Posts Tagged ‘Peter Buck’

There was only one show performed in support of the 1992 release of “Automatic For The People”, that was on 19th November at the group’s old haunt, the 40 Watt Club in Athens GA. (almost 25 years to the day) Here is the recently discovered complete film of this performance. Special thanks to Dan Aguar & Todd Ploharsky for film restoration. The audio is available on all versions of the new 25th Anniversary Reissue of Automatic For The People. The Set includes four tunes from their recently released album including “Drive” (which was played twice), “Man on the Moon,” “Everybody Hurts” and “Monty Got a Raw Deal,” proving it wasn’t always bad to hear “and now here’s a new song.”

SETLIST:

01 – Drive (0:00) 02 – Monty Got A Raw Deal (4:35) 03 – Everybody Hurts (8:49) 04 – [Greenpeace Speech] (14:42) 05 – Man On The Moon (16:07) 06 – [‘Oh Life’ Story] (21:25) 07 – Losing My Religion (22:35) 08 – Country Feedback (27:56) 09 – Begin The Begin (33:04) 10 – Fall On Me (37:05) 11 – Me In Honey (41:39) 12 – Finest Worksong (46:00) 13 – Drive (54:34) 14 – Love Is All Around (1:00:20) 15 – Funtime (1:04:47) 16 – Radio Free Europe (1:07:26)

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There’s a famous quote from a movie. The movie was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and the often-repeated line was, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Legend vs. fact. Reality and the silver screen. What goes on behind closed doors compared to what the public perceives. These are some of the themes of “Monty Got a Raw Deal,” the seventh track on R.E.M.’s 1992 album, Automatic for the People. In 1992, as R.E.M. were starting to record their eighth studio album, guitarist Peter Buck began to fiddle with a Greek stringed instrument called a bouzouki. Buck had already become enamored with mandolins, employing them on the band’s two previous LPs (1988’s Green and 1991’s Out of Time) before he began playing the bouzouki, which has a similarly stinging – but fuller, deeper – sound when plucked. He used the instrument to come up with a new tune.

“I wrote the main riff on my bouzouki in the hotel room in New Orleans,” said Buck, recalling that it happened in the middle of the night when a particularly affectionate couple were conducting business one room over. “I don’t know what the couple next door were doing,” he added. “It sounded like an orgy.”

The legend is that Buck came up with “Monty Got a Raw Deal” and, the very next day, R.E.M. recorded the basic foundation for it at Daniel Lanois’ Kingsway Studio in the French Quarter. But the facts appear to diverge from Buck’s memory.

R.E.M. Automatic For the People reissue

R.E.M. made Automatic in a number of far-flung locales and one of them was the Crescent City. But the band made its way to New Orleans in March, a couple of weeks after they had already demoed a huge batch of tracks in their hometown of Athens, Ga. – at a local haunt, John Keane Studios. And back in Athens, R.E.M. had already tracked an instrumental called “Bazouki Song” (sic) that would turn into “Monty Got a Raw Deal.”

Now, it’s possible that Buck further fleshed out an already existing idea in New Orleans or that his passionate neighbors helped him distill the song’s dark sound. But his story just sounds better. Print the legend.

“I was up late, couldn’t sleep,” Buck repeated in 1992. “We put it down in one take and [singer] Michael [Stipe] said, ‘Oh, that’s my favorite song.’”

It was only fitting that when Stipe created lyrics for the instrumental track that he’d do his own mythmaking – in this instance, regarding the movie business. He was inspired to write about Montgomery Clift after a photographer who had worked with the late film actor visited R.E.M. during the band’s creative process.

“The Montgomery Clift thing came because there was someone who was a photographer on the set of The Misfits who came by the studio,” Buck said. “He had photos from it and he was talking about it. … We saw those pictures and, while we were recording it, Michael was talking about it.”

The Misfits, released in 1961, featured one of Clift’s last film roles (and the final screen appearances of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable). It followed the Clift’s fall from grace. In the late ’40s and early ’50s, the Nebraska native had become one of Hollywood’s young stars, emerging at the same time as fellow method actors Marlon Brando and James Dean. Film studios began to market the good-looking, but brooding, star as a sex symbol – an identity further enhanced by his role opposite Elizabeth Taylor in 1951’s A Place in the Sun.

The gossip mongers spread rumors that Clift and Taylor were an item off-screen too. But the two Hollywood hotshots were just very close friends. After all, Taylor revealed later, Clift was more interested in romantic relationships with men. But being openly gay – or bisexual, as people close to the actor have claimed – in ’50s public life was not a viable option. Like many others, Montgomery Clift concealed his sexuality.

That was only one of the tragedies of Clift’s relatively short life. In 1956, he fell asleep while driving, crashed into a telephone pole in Beverly Hills and smashed up his face. Although he underwent plastic surgery, Clift’s looks were forever changed (part of his face was immobile) and he entered a depression. He coped with the pain with alcohol and pills, became an addict and began a long, slow decline that ultimately ended with his substance abuse-related death in 1966. He was 45.

R.E.M. weren’t the first band to write about Montgomery Clift in a rock song. The Clash depicted the disaster of the actor’s final years in “The Right Profile” on London Calling. But Stipe took a more empathetic approach with his lyrics, finding obvious parallels between his present life as a bisexual rock star and Clift’s time as a closeted film star. Each had endured the harsh light of celebrity.

“Monty Got a Raw Deal” doesn’t dispute the power of the movies or the allure of fame, even if he regards the latter with a jaundiced eye. “The movies had that movie thing / but nonsense has a welcome ring,” Stipe sings, before warning, “and heroes don’t come easy.” Perhaps the idea is that you can’t be a hero unless you suppress a part of yourself to live up to what the popular notions of a hero might be.

