Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Best REM Songs That Prove They Should Stand Among The Giants Of Rock And Roll

Where does REM fit into the rock'n'roll pantheon? As U2's mediocre new album sells only half of what they'd hoped, as Coldplay stands astride the World of Rock while making music that, let's be honest, is not rock-and-roll, as people continue, inexplicably, to pay sporadic attention to Nirvana and Pearl Jam...

... and let's face it: Were shiny white suits, platform shoes, and flares any more or less embarrassing than flannel shirts, greasy hair, and cargo pants? No. Was the music put out by the "grunge" rockers of the early 90s any more or less influential than disco? No. Yet, it took about 35 minutes for people to begin making fun of disco; meanwhile, twenty years in, people are still pretending that grunge was "real" or "authentic" or whatever it is that makes people pretend to like grunge...

As all that happens, REM gets ignored, really. They even got ignored by me when I set the world straight on what Rock & Roll actually is (as I did here, and here, and here, and here, and here, too. )

Which is odd, if you consider, first, facts:

REM has released 14 studio albums. The Beatles released 13.

REM has had 6 singles hit number 5 or better in the U.S. The Police had three.

REM has been around and making albums for 29 years. Pearl Jam has only been around 19, if you count "technically, existing as a band even though nobody cares anymore" as "being around."

But Rock and roll isn't about facts, it's about... emotions and arm-pumping and wanting to get up and move and feeling alive and all that other stuff. And about being creative and doing it better than everyone else in the world. REM does that, too-- they don't just out-fact the competition, they also out-music them. But for some reason, even though REM does all that, they still get short shrift.

So, to set things right, I'm presenting today's SemiDaily List:

The Best REM Songs That Prove They Should Stand Among The Giants Of Rock And Roll

First up: Stadium Rock: If you're going to rock the world, you've got to be able to get 55,000 fans to stand on their feet and wave their lighters (for Olden Days' fans) and their iPhone Lighter Apps (kids these days) and shout the lyrics and sing along.

Quintessential Stadium Rocker: Queen, Radio Ga-Ga at Live Aid. Freddie Mercury gets people worldwide to fight hunger by waving their arms and chanting nonsense words:

REM's Answer: It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) (live). I'm not a fan of live songs, in general-- but REM does this song live more or less just like on the studio version. And what's more impressive than getting a crowd of people to say ga ga? Getting a crowd of people to dance to a jelly-bean based Armageddon:

Did you get a little chill when Michael Stipe got the crowd to CHEER for feeling fine at the end of the world? I did.

BONUS ROCKER CRED: "It's The End of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) was release two years before Billy Joel's more-famous stream-of-consciousness rock song "We Didn't Start The Fire."

Next comes Quasi-Mystical References/Historical Allusions: Great rock bands build up hype by having songs in which mystical, historical, weird things are said that seem to make sense, but which, if you parse them out, don't really. That adds to their credibility because they can claim that we just don't get it. They don't even have to get all "10 Summoners Tales" on us. They can simply throw in a couple of Tolkien references, or use words that nobody understands plus Roman numerals (Synchronicity II?).

Quintessential Quasi-mystical/historical songs: I'll give you two. First, there's "Space Oddity," By David Bowie:

Then, no pretentious Lit-Rock would be complete without Sting. Here's "Love Is The Seventh Wave." Note the chorus: "There is a deeper wave than this." Yes: And only STING can tell us about that. He even says so: "That you don't understand." That's because you're a Philistine:

REM's Answer to those songs? "Imitation Of Life"

How's THAT for inscrutable: "Thats sugarcane that tasted good/Thats who you are, thats what you could/Cmon cmon no one can see you cry." What? It's not obscure or literary enough for you? What if they pulled out a little-known celebrity and made him a figure of almost religious devotion, mentioned a bunch of child hood games and other obscure or academic folk, and then set it all to an orchestra?

Can do: Here's "Man In The Moon,"

And here's an orchestral version from the soundtrack to the movie. Remember when America had Kaufmania? No, neither do I:

You know who "Fred Blassie" was and why he's in a "breakfast mess," right? No? You Philistine. (Hint: He apparently coined, or maybe just popularized, the phrase "pencil-neck geek.") Don't miss the Charles Darwin reference in that song, either.

With all that, now, let's Slow It Down A Little. Great bands know that sometimes, the rockin' has to stop so that we can move in close and dance a slow one with that hot chick wearing the white, tight, halter top. (Or, in my teen-and-early-twenties' case, go sit back at the table and wait, impatiently, for the next fast song.) U2 laid a little "With Or Without You" on us, causing a generation of people to confuse "stalking" with "romance," and you know they did that because that same group of people then rallied around Guns & Roses' "Used To Love Her," then found solace in "November Rain," which -- no lie -- begins "When I look into your eyes/I can see a love restrained."

It's tough to look into someone's eyes from a minimum of 500 feet away, isn't it?

The quintessential Slow It Down A Little song, though, has to be INXS' "Never Tear Us Apart:"

INXS was a bunch of rave-rockers who tore it up with "What You Need" and "I Send A Message," and was hitting it big... but only hit it bigger still when they threw some violins and foggy days and angel metaphors and the like at us, with a wedding-vow friendly set of lines: Two worlds collided/and they could never, ever, tear us apart. Oh, the many mulleted weddings that must have been sealed with those lines, the speeches made by best men quoting that song to end their toast: "Tony was standing, and Tina was there. Two worlds collided, and nobody's going to tear them apart. I love you guys!"

Can REM match INXS step for step? Can they romance you and make you swoon? Can they give you something to say at your parents' 50th anniversary? Sure. Here's "Nightswimming."

Moon. Naked swimming. Photographs tucked into the dashboard. I love you guys!

Finally, all great rock bands know that behind the music lies ... tragedy. Lies sadness. Lies emotions that we only want to acknowledge when we are driving home late, late at night, and we're tired, and the drive-throughs are closed, so we can't even get a stupid chocolate shake to make us feel better... they know that we miss our friends and our family even though we saw them that morning and/or never really hung out all that much. Great bands know that they can get through to you by singing about that friend of theirs who overdosed...on his 21st birthday..., like U2 did on "Bad:"

What can REM say to that? How could they possibly top that tragedy, the pain felt by Bono over the loss of his friend... what are they supposed to do, universalize it and show that Everybody Hurts?

Well played, REM. Well played.

So, REM, step up and take your place on the pedestal among the other Legends of Rock and Roll. There's just one final question. You never, say, made an overly-pop song in an attempt to cash in on newfound fame, and then watered down your coolness a little bit more by singing it with puppets, did you? Because that might pose a problem...

Want to hear REM's amazingly cool version of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight? Click here.

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Thinking The Lions is Life, only funnier. Ever try to find your way around Illinois using a high-school play as a reference? Ever wonder what "squid chili" has to do with romance? Ever think maybe those velociraptors weren't real after all? No? Well, I did, and you can read about it here.


Husbands Anonymous said...

Aah, the suicide anthem. Everbody really does hurt, Michael. Still, I remember bopping to 'End of the World' while off my head on drugs and booze in the eighties.
It all comes flooding back....

Tina said...

I forgot how much I used to love REM. Michael Stipe does not look well.

Great blog!

lisapepin said...

Since moving to France, we've been to see The Police (twice!), U2 and R.E.M. in concert. R.E.M. was the most enjoyable show. They were more into it than The Police and not as over-produced and commercial as U2. They rocked. And Michael Stipe apologized to the audience for the Bush administration - in French and everything - which went over like gangbusters.