Automatic For The People by R.E.M.


When Coldplay played at Live8 in 2005, I had never heard “Fix You” before but I thought it was great. The performance really connected with the huge audience that was there. I had bought “Parachutes” when it came out, mainly because of the great video of Chris Martin walking along a beach singing “Yellow”. After seeing Live8, I bought the next three Coldplay albums. I liked them. I began to realise that Coldplay were one of the biggest acts in the world and were hugely popular. That was good – I actually liked band who were popular, for once. But then I started to read some putdowns of them. They weren’t that good and they certainly weren’t the best band in the world. I disagreed with the former and agreed with the latter. There seemed to be a point of view which assumed that anyone who liked them thought that they were the best band in the world. Probably The Beatles were to blame because they were the biggest and the best but the two don’t have to go together. the most popular band in the world don’t have to be the best.

In 1983, Melody Maker produced a double page spread of the new music coming out of America. There were small articles about many bands that I had never heard of but would investigate and come to love. I pinned the article on the door to my kitchen. As it happens, Roo read the same article and it informed her music buying at the time. This was about eight years before we properly met. The bands in the article included Green On Red, The Violent Femmes, The Dream Syndicate, The Rain Parade and R.E.M. I subsequently bought “Murmur” and liked it a lot. After that I bought every R.E.M. album as it came out and I thought they were all good. In 1985, after “Fables Of The Reconstruction” was released, I bought three tickets to go and see R.E.M. at The Hammersmith Palais. That was the standing up venue – not The Hammersmith Odeon (now The Apollo). I can’t remember who I thought was going to come with me but I ended up with a spare ticket. I went with a very good friend of mine who wasn’t especially “into” R.E.M. but he liked good music (although he also liked The Pixies) and he was happy to go. . I thought I’d just sell my spare ticket to a punter who was looking for one. As we walked up to the venue, we came across an evil ticket tout asking if we had any spare tickets. My friend said that I had one. I was hoping to play it a little more casually because I knew that these evil bastards were not especially helpful. The evil bloke offered to buy my ticket for £1 whereas I had paid £5 for it. I said “No” and walked on looking for some normal person who just needed a ticket and didn’t want to pay £10 for a £5 ticket. I just wanted to sell mine at face value. The trouble was that every time I stood near someone who I thought was after a ticket, the evil tout (and some of his evil mates) stood near me and interfered. In the end, just before the gig was about to start, I was offered 50p for my ticket by a group of evil touts who were laughing at me. I refused because I was angry and just walked in with my friend. So, I had a spare ticket to see R.E.M. at a smallish venue in 1987 and couldn’t offload it. It was a brilliant gig and they played twenty six songs including “Driver 8”, “So. Central Rain”, “Pretty Persuasion” and many others.

So, to recap, I bought every R.E.M. album up to and including “Reveal” in 2001. The sales of their albums are interesting. “Murmur”, “Reckoning”, “Fables Of The Reconstruction” (to give it its accepted title) and “Life’s Rich Pageant” = half a million each. “Document” = 1 million. “Green” = 2 million. “Out Of Time”, “Automatic For The People” and “Monster” = 4 million. “New Adventures In Hi Fi” = 1 million. “Up”, “Reveal”, “Around The Sun” and “Accelerate” = half a million. These figures are for the USA but give an idea of how their popularity rose and fell. I liked R.E.M. but I never felt that they were the best group in the world or anywhere near it. I preferred Green On Red and The Violent Femmes to give only two examples. But this wasn’t 1964 and I wasn’t ten years old when I could like The Beatles OR The Rolling Stones but not both. We were all allowed to like lots of bands but I think R.E.M. suffered a backlash because they were so popular. I think that’s a shame because they were a good band and this is a very good album. In fact, one of friends, whose musical tastes I respect a lot, has named it as one of his top eight albums of all time.

The original plan for the album was to record songs that were more up-tempo and rock oriented than “Out Of Time”. However, the demos made by Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry didn’t all meet that criteria and when Michael Stipe came to write the lyrics and record the vocals he described the songs as as “very mid-tempo, pretty fucking weird. More acoustic, more organ-based, less drums.” Peter Buck described the album as dealing with more downbeat issues that were important to the band at the time. “The world that we’d been involved in had disappeared, the world of Hüsker Dü and The Replacements, all that had gone. We were just in a different place and that worked its way out musically and lyrically.” 

The album was originally going to be called “Star” which explains the front cover. They later changed the title to be the motto of Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods in Athens, Georgia.

“Everybody Hurts” is, to use a cliché, a gorgeous ballad. Whereas many of R.E.M.’s lyrics are indecipherable because of Michael Stipe’s delivery, on this song the words are clear. Peter Buck has stated that the reason for this is that the song was aimed at teenagers. He said that although he had “never watched ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, the idea that high school is a portal to hell seems pretty realistic to me.” In other words, the song is reaching out to anyone in pain saying that they are not alone. The song was used in 1995 to promote mental health by The Samaritans. It was also used by Donald Trump in 2019 before legal action forced its withdrawal. The video is fantastic and was filmed near the intersection of the I35 and I10 in San Antonio which is very near the hotel where Pete and I stayed in 2016.

“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” is another excellent song. The chorus (“call me when you try to make her”) is often misheard as “calling Jamaica”. Mike Mills has said “It’s about somebody that doesn’t have a place to stay. Part of it is also about what man can do that machines can’t. The rest of it – I don’t have any idea what it’s about.” This is one of only three songs on the album that meet the original criteria of being up-tempo and hard rocking. John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin worked out the string arrangements as he did for “Nightswimming” which features only Michael Stipe on vocals and bassist Mike Mills on piano. The origin of the song is in dispute. Michael Stipe claimed that it was originally called “Night Watchman” about someone who was hired to guard the R.E.M. offices in Athens, Georgia. “He turned out to be kind of crazy and called me up in the middle of the night to tell me dirty stories about the Kennedys.” Mike Mills has said it was about a group of friends who used to go skinny dipping after a night out.” It’s another beautiful ballad.

My favourite song on the album is “Monty Got A Raw Deal”. The Monty in the song is Montgomery Clift and the lyrics seem to be comparing the strangeness of the characters he played in movies with the reality of his life. As with all great songs, the true meaning is close but never one hundred percent clear.

That’s just four songs out of the twelve on the album. Every song is very good. R.E.M. at their peak were a very good band. Not the best, but they have left a legacy of memorable, interesting, creative and slightly mysterious rock music.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

3 thoughts on “Automatic For The People by R.E.M.

  1. I went to see England lose the ashes in1992 and saw REM in Sydney – Brilliant
    unfortunately Warne had got a hat trick in the previous test at the MCG.
    so ‘Everybody Hurts’ to me has a different meaning.
    They are a very good band but I agree not the best.

    Liked by 1 person

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