Tuesday 12 January 2021

R.E.M.: Automatic For The People


(#462: 10 October 1992, 1 week; 24 April 1993, 1 week; 8 May 1993, 1 week; 22 May 1993, 1 week)


Track listing: Drive/Try Not To Breathe/The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite/Everybody Hurts/New Orleans Instrumental No. 1/Sweetness Follows/Monty Got A Raw Deal/Ignoreland/Star Me Kitten/Man On The Moon/Nightswimming/Find The River


“The Trump anarchists don’t deserve comparison to the brave Chinese pro-democracy activists. But they wanted similar images of a brutal government crackdown, even martyrdom, that could have energized their movement for years.


‘Trump’s fanatical followers didn’t get their wish. Instead, they got what they deserved — public revulsion and failure.”

(David Ignatius, The Washington Post – motto: “Democracy Dies in Darkness” - 8 January 2021)


“Marched into the capital

Brooding duplicitous, wicked and able, media-ready

Heartless and labeled, super U.S. citizen, super achiever

Mega ultra power dosing, relax, defense, defense, defense, defense

Yeah, yeah, yeah”

(R.E.M., “Ignoreland”)


On 27 September 1992, Laura and I made it official.


Commuting by coach from London to Oxford at weekends to be with Laura was how I lived my life for many years. There were two competing coach companies, Oxford City Link and Oxford Tube. The journey on the Oxford Tube was slightly longer because it did not proceed down the Westway but instead stopped at Lancaster Gate, Notting Hill Gate and Holland Park - I think that there was some connection with the Central Line of London Underground – before pausing at Shepherd’s Bush Roundabout and spinning into the A40 at White City, but I took it because the X90 coach didn’t have a toilet in it, whereas the Oxford Tube did, and I usually needed it, especially at weekends when the rush-hour traffic would routinely stall all the way to Hanger Lane.


I’ve been told to leave out the travel minutiae, so will instead concentrate on how an average Friday night journey felt, with London slowly and benignly receding behind me. As the journey passed through the Savoy Circus and inched onwards to the Art Deco station at Park Royal, before really hitting its stride, the landmarks became fewer, the houses curiously became larger, and you became conscious about slowly being woven out of the city – the light steadily darkened, the landscape became progressively less populated.


You felt as if you were being driven into nowhere. Once past the outermost extent of “London” – the borough of Hillingdon (which was really part of Uxbridge; it’s complicated) – the darkness globalised and the metaphorical long dark tunnel presented itself. There was little to see but invisible countryside, occasionally punctuated by signs of habitation; High Wycombe, twice cut into a hill by the most reluctant of steak knives, with its call centres and 24-hour supermarkets; and then the long tunnel of mountain marking the boundary between the Home Counties and the South Midlands.


The coach then bizarrely turned off at Junction 6 to Lewknor, and many disembarked at this point, before returning to the main motorway and eventually heading, via more countryside and the distant sarcophagi of Didcot Power Station, for Oxford itself.


It was the otherness which this autumnal darkness promised that I found compelling. I habitually travelled with my Sony Walkman, since this was the only practical way for me to listen to, or at least road-test, new music. It was therefore fitting that Automatic For The People came out in October. I bought it on cassette from WHSmith in Kensington High Street and it rarely left my Walkman, except when Laura and I listened to it together, which at the time was nearly all the time.


I cannot listen to the record still without thinking of that ungraspable darkness, the promise of adventure that it retained. Everything about the record breathes autumn, particularly that unworldly, intense shade of sunlight which one experiences in October, reflected in the cover’s subliminal yellow, like leaves daring to fall. The gaps of infinity between voices and instruments, like yawning close mouths of confidence. R.E.M. promised something that a British group such as The Smiths could not quite meet; more patience, less guiltily affluent outrage.


Yet, and contrary to almost all of the critical voices expressed at the time of its release, the record is not about dying. The first song, “Drive,” is counted in by a hushed “1-2-3-4” as though not wishing to disturb the planet, and yet it is a courtly call to arms. Michael Stipe issues syllables and diktats like a fifties advertising executive anxious not to distress their secretary.


But those syllables possess their own meanings:


“Smack, crack, Bush WHACKED.”


