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Permanent Tourist

A personal website by Mark Howells-Mead

Random Ear Movements

I can recall the very first time I consciously heard an R.E.M. song. It was playing on a tape deck, which was sitting on a table in a hot and muggy hotel room in Salou, on the east coast of Spain. It was 1990, I was on holiday with four close friends after we’d finished school after our final exams. I was eighteen. The song was Green Grow The Rushes.

I can look back on two decades of a life with an R.E.M. soundtrack. Back in the early 1990s, when money was tight and CDs were expensive, all of my music was on cassette. Albums or cassette singles bought in shops, interviews or sessions recorded from the radio or bootleg live recordings from record fairs; all of the music of that time of my life was slightly hissy. As it turns out, this wasn’t such a bad thing, as it gave a more raw feeling to the music and even added to the mystique of lead singer Michael Stipe’s mumbled lyrics. Mis-recorded or warped tapes also gave some songs a unique character. To this day, I still half-expect the track to stutter when I listen to one of the band’s earliest tracks, Wolves, Lower, after the first recording I made of the vinyl e.p. Chronic Town became slightly damaged. I still have many of the cassettes from this time, some of which have been repaired several times and all of which bear the scars and cracks of years in a series of car glove boxes.

Stipe was a big influence on me during my early teens; not just as a singer and lyricist, but also as the person primarily responsible for the visual aspect of the band’s output. From collaborations with artists in the American state of Georgia, from where the band hails, to later photographic work with Patti Smith and a multitude of film-makers, I am always interested to see the visual aspects of the band’s new releases and Stipe’s own influence and contribution. While my own photography doesn’t reflect Stipe’s more freeform style, my location photography – particularly a fondness for grotty and quirky locations – has a firm root in early photographs of R.E.M. In particular, the images of the earliest years of the band by Sandra Lee Phipps and Laura Levine have always appealed to me, and almost definitely led my creative direction in my most formative years.

Places in Athens, GA made famous by R.E.M.: the Murmur trestle, Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens and the (now largely absent) St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, where band members lived at the beginning of the 1980s.

It was five years after I started listening to R.E.M. that I first had the chance to see them live, although I had followed them avidly on radio, in the music press, and (on rare occasions) on television. This was a long time before the time when the internet had reached me, so traditional media was the only way to keep track of what the band was doing.

The first R.E.M. gig I went to was at the Arms Park stadium in Cardiff during 1995 (since rebuilt as the Millennium Stadium): highly memorable not just because it was the first time I was seeing the band live, but also because it was the first concert of such a size – festivals aside – that I’d been to. Since then, I’ve discovered that I prefer the diversity of festival environments, but the sheer spectacle of seeing my favourite band on a huge stage in a huge stadium was incredible. The show was amazing and although I had a ticket for the seating area further back, the security was sufficiently lax to allow me to go down onto the protected turf amongst the “standing” fans and get to within a few rows of the stage to see the band close-up. (Or, as close-up as a stadium gig allows.) I still have the programme from that gig, as well as a cassette from the time, recorded from Steve Lamacq’s special Monster Monday radio show featuring interviews with the band between their song choices.

Many R.E.M. albums have special memories for me; either related to where I bought the album or to the places and events which took place when I listened to the tracks most often. (I’m going to exclude the compilation albums from this article, to make things easier.)  Early albums such as Murmur and Reckoning take me back to time spent with friends, drinking cider into the night whilst sitting in a parked VW camper, listening to the music on a cassette player. Fables of the Reconstruction/Reconstruction of the Fables is a fan’s album, as it has many tracks which are unusual to say the least, and took a lot of getting used to.

Lifes Rich Pageant – titled without the apostrophe and intended as an upbeat follow-on to the previous album – is most memorable to me for the songs I Believe and These Days; two of my all-time favourites which feature on the Tourfilm: a feature-length video of the band’s live performances during the 1989 tour in support of the album Green. The video used to often be on television in the background during parties at a friend’s parents’ house, with the sound off and alternating with other videos such as the Wonder Stuff‘s Eleven Appalling Promos and other offerings by artists like The Mission and Sinéad O’Connor.

The album Document is the one which started my collection of R.E.M. releases and I still have all of the singles from the album, when they were re-released on CD in the early 1990s. The album is notable for many reasons; not least the rapidly popular and even more rapidly sung song It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine), a “stream of consciousness” and a well-known feature of live shows: the second part of the line “You symbiotic, patriotic, slam book neck, right? Right.” being shouted back at the band by the audience mid-stream in every live recording of the song I’ve ever heard.

