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August 27, 2005

Did we miss anything?

5 out of 5 stars

It had to happen. Most people who know me are probably aware of my rather over enthusiastic love of R.E.M. and any regular readers of my blog can't have failed to notice 2 overly long gig reviews and numerous references. However I felt the need to write something more substantial, and a 3 hour car journey has provided just the inspiration.

I've always loved Murmur, however it wasn't until this afternoon that I realised just how great this album is. I like all of R.E.M.'s albums and they are the only band that I can honestly say that there are no songs on any of their records that I dislike, so you could be forgiven for thinking that my claim of how great this album is is biased and simply a result of my enthusiasm. But re-listening to the album twice in a row it really hit me just how important this record is to music in the last 20 years. The fact that 2 books have been written about it and it recently featured at number 87 in Uncut Magazine's list of the 100 greatest icons not just in music but in film as well is testament to its importance in modern music. I'm not sure how long this entry will drag on for but I have quite a lot to say so I apologise in advance if this becomes self-indulgent and turns into an entry which is only of interest to me but hopefully this won't be the case.

First off I can't understand how anybody, music lover or not, doesn't like R.E.M. There are people who describe them as boring or depressing or unoriginal. If you are reading this and any one of those things applies please do yourself and me a favour and go out and buy this album. People who think that this band make depressing music are severely mistaken. Whenever I ask why I get the usual answer of "well Everybody Hurts is a really sad song" or something like that. I just find this incredible. Besides the fact it is one of the most uplifting songs ever recorded it isn't really representative of R.E.M.'s catalogue. As for being boring and unoriginal, again listen to Murmur; it is clear that it has many influences and imitates several other pre-existing sounds but it also creates much that is new and has itself been much copied. Just listen to the Bloc Party album, try and isolate what is original about that album and then go and listen to Murmur and you'll find exactly the same thing. This album is the blueprint for all the current indie bands, whether this is direct influences (Elbow cites Murmur as a major source of inspiration) or simply through the evolutionary processes that result when a good idea is taken and developed. Listening to this album today made me realise just how 'new' it sounds.

Before I continue I must make it clear that Murmur is not my favourite R.E.M. album, that honour goes to Out of Time, but I do think that it may be their best and certainly their most important. Let’s begin with a bit of history. Great albums always have good stories behind them and this is no exception. Four young guys with vastly different backgrounds and birthplaces converge on the college town of Athens, Georgia. Peter Buck meets Michael Stipe whilst living in a derelict church and working in a local record shop where Stipe buys all of the records that Buck had set aside for himself. They become friends and decide to try and write some songs. Stipe can’t play an instrument and Buck is no expert on the guitar but they manage a few simple compositions. Meanwhile Bill Berry and Mike Mills are busy hating each other; Berry the local bully to Mills's nerd. Until the moment that is when they both unknowingly show up to a jamming session with a mutual friend, at which point they develop a firm friendship. The two duos play in various groups (Mills and Berry in a band with Police drummer Stuart Copeland’s brother Ian) before a mutual friend introduces Buck and Stipe to Berry. Stipe likes Berry’s eyebrows so asks him if he wants to form a band. Berry agrees as long as Mills tags along. They agree until they meet Mills who is too drunk to stand up. Eventually they do rehearse together, the drummer and bass player being clearly more experienced than the singer and guitarist and the band make their debut under the name The Twisted Kites on 5th April at the birthday party of the same friend that introduced them. The set includes at least 8 original songs and cover versions such as Patti Smith’s Gloria, The Velvet Underground’s There She Goes Again and The Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen. They are a huge success and start playing the local bars in Athens and in December 1980 support The Police. They eventually manage to record a debut EP and a single which they use to market themselves; by this time they are a big hit as a live band and Chronic Town the EP is an underground hit, especially in England. The band is finally signed to IRS after record company boss Miles Copeland does a swap with his brother Ian. Miles signs R.E.M., as they had now become, and Ian signs the all-girl group soon to become known as the Bangles. With influences ranging from The Sex Pistols to Abba via Patti Smith, Television and the Beach Boys and with over 40 original songs already written the band enter the studios and this is what resulted:

The album begins with some almost inaudible crashes, thunderclaps and radio feedback which gradually get louder before Berry’s metronomic drum beat of Radio Free Europe erupts along with Stipe’s mumbled vocal: ‘Beside yourself if radio’s gonna stay’. It is clear from the very start that every instrument is treated with the same emphasis. The drums and bass are brought up in the mix, and the vocals and guitar are taken down so that everything plays on the same level. This album more than any other uses the voice as an instrument, many of the lyrics being almost inaudible, flowing in and out of the guitar licks and drum beats. It is the perfect opener, and why? Because it’s so restrained. This could easily be a thrash rock record replicating the violent energy the band unleashed on stage. But what makes this band so special is that right from the beginning of their career they fail to fall into any of the traps that so many other bands have fallen into when trying to record songs that they have perfect on the stage. Those bands in effect go into the studio and record a live album; the problem being that all of the energy is in the performance and not on the record. With this band all of the energy can be heard loud and clear right from the word go. They hit the perfect middle ground, this is not a live album which loses all the energy nor is it overproduced to the point where the excitement is lost (the first Smiths album is a distinct victim of this; the original demos producing a much better collection of recordings than those eventually released).

A discordant piano can be heard accompanied by distant, distorted and echoing vocals as Stipe repeats ‘Take a turn / Take our fortune’ in the introduction to Pilgrimage. As the volume grows another couple of tricks are pulled out of the bag. One of the most effective techniques employed on this album is the doubling of instruments. The discordant piano begins playing a six note sequence. This same six note sequence is picked up by the bass, the two instruments being indistinguishable. The drums come in filling the spaces in the music and as Stipe begins singing Buck’s guitar also plays the same six notes in time with the bass and piano creating one huge rhythm section. The verse as a result is quite sparse however this makes the chorus extremely effective; heralded by Berry’s double quick drumming the piano, guitar (Buck switches to acoustic for the chorus) and bass split apart producing a chorus with incredible depth and subtlety before once again reverting back to the six note cycle. It is a very unusual song and probably my favourite on the album.

Next up is Laughing the most conventional track so far. Beginning with a winding bass line and almost reggae like drum beat the song builds throughout getting apparently louder and more complicated. The opening three songs demonstrate the diversity that is to follow on the record, this song conforming neither to the straight forward rock of Radio Free Europe nor the strangeness of Pilgrimage.

The next trio of songs continue in a similar way. Talk About the Passion begins with a trademark Buck guitar arpeggio (the influence of Byrd Roger McGuinn showing through). Again Buck switches guitars for the chorus. For the fist time the drums are relegated to their usual position of providing a rhythm. The album appears to have finally settled on a ‘sound’. Until, that it the opening of Moral Kiosk, one of the strangest cuts on the album. The discordant guitar chimes are joined by a suitably wild bass line whilst the drums and vocals whirl through the gaps. As the song approaches the chorus the most incredible moment on the album occurs. Whilst Stipe sings ‘So much more attractive / Inside the moral kiosk’ the song achieves brilliance by enabling the listener to hear a melody that none of the instruments actually play. The drums tap out the rhythm between which the guitar and bass play amazingly complimentary parts which somehow create a third series of notes which fit between the notes the two guitars are playing. It lasts no longer than a couple of seconds but it is spellbinding.

The final song of the trio (and of side A if you have a tape / vinyl) is Perfect Circle. The first, and only, true ballad on the album. Every aspect of this song combines to create a perfect song. A song written by the drummer! How many bands can claim to have a legitimately equal division in song-writing credits between its members? Well this one can. Again the doubling of instrument, this time two pianos played simultaneously by Mills and Berry form the basis of the song. Berry tells how during a tour he was looking out of the venue at twilight and watching some kids playing the last game of touch football before dark and the moment brought him to tears. He asked Stipe to convey this moment when writing the lyrics and as Berry says “There’s no football in there, no kids, no twilight, but it’s all there.” Unlike most of the other songs on Murmur the lyrics are up front in the mix and are fairly intelligible which is a bonus since they are the best set on the record.