It was an election year. There had been a war overseas and a riot in the country’s own backyard. Much as happened under a week ago.


The inspiration for the song was David Essex’s minimalism-emulating “Rock On” and the group arrangement (as opposed to John Paul Jones’ strings) may obscurely have its bearings in the quieter work of Queen (“You Take My Breath Away”). Yet the central motif of “Hey kids, rock AND roll” has its roots in the 1980 song “Stop It” by fellow Athens, Georgia musicians Pylon (“Hey! Kids! Hey! Kids! Don’t rock ‘n’ roll, no”) which concludes their first album, Gyrate. This song is much faster than “Drive” and its angles of guitars and voice anticipate the work of Pixies, yet its spaciousness can still be glimpsed.


Rather than condemning or solemnly burying rock ‘n’ roll and dreams and actualities of youth, “Drive” is a song which politely urges its audience to wake up and act; Stipe said it directly advocated the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. It says its things, from the basin of a welcoming but infinitely vast canyon. It asks its listeners to move, and forward.


Its central rallying cry of “Ollie Ollie in come free” derives from an expression in children’s games, used to indicate that participants can come out of hiding without losing the game, or that the game’s players have switched sides, or that the game itself is over. Stipe makes it stand for all three. “Nobody tells you where to go” is a lament, or laconic satire, or a card to act freely and decisively.


“Try Not To Breathe” is a calmer “Seasons In The Sun” variant; Stipe was thinking about his grandmother dying and telling (perhaps solely in his mind) her family not to weep over or mourn her. It has an air-filled openness about its folyk waltz. “I need something to fly over my grave again,” which makes me think of Laura’s response to a random shuddering feeling in her body: “Someone’s just walked over my grave again,” oh for pity’s sake.


I can see that this piece isn’t going as or where it should. Already there are too many itemised, recycled Wikipedia entries, and practically nothing about how the record makes me feel or why. A calmer “Seasons In The Sun” variant; who’s going to pick up a book of this stuff if it contains landfill prose like that? Little about the angles of autumn sunshine, the unrealness they bestow upon things you see and hear at the time. Nothing about the walk back home from Gloucester Green bus station, the lovely little ramshackle burger stand in the area of wasteland near the railway station now occupied by the Said Business School, whose delicious food I frequently sampled, with Laura, when I got home. All of this feeds into how I feel about Automatic For The People.


So “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” is the obligatory light relief – I think of the film of Glengarry Glen Ross, released in the same month, with Jack Lemmon’s Shelley Levene at the payphone, asking the hospital staff how his daughter’s doing (“Call me when you try to wake her”). “Everybody Hurts” has been worn down by overexposure, but at the time was painfully pertinent. Oh, fuck it, the song HIT me like little else could have done or still do. It is the simplest of songs – one might be listening to an old doo-wop record, or a hymn (the dividing line between the two is very slender) – and offers nothing more than comfort; no popular song could wilfully offer anything more than that. Unlike, say, “I Know It’s Over,” there are no torrents of self-pity; unlike Morrissey, Stipe looks out onto the world which is hurting and offers these words, in such a way, to the people who are hurting. In the video there is an endless traffic jam which resolves itself only when the car drivers spontaneously decide to get out of their vehicles and walk. They’ll never walk alone, in an echo of one of the very earliest of number one albums.


“New Orleans Instrumental No. 1” – a second instrumental appeared on the B-side of the “Man On The Moon” single – audibly has little to do with New Orleans but is one of those modestly arching studies reminiscent of both Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue, with elements of late period early Roxy Music and the instrumental interludes on certain Simple Minds records (“Somebody Up There Likes You”). “Sweetness Follows” asks, perhaps squarely for 1992 but never irrelevantly – especially not in this nowness of unanticipated and uncalled-for premature departures; are you sure this record isn’t about dying now? - to consider our families and what will become of them. It is elegantly mournful, with its solemn yet compassionate ‘cello undertow indecently undercut by Peter Buck’s increasingly painful guitar feedback howls, and what the hell am I doing demeaning it by talking about it as though I were an antique dealer – because this album, with frightening, penetrative vividness, speaks to, of and for our times. The times through which we are currently suffering.


“Monty Got A Raw Deal” plays like a sideways “Losing My Religion” and features some of the most authoritatively rhetorical drumming since Levon Helm circa 1968; “Ignoreland” is angry politicising, highly aware that most of its listeners will ignore it – but, as was erroneously thought about events at the Capitol last week, doesn’t it clear the air, make you feel better, expressing this purposely undirected rage? Isn’t it so much preferable to fatally stifling “balance”? Does there not come a time when one has to yell “FUCK IT,” stand up and call right right and wrong wrong? “Star Me Kitten” is perhaps one of the album’s peaks, sounding like David Sylvian covering “I’m Not In Love” with the sinister subtext of that lyric brought out into courteous cold.


What I think about the Andy Kaufman tribute, “Man On The Moon” – apart from Taxi, the man hardly played in Britain – involves being at the back of an Oxford Tube coach very late at night, heading back home, and if you think I’m going to prostitute those sacred memories for your spurious delectation you have another think coming. “Here’s a truck stop instead of St Peter’s”; who of us ending up there will see or expect any different? Stipe’s Presley impressions – or impressions of Kaufman impersonating Elvis – render the stolid entirety of exercise jotters like Rattle And Hum superfluous. The song sings and chimes like the bells of St Clement’s Church, on the Marston Road.


The mood is then made steadily more intimate and low-key, and possibly more eternal. The piano changes to “Nightswimming,” originally written about a nightwatchman until the nightwatchman in question threatened to sue, could conceivably loop to eternity, the lyric recalls the unheard words of John Martyn’s “Small Hours” – a night beyond the grasp of rationalism, yet also a resolved “Perfect Circle” – while the closing dash of oboe recalls Ronnie Lane’s “The Poacher.” The closing “Find The River” stretches this slow-ness to the point of infinity, with its unlonely accordion and the concluding acknowledgement of hope…or is it apocalypse (“The river empties to the tide/All of this is coming your way”)?


I am aware that the above is an abysmally inadequate essay, particularly in respect of an album whose time has abruptly and shockingly come, nearly thirty years after it was realised. It barely touches on the record’s hymns for the dying and defeated of 2020-1, nor on the extraordinary experience which I perceived when I listened to this album alone, on headphones, in the front room in total darkness, in the very early hours of this Sunday morning just past. I saw a different darkness. I dreamed of sunrise and light. I pictured a better way for humanity than the cheap and brutal one which has been planned for us. This record is so much deeper than any writing could palpate.


And, finally, I recall the fulsome and lyrical review which the album received in Select magazine at the time. “Automatic For The People,” the reviewer wrote, “is melancholia-a-go-go, but it’s not depressed. If your life is horrible, if your scene is at an all-time low, if you’re recently bereaved, its emotional power may prove a touch overwhelming. But if you’re happy it will enrich your life like discovering a new colour.” The reviewer was David Cavanagh, one of the most powerful yet powerless of music writers, who in December 2018 jumped in front of an oncoming train at Luton and killed himself. Is that the only place to which more-than-adequate writing can get you?


“It’s about solving problems, looking out for one another, not stoking the flames of hate and chaos. As I said, America is about honor, decency, respect, tolerance. That’s who we are. That’s who we’ve always been. The certification of the Electoral College vote, it’s supposed to be a sacred ritual, which we affirm, it’s purpose is to affirm the majesty of American democracy. But today’s reminder, a painful one, that democracy is fragile and to preserve it, requires people of goodwill, leaders who have the courage to stand up, who are devoted, not to the pursuit of power or their personal interests, pursuits of their own selfish interest at any cost, but at the common good. Think what, our children watching television is thinking. Think what the rest of the world is looking at. For nearly two and a half centuries, we, the people, in search of a more perfect union, have kept our eyes on that common good. America is so much better than what we’ve seen today.”

(Joe Biden, 6 January 2021)


“the fact that there are times, maybe the most unlikely times, that you realize you're simply thrilled to be alive, and what a great piece of luck it is just to be a part of things, to have a body, so you can feel and see and walk the earth, for just a little while”

(Lucy Ellmann, Ducks, Newburyport)


“My dreams sent me. People in dreams, ought to call them when you wake. Make life simpler.”

(Leos Carax, from the screenplay to the 1991 film Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, as spoken by Marion Stalens)