In 1988, the band signed to Warner Bros. Records and released Green, which was approximately when the band began to become very popular. Green is memorable to me as the current album when I first started listening to the band, and hence my “first” R.E.M. album. A particular memory of the album was, naturally, the videos to Stand and to Pop Song ’89: Stipe and three female counterparts dancing topless to the music in the latter. (I apologize by noting that I was still a juvenile teenager at the time, and found it difficult to concentrate on the environmental and political messages in the lyrics.)

Their first single on the 1991 album Out of Time was Losing My Religion, in which R.E.M. developed their sound to include instruments such as the mandolin, setting themselves apart from other rock bands. The song sadly divided many fans on the online chat rooms and bulletin boards a few years later; camps divided into those who had “been fans all along” and newcomers, the latter being accused by the former of listening to the music just to be trendy. (To this day, the opening chords to Losing My Religion remain those which provoke one of the strongest responses amongst live crowds.) The newcomers weren’t helped by the popularity of the band’s poppy song Shiny Happy People, which not only featured an inane message and lots of bright colours, but which the band adapted – horror of horrors! – into Furry Happy Monsters for children’s television show Sesame Street.

Losing My Religion was the band’s breakthrough into the mainstream and was markedly different from the environmentalist, policital songs which had been the core of much of the band’s work in the previous years. Thanks to this breakthrough, the band made it to British television and radio more often: even going so far as to arrange a secret gig in London which was “accidentally” revealed on national radio by DJ Gary Davies (if my memory serves correctly). This was around the time when I was a highly avid fan and I still remember feeling so jealous of those who got to actually attend. I had to make do with a vinyl pressing of a bootlegged recording of the show, at which the band – presumably for the sake of anonymity – had performed as Bingo Hand Job with friends Billy Bragg, Robyn Hitchcock and Peter Holsapple. This pressing still sits alongside what was purported to be a bootlegged, pre-release demo version of Out of Time amongst my collection of vinyl at home, and is one of a handful of records I bought at a series of collectors fairs at the time.

Automatic For The People is one of my favourite albums, dating from 1992, although I have no real memories associated with it. Tracks such as Drive, Ignoreland, Nightswimming, The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite and Find the River come up on my iPod playlist fairly regularly, although they’re usually overshadowed in the public arena by the monstrously popular Everybody Hurts, which is, I think, the band’s second biggest hit to date.

I managed to get the first limited edition book/CD pack copy of 1995 album Monster from the Our Price store in Aldershot, when I had to put my name into a hat for the first copy and was subsequently astounded when only one or two other people had tried to win it. I think that says more about Aldershot at the time than anything else and I’m thankful that I chose a non-student town to get my copy. The Monster tour in the same year was, as I mentioned above, the first time that I’d seen the band play live and so the songs from the time remind me both of that gig and frequent journeys to Cardiff at the time to see friends living there. The album was a milestone for the band too, as it was during the tour that (erstwhile) drummer Bill Berry collapsed on stage in Lausanne from a brain aneurysm, contributing later to his decision in 1997 to quit the band. The period of 1996-1997 saw the band re-sign to Warner Bros. for $80 million, an unbelievable amount of money at the time, and also begin developing away from rock music into a more melodic, electronic band.

I bought New Adventures In Hi-Fi in a music store on the Champs Elysées in Paris in 1996: a rather odd experience, as so many of the other CDs in the shop at the time were unknown to me. The songs from the album are a mixed bag and remind me less of being in Paris, when a friend and I listened to the album played loudly out of a pair of big hi-fi headphones, than a trip to the Channel Islands the following year: the songs were those I chose to listen to most often, to help me get to sleep in an attic bedroom on a bed with a half-collapsed mattress. I also had the Batman and Robin soundtrack with me on that trip and the track Revolution – not on any R.E.M. studio album but subsequently featured on the compilation In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003 – is one of my favourites from the era.

R.E.M. came close to splitting up during the recording sessions for their 11th studio album, Up, after drummer Berry’s departure. The resultant album took a big step away from the band’s previous efforts and was received in two ways: by many fans of both the 1980s rock and the more commercial work of the early 1990s as a disappointment, and by others as a brave and “sonically daring” experiment. The lead single Daysleeper proved to be a great success, reaching a top 10 position in the U.K. charts, and the eerie At My Most Beautiful has since become an emotional song for me for a couple of personal reasons. Although I rarely play the album, I enjoy it as a break from the norm occasionally. The album was released when I was most often involved in online discussion forums, which were very popular amongst fans in the late 1990s and to which I was drawn after becoming involved with the internet a couple of years earlier. The album was a boon for avid students of Stipe’s previously unintelligible lyrics as it was the first album by the band to contain a full set of lyrics within the liner notes which were picked apart at length in the online community.

By the time I saw R.E.M. in 1999, at London’s Earls Court, they were a true stadium band. The view from my seat was great, but there was to be no repeat of the 1995 experience, as row J – as I can now see from the ticket, pictured here – was very high in the stands and hence impossibly far from the packed area in front of the stage. I did, however, manage to sneak a camera in but my lack of skill at the time in such demanding lighting situations meant that the couple of dozen snaps I took were all but unusable.

I generally lost interest in music at the end of the 1990s as my focus – no pun intended – shifted much more into photography and web design. This shift is reflected in the fact that I have little or no real associations to any R.E.M. music from the time. Although there are a few songs on the album which I like – including She Just Wants To Be, Imitation of Life and The Lifting – this is probably the least played R.E.M. album in my collection, proving to me as I write that the memories and associations made when listening to R.E.M. songs are most often part of the experience.

The thirteenth album from the band, released in 2004, was Around The Sun: an album which even guitarist Peter Buck thought, “…just wasn’t really listenable, because it sounds like what it is, a bunch of people that are so bored with the material that they can’t stand it anymore…”. The song Leaving New York has the most resonance for me as it was being played frequently when I first visited Jo in Scotland in October of that same year. The line “…it’s easier to leave than to be left behind…” was particularly difficult to listen to when we embarked on the long-distance beginning of our relationship and I had to return home to Switzerland. As part of the research for this article, I also see that the video for the song is quite appropriate, with Stipe sitting around in an airport waiting for departure.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCvnGxfBfiw

My loss of interest in music during the first few years of my time in Switzerland was probably exacerbated not only by my shift of focus to photography, but also as a result of being cast adrift from the radio shows I’d listened to so keenly when I lived in the U.K. The beginning of my relationship with Jo and her interest in modern indie music ignited my own musical interest once more and it was through her that I came to hear bands which re-introduced me to music. Getting back into the loop again and hearing younger bands, combined with the more ready availability of BBC indie music radio via the internet, meant that I started re-introducing myself to new bands and new music. After a four year break, the R.E.M. album Accelerate, released in 2008, was the one I’d most keenly awaited since the early 1990s. And it didn’t disappoint.

As is my preference, I bought the limited edition version of the album; this one being packaged in a DVD-sized box and including not just the usual book of additional artwork and lyrics, but a second disc containing video by Vincent Moon; documentary-style footage which was also made available online through the film-maker’s website and which I downloaded to watch on my laptop between home and work over the course of a couple of days.

The fact that Accelerate is my favourite album to date by R.E.M is no mean feat, given that by the time the album was released the band had been together for twenty eight years and the fact that my CD racks contain no less than 47 album and single discs spanning their career, as well as several vinyl releases and a handful of cassettes from the 1990s. Supernatural Superserious, the lead single from the album, is one of my favourite songs too: an obvious choice for single status even in times where digital downloads are the usual means of purchase, and in which singles have so much less meaning than they did fifteen years ago. That’s not to say that this shift in technology is a bad thing; more that I still relish the day when I can walk into a “record” store and buy the packaged new album.

The next album from R.E.M, Collapse Into Now, is due for release in Europe on 8th 7th March this year and I await it keenly. I am a traditionalist in many ways and whilst the band have chosen to make previews of many tracks available online for the first time, I have chosen to stay away from them until I have the complete album in my hands. I want to listen to the album as a whole; listen to the songs in full, in high quality and in sequence on my old-fashioned hi-fi speakers, whilst reading the liner notes without disturbance. I wonder already what meanings and memories the album will have for me ten years from now; what life for which it will be the continuation of my own personal R.E.M. soundtrack. Although I’ve chosen not to watch it yet, here’s the trailer video for the upcoming album.