The song goes from film noir (“mischief knocked me in the knees”) to European expressionism, as he sees Clift lynched in a tree and buried in the sand – conjuring images of From Here to Eternity – even if that was Burt Lancaster, not Clift, rolling on the beach with Deborah Kerr. Our narrator is implored to stay mum, leading the chorus: “Don’t you waste your breath for the silver screen.” As the song continues, “Monty” becomes both tragic and mythical. The character becomes bigger, more representative of the marginalized, seemingly surviving torture, death and being outed. “Raw deal,” indeed.

Bassist/keyboardist Mike Mills is unsure whether the title of “Monty Got a Raw Deal” is an accidental double reference to Monty Clift and Monty Hall (who hosted the game show Let’s Make a Deal) or a particularly wry joke by Michael Stipe. Mills is more confident speaking to his role in the song, strengthening the recording’s noir-ish feel with the Carter Burwell-like wheeze of a melodica and a lumbering bass part.

“The bass is actually an old Guild electric bass that’s only about two feet long. The strings are rubber surgical tubing. When you play it, you get sort of a sound like an upright bass,” Mills has said. “For me, that’s what I think of when I think of that song. It looks like a lap steel with surgical tubing on it. It’s very strange.”

It wasn’t the only offbeat, but effective, choice made when recording and doing overdubs for the song. In addition to Bill Berry’s steady, sharp drums, “Monty Got a Raw Deal” features intermittent industrial crashes – startling bursts of background stomping that suggest the hazards of Clift’s story, Stipe’s experience or other tragedies.

“How much of the song is real, how much of it is about Montgomery Clift and how much is about home?” Buck asked in 1992. “I couldn’t tell you.”

A record that began with a message to the kids about control (“Drive”) ends with a song suggesting that we’re all powerless in the face of mortality. Time doesn’t stop. “The ocean is the river’s goal.” The only thing that’s truly “automatic for the people” is that every one of us has an end date. Even Andy Kaufman.

Maybe that’s gloomy – and there are plenty who think that the whole of R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People is pretty gloomy ­– but just because “Find the River” deals in death doesn’t mean it’s depressing. The finale gurgles with humanity, celebrating the path we’re all on, reminding the younger generations from the precipice of death: “All of this is coming your way.” Singer Michael Stipe’s goal doesn’t seem to be to inspire fear in the hearts of listeners, but acceptance. Enjoy your float downstream.

The resigned beauty isn’t just in the gently intoned words, but in the warm instrumentation. Most of it can be credited to the multi-talented Mike Mills, who played steady bass, soothing organ, Nashville piano, lots of acoustic guitars and that memorable melodica line on the track. With Bill Berry on drums, Mills recorded the song under the working title “10K Minimal” while R.E.M. were tracking demos in February 1992 at John Keane Studios in Athens, Ga. But because the demo was so fully realized, there was (10K) minimal work to be done when the “real” sessions began at Bearsville Sound Studios in Woodstock, New York.

Mills did it in about 30 minutes, and it had such a great feel because it was all of a piece,” guitarist Peter Buck, who doesn’t appear on the song, “I refused to try to redo that.”

In addition to all of his instrumentation, Mills had the idea to do something unusual with the backing vocals. The motivation, it turned out, came from a song from R.E.M.’s second album.

“‘Harborcoat’ from Reckoning has got me and Michael and Bill all doing completely unrelated things, and yet it works together,”said Mills . “We tried it again on ‘Find the River.’ I had the idea that Bill and I would go in and do some harmonies without listening to each other. It’s great because mine is this incredibly angst-ridden emotional thing, and Bill’s is this really low-key sort of ambling part. They’re two opposite ends of the spectrum but they’re both on there, and it’s a beautiful thing.”

R.E.M. Automatic For the People reissue

Because Stipe’s lead part, which was recorded at Miami’s Criteria Studios, is often understated, the other vocals become more prominent. Soaring and digging in the background, Mills’ and Berry’s differing approaches represent conflicting emotions about the impending fade-out. Stipe keeps it at ground level, even as he gets poetic with names of herbs and fruits to symbolize a return to nature. Although one of the herbs the frontman references – the mysterious “rose of hay” – isn’t an actual thing.

“I made it up because I needed, and could not find, something that rhymed with ‘way’ and ‘naiveté’,” Stipe revealed in 2008.

“Find the River” closes out Automatic for the People and it was the last single from R.E.M.’s eighth album. Released more than a year after its parent record had hit stores, the sixth single from Automatic came out on October. 21st, 1993. It proved to be the least successful, commercially, of the bunch, failing to chart in the U.S. and only getting to No. 54 in the U.K. It was one of only three R.E.M. singles released in the ’90s (out of a total of 24) to not make the Top 40 in Britain.

Due to the single’s lack of popularity, its relatively staid music video, directed by Jodi Wille, wasn’t widely viewed. In fact, when R.E.M. appeared on MTV in the U.K. in 2001, Mills requested that they show the “Find the River” video because he couldn’t remember having ever seen it.

R.E.M. didn’t perform the song much during their first post-Automatic tour (1995’s mega-tour for Monster), but took to playing “Find the River” in later tours, featuring the elegiac number heavily in 1999 and 2003. It’s fitting that the band included it in their last full concert in Mexico City in 2008. It was a worthwhile component of their live swan song.

After all, as Peter Buck noted in 1992, “It’s a great way to end the record.”

R.E.M. at Stravinski Auditorium, Montreux, Switzerland on July 6th, 1999

When the overarching themes of R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People are discussed, the first two things that come up are death and youth. There are songs that feature a woman on her deathbed (“Try Not to Breathe”), a mourning family (“Sweetness Follows”), a dead movie star (“Monty Got a Raw Deal”) and a person nearing the end of existence (“Find the River”). And then there are messages for the kids (“Drive,” “Everybody Hurts”) and lyrics wrapped in notions of childhood (“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,” “Man on the Moon”).

