1983: R.E.M. / Murmur
by J A Gray
Ah, 1983 at last. I have to admit that the past two or three chapters have been a bit of a struggle for me. Don’t get me wrong, I like the albums I’ve covered well enough, but I didn’t always feel totally connected to the people who made them, or to the times in which they were made. I was finding it difficult to relate to contemporary pop at the dawn of the 80s. It was getting harder to seek out artists with a bit of depth – bands that lived outside of the increasingly shallow and vacuous world of lowest-common-denominator pop-lite. I was listening to Echo And The Bunnymen a lot, and enjoyed their records a lot at the time, but often they went too far the other way; of trying so hard to be cool that they sounded close to glacial. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was yearning for something with a little more heart.
In the meantime, I was also making do with lots of older music. Especially The Doors. My friend Ed introduced me to his friend Jill. Jill had long golden hair which she was forever flicking back over one shoulder or the other. She had lots of bangles on her wrists which would jangle whenever she did this. And she wore a leather biker’s jacket. She was actually quite posh, but she wanted to be a bad girl. She worshipped Jim Morrison in the very sexually-charged way that only a middle-class teenage girl could. The three of us went on a school trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon to do the whole Shakespeare bit. Ed, Jill and I sat on the back seat of the bus. I think it’s the only time in my life I was ever a back-seat rebel. Jill had brought her boombox and two or three Doors tapes and that’s all we listened to – on the way down to Stratford, and going to and from the theatres while we were there. But before the trip was over, the batteries died on the boombox. Mid song. Morrison’s voice got progressively deeper and slower, just like the HAL computer on 2001: A Space Odyssey, before grinding to a halt. The rest of the coach cheered. I don’t think we realised quite how much we’d been annoying all the other kids.
Meanwhile, week in and week out on Top Of The Pops, all the latest foppish lightweights continued with their sad parade. Lots of flashing lights and balloons and big hair and shoulder pads and utterly vacuous music. Thankfully, by now we had an alternative. Beginning in November 1982, The Tube broadcast 90 minutes of live performances, interviews, and features. It aired on a Friday evening. It instantly became essential viewing. It also raised the bar. There was still a fair amount of dross on there, but the live-in-the-studio format did tend to favour bands who concentrated more on their playing than their dancing.
A year later, on the 18th of November 1983, I saw an episode of The Tube that changed everything for me. To be more exