Spinning Platters Picks Six: REM Songs That Helped Define Who I Am

by Dakin Hardwick on September 21, 2011

Today, the very upsetting news was released that REM, after 31 years, has called it quits. This band was one of the most influential bands in the history of rock, and, in my humble opinion, ranking up there with The Beatles and Michael Jackson in terms of influence on society. Every blog on Earth is, of course, discussing this today. Everyone knows that their success opened the doors to the whole “alternative rock” movement, and their success, either directly or indirectly, made room for band such as Nirvana and The Flaming Lips on a major label roster, and their influence still remains today, with the fierce mainstream success of Arcade Fire and Mumford & Sons. That’s not what this is about. This is about my own time spent with REM.

“Stand” is the first song that I ever heard by REM. I believe I was 8 or 9. I was really into Debbie Gibson, New Kids On The Block, and Disney films. My eldest sister was starting to get really into “Modern Rock.” Before this point, most rock n roll kind of turned me off. I was 9, and suffered from a bit of Peter Pan syndrome, and I thought of rock n roll as the beginning of moving into a very scary world. There were a lot of bands that she would listen to, and although I wasn’t really ready for a lot of it, there were two songs that she would sing around the house that really hooked me: “I Wanna Be Sedated” by The Ramones and this one. I began to truly love these sings, and eventually I bought some blank tapes and dubbed her copy of Green. Although I’d pretty much only listen to “Stand” for the longest time, I’d dig deeper. I learned to appreciate songs like “Pop Song ’89” for it’ lyric writing, as well as it’s influence on my dating life. (Which was always a serious of awkward and uncomfortable scenarios)

By the time “Out Of Time” came out, I was a little more on my own with my musical tastes. I was 12, and I was listening to the local alternative rock station (Live 105), and I was watching MTV late at night whenever I could. I read record reviews, and took the time to learn about things. I knew “Losing My Religion,” and I loved the song. But this one, “Radio Song,” added a new flavor to widening my taste. Although I truly enjoyed rock n roll at this point, and even found a love for the punk and metal. Hip Hop, however, reminded me of the kids at school that I didn’t get along with. I never listened to it, because I this time, I associated it with only bad. Then, my revered REM pulled out a smart song with a rap solo by KRS-One. There was a solid funk groove to this, too… This song is awesome, and I eventually learned to love this genre of hip hop.

Monster, however, was the singular most important record of my adolescence. The tour for this record wasn’t my first concert, but it was my first concert that I went to with my own friends, no adult chaperone. The sheer giddiness and noise of this record blew me away. This was a band that I was fan of, but they really took it to the next level. The guitars were loud and thick, a whole new revelation of sonic splendor. They claimed that Sonic Youth were the biggest influence of this album, so, of course, I started listening to them. (They opened the show, so I felt that I needed to be into them anyways) Sonic Youth opened the doors to a whole new world of experimental music, oddly taking me to Karlheinz Stockhausen and Phillip Glass, randomly. But, more than personally, I think that Monster really helped define a generation. Whenever I meet people that are my own age, it seems that 9 times out of 10, we end up telling stories of this live show. This record was also the first album where I learned about how to gracefully sing about the taboo topic of sex, which about half the record is about.

So many people speak ill of the post Bill Berry era of REM. I honestly think that this comes from a belief that, when a band has a major change, they will never be as good. Admittedly, they took a sharp turn to the dark and mellow. Gone where the big explosive guitar blasts of “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth” or the angular, lo-fi post punk of “Radio Free Europe.” This was a much more grown up band, and they handled this with flare. The best thing about this time period was Michael Stipe’s voice, once buried deep in the mix, was now crystal clear and in the forefront of everything.

Of course, another thing that I learned about REM was the art of the protest song. Stipe, as a lyricist, has always been magnificent. This track, off the underrated 2004 record Around The Sun, is about as clear and direct as a song could be. It’s the tale of worry, but it’s also a tale of action. It’s always important to stand up for what you believe.

This song’s finest companion is Green’s “Orange Crush,” the epic anti-war anthem that sounds even fresher now that America is fighting 3 wars around the world, while ignoring the real wars at home.

My favorite REM song, at least at the moment, is “Finest Worksong.” I will always consider REM to be a political band, first and foremost. I don’t know that this songs means to me, but I consider it to be a genuine tribute to the working people that keep this country running, and it’s important that those person’s rights are always protected. I may be completely wrong. The beauty of many REM songs is that the lyrics are so vague that you can get out of them whatever you wish.

So, that was actually seven, not six. Seven is a lucky number, and I wish all the luck in the world to whatever projects Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, and Peter Buck go onto. Thank you for the fond memories and being the soundtrack to my life. It will be weird not having you around.

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