looking at you Miracle Legion. Almost all of the Alternative bands in the US stole it. He invented it. By standing on the shoulders of the giants that came prior. But it is his crown to claim. And I will gladly be at that coronation.

There’s a chord that happens at the turn-around of each verse section in “I.T.E.O.T.W.A.W.K.I.” that is completely discordant, until you hear it contextualized. But it is played that way to announce the new part and to put an exclamation point on that moment. There are so many little bits like that. Places where he plays a strange note to emphasize something and make something happen that wouldn’t have happened without that choice. So much thought. And that, to me, is one of the bench-marks of R.E.M.’s music. You can HEAR the thought, the construction, the care. It’s why Scott Litt went on to do records with them for a decade. He’s a producer who ALSO pays attention to the “little moments” and he helped bring them to this new peak of creativity and renown. One should never minimize the effect that a Producer can have on a band and their sound. It is a choice that can have a LASTING impact, both negative AND positive.

“I.T.E.O.T.W.A.W.K.I.” is, to me, the quintessential Peter Buck guitar part. It does everything that he does well…VERY well. Fragile, pretty, huge, jangly, punky, blistering, strange, all of the flavors, all the moods. The weird, bluesy, bendy, thing that he is doing at the 1:40 mark?! What is THAT?!? It’s SMART, that’s what. He is bringing in some deep blues business. Don’t forget, they are a band from Georgia. That sound is in EVERYTHING. Even Peter Buck couldn’t escape its effect. Them Blues blokes taught without anyone knowing they were being taught.

Stipe. Another innovator. A singer who hated the sound of his own voice, so he mumbled, had it mixed low, and created a vocal atmosphere that was entirely new in its presentation. And then others modeled themselves on it. That’s what we forget about R.E.M. They invented something. Michael Stipe was one of the first of the American “Literary Alternative Singers.” His lyrics featured weird couplets, strange imagery, peculiar characters, angst, pain, and honesty. But they were also fragile in a way that nobody I had heard prior had been, at least not on this side of the pond. And they were also Southern. What a feat it was to have pulled THAT off. There is a deep Southern connection to his voice and phrasing. But he also sang, and wrote, in a way that resonated with us from the suburbs, and those from the cities, and it wasn’t simply the songs, it was something else. Something that wouldn’t become clear to everyone else until they heard “Everybody Hurts.” He was also pan-sexual and asexual in a way that was new to the music that America was putting out. Sure, there had been the David Johansens of the world, etc, but Stipe wasn’t glam, or punk, or showy in any way, shape, or form. He was a quiet, regular, guy, albeit beautiful to look at, and, clearly, intelligent, but his lack of glitz made it comfortable for all of us misunderstoods to know that we were understood. That we had brotherhood out there, somewhere. A welcome feeling.

Stipe mentioned in interviews that, while penning the lyrics to this song, he had had a dream where he was at a party hanging with a bunch of L.B.’s, hence the Lenny Bruce, Lester Bangs, Leonid Brezhnev, and LEONARD BERNSTEIN!!, references he felt compelled to write into pop-culture history. And that, for me, says ALL that you need to know about John Michael Stipe. Who has THAT precise a dream?!? And then gets us all to SING about it along with him? Only THAT guy. Only Mike Stipe. And maybe Moby.

THE LYRICS:

That’s great, it starts with an earthquake
Birds and snakes, and aeroplanes
And Lenny Bruce is not afraid

Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn
World serves its own needs
Don’t mis-serve your own needs
Speed it up a notch, speed, grunt, no, strength
The ladder starts to clatter
With a fear of height, down, height
Wire in a fire, represent the seven games
And a government for hire and a combat site
Left her, wasn’t coming in a hurry
With the Furies breathing down your neck

Team by team, reporters baffled, trumped, tethered, cropped
Look at that low plane, fine, then
Uh-oh, overflow, population, common group
But it’ll do, save yourself, serve yourself
World serves its own needs, listen to your heart bleed
Tell me with the Rapture and the reverent in the right, right
You vitriolic, patriotic, slam fight, bright light
Feeling pretty psyched

It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine

Six o’clock, TV hour, don’t get caught in foreign tower
Slash and burn, return, listen to yourself churn
Lock him in uniform, book burning, bloodletting
Every motive escalate, automotive incinerate
Light a candle, light a motive, step down, step down
Watch your heel crush, crush, uh-oh
This means no fear, cavalier, renegade and steering clear
A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies
Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives, and I decline

It’s the end of the world as we know it (I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it (I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine (time I had some time alone)
I feel fine (I feel fine)

The other night I drifted nice continental drift divide
Mountains sit in a line, Leonard Bernstein
Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce, and Lester Bangs
Birthday party, cheesecake, jellybean, boom
You symbiotic, patriotic, slam but neck, right, right

It’s the end of the world as we know it (time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it (time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine (time I had some time alone)

I mean…right? Right?

The grand conceit that this album ended-up being called Document shouldn’t be lost in the discussion. It IS a document. It’s the Operators Manual for a band writing some of its most indelible songs, finding a way from Indie Darlings to Household Name without losing any of their cred or fire, and instruction on how to own it all…and it’s a, nigh-on, perfect album. Give it a listen and you’ll soon agree, I’m sure. Start to finish, flawless.

I’ve always considered “I.T.E.O.T.W.A.W.K.I.” to be the Indie Rock response to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” Both songs are anthems of their times, commentary on said times, and a wonderful example of how two different artists can handle the same basic premise from two completely different ends of a room. A room with Lester Bangs, Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce, and LEONARD BERNSTEIN! hanging-out in it. Brilliant.

“That’s great it starts with an earthquake” – THAT’S how you start a song.

Keep listening, thanks for reading.

See you at the next one.

cjh

PS – You can find me on IG, Facebook, and here if you want any info about The Sessions and where to catch me live.

My fav REM song…well, one of them: