I’m Not The King of Comedy

R.E.M.’s Monster just got reissued in a fancy, expanded anniversary edition — its been 25 years, shockingly, since it was released, which floors me; it came out on the same day I moved to Aberdeen for the start of my second year of art school, and I remember running to the local store to buy a copy before the 4-hour drive there in case I somehow missed it — and, although I checked out the new mix and the demos on Spotify (They’re fine), the thing that I keep thinking about more than anything is the packaging design of the album.

Everyone knows what the cover looks like, that garish orange and the out of focus bear head. The album, famously, is the most-returned CD in history, so it’s a familiar sight to any music fan of the last quarter century. The front cover is okay, it does the job, but it’s easily the most boring visual element of the album. It does the entire package a massive disservice.

Far more than the music — which I really like, to this day — the design on Monster blew my mind. (Perhaps more so, the design of the tour booklet that accompanied the album, which took the basic ideas and ran with them.) There was a bluntness and garishness to the decisions made, whether it was cutting things off in the wrong place or applying color overlays that made no sense, or considering television static as a design element strong enough to carry a booklet page by itself. Beyond that familiar orange cover, everything seemed to purposefully reject received design wisdom and do the “wrong” thing, yet still look attractive and exciting.

For someone in art school, especially someone starting a graphic design course, it was utterly exhilarating. I tried to learn from it by stealing, of course — I did the same thing for my other primary influence at the time, Dave McKean, which is funny to me now that I can recognize how much of McKean’s tricks were also just outright stolen from others — but was beaten back by teachers who told me that I was, simply, doing it wrong.

I was, of course, but not in the way they thought. They didn’t get the aesthetics I was working with, and so argued for the old school as they had to, because it’s what they knew. But what I was actually doing wrong was copying the Monster look instead of applying the attitude. Copying it wasn’t the right thing to do; I should have rejected it and built my own version, using the pop culture influences and mistakes inside my own head. But who is confident enough to do that at such a young age?

The Other Two Were With Me

I’ve been obsessed with R.E.M. again lately; I read Perfect Circle, a biography of the band, over the holidays and that has led me back to the albums I was addicted to when I first discovered them, back in the early nineties. For me, Out of Time was the entry point — I think it was “Losing My Religion” that probably piqued my interest, as it did everyone else, but I’ve always had such a fondness for “Radio Song” that I may be misremembering — but I quickly backtracked through their back catalog, becoming endlessly obsessed with Green and Life’s Rich Pageant in particular.

Of all their albums now, I’ve found that Automatic for the People and New Adventures in Hi-Fi are by far my favorites, although I have a deep love for Monster for all kinds of incidental reasons. (It was the only time I saw them live, that tour; I can’t remember who supported, but I do remember dancing in the stands when “Revolution” played, a song I’d never heard before but somehow knew.)

This middle period of theirs was my period — neither the impressive creative outburst that saw each album build on what they’d leaned last time, nor the slow decline and creative stall that followed 1999’s Up. I’m all about their biggest hits, the albums that worked as the soundtrack of my life from the end of high school through the end of college. For all my contrarian urges, I can’t deny it: when it comes to my fascination with R.E.M., I am unashamedly, proudly mainstream. When they were good, they were great.

366 Songs 364: What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?

I still remember my excitement upon hearing this song for the first time; it was the first release for R.E.M. since the ridiculously successful, melancholy Automatic For The People, an album that had happily stoked by obsessive collector nature and found me buying up every R.E.M. release I could find, and a song I had genuinely been waiting months to hear. Thankfully, unlike most of the rest of Monster, the album it comes from, “What’s The Frequency” is a good song, or at least, a catchy and interesting pop song (It’s maybe a little too slight to be objectively good; there’s little surprise to it, and little content past the riffs and backwards-guitar solo); I rewound and rewound my taped-off-the-radio version of it, listening to it exhaustively, confused and exhilarated by the transformation from melancholy tunesmiths to wannabe rockers that the song represented, but was as equally turned on by the chance to hear rock that wasn’t beholden to the sincere and angry grunge noise as I was used to at the time as I was let down by the lack of nuance of the stuff I’d become more familiar with at the time.

In many ways, this song was the beginning of the end of my love affair with R.E.M., which was also my first big love affair with any band; it was a song that was “good enough,” but even just admitting that to myself was to admit disappointment and defeat, and allow myself to accept that, maybe, my heroes weren’t as infallible as I wanted them to be.

366 Songs 199: Galveston

There was a period, awhile back, when I got really into Jimmy Webb as a songwriter – He’s the one who wrote this song for Glen Campbell – and this was probably the song that convinced me that, when he was good, he was really good; to be fair, there’s a lot in the production of the Glen Campbell version that wins me over (Those strings, for one, but also the start, the bass falling down and drawing you into it), but the version I first heard – an R.E.M. cover of sorts, from the Rough Cut documentary – was this stripped down version that just makes you want to hear more… Or, it did me, at least…

I admit it, I’m also a sucker for any song that goes – as this one does – “I am so afraid of dying” so bluntly.

366 Songs 198: Half A World Away

The standout song from R.E.M.’s Out of Time, back when I first bought the album as a painfully sincere 16-year-old, and still my favorite. While the instrumentation fulfills the role of almost all of the other songs on the album – mostly acoustic, mid-tempo, restrained and utterly pleasant – what always appealed to me about the song was the aching longing in Michael Stipe’s singing, the vibration and voice cracking that lends it some kind of weird emotional authenticity that really appealed to me back then. It was “Losing My Religion” as a single than made me buy the album, but it was this song that made me into an R.E.M. fanatic for years, excitedly watching for their television appearances and hoping that they’d do this one.