“Nightswimming,” Automatic’s penultimate track, exists near where these two themes meet – not quite at the intersection, but maybe a few blocks over. That’s because the song doesn’t deal in death exactly; it focuses on loss – the passing of youth. R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe doesn’t sing from the perspective of a teenager (as opposed to the similar “Perfect Circle”), but the vantage point of an adult. He employs the only known way to time-travel: Memories. His DeLorean is a “photograph on the dashboard.”

This song, so wrapped in memory, appears to inspire conflicting recollections among R.E.M.’s members. There are some things on which they agree — such as, in an instance that ran counter to the band’s usual workflow, Stipe had the lyrics for “Nightswimming” written before the sessions for the previous record, Out of Time. While the singer usually wrote words to demos made by guitarist Peter Buck, bassist/keyboardist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry, this time the process was reversed. This time, he asked Buck and Mills for music that fit his lyrics.

“Being competitive bastards that we are, Mike and I started auditioning chord changes and tunes for Michael,” Buck wrote in the liner notes for In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003. “The two tunes of mine that Michael rejected eventually became ‘Drive’ and ‘Try Not to Breathe.’ Mike had a piano instrumental that he played to Michael. He listened once, nodded his head to hear it again, and on the second pass he sang the lyrics. It was ‘Nightswimming,’ exactly like the record we would record a year later. I was standing in the corner dumbfounded.”

While everyone seems to agree that this is what happened, Buck and Mills don’t align on where this took place. Mike remembers demonstrating his “circular” piano piece in February 1992 at John Keane’s studio in R.E.M.’s hometown of Athens, Georgia. But Peter thinks all of this happened a bit earlier, in late 1990 as the band were completing work on Out of Time at Prince’s Paisley Park Studios outside Minneapolis. Other sources appear to back up Buck’s story.

But even assuming that “Nightswimming” – or “Night Swim” as it was originally titled – did first come together at the Minnesota studio, there is a discrepancy regarding if the song might have been considered, even briefly, for inclusion on Out of Time. At times, Buck has said that R.E.M. weren’t thinking about adding to their seventh LP, only recording ideas for future B-sides or album tracks. But he also has remembered that others including Scott Litt – who produced both Out of Time and Automatic for the People – were open to finding room for “Nightswimming” on the former.

“That one was finished,” said Buck in 2011. “Scott Litt and everyone’s like, ‘Gosh, should we put this on the record?’ But the record felt done. So we just kind of went, ‘Well, this is a good place to start with the next one.’”

So “Nightswimming,” along with early versions of “Drive” and “Try Not to Breathe,” laid the foundation for the Automatic sessions. But again, memories complicate the truth. R.E.M. told multiple writers, both journalists and authors, that the final rendition of the song that appears on Automatic used the demo that Stipe and Mills initially recorded.

But Buck (as mentioned above), remembers recording the song again “a year later” – after the final Out of Time sessions. Mills recalls a key detail that, if his memory is correct, would suggest the album version was tracked in May 1992 at Criteria Studios in Miami – one of several locations R.E.M. visited to make Automatic. Mills memory sticks out, because he recalls recording “Nightswimming” on the same piano that Derek and the Dominos used for the epic coda to “Layla.”

“It was tricky. It’s a great-sounding piano, but it’s, uh, not in the best shape of any piano I’ve ever seen,” Mills said  “But it had the provenance that you like in an instrument, and it was a thrill to play it.”

No matter if it was made in R.E.M.’s hometown, or in Prince’s studio or on the “Layla” piano, “Nightswimming” went from a simple piano-and-vocals composition to something grander when the band decided to adorn the recording with some orchestration. To do so, the guys got in touch with Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, who agreed to arrange symphonic parts for the song (in addition to “Drive,” “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” and “Everybody Hurts”). At the end of May, Jones and R.E.M. met in Atlanta, where the accoutrements were performed by members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Deborah Workman played the oboe solo that comes in near the end.

The recording was completed, then mixed at Bad Animals in Seattle, and released as the 11th track on R.E.M.’s eighth studio album in October 1992. As Automatic for the People received an enthusiastic reception from fans and glowing notes from critics, journalists asked the band about the inspiration for these songs – specifically if “Nightswimming” was rooted in truth. Buck and Mills, who did not write the lyrics, felt that the song was based on the band members’ youthful indiscretions.

“We used to go swimming at night after rock ’n’ roll shows in Athens,” Stipe said. “We’d all go see Pylon or the Method Actors, then pile into a bunch of cars and go swimming in this pond. I think it was on private property, but we never really got into any trouble. It was all very innocent; we were only 19 or 20 years old.”

But Stipe, who penned the words, has contradicted himself a few times over about how personal “Nightswimming” truly is. In Reveal: The Story of R.E.M., he claimed that most of the song was “made up.” Yet in the liner notes for Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011, he wrote, “There’s a fairly autobiographical narrative to this one, and the part about the windshield really happened.”

And that’s not even taking into account Stipe’s 2001 claim that the song was first called “Night Watchman” and about a real man, but the singer changed it because he didn’t want to be sued. Caveat emptor: That same article carried a preface warning that half of the piece was made up.

If “Nightswimming” is – to paraphrase the title of an R.E.M. compilation – part lies and part truth, that’s all the better for a song about memories. “It describes something that I touched on a lot later on the record Reveal,” Stipe said, “which was kind of the summer as an eternity, and kind of an innocence that’s either kind of desperately clung onto or obviously lost.” In this song, the situation falls into the latter category. “These things they go away,” Stipe croons, “replaced by everyday.”

This bittersweet view of the past seemed to resonate with a wide range of R.E.M. fans, both casual and die-hard. Although the piano ballad wasn’t a big hit when it was released as Automatic’s fifth single in July 1993 (it did rise to No. 27 in the U.K.), it steadily built a reputation as one of R.E.M.’s most beloved works. “Nightswimming” has appeared on both of R.E.M.’s best-of collections that feature their Warner Bros. era work – nudging out fellow Automatic tracks that were, technically, bigger hits – showing the affection that the band and the fans share for this song.

