30 years ago this month, (October 1992) R.E.M released their pinnacle album Automatic for the People, now considered one of the top rock albums of the 90s. Time has also confirmed that the album’s roots we grounded in the 70s, delivering the rich creative span of R.E.M.’s abilities, both lyrically and sonically.
While R.E.M was enjoying the fruits of their previous two international blockbuster albums, 1988’s Green, (with the hit singles “Orange Crush” & “Stand”) and 1991’s Granny Award-winning Out of Time (containing their biggest #1 hit, “Losing My Religion”) the band took the unusual stand to not tour in support of the new album. Instead, they decided to “tour” various studios in the process of making Automatic for the People, working with producer Scott Litt in 5 different studios in 5 different cities between June 1991 and July 1992.
The results did not stun the world. By this time, the world already knew R.E.M. was the best band on the planet. What was surprising was the embrace of 1970s cultural elements that were found embedded into the fabric of Automatic. This starts with the band’s unusual partnership with John Paul Jones of Led Zep fame being asked to write the orchestration backing for 4 songs on the album.
The album (whose title comes from the motto of their hometown’s popular BBQ eatery) opens with the track “Drive” with the introductory words that come right out of “Rock On” the 1973 hit by glam rocker David Essex…..“Hey Kids, Rock and Roll”…. Later in the album, we hear Stipe sing about 70s icons: “Mott the Hoople and the Game of Life….Andy Kaufman in a wrestling match, yeah yeah yeah yeah” appears on the big hit “Man On The Moon.” Indeed, for those old enough to remember, the 1969 moon landing had generated an urban legend, asking (as Stipe sings in the song’s chorus) “Do you believe, they put a man on the moon?”
And then there was the mimicking 70’s ear candy, when bassist Mike Mills took what would have been a drab tune and dabbled with “Star Me Kitten,” and created a lush-breathy chromatic scale of “ahhh” vocal, a technique used by 10cc in their 1975 hit “I’m Not In Love.” Lastly, guitarist Peter Buck fattens up his sound for the hit “Everybody Hurts” by channeling Queen. “I was just looking for this thick tone,” Buck recalled, “and I remembered that Brian May had used a coin (to strum with), so I played it with a coin to get a heavier sound.”
The video for “Everybody Hurts” did not stray too far from the 70s formula either. Its imagery was a powerful homage to the band Nazareth’s album cover from their 1976 album Close Enough for Rock and Roll. With a large crowd providing outstretched hands moving in waves, this bizarre video is an obsessive, water-drenched audience, reduced to a living organism.
Although Automatic for the People has sold well over 20 million copies worldwide and produced four top 20 singles, this was an album with an unhappy tone. Coming off their upbeat Out Of Time album (remember “Shiny Happy People”?), this new set of songs dealt with the negative politics of the day (“Ignore Land“) along with themes of loss (“Monty Got A Raw Deal”) and mourning (“Sweetness Follows”).
But for those who could hang in there, the album’s breath of positive air came in the closing two songs …..and what songs they were! (and still are) “Nightswimming” conjures up the innocence of teenagehood in close proximity to one’s favorite swimming hole, with reflection through adult eyes.
With a single ringing piano performance standing as the song’s centerpiece, coupled with John Paul Jones’ string arrangement, those in their early 30s (as were the members of R.E.M.) could feel the linkage of “Nightswimming’s” emotion to one’s fading youth.
That track was followed by the album’s closer “Find the River.” Arguably R.E.M.’s most beautiful song, it captures the hope, encouragement, and the promise of better days.
All this creative work was nearly missed, as rumors of Michael Stipe’s health served as static in the atmosphere. Somewhere in media land, nasty stories describing Stipe’s struggle with AIDS (untrue) were too far in front of the real story. The real story was that the band from Athens, Georgia had created sounds that defined an era in popular music, which put them on another level. Soon after the album’s release, Peter Buck would get in a car with a friend and anonymously drive across the country to get away from the crush of celebrity.
It was also the end of an era for the band. Automatic for the People would be the peak of their success, with a continuous decline in record sales. In March of 1995, R.E.M. would change forever when drummer Bill Berry collapsed on stage during a Swiss performance having suffered a brain aneurysm. He would permanently retire in 1997, while the band carried on saying a “three-legged dog is still a dog.” The remaining members of R.E.M. would fold their musical tent in September of 2011, leaving a stunning four-decade legacy behind them. If you count the 70s, it was five decades, with Automatic for the People as their stand-out effort.
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