366 Songs 197: After Hours

I won’t lie; the shooting in Aurora, Colorado at the end of last week flattened me in a way I wouldn’t have expected. Not just emotionally, although it did that – I felt exhausted by it, just saddened that such a thing could happen and that someone could do it, if that doesn’t sound too pathetic and naive – but practically, too, as it meant an immediate rewrite for some things I had written ahead of deadline that would suddenly seem crass and in poor taste when they eventually appeared (Two things had to be replaced altogether) on a day when I already had too much to do. The reason I tell you that is to explain why the blog essentially went dark of the weekend; I just needed to get offline and get my head straight again.

So, have this song, as I return and begin again. One of my favorites, because Maureen Tucker’s vocals are so artless and honest, you can’t help but be drawn in, and find yourself smiling despite yourself. Such beautifully vulnerable lyrics, too (“Someday I know/Someone will look into my eyes/And say hello/You’re my very special one” always gets me, I admit).

I first heard this song in a significantly different version, years before I heard the Velvet Underground original:

For some reason, Michael Stipe’s performance in this version from the end of R.E.M.’s Tourfilm made me wonder if this was actually a “real song” at all, or just some joke song the band had made up to finish off shows. I remember finding the original and being both surprised and happy that it had an authenticity that the version I knew so well lacked.

366 Songs 093: At My Most Beautiful

In my defense, I’ve always had a thing for cellos, so I was always going to be a sucker for this song. But R.E.M.’s “At My Most Beautiful” came into my life (via the Up album, I guess) at a time when I was that sad boy whose girlfriend was overseas studying and receiving homemade tapes filled with overly emotional music all of which had deep emotional meaning that wasn’t exactly hidden to anyone with ears, and so, of course it went on one of those tapes, probably between something from Big Star’s Third album and, God knows, an Oasis b-side or whatever else I was listening to at the time.

That’s not the reason I’m bringing this song to light, however. No, for that, you have to jump forward a few months and the girlfriend is back in town and we’ve split up, and “At My Most Beautiful” is about to be released as a single. I’m lying on my bed, reading the NME or the Melody Maker review of the single and it’s as cutting and cruel as the song deserves (Really, this is a horribly sentimental, rather dull song at heart, lovely cello moment aside) and in the review, there’s a line along the lines of “This song is so bad, the only people who’ll find any value in it are sad boys lying in their bedrooms making up mix tapes for girlfriends who are overseas” or the like. Something that literally described me.

I read that line and blushed, embarrassed at being so predictable, so obvious, and thought to myself, “I can never tell anyone about this. Ever.”

Apparently, more than a decade later, I’m a little bit better at laughing at myself.

366 Songs 092: Star 69

R.E.M.’s Monster came out on the day that I was moving from Greenock back to Aberdeen for the second year of my art school career; I was going to be living in a house in the middle of the countryside, and so I made a point of getting up early before I even packed up for the four hour drive between hometowns to buy the album, and spent the entire drive wishing that I could play the album in the car and hear all of those great songs that were almost definitely as good and catchy as the lead-off single “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”.

(Almost twenty years later, I still think that “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” is a great single; it’s ridiculously catchy and sounds just off enough that you can’t help but pay attention when you hear it. I remember hearing it for the first time, back when I was a massive R.E.M. fan and couldn’t quite believe that they were really doing a “rock” record again after Out of Time and Automatic For The People, and thinking “That wasn’t what I was expecting, but I definitely want to hear a lot more!”)

When I arrived and unpacked the car in Aberdeen, the first thing I did was plug in my CD player and eagerly put the new album on, excited to listen to the whole thing as I tried to make this new house into somewhere I could imagine spending the next nine months. With each successive track, I got more and more worried about the… saminess, I guess, the aural sludge that felt like it bogged down the album, the lack of focus and even more worrying, the lack of tunes. This wasn’t what I had wanted, and felt like it was a bad omen for how the year ahead and the new place were going to turn out (Spoiler: It may have been, considering). But when “Star 69” came on, I stopped what I was doing and just listened, and then hit repeat, and listened to it again, and again.

I’m not sure what it was about this song that stood out so much: The riff? The echoed vocals? The way that the song seems to almost take a breath before the guitar solo? Maybe all of that, and more, but this wasn’t like the rest of the album, and gave me an idea that, okay, maybe my musical heroes of the time had let me down, but they weren’t entirely out of ideas just yet. The myth of the musical comeback was born in me with this song, I think.

366 Songs 091: Drive

Like many white people of a particular generation, Out of Time by R.E.M. was a particularly important album for me, and I can remember the mix of disappointment and frustration that accompanied the release of “Drive,” the first single from the follow-up album, Automatic For The People. Almost willfully downbeat and anti-radioplay-friendly, “Drive” wasn’t the comeback song that the eighteen year old me I was at the time hoping for, and I remember forcing myself to listen to it over and over again, convinced that it would have hidden charms that I was too dumb to fully comprehend immediately, and I just had to find them. I’d sit there with the song on repeat, the first CD I’d ever bought for myself (I’d just received my first CD player for my birthday, as I remember), listening to it over and over and thinking “Come on, song, make sense for me, please,” with the most enjoyment I could wring out of it being the three-note coda at the very end of the song that always made me sing along in my head “Arr, Eee, Emmm….”

(Somewhat ironically, I like it a lot more now than I did then, in part because it makes me think of the album as a whole now, and it works much better in that context. So maybe that was all I needed; the rest of Automatic For The People. Belated thanks, R.E.M.!)