Friday, 14 March 2014

The College Years: Part Two - Document

Nils Horley was a guy at college who was pretty much loved by everyone. The girls wanted to sleep with him, the boys secretly wanted to be him. Nils had charm, wit and humour in abundance. He also had his own place and, in the words of David Bowie, “boy, could he play guitar”.

Nils also loved sharing his passion for music with people. Whenever I popped round his flat there were records strewn about the place and there was always music playing. His tastes were typically varied, but he just loved awesome guitar playing. However, despite the steady diet of Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Zeppelin and Van Halen he fed me on each visit, it was a very different band that Nils introduced me to that had a profound effect on my life – and not just in a musical sense.

December 1987: A 16-year-old Robster was finding college a slightly strange experience. On the one hand, I was struggling to see much relevance of anything I was being taught in classes to what I wanted to do with my life. I was devoid of enthusiasm and inspiration in terms of my pending adult life. On the other hand, college was an incredible place for discovering music. Already I had become engrossed in a slew of artists that were completely new to me – The Wedding Present, New Order, the Soup Dragons, etc – and I wanted more, more, more. And I got it.

One Friday afternoon, Nils aroused my interest. “Ever heard any R.E.M.?” he asked. “Errr, no,” came the reluctant reply.  I so wanted to say yes and sound cool, but I couldn’t tell a lie. Not that Nils cared, he wasn’t the kind of guy to pass judgement on people. “Listen to this,” he said as he handed me a cassette. “I bought it for my brother for Christmas so can I have it back on Monday?”

And that’s the moment it started. Bye-bye old Rob, welcome to a new dawning. This was the day R.E.M. entered my life and my very soul was changed forever.

What Nils lent me was a copy of R.E.M.’s fifth album ‘Document’. What immediately struck me was the cover – a black and white photo of a guy constructing some kind of abstract sculpture out of what looked like a pile of junk – and while the title was prominent, the band’s name was tiny and blended in with a little triangular motif stating “R.E.M. NO. 5”.

Who was the guy on the cover?[1] Was he in the band?
[2] Why R.E.M. no. 5?[3] And what does R.E.M. stand for anyway?[4]

One of the attractions of the band, particularly in their early days, was the mystery they seemed to pervade, intentionally or otherwise. Michael Stipe’s mumbled vocals, barely audible in places, asked plenty of questions to begin with. When you could make out his lyrics, there were further questions, like ‘what the hell is this guy on about?’ As they progressed and Stipe’s vocals became much higher in the mix, the mysterious nature of the band continued. Why did Stipe so rarely give interviews? He is the frontman and lyricist after all. And still no one knows what the hell he’s singing about!

The ‘Document’ artwork introduced me to this world. The music therein convinced me to stay and become a resident, for ‘Document’ was a revelation to me. To begin with I had never heard a voice like Stipe’s. By now out front and dominant, its reedy, almost sneering resonance disconcerted me for a bit. It was something I clearly needed time to get used to. It took about 40 minutes.

“The time to rise has been engaged,” he sings as the album’s opening lines, over a solid drumbeat and a repeated guitar note, all chiming and distorted. To a 16-year-old raised as a working-class socialist through the god-awful Thatcher years, this was an inspiration; a call-to-arms, a rallying cry. “What we want and what we need has been confused.” Wow, truer words have never been spoken, or indeed sung. Those first 20 seconds of Finest Worksong woke me from my teenage slumbers. I already sensed I was listening to something special, even if it did take a little longer to realise just how special R.E.M. were.

The journey home from college that day was like no other. ‘Document’ was my soundtrack not just for the bus ride, but most of that entire evening and throughout the weekend. I don’t think I played anything else. I made a copy of the tape so I could give Nils back his original on Monday, but not be without this phenomenal record afterwards.