Then there is Catapult, possibly the weakest song on the album. It isn’t a bad song, just ordinary, although the guitar part during the bridge is another great musical moment on the record. Next up is another trilogy of songs; Sitting Still, 9–9 and Shaking Through. Sitting Still is another highlight of the album. It is an up-tempo rocker and probably the song that could be said to be most ‘typical’ of the album. It has mumbled lyrics, a strong, clear drum part and jangly guitar. Only the bass part deviates from the norm, providing a much punkier, straightforward backbeat than elsewhere on the album. The chorus is sung with such enthusiasm by Stipe it is difficult not to sing along and the backing vocals provide tight harmonies.

9–9 is the strangest song on the recorded by some length. All of the instruments seem to be playing totally separate parts which if heard individually would seem impossible to fit together. Yet it works. The stop/start of the verse giving way to a more even flow during the chorus. The vocals are perhaps the most indistinct on the album. It is songs like this and Moral Kiosk that Bloc Party could easily pass as their own. Shaking Through is another up-tempo song that shares many similarities with Sitting Still.

Between this song and the next there is a short musical interlude which neatly separates the previous three serious songs from the song that is to follow. We all know that R.E.M. can do pop very well. Shiny Happy People is so bubblegum that the band themselves have disowned it. Stand and Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight are two other radio-friendly tunes which the band wrote with their tongues firmly in their cheek (during their world tour in 1989 Stipe introduced Stand by placing it alongside the theme tune to Chariots of Fire as one of the greatest pieces of music ever written by man). We Walk is a lot of fun. Its playful guitar part is complimented by the simple lyrics. It is a relatively forgettable song but serves to break up the seriousness of the rest of the album and demonstrates a clear sense of fun before the finale, another fast rocker called West of the Fields. All of the instruments propel the listener through the song to the chorus, the lines being shouted by Stipe and echoed by Mills and Berry. An uplifting middle 8 returns us to another frantic verse and final chorus which ends on a hanging note doubled by the guitar and an organ. It is a great way to end the album and as with almost all of the R.E.M. albums that followed leaves you wanting to go straight back to track one and start all over again.

Everything about the album is special. The album cover is mysterious; an area of land in Georgia covered in kudzu; a Japanese weed that spread at lightning speed. The track listing on the back of the vinyl is out of order and the type face difficult to read. When IRS asked for a lyric sheet to be included, Stipe took his favourite lines from songs, some of which weren’t even on the album and arranged them in the form of a paragraph and presented them to IRS who decided a lyric sheet was not needed after all, beginning a tradition that continued up until 1998’s Up. The videos that the band were forced to make to accompany the singles are extremely oblique; if they were going to have to make videos they wanted to make them their own way and not pander to the marketplace. In fact everything about Murmur is geared away from the mainstream. The band wanted commercial success but only when the public were ready to receive them and as a result they lost none of their integrity and were able to make great records which sold reasonably well with very little pressure from the record company.

Nothing like this album existed in America at the time. In 1983 the era of punk was over and the American music industry was swamped with British synth-pop bands like Haircut 100, the Human League and Soft Cell. Murmur (an appropriate name given that at least three of the songs on the album deal with trouble communicating and the lyrics themselves are mainly murmured) filled a gap in the music scene both in America and in England. Joy Division had come and gone, U2 had not found their feet yet and were still trying to put their own spin on the Joy Division sound and the Smiths (the British equivalent of R.E.M. critically, culturally and musically) had yet to reach their full potential. This album became the only real alternative to the dying days of disco, the new wave and the new romantic, synth-pop movement. It was indie and there was very little else around like it at the time. This is the music that the Kurt Cobains and Eddie Vedders of the world were listening to and were inspired by. Only now is its influence really being felt as bands like Coldplay, Elbow, Wilco and Idlewild amongst others cite R.E.M. and particularly Murmur as major influences. In my opinion it still stands (alongside the Smiths’ The Queen is Dead and The Pixies’ Surfer Rosa) as the most important rock album of the 80s coming as it did at a time that was crying out for experimental, energy filled music to fill the gap left by punk.

So I would suggest you follow the link above and buy yourself a copy of the album to sit on your shelf alongside your copy of Automatic for the People (which you bought when it came out), Monster (which you bought under the mistaken opinion that this was a stagnant and unexperimental band, expecting Automatic vol.2, and as a result only played it once) and Greatest Hits (which isn’t). Sorry to take up so much of your time and consider yourself informed.

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