Sunday, August 05, 2007

Chronic Town, Poster Torn

I've been thinking about R.E.M. lately, and apparently I'm not alone. A causal scan of the music blogs will find quite a bit on Athens favorite sons. About a month ago the band held court in Dublin and debuted a lot of new material from their forthcoming album. Go here for audio. I've been lukewarm on most of the band's post-Bill Berry material, however some of these new tunes sound pretty good.

Back in college, now that's a different story. Word of REM spread like wildfire in the dorms, to the point that we were rushing out to buy the Chronic Town EP as if our lives depended on it. I was lucky enough to also nab their Hib-Tone 45 of Radio Free Europe, a song that still resonates today, and defines a period in my life like no other (the Holy Trinity of college music for me is Radio Free Europe, New Year's Day and Once In A Lifetime). There's something about the early REM records that just bristles with raw energy. The combination of Stipe's mysterious poetry and Buck's jangling guitar was exciting, and we all wanted to be a part of it. I will admit that their live performances left me a little cold. I remember seeing them in 83, and the band was backlit so you couldn't see their faces, and Stipe's vocals were even less understandable then on the records. They seemed to be striving for ambiguity. Still, we knew we had to be there. At least through Document, REM made some unbelievably great music.

I think the band eventually succumbed to commercial pressure, and my attention for the new sound wavered with Shiny Happy People, It's the End of the World, and even Losing My Religion, a brilliant song that was just overplayed to death.

This live version of Wolves, Lower from the Chronic Town EP captures the excitement of a band on the cusp of worldwide stardom, in a small club that probably could barely contain the energy.

Wolves, Lower - Larry's Hideway, Toronto, July 9, 1983.

Go to the excellent blog That Truncheon Thing for the full show, and some much more lucid recollections of the heyday of REM from a guy that witnessed it all firsthand.

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6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes I was a lucky one to have been in college when REM hit the scene. Here was a band that was HUGE with all who had any taste in music. You didn't hear it outside of college stations with the exception of a few semi-commercial stations like the old WHFS (Thanks Bob here)or other such progressive stations. Had tickets to see them in late 82 at the local discotheque which they canceled due to work they were doing in NC, which was Murmur. Fortunately our school, VPI, wasn't too far from Winston Salem and we got to hear them do the new album next semester. Incredible, though Stipe was not the front man like Bono. He'd turn around and do a few songs with his back to the audience. I guess wasn't as bad as the Reckoning tour, when he laid down behind Bill Berry and sang from there.
I realized how "out of step" my musical leanings were when I followed the Police's synchronicity tour (REM warmed up) just to see REM and people actually boo'ed them. Oh well.
I second your choice of the three defining songs though if you were in college when I was you certainly should recall the impact of the violent femmes as well. What a show, what a show. My god when the femmes toured with their first album, there wasn't a band any better. Perhaps I would add 'Blister in the Sun' to your three legged stool. Ahh within a three month period, late 82 early 83, we saw the femmes and REM in small bars. A carnival of sorts!

8:27 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

25 Years

6:19 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Yes, now that you mention it, I do recall Stipe turning his back to the audience from time to time. I don't remember him laying down, though. It was almost as if he was shy or embarassed. Perhaps, the lyrics, which although interesting are complete gibberish, had something to do with it.

10:04 PM  
Anonymous Brian C. said...

Weird to hear anyone call Michael Stipe's lyrics jibberish. Cryptic, maybe. I might be alone in thinking that the lyrics to "Chronic Town," in particular, are a thing of genius. Pretty sure all five songs are about a graveyard. Making it one of the weirdest, most haunting song-cycles I've ever come across.

7:19 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Maybe gibberish is too harsh. I do recall an interview where Stipe admitted that many of his lyrics on the early records were literally random words thrown together abstractly. And when performed live, they were unintelligible. Don't get me wrong though, the early REM records were galvanizing, amazing tunes. I'll take the complexities of Wolves, Lower to Shiny Happy People anyday.

5:29 PM  
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