Memories might not be perfect, but – many R.E.M. devotees would argue – “Nightswimming” is.

The song was ready. Everything was there: Bass, drums, extra percussion and a smattering of guitars. The country-rock track, recorded over numerous sessions, was ready to appear on R.E.M.’s new album. There was only one slight problem. It didn’t have a title, or lyrics, or vocals.

With precious time left to finish Automatic for the People at Seattle’s Bad Animals studio, singer and primary lyricist Michael Stipe had writer’s block. All that guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry could do was wait for their bandmate to come up with … something.

As it was, the track that carried a working title of “C to D Slide” had endured a long process, beginning with practice/demo sessions that included the instrumental members of R.E.M. (i.e. everyone but Stipe). Although Buck, Mills and Berry all had defined roles in the band, they each played multiple instruments and in these formative gatherings, ideas could come from anywhere. In this instance, Berry – the drummer – had brought a melodic idea.

Bill had this one chord change that he came in with, which was C to D like the verse of the song, and he said, ‘I don’t know what to do with that,’” Buck wrote in the liner notes of Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011. “I used to finish some of Bill’s things … he would come up with the riffs, but I would be the finish guy for that. I sat down and came up with the chorus, the bridges, and so forth. … I think Bill played bass and I played guitar; we kept going around with it.”

As R.E.M. progressed in its work on their eighth album, the song was built up, too. Buck and Berry presented it to Mills and Stipe before it was recorded as a demo in February 1992 at John Keane’s studio in the band’s hometown of Athens, Georgia (with the singer humming in place of a lead vocal). In multiple recording sessions with producer Scott Litt in March and April at Bearsville Sound Studios in Woodstock, New York, R.E.M. piled layers and layers of sound onto the track.

Buck recorded acoustic guitar as the main element, then added a Rickenbacker electric (for the chorus), a Les Paul (for the “loud chords”), another Rickenbacker (“doing backwards strums” on the bridge) and a Telecaster (doing the slippery slide parts). He also played the mandolin-like bouzouki on the track – the same instrument that had served as the foundation for another Automatic selection, “Monty Got a Raw Deal.” Along with the drums, Berry played claves, which Buck felt brought “a nice little Brazilian accent” to the finished recording.

R.E.M. Automatic For the People reissue

After time spent at Bearsville, R.E.M. recorded in Miami and Atlanta and then traveled to Seattle to finish the record in the summer, in time for an October album release. The instrumental components were done and dusted, but Stipe was still humming his part. The band thought the track was too good to leave off the album, but it wasn’t going to happen as an instrumental.

“I was under immense pressure to finish this one piece of music that the band loved,” Stipe remembered in Reveal: The Story of R.E.M. “We had already recorded an album’s worth of material and I had run dry. I didn’t feel capable of writing another song, and I just told the band, ‘Give me a couple of days walking round Seattle with my headphones on to see what comes.’ I wrote a walking song really, which is ‘Man on the Moon’.”

As Stipe walked, his mind began to race. Lyrics started to form, with words that evoked games (“Monopoly, 21, checkers and chess” – more hints of childhood, an album theme) and a sly contrast between men of science (Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin) and a man of faith (Moses). A crude Cleopatra joke about Elizabeth Taylor turned into a line about Egyptian snakes and Mott the Hoople made an appearance because, well, why not?

As the lyrics began to coalesce, the song’s central figure became Andy Kaufman, the fearless comedian and performance artist who had become a hero of Stipe’s when, as a teenager, he saw him on Saturday Night Live. “Man on the Moon” wasn’t just a tribute to a clever artist, but how Kaufman challenged the audience’s perception of what he was doing. That ran the gamut from wrestling women to doing wretched impersonations as “Foreign Man” – only to deliver a killer Elvis Presley impression.

In fact, Kaufman spent so much time subverting expectations that many of his fans didn’t believe the news when the comedian was reported dead, the result of cancer, in 1984. Just as some had held out hope that Elvis hadn’t died, but faked his death to escape the pressures of fame, Kaufman disciples guessed that the Taxi star’s end was just a ruse. The conspiracy idea ties into the chorus, a celebration of skepticism: “If you believed they put a man on the moon… / If you believed there’s nothing up his sleeve, then nothing is cool.”

On a side note, “Man on the Moon” features ideas that reference three celebrated stars who died young: Elvis, Andy and Kurt Cobain. However, the Nirvana frontman wouldn’t commit suicide until 1994. In 1992, Cobain had become good friends with Stipe, after long being an R.E.M. fan. The “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah” motif was an in-joke, because Stipe had ragged on Cobain for having too many “yeahs” in Nirvana’s lyrics, especially in “Lithium.”

“I told Kurt that I was going to write a song that had more ‘yeahs’ in it than anything he’d written,”said  Stipe

With more than 50 “yeahs,” plenty of nods to disrupted expectation (“here’s a truck stop instead of St. Peter’s”) and “Andy goofing on Elvis” (complete with Stipe’s own, casual impression of the King), the lyrics to “Man on the Moon” were complete. And just in time.

“That came together literally on the last day of recording,” Mills said. “We had the music all finished and we were all pushing Michael to get it done and he came in with all those great words and melodies on that last day of recording.”

“Man on the Moon” settled in the 10th slot on Automatic for the People, and was determined to be the record’s second single, released on November. 21st, a month and a half after the album came out. Even with its soaring, sing-along chorus, the curious lyrics and rustic feel of the track didn’t ensure that this was going to be a big hit for R.E.M. (especially in the midst of an alternative rock explosion). But “Man on the Moon” conquered rock radio, going to No. 30 in the U.S., No. 18 in the U.K. and becoming the band’s biggest hit to date in Canada at No. 4.

