Thursday, June 3, 2010

SONG #119: Auctioneer (Another Engine)

R.E.M., Fables Of The Reconstruction, 1985

Or is it Reconstruction of the Fables?  Those crazy kids with their palindromic album covers!

R.E.M. is one of those bands that helps you figure out how old someone is.  If you bring up R.E.M., and the person mentions any album in the band's 1983-1987 run (Murmur through Document), then he is in his late 30s/ early 40s.  If they bring up the band's commercial heyday of 1988-1992 (Green through Automatic For The People) then he is in his early 30s.  If they say, "R.E.M. blows," then he's in his 20s.  If they say, "Who?," then he's in college.

I fall into that first category, and like so many folks in my generation, I loved this band from 1983 to 1987.  Only The Replacements, the Minutemen and Husker Du were more beloved in my collection, which tells you more about my personal issues with anger and frustration than about the quality of those bands in comparison.  R.E.M.'s first five records are truly remarkable-- they are chock full of great songs, played well by a supportive, close-knit band who were able to combine a bunch of classic rock elements in some very original ways.  They had mystery (what is Michael Stipe saying?  what's wrong with him?) hipness (they covered Big Star, Deep Purple and the guy from Foreigner's solo stuff in concert) and smarts (they were a curious and edicated college town band, and they shared publishing and songwriting equally on every R.E.M. song so no fighting or bad feelings about one member making more than another-- YOUNG BANDS, take note!!).  They deserved all the credit that they received.

Now... if you're a slightly younger person, then you probably think it got even better.  They finally had some hit singles (starting with Document's "The One I Love") and then had a series of HUGE albums: Green, Out Of Time and Automatic For The People.  At that point, they were the biggest band in America; they dominated MTV, and it looked like they might reach the pantheon of stadium-sized bands.

It was not to be.  Drummer Bill Berry had a brain aneurysm on stage and had to quit the band, and with his departure, the wheels came off the cart.  R.E.M. has soldiered on, making a record every two to three years, but without any impact.  By my count, they have released exactly six decent songs in the last 15 years.  There are now many more bad R.E.M. records than good ones.  It's heartbreaking-- there are few bands who have lost their way so publicly and obviously as this one.

I'd argue that, in fact, it all started in 1988.  I find those years when R.E.M. ruled the charts pretty underwhelming.  Plus, those albums have aged horribly in terms of sound.  Go back and listen to Green-- sonically, it's like have your teeth drilled-- so trebly and high-end dominated.  That whole late-80s period are, to my ears, the most grating-sounding years in rock.  (Except, of course, for the compression-obsessed years of this last decade.  2000s-era pop music is going to sound horrendous in 20 years).  

It's tough to have loved a band so much for five years, and then found them disappointing and downright bad for the next 22.  Therefore, whenever my pod throws up an R.E.M. song from the glory years, it's a revelation to remember how much I love that old music.  Even with over two decades of mediocrity, there's no denying the magic of the early stuff.

Case in point-- here's a deep album track from the third record (the weakest of the first four).  All Youtube has to offer is a live version, but that's OK; my fondest memory of this song is from a live show.  I saw R.E.M. on the Pageantry tour in 1986 at the Smith Center at GW.  They were truly outstanding, and this song was one of the highlights.  On record, it was a quiet, propulsive little song at the end of the album, but live, the band spit it out like a punk rock song.  

It's a creepy, haunting tune to begin with, seemingly about the secret lives one can lead if you're willing to live life on the road:

She didn’t want to get pinned down by her prior town
Get me to the train on time, here take this nickel make a dime
Take this penny and make it into a necklace when I leave
What is at the other end, I don’t know another friend
Another wife, another morning spent
Listen, listen to the auctioneer
Another engine, another engine

Stipe's lyrics were always obscure at first (no "Everybody Hurts" on this record), and he mumbled on purpose to make the lyrics less important, but I always liked these, especially the line "Some things are givens, and others get away."  I feel that way all the time.

It's a great example of what this band used to do so well-- the rhythm section is tight but very open; Mills plays like a McCartney disciple.  Over that, Peter Buck finds the perfect balance between slashing rock guitar and the delicate picking of the Byrds that was his signature trademark.  Only three minutes long, they're able to imbue the song with quite a bit of drama and tension.

The live version here is great, but by the time I saw them a year later, they had started to project films behind the band, and for this number, it was a black and white film of the view from the front car of an old rollercoaster, and while he sang, Stipe dipped and moved with the coaster's motions.  It created the wonderful, haunting vertigo sensation-- I'll never forget it.  They were great theater as well as a great band that night, and it was their absolute high point.

Or was it KRS-One's rap on "Radio Song?"  Tough choice...

Any other nominations for bands whose later years almost make their early years unlistenable?  



  1. Accelerate! Jeff, have you not heard that record? You need to purge all the post-92 dreck from your mind and give it another listen. It is their best since Document and was my favorite album from '08 (I think it beat out the other album I listened to that year).

    I'm with you all the way on Fables, a dark, weird, scrap of jangle that sounds like nothing else they've done. Also agree that Green was a real WTF-er, and I think it had everything to do with those polite Southern boys bowing to L.A. major-label interference (it was their first record on Warners after all those great IRS albums). But Out of Time was an improvement, Automatic even better (New Adventures in Hi Fi was an on-the-road-toss-off ... I still can't listen to it all the way through) and then the awful, hideous Monster.

    You caught me in an R.E.M. upswing; been listening to them a lot lately.

    And I will rise to the bait, Driver 8, and list what I think are your sextet of cenozoic songs to get the coveted Symonds seal of approval:

    "All the Way to Reno"
    "Final Straw"
    "Living Well Is the Best Revenge"
    "Supernatural Superserious"

    How'd I do?

  2. 50/50-- very well done. I had Imitation of Life, Great Beyond, and Accelerate instead of Reno, Daysleeper and Final Straw. Will go give Accelerate another chance.

  3. Uh, make room for some late 40's in your first age group; Murmur has to be in my top 25 albums of all time. I saw them twice in '83 and was their biggest fan, but had lost interest by the late '80s when everyone was raving about them. So I agree completely with your description of their trajectory. All the same I saw them a couple years ago at the Greek in Berkeley (for the first time since '83) and they put on a really good show; Stipe still has real presence.

  4. This one is right on the money. I was a big fan through Life's Rich Pageant. I saw them the LRP Tour November 1986 at the Felt Forum with the Feelies opening. Being New York a loud chant of "The Feelies suck" broke out after their opening set (which, in all fairness, did suck). Stipe came out and berated the crowd. Then he got mad because people were shoving in the front. Twenty minutes into the show a woman's ribs got injured and Stipe lost it, lectured us for 5 minutes and then left the stage. The lights stayed down for another ten minutes (presumably while management argued with the band) and then the lights came on, show over.

    I totally recognize that I'm a small person, but I just never forgave the band after that. In college I happily thought that "Everybody Hurts" was the song that best encapsulated the band and felt no sadness at all over their incredible suckiness after the late 80s. Going back now to listen to those early records is a revelation though and I remember why I a) liked them so much and b) was so incredibly pissed to have missed seeing a whole show.

    One last postscript. Apparently the next night's show at the Felt Forum was unbelievably good: Stipe apologized and they played 2 hours and 45 minutes. Sigh.

  5. According to the R.E.M. concert chronology, the band did indeed stop this show early-- after a full 20 song set! It was in the third encore song that Stipe ended the show prematurely. I love that your sense of injustice has shortened the concert from 90 to 20 minutes in your mind. Hell hath no fury like a young Ben cheated out of a second encore. :)