The track that stood out immediately was The One I Love which sounded familiar, though I couldn’t place where I’d heard it. I had no idea it had become the band’s breakthrough US hit and had narrowly missed the top 40 over here, so therefore was all over radio. (I rarely listened to radio, most of it was shit.) Yet, in spite of its mainstream appeal (and its subsequent repeated success), it too just seemed a little odd and off-kilter. “This one goes out to the one I love,” seems an innocuous enough line in itself, but coupled with “A simple prop to occupy my time” it takes on an entirely different, far more sinister meaning. Stipe had vowed never to write a love song. In The One I Love, he had instead written the ultimate anti-love song, the story of someone who uses and abuses until the next object of his/her affections comes along (the penultimate line is “Another prop has occupied my time”). Even hearing it properly for the first time, this strange twist wasn’t lost on me. It stoked my curiosity even further.

(This is a good time to take a brief interlude and direct you to JC's recent piece on this same song over at the (new) vinyl villain...)

‘Document’ takes repeated listens to fully understand it, even if you are already somewhat familiar with R.E.M. It also helps if you have some knowledge of American politics (which I didn’t at the time). Over the years my fondness of it has not diminished; on the contrary it has grown and grown. I would easily name it in my top 5 albums of all-time purely on the music alone. In terms of what it means to me in respect of my whole life, the only other serious competitor would be the Pixies’ masterpiece ‘Doolittle
[5].‘Document’ was the first record I bought with that year’s Christmas money. It sounded even better on vinyl. Then, on returning to college in January, Nils passed me another cassette on loan – ‘Document’’s predecessor ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’, R.E.M.’S fourth album. An inspection of its sleeve offered more mysteries to be unravelled, particularly after listening to it: why only 10 songs listed when there are actually 12?[6] Why are they in the wrong order?[7] And where’s the apostrophe in Lifes?[8]

This album also rates very highly with me. Its opening quartet of songs is among the strongest of any record I’ve ever heard: Begin The Begin, These Days, Fall On Me and Cuyahoga just cannot be split and set apart from each other in my opinion. They belong together as one.

Within months a new album, ‘Green’, was on the shelves. This was the first R.E.M. album I bought on the day of release (unless you count the compilation ‘Eponymous’ which came out just a few weeks before) and marked the transition between the loud, garagey indie sound the band had forged on their previous two records and the melodic acoustic-driven folk songs that would follow and turn them into the biggest band in the world. It was a very exciting time to be an R.E.M. fan.

More than any act previously or since, R.E.M. captured my imagination, fired my enthusiasm and inspired me to seek out music of every conceivable mood and genre. They dominated the next 10 years of my life and even brought Mrs Robster and I together (another story).

I left college that summer enriched and hungry for education and exploration. The course? Meh, that was OK I suppose, but I didn’t get a huge amount from it. The social life? Ditto. No, my year in college was made and defined by the music I discovered and the people who helped me discover it. It was this that shaped my adult life more than any academia could ever have hoped to. And so it has continued to be.


[1] Michael Stipe, apparently.
[2] Yes.
[3] It was R.E.M.’s fifth album. But then you knew that already…
[4] Ah!  The classic question. Most people will tell you it’s Rapid Eye Movement, the stage of sleep where dreaming takes place. However, the band has neither confirmed nor denied this. According to guitarist Peter Buck: “We couldn't think of a name at first. I liked Twisted Kites. Then we thought maybe we should have a name that was real offensive, like Cans Of Piss. That was right up there at the top. Then we thought we didn't want to be called something that we couldn't tell our parents or have to mumble. R.E.M. just popped out of the dictionary one night. We needed something that wouldn't typecast us because, hell, we didn't know what we were gonna do. So R.E.M. was nice - it didn't lock us in to anything.”
[5] Oh, my beloved Pixies. My love affair with them will be told in a couple weeks...
[6] Underneath The Bunker and Superman were added at the last minute after the artwork had been completed. As the original 10 songs weighed in at a paltry 33 minutes, perhaps it was an attempt to make the record a more acceptable length. As usual with R.E.M., who knows?
[7] Another last-minute change, apparently.
[8] Not a typo, but one of numerous deliberate punctuation omissions. Buck once claimed that no good record has ever been made with an apostrophe in the title. As reluctant as I am to argue with the great man, I offer Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as my trump card...

No comments:

Post a Comment