A black-and-white video directed by Peter Care (who also had done “Drive” and “Radio Song” for R.E.M.) only augmented the feeling of open space in the song – and helped its popularity with frequent airings on MTV. The clip showed a cowboy-hatted-Stipe wandering in the desert, doing his Elvis moves and hitching a ride with Berry, driving a big rig. The two wind up at a roadhouse where Buck is tending bar and Mills is shooting pool. As Stipe downs an order of fries, footage of Kaufman plays on TV and the bar’s denizens take over lip synching duties.

But “Man on the Moon” didn’t only inspire a celebrated music video, it also was central to a big-budget Hollywood movie. When Jim Carrey starred in a 1999 Kaufman biopic directed by Milos Forman, the film was titled after the song by R.E.M. The band also wrote “The Great Beyond,” among other soundtrack contributions, for the movie.

Despite being a solid – but not blockbuster – hit single, “Man on the Moon” turned into one of R.E.M.’s best-known songs, appearing on any best-of compilation featuring their Warner Bros. era material. Its popularity was aided by the fact that the band would perform the song at just about every show they played in the years following the release of Automatic for the People. The live version pushed the moseying tempo and featured Stipe bellowing “Cooo-ol!” along with Buck’s stinging guitar turns and Mills’s backing vocal acrobatics. R.E.M. always seemed to have fun playing it, something Stipe made clear when the band broke up in 2011. The singer said that “Man on the Moon” was the hardest song to leave behind.

“Watching the effect of that opening bass line on a sea of people at the end of a show,” is about what he’d miss. “And that is an easy song to sing. It’s hard to sing a bad note in it.”

Easy to sing. Tough to write.

In the early ’90s, Meg Ryan wasn’t just preventing Tom Hanks from being Sleepless in Seattle. The movie star also was helping R.E.M. avoid getting a “Parental Advisory” sticker stamped on their new album.

At the same time that Ryan was filming the aforementioned romantic comedy in the spring/summer of 1992, R.E.M. were finishing work on the band’s eighth studio album, Automatic for the People, at Bad Animals in Seattle. One of the last tracks to receive a final vocal from Michael Stipe was a lusty, airy love ballad they were planning to call “F–k Me Kitten” after a line that Stipe repeats towards the end of the song.

“Meg Ryan came by and she just loved the song,” said guitarist Peter Buck in 1992. “But she said, ‘You know, when I grew up if the word ‘F–k’ was in the title and it was on the cover, I couldn’t buy it in my town.’ And we thought, ‘That makes sense.’ You want to reach people. You don’t want someone to arbitrarily say, ‘You can’t hear this.’”

So, in a goofy stab at self-censorship, R.E.M. opted to change the obscenity in the title to “Star,” a reference to the asterisks that would stand in for offensive language. It also appeared to be a nod to the Rolling Stones, who had once humorously altered the title of “Starf–ker” to “Star Star.” But, just like the Stones before them, R.E.M. retained the blue language in the recording, simply changing the title to “Star Me Kitten.”

When the song was originally conceived, it carried the less risqué (and less interesting) working title of “Hey Love,” perhaps a gesture to one of the recording’s inspirations, 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love.” Bassist-keyboardist Mike Mills wanted to achieve an effect similar to the English group’s ethereal, layered backing vocals on the ’70s hit. He told Scott Litt about his thoughts and the producer came up with the idea of recording Mills as he sang different notes, then playing them back on a mixing board, with each fader controlling a separate note. The musician could then create a weird choral backing by positioning the faders.

“I just played my voice and brought in the notes that needed to be there, very haphazard and random,” Mills said  “I could never play it the same way twice.”

For the track, recorded at Bearsville Sound Studios in Woodstock, New York, Mills also laid down a wafting Hammond organ part, the sound of which caused Buck to add tremolo guitar that made him think of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. The guitarist thought that the Lynchian influence carried over to Stipe’s vocals. Buck called “Star Me Kitten” a “Frank Booth-type love song,” because it reminded him of Dennis Hopper’s character in Blue Velvet.

The frontman hadn’t copped to a filmic influence on for the lyrics, which he gargles in a voice that barely rises above a whisper. Stipe said that at least one of the lines was inspired by the time R.E.M. spent making Automatic in Miami (in between their days in Woodstock and Seattle).

“I remember we worked in Miami a lot on that record,” said Stipe in 2011. “I can still drive down – there’s a boulevard in Miami, off of Miami Beach, that has advertisements for keys and how much it costs and you get three for the price of one. And that, of course, became a lyric…”

It actually became the first line in “Star Me Kitten,” as Stipe initially blocks his lover’s access (he’s got three keys “and you can’t have one”). As the song stumbles along, the singer explores their relationship, questioning what happened and remembering how it once was – “You, me, we used to be on fire” – before revealing a carnal desire.

“It’s a very twisted love song,” Mills said. “And Michael’s just saying, ‘Yeah, relationships are tough and ours may not be the best, but go ahead. What are you waiting for? F–k me!’”

“Star Me Kitten” was one of the last Automatic tunes to be completed in Seattle, where Meg Ryan gave her sage advice and Stipe recorded his hushed singing. But those wouldn’t be the only vocals applied to this song. It would get even more twisted when R.E.M. collaborated with beat poet William S. Burroughs, who mostly talked (rather than sang) Stipe’s lines on an alternate version. This take on “Star Me Kitten” was released on 1996’s Songs in the Key of X: Music From and Inspired by the X-Files and has subsequently appeared on R.E.M. rarities compilations.

R.E.M. Automatic For the People reissue

Despite being a difficult song to replicate, the band performed “Star Me Kitten” almost 30 times on their 1995 world tour in support of Monster, with drummer Bill Berry switching to bass so that Mills could “play” the recordings of his backing vocals. The band never returned to playing the song on subsequent treks. Maybe they would have altered their plans if they knew Meg was coming.

R.E.M. began crafting their follow-up to Out of Time, just as the album was becoming a multi-platinum blockbuster in the spring and summer of 1991. They wanted to do something totally different, from a musical vantage point. Where their seventh full-length studio release has been delicate (mandolins), pastoral (string sections) and often cheery (“Shiny Happy People” anyone?), R.E.M. were planning to come up with a batch of rockers. This next disc would be hard, fast and loud, the sonic successor to the crunchiest material on 1987’s Document and 1988’s Green.

Those songs proved elusive, however, and the sounds uninspiring. So, R.E.M.’s instrumental trio (guitarist Peter Buck, bassist/keyboardist Mike Mills, drummer Bill Berry) gravitated to tracks that were more acoustic-based and shadowy in spirit. Automatic for the People began to discover its brooding sound – and later gained lyrics to match, from singer Michael Stipe.

By the spring of 1992, when R.E.M. were recording the album in a number of studios from Florida and Washington to New York and Louisiana, only one of those battle-hardened rock tracks remained in play. It was the song with the working title of “Howler Monkey,” a surging rock epic partially inspired by Neil Young.

“The song is written in Neil Young’s tuning – not that he owns it,” Buck said in 1992. “But the Es are tuned down to D, like in ‘Cinnamon Girl.’ I admit it; he’s the one I learned that tuning from.”

The muscular, abrasive aesthetic of the instrumental track appeared to provoke Stipe’s thoughts and feelings about the last dozen years of U.S. presidential administrations, including Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. The lyrics that Stipe wrote were, as he later self-effacingly put it, “a barely adult reaction to the Iran-Contra scandal.”

The song was the most biting and specific political critique of R.E.M.’s then-12-year career. Sure, Stipe had already become a spokesman for left-wing causes and had written a few socially conscious songs (including “Welcome to the Occupation,” which was also partly about the Iran-Contra scandal), but nothing had yet approached this: The frontman lambasts the leaders and their followers, lists election years, slams the media and mocks the current president for unceremoniously vomiting at a state dinner (“how to walk in dignity with throw-up on your shoes”). In between calling his least-favorite politicians bastards and yelling “F— you,” Stipe characterizes Reagan’s and Bush’s America as an uncaring “Ignoreland.”

“That’s what ‘Ignoreland’ is – America,” Mills said after Automatic’s release. “It’s people who only get their information from sound bites and television, and who don’t really bother to research the presidential candidates – or ultimately the more important ones, who are your local candidates.”

Over the raging background, Stipe frothed about how politics could be played for sport, chanting “Defense, defense, defense, defense …” like a member of an impassioned football crowd clamoring for more tax dollars to be spent on the military. “Ignoreland” is angry, but it’s amusing and poetic anger, with a surprisingly self-conscious turn at the end. “Michael’s rolling against Republican politics,” Mills noted. “And the last verse is really great – ‘I know that this is vitriol, no solution, spleen-venting / But I feel better having screamed. Don’t you?’ It’s really great.”

Stipe’s vocals were processed through an amplifier “to get that cold anger in his voice that you get with natural distortion,” according to Buck. The effect also helped his voice hang with the titanic chomp of the music, a near-cacophony of instrumentation. Berry pounded hard. Mills thundered on a fuzz bass. Knox Chandler, who played on “Sweetness Follows,” returned to contribute “rock ’n’ roll cello.” Even producer Scott Litt got in on the action, playing Stevie Wonder on a funky clavinet and snarling harmonica.

No one, however, was outdone by Buck as he slathered “Ignoreland” in layers of guitar: electrics, heavily modified acoustics and even one played with an EBow. As the guitarist sustaining notes with his EBow on one overdubbed guitar and bending notes on another, “you’ve got one note held and the other pushing out,” Buck revealed “and it makes the feel really unsettling.”

With all of those elements stacked up, the recording proved tricky to mix (certainly in comparison to the more spare songs on the remainder of Automatic for the People. Although Buck claimed to be satisfied with Litt’s final mix, Mills and Stipe were less impressed. There was a dispute about how loud the fuzz bass should be and, within a couple of years, both of the band’s Michaels felt that “Ignoreland” should have been, ahem, ignored by the band and left off the track list.

But fans, particularly R.E.M.’s more rock-inclined audience, gravitated to the song – a buzzsaw in a land of nail clippers. Even though the band didn’t release “Ignoreland” as a single, the track got picked up by DJs at rock stations . A month after R.E.M. released Automatic for the People in October 1992, Bill Clinton was elected to the U.S. presidency, becoming the first Democrat to be elected during the band’s run. Although R.E.M. didn’t tour to promote the album (which would have forced them to decide if “Ignoreland” was now out of date or still applicable), Stipe appeared at MTV’s Inaugural Ball in 1993, performing with Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs.

“Ignoreland” wouldn’t make its live debut until 16 years later, when R.E.M. (now without Berry) began playing the song while the George W. Bush administration was in its last throes. On what would be the band’s final tour, Stipe thought that the old chestnut became “more powerful” in its live rendition – in addition to remaining politically relevant. “It just flew up out of nowhere and suddenly mattered again,” Stipe wrote in 2008. “I think we’ve played it every night this tour.”

Automatic For The People [25th Anniversary Edition]

“Sweetness Follows” is the centerpiece of R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People, filling that role both logistically (it’s the sixth track of 12) and thematically. Rock writers, reacting to the album’s release in 1992 and in the decades after, have noted how the song might best represent the whole: gloomy with some rough edges, and mournful lyrics that appear to be about death or, more significantly, loss.

The grief comes in a steady torrent, right from the opening line, in which Michael Stipe sings, “Readying to bury your father and your mother.” Deep bends of cello jab alongside equally cutting introspection, concerning matters in a family that was anything but tight-knit (“Distanced from one / Blind to the other”). No matter if the song’s siblings are actually preparing to attend their parents’ funeral, or simply saying farewell to a broken relationship with their mother and father, the aftermath is the title phrase. “Ohhhh,” Stipe warbles in a drawn-out howl, “sweetness follows.”

Is R.E.M.’s frontman being sincere or sarcastic? The lyrics are cryptic enough to be read multiple ways, and the listener’s interpretation can fill the hollowed-out relationships of “Sweetness Follows.” Whatever their explanations, fans can rest assured that they’re probably getting it wrong. When asked in 2008 about which R.E.M. songs have been given the most surprising fan interpretation, Stipe listed “Sweetness Follows” first – even before the more famously misunderstood “The One I Love.”

Before Stipe added lyrics to the composition, “Sweetness Follows” entered the world as a demo by guitarist Peter Buck (with the working title “Cello Scud” by the time R.E.M. were gathering the Automatic demos in February 1992 at John Keane’s studio in Athens, Ga.). In the end, Buck thinks he’s the only R.E.M. member who played an instrument on the album version, finalized with producer Scott Litt at Bearsville Sound Studios in Woodstock, N. Y.

Peter wrote the bulk of it,” bassist/keyboardist Mike Mills said. “Actually, it’s mostly a demo. There’s no bass on it at all. It’s all cello, played through an amp.”

The cello part came courtesy of Knox Chandler, the one-time Psychedelic Furs collaborator who had worked with Buck on a side project. As Mills said, Chandler sawed away at the instrument, which was distorted through an amplifier. In addition, Buck contributed waves of guitar feedback, which he said “fills the space and pushes the song to a different level.”

“I did that a lot on the record, putting weird, harsh things underneath which undercut the song,” he said in 1992. “‘Sweetness Follows’ would be too saccharine if it didn’t have that discordant cello back there.”

Harsh things, discordant cello, an absence of drums and an abundance of difficult emotions meant that “Sweetness Follows” wasn’t an obvious choice for a single. However, the Automatic album track drew the attention of film director – and former rock journalist – Cameron Crowe, who chose to include the song in 2001’s Vanilla Sky. (The Tom Cruise vehicle also featured a re-recording of the R.E.M. leftover “All the Right Friends.”)

Not long before the movie entered production – but seven years after Automatic for the People was released ­– R.E.M. began performing “Sweetness Follows” in concert. The surging cello part was played on electric bass on the band’s 1999 tour, the first without drummer Bill Berry, who didn’t play on the original track.

That same year, when R.E.M. played Glastonbury, Stipe dedicated their performance of the song to Jean Eavis, the recently deceased wife of festival founder Michael Eavis (which, one would assume, means “Sweetness Follows” is not to be perceived as sarcastic at all). After playing the song regularly when promoting Up, the band would return to “Sweetness Follows” on subsequent tours through 2008, but only when the mood struck them.

“We play it occasionally,” Mills commented in 2007. “There are a lot of songs that we really enjoy, but you don’t want to play them every night.”

When talking about R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People, bassist/keyboardist Mike Mills claimed that the band recorded their 1992 album “in the four corners of the U.S.” While that statement might contain a slight misunderstanding of geography, it’s true that R.E.M. seemed to approach their new record like a progressive dinner. Recordings were done in Athens, Ga.; Woodstock, N.Y.; Miami, Atlanta, Seattle and New Orleans.

In March of ’92, they spent a little more than a week in the Crescent City, setting up camp at Daniel Lanois’ Kingsway Studio in the French Quarter. R.E.M. had already tracked a bunch of demos in their hometown of Athens, so the idea was to possibly create or refine a few more, while conjuring whatever strange sounds seemed to manifest.

Kingsway “is an old, haunted mansion – supposedly haunted – and filled with kind of neat, old antiques, neat instruments,” guitarist Peter Buck said in a 1992 promotional video. “And [we] did demos there, some of which ended up on the record.”

The band recorded much of Drive – vocals, guitar, bass and drums – by playing live-to-tape at the studio. Impressed with the results, R.E.M. decided to push further.

“It was two in the morning. There were a couple of bottles of wine around,” Buck said. “Then Daniel said, ‘Why don’t you just write some songs here? I sat down with a bottle of wine and wrote three things.”

One of them turned out to be the efficiently titled “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1.” The moody little number featured little more than quivering electric piano, thick-cut bass and an ear-catching foghorn guitar. You could almost hear the smoke billowing in a late-night club.

“That’s a groovy little thing. Peter had a volume pedal or some sort of weird guitar that made those noises,” Mills recalled . “We were just messing around making sounds, and decided to throw that song together. That came out of the sound of that guitar – that’s what got that song going.” Although a longer version exists, the two-minute, 13-second edit of the instrumental composition became the fifth track on Automatic. It’s more than a palette-cleanser between “Everybody Hurts” and “Sweetness Follows”; “New Orleans” seems to mirror the deeply felt emotions strung throughout the album.

Meanwhile, another song from those Kingsway sessions – named “New Orleans Instrumental No. 2,” of course – became the B-side to the single release of “Man on the Moon.” That track had a totally different feel, described by Buck as sounding like a “deranged piña colada commercial.”

Unlike Out of Time’s “Endgame” – the first instrumental to make a proper R.E.M. studio disc – “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1” was never performed by the band in concert. One of the lower-profile songs to grace an R.E.M. album, the tune recently got its time in the sun (or, more appropriately, the dark). The instrumental popped up in director Edgar Wright’s 2017 feature film Baby Driver, which was filmed, partially, in New Orleans.

“I would never claim to say that we captured any of New Orleans,” Buck confessed. “But I really wanted to conspicuously try and get a late-night horn feel, that muted trumpet thing.”

R.E.M. named their eighth studio album, 1992’s Automatic for the People, after a slogan employed by Weaver D’s, a joint in their hometown of Athens, Ga., that specialized in soul food. But the musicians didn’t just enjoy soul food, they were fans of soul music – an influence that got obscured by the music press’ constant references to the Byrds and New York punks.

But R.E.M. loved R&B records. They goofily covered Archie Bell and the Drells’ “Tighten Up” in the ’80s and some soul aficionados compared Bill Berry’s drumming to that of Booker T. and the MG’s member Al Jackson Jr.

It was Berry who came up with the rough idea for R.E.M.’s most soulful original song, “Everybody Hurts.” In mid-1991, Berry, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist/keyboardist Mike Mills met up to begin working on music for the band’s follow-up to Out of Time. (Singer Michael Stipe would enter the creative process later, which was standard operating procedure for R.E.M.) One day, the drummer, who also played other instruments, brought in a new idea. “Bill wrote most of it,” Mills has said. “He came in with the chords on guitar. We were actually playing with Bill on guitar, Peter on bass and me on drums. It sounded terrible. We thought, ‘This sucks. Let’s demo it playing our own instruments, play it right.’”

Buck described the initial version of the song, which had no chorus or bridge, as a country-ish ballad. As R.E.M.’s instrumental trio kept at it, the song began to develop a more soulful feeling.

“We went through about four different ideas and how to approach it and eventually came to that Stax, Otis Redding, ‘Pain in My Heart’ kind of vibe,” Buck recalled, “I’m not sure if Michael would have copped that reference, but to a lot of our fans it was a Staxxy-type thing,”

With Mills playing Booker T. Jones to Buck’s Steve Cropper, “Everybody Hurts” became something of a soul ballad. It had the some of the trademarks of a Stax ballad, including an arpeggiated guitar part, electric piano and 12/8 time signature.

“But then it’s shuffled through us. Like the bridge is in a way-weird different key,” Buck said in 1992. “We’re not Otis Redding. But given that, we took some of the influence, that music we loved for years.”

Berry, Buck and Mills didn’t think that Stipe would respond to their slow and simple approach, and that this track would be consigned to the b-sides and rarities bin. But the singer ended up taking to “Everybody Hurts,” which displayed a much different approach – both in lyrics and performance – to early R.E.M. While Stipe would play fast and loose with enunciation on songs such as “Gardening at Night” and “9-9,” that habit had slowly faded with R.E.M.’s rise to rock prominence. “Everybody Hurts” took one more step forward in being clear and direct. “There’s a time for obfuscation,”said Mills . “But this wasn’t it.”

Many times since the release of Automatic, R.E.M.’s members have discussed the lyrical ideas of “Everybody Hurts,” explaining that the anti-suicide sentiments of the song were directed at teenagers – or anyone, really – who might need to be reminded that so many people share pain, sadness and dark thoughts. The band had written political songs before (and elsewhere on this album), but this was R.E.M.’s first “message song.” And the message was, “You’re not alone.”

In an ironic twist, the man who was most responsible for the song ended up barely playing on it. Instead of Berry’s drumming, the majority of the track features a metronome-like beat created by a $20 Univox drum machine, although Bill was the one who programmed it.

Stipe “and I cut it live with this dumb drum machine which is just as wooden as you can get,” said the drummer  in 1992. “We wanted to get this flow around that: Human and non-human at the same time.”

Berry’s normal drums show up for the song’s bridge, and again at the end, when his crisp pounding helps bring “Everybody Hurts” to a soaring conclusion – aided in no small part by full complement of strings. The orchestration was the work members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, supervised by John Paul Jones. Via producer Scott Litt, R.E.M. had asked the Led Zeppelin bassist about arranging strings for “Everybody Hurts” and three other Automatic songs. He agreed and collaborated on the overdubs in the spring of ’92.

“John Paul Jones was great to work with,” Buck said in Reveal: The Story of R.E.M. “He knows his way backwards and forwards on just about every instrument. He’s a great arranger and a super sweet guy.”

“Everybody Hurts” became the fourth track on Automatic for the People, which came out in October 1992, as well as the fourth single R.E.M. released from the album. The song became a smash overseas, hitting No. 7 in the U.K., No. 4 in the Netherlands and No. 6 in Australia, where it remains the highest-charting hit of the band’s career. “Everybody Hurts” also went over well in R.E.M.’s home country, going to No. 29 on the charts, The commercial success was helped, maybe even overshadowed, by the song’s music video.

In one of R.E.M.’s most iconic clips, the band finds themselves in the middle of a traffic jam (shot by Jake Scott on a freeway in San Antonio). Subtitles flutter between song lyrics and – in a Fellini-esque touch – the unheard thoughts of R.E.M.’s fellow motorists, in snippets that are funny, strange and devastating. The band gets out of their car, Stipe starts to sing and everyone is moved to just get out and walk.

Michael is probably the best artist I’ve worked with in terms of understanding his performance, even though he’s so insecure all the time,” Scott, who is the son of big-time film director Ridley Scott said in 1995. “In ‘Everybody Hurts,’ he felt exposed and agoraphobic and I think that worked for the video. It’s rare that somebody has the confidence and awareness to look awkward and quite afraid in front of the camera.”

MTV agreed, playing the video early and often and awarding it multiple Moonmen at 1993’s Video Music Awards, at which R.E.M. performed the song for only the second time in public. (As with Out of Time, the band had again chosen to forgo a tour to promote Automatic.) But in the following years, “Everybody Hurts” became a frequent part of R.E.M.’s set and was featured at the band’s final full performance in 2008 in Mexico City. It’s been part of each best-of collection that includes the group’s Warner Bros. years.

“Everybody Hurts” also became bigger than just one of R.E.M.’s hits. In Nevada, a state that has a high rate of teen suicide, the legislature celebrated the song for its message. A U.K. counselling service based an ad campaign around the hit, hoping to help more young people who were contemplating suicide. And, in 2010, R.E.M. gave their permission for the song’s use (sans royalties) for an all-star charity single that sought to raise money for the people of Haiti after that year’s earthquake.

If the song has been perceived as too square, maudlin or basic by some music fans, Mills thinks that’s due to the song’s overexposure on the airwaves. But it’s clear that the members of R.E.M. take pride in it, especially Stipe.

“I don’t remember singing it, but I still kind of can’t believe my voice is on this recording,” he wrote in Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011. “It’s very pure. This song instantly belonged to everyone except us, and that honestly means the world to me.”