What does it sound like?:
It really doesn’t seem like 25 years ago that I was in love. Both for the first time in a serious relationship and with a new (old) band called REM and their masterpiece, their zenith, their best fucking album, hands down, no you fuck off, the omnipresent, singles factory that is
AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE.
It’s too familiar, worn out, over exposed and too intelligible lyrically – cry the naysayers.
It’s not the album’s fault that it haunts you, its hooks rip into your flesh and melodies linger for a quarter of a century – I spit back.
But ‘Murmur’ – they counter
But the darkness – I sigh.
In 1992 the world was groping (well quite a lot of that was going on if the news is any judge atm) into a new decade trying to work out what the new world order was. Eastern Europe was transformed it seemed in an effortless almost bloodless revolution. Christmas Day 1989 TV Special in Romania was the head of state and his wife being gunned down after a hastily organised trial which makes Mrs Brown’s Boys almost a more appealing option. The Madchester scene had imploded in ecstasy with The Stone Roses 2 years into a 5 year exile in a studio somewhere outside Stockport. The Americans were on the rise with baggy jumpers, checked shirts and guitars and all we had to counter it was Jimmy Nail & Tasmin Archer.
A year before the release of AFTP the music world had lost one of its most entertaining if divisive stars in Queen’s Freddie Mercury. The spectre of AIDS had really hit home at the heart of UK popular culture as tabloids fought over who could get that last grainy shot of a man literally wasting away. I recall as a (hopeful) sexually active teenager that AIDS was a really scary risk that was enough to put you off any funny business – well, no but no other generation before had such a curb on their rutting behaviour. Of course the eternal idiot Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers would suggest that it would be a good thing ‘if Michael Stipe were to go the same way as Freddie Mercury’ not foreseeing a time when he would have to be in the same room as Mr Stipe and have a huge plate of humble pie next to his awards chicken dinner.
Michael was never the chubbiest of chaps and once his head was shaved as baldness arrived the pop papers started to use the phrases skeletal, skinny, bony to describe his appearance. Rumours circulated that Michael was sick and, as satirist Chris Morris once put it ‘King Of AIDS chic’. Stipe later said he didn’t comment on the rumours as it would give them credence, would stigmatise those with the disease and he didn’t want to appear in front of his medical team with an ‘I’m OK’ certificate. Yet along comes this album full of meditations on death, suffering, redemption and loss – you can see why 2+2 was making 5.
I better come clean with how AFTP seeped deep into my soul and remains one of the touchstones of my life. My first proper girlfriend had gone to stay with a friend in France in that nothing bit of the year between Boxing Day and New Years Day and I was doing some world class pining. I spent the whole week n a bit we ere apart listening to REM over and over while doing a 1000 piece jigsaw. Shunning any offers of pubs or company I wallowed in my own angst, imagining she was being romanced by a Galois smoking French ponce called Claude who would snog her when the clocks chimed le midnight an hour different to me, on my own, back home, trying to find the bit of sky that the dog had probably eaten. I had received other musical gifts for Christmas but Automatic’s vibe fitted my mood like Linus’ comfort blanket. I knew it was pathetic but it felt right.
Never shy of wearing their politics clear for all to see 1992 saw the end of 12 years of Republican rule in the USA – the Reagan/Bush era as the Cold War got hotter until the USSR melted away with the US somehow claiming victory through stubbornness. ‘These bastards stole all the power from the victims of the us v. them years / Wrecking all things virtuous and true’.is a pretty firm statement of intent which admits that its merely spleen venting but that’s ok. I love the crunchy and yes, indistinct nature of the vocal fed through an amp. ‘Ignoreland’ is a much maligned nugget that perhaps doesn’t fit in with the album as a whole but at the time of release made so much sense.
‘Sweetness Follows’ is bleak, isn’t it? Starts with the death of a parent and driven with dramatic energy by that cello. ‘Try Not To Breathe’ as the last thoughts of a dying old man. A song about troubled Hollywood star Montgomery Cliff and a rather sweary chorused creepy love song intoned almost as a whisper. Others may find this morose, heavy going and dull but I submerge in the dark and find peace in the still moments and slow fades.
You may notice that I’ve swerved all those oft heard omnipresent hits and singles – well they speak for themselves I feel. Most people don’t understand what the hell ‘Man In the Moon’ is about. ‘Drive’ is a oddest choice of lead single, ‘Sidewinder’ catchy or annoying as hell, ‘Everybody Hurts’ – catharsis or overwrought dirge. ‘Nightswimming’ is pure nostalgia with that sublime couplet ‘I’m pining for the moon and what if there were two / Side by side in orbit around the fairest sun?’ and John Paul Jones’ perfect string arrangements. Finally ‘Find The River’ (six bloody singles?!) an aching echo that demands a sunny day, a gentle breeze and a drifting boat with water lapping at your dangling fingers.
The live part of this deluxe edition is a much bootlegged and mostly already released show from 40 Watt Club in Athens, a benefit for Greenpeace which would provide future B sides and serve as sole promotion for their album. I still have the KTS bootleg ‘Automatically Live’ and the official release here adds some in between song chat and better sound. In fact the first four songs are from AFTP before diving into Out Of Time and all the way back to ‘Radio Free Europa’ via covers of ‘Funtime’ & ‘Love Is All Around’. Despite Stipe’s protestations of lack of rehearsal the band are on fine form from the opening funky version of ‘Drive’. Michael is quite chatty for someone whose usual song intro’s are “Here’s another song”. It’s the highlight of the deluxe set even if you’ve had it on bootleg or spread across those ‘Monster’ B-sides.
When the Out Of Time SDE was released the band claimed that the CD of demos and sessions caused them embarrassment and discomfort revealing things perhaps best left hidden. However that’s what the fanbase demands, sometimes already own, secrets must be revealed.
The demo of ‘Drive’ with a slightly croaky guide vocal doesn’t have the menace of the finished song but the feel is there. Similarly ‘Wake Her Up’ aka Sidewinder is a run through for the band primarily with rough lyrics and la-la-ing. The biggest disappointment is that the laugh that I have found so charming and sweet is already in place. Maybe he found it funny every time. Also in this more stripped down version without strings that unintelligible chorus is perfectly understandable. No ‘Calling Jamaica’ anymore. The simply titled ‘Mike’s Pop Song’ is a lovely jangly little, err pop song, that sounds more like something from ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’ with sweet vocal from Millsy.
You can see why they put those tracks up at the top as the rest of the CD is pretty much sketches and rough outlines of familiar tunes that you are unlikely to revisit. ‘Photograph’ is almost fully formed but clearly sounds like it belongs on ‘Out Of Time’. Could have made the cut if they had finished it but to be honest I wouldn’t swap anything off the album for it. The fact they gave it away to a charity album speaks volumes.
The ‘Everybody Hurts’ demo is surprisingly effective shorn of orchestration, again lyrically sparse but the emotion is there in Stipe’s early vocal. The disc shows off the band side of the album before overdubbing really well but it’s debateable whether you really need it if they end up shoving it all up on Spotify.
What does it all *mean*?
It’s slightly frustrating that instead of adding a Dolby Atmos mix that they didn’t collect up the B-sides from this era – the covers of ‘First We Take Manhattan’, ‘It’s A Free World Baby’ and ‘Star Me Kitten’ with William Burroughs. However you cant fault them for presenting their zeitgeist grabber in the best possible way.
I’ve got this on vinyl, some 2 CDDVD audio thing, in a wooden box for some reason and now this – it still sends me woozy after all these years
Goes well with…
100 piece jigsaw puzzle. The one I did was of a campsite, kind of cartoon thing but any large jigsaw puzzle will do
Might suit people who like…
I think if I met someone who didn’t like at least something this album has to offer then I don’t think they are worth knowing. Judgement call – made.