Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Memories of a thousand* gigs #20

(* probably not actually that many, but who’s counting?)

#20: R.E.M.
Wembley Arena, London – 22nd June 1989
Support: Throwing Muses
Also in attendance: Wayne

I had the enormous privilege of seeing R.E.M. three times and each occasion has its significance. The latter two occasions were with Mrs Robster; at Cardiff Arms Park in 1995 and Earl’s Court in 1999. I've already described the significance of that Cardiff show which took place as part of the Monster tour. My first time took place some six years previous during the 'Green'  tour. Between the two occasions, R.E.M. had released three albums and become unlikely global megastars. But even by 1989 R.E.M. was an established and well-renowned act whose live shows were always a big draw. They had released their sixth album Green, their major label debut, the previous summer and I resolved to see them on their biggest tour to date.

Quite why I opted for Wembley Arena I couldn’t say. The tour included dates in Birmingham and Newport, both closer and easier to get to from Devon, but I suppose the idea of a trip to London was too good to resist. Needless to say Wayne accompanied me and we arranged to stay with family friends to set our parents’ minds at rest. We were both still just 17 and from a small, quiet little market town in the West Country – travelling up to the big smoke was a proper event!

In preparation, I familiarised myself with the support act Throwing Muses. They had just released their third album ‘Hunkpapa’ and the single Dizzy was riding high in the indie charts. I thought they were a country rock band; musically that is what the record seemed to indicate. But there was something starkly different about Throwing Muses, and it was immediately identifiable in the eccentric voice of Kristin Hersh. I figured they would be a pretty decent support band. Turns out that was understatement of the year!

Wembley Arena is a crap venue for rock concerts. OK, so most arenas are pretty awful, but Wembley is one of the worst I've been to. Acoustically it sucks. The sound just goes up and up and never reverberates beyond the centre of the seated area. Our tickets were also, unfortunately, for the seated area. I hate seats at gigs, there’s no way you can get into a show if you’re sat down. At least, not at a ‘normal’ show.

All this paled into insignificance when Throwing Muses arrived though. I don't remember exactly what they played, but I do recall a ferocious noise. Not a cacophony, but a barrage of sound that belied the sight on stage. I sat there in stunned silence for 40-or-so minutes just completely staggered at the sheer power echoing around this vast space. Kristin Hersh, a young, blonde, incredibly cute singer, sounded as though she was going through some kind of psychotic episode; having a fit, screaming, growling... This was no country rock band, this was almost indescribable, devoid of genre. Maniacal, wild, uncontrollable. Of course, it’s been well documented that Kristin Hersh’s music, particularly in the early days of Throwing Muses, was inspired – dictated, even – by her mental illness. Experiencing her live, you have to admire her battle to get through whatever it was making her do, while perversely feeling rather pleased at the resulting assault on one’s senses. The intensity I felt in that short support-band slot still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I think about it. When they finished, I turned to Wayne, still shellshocked by what I had just experienced, and said: "R.E.M. will have to do bloody well to match that."

Throwing Muses remain one of the top three support bands I’ve ever seen. Had it been in a better (smaller) venue, they’d probably top the chart hands down.

If one band could meet the standards expected of them after that opening, it was R.E.M. Even in such a crappy large venue they could draw the crowd in and make it an intimate theatrical experience. Of course, it was Michael Stipe who stole the show. His long narrow pigtail flicked around throughout, his dark eye make-up made him look even more mysterious and enigmatic than the persona he had built up. And boy could he hold an audience rapt. As an intro to World Leader Pretend, he sang a few lines from Gang Of Four’s We Live As We Dream, Alone acapella while hitting a chair with a drumstick. He sang Orange Crush through a megaphone. He told stories, he danced, he damn well ran the show.

Much has been made of R.E.M.’s performances during the Green tour, and rightly so. It was unlike any other show I’ve ever seen. The ‘Tourfilm’ video which followed has long been hailed as one of the best concert movies ever made – along with Talking Heads’ ‘Stop Making Sense’ – yet as awesome as it was (and still is), it could never fully capture the experience of actually seeing R.E.M. at their absolute peak in terms of live performance.

My other two R.E.M. shows were at even bigger venues, but I managed to get much, much nearer the front. As expected, the band was amazing, although they were now augmented by other musicians; Stipe was on top form at both. For me though, the Green Tour show was the definitive one.



  1. I saw REM on the Green tour, in Liverpool. Stunning. Support were the Blue Aeroplanes who were brilliant and never matched their live form with a record as far as I could tell.

  2. I saw them in Mexico City in the early 2000's still brilliant