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Friday 25 June 2021


There's been a lot of R.E.M. in the blogosphere over the last few months. The Vinyl Villain had a year long weekly series tackling every one of the band's UK singles in chronological order and co- writer Robster has now started a weekly imaginary singles series (based on the evidence that R.E.M. didn't always represent themselves best by their choice of singles). Craig at Plain Or Pan dissected Catapult last week. Back in April I pulled out their first four albums and really listened to them again for the first time in years (and then went on to Green and In Time too). I got stuck on Murmur for days, listening to the re- issued CD in the car going to and from work and then at home too on my old vinyl copy. 

There's something magical about Murmur and by magical I mean something that's difficult to pinpoint precisely, it has an inexplicable quality and is way more than the sum of the parts. The songs on Murmur were in part the product of hundreds of gigs in bars and small venues but on wax/ tape they become something else, the magic transforms the songs. The sympatico production of Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, totally in tune with the group's influences- 60s folk rock, 70s punk and post- punk- is part of the magic. They had the the desire to make an album that didn't sound like it was recorded in 1983 but could have been recorded at any point in the previous two decades. Then there's the chemistry between Peter Buck's guitar playing, all Rickenbacker arpeggios, the Berry- Mills rhythm section (especially Mike Mills' melodic bass playing) and the three part harmonies. On top, the indefinable voice/ words/ vowel sounds/ growling of Michael Stipe. Much has been written and said about his vocal style in the early years, the timbre of his voice, the off key moments and ability to suddenly turn a song on its head and the words- impressionistic lines and images, words jammed together that suggest meaning, a sort of Southern US poetry. Maybe trying to unpick the words and the way the four young men played together is fruitless- it doesn't matter how they did it, just be transported by what they did.

Shaking Through is my current favourite, the jangle of the guitar, the thump thump thump thump of the bass drum and Stipe soaring over the top, something about geisha gowns and denial and then that weirdly brilliant chorus- 'shaaaaaaking through/ ooopppppuurrrtune'. Magical. 

Shaking Through

The deluxe CD re- issue included a full live show, the group recorded at Fat Larry's Hideaway in Toronto, 9th July 1983. There aren't many live CDs I can listen to in full repeatedly but this is one, R.E.M. in 1983, an exhilarating, life affirming experience. 

Sitting Still is essential early R.E.M., the Byrds transported to Athens, Georgia in the 1980s, Stipe only really properly audible for the line 'waste of time/ sitting still', those harmonies really nailed on.  

Sitting Still (Live 1983)

9-9 is clipped post- punk riffing, Gang Of Four influences in evidence, while Stipe really makes the listener work, on record and live, only surfacing for the phrase 'conversation fear'. 

9-9 (Live 1983)

Edit: Martin blogged about early R.E.M. today as well here, a very similar first paragraph to mine and a really moving post about Camera. 


Nick L said...

Murmur is just brilliant. No other words needed really. However, I wish I'd seen REM in 83/84, they must have been spellbinding. The best I could do was in 85 when they were still mysterious and mesmerising. Murmur is a genuinely superb and strange document of what the "American Smiths" were doing in their earliest days. The deluxe remastered version you refer to above is an interesting release as it sounds more pristeen sonically, and much clearer than my 83 vinyl, perhaps even a bit more akin to the following year's Reckoning album. I never had a problem with the somewhat murkier tones of the original release, although they did do a great job with the deluxe.

Martin said...

Brilliant post for brilliant songs, and the time in the career that the band were most brilliant.

Coincidentally, the recent wealth of REM blog posts has also caused me to revisit the early albums, and has also generated an REM post from me today too.

Khayem said...

I love Murmur. I didn't get the deluxe edition of the album, so missed out on the bonus live CD. On the strength of the two selections and your recommendation, I'm strongly tempted to seek it out.

Also, proof if it were needed, that a year-long R.E.M. series over at The Vinyl Villain has only whetted the appetite for even more R.E.M. Thanks to you (all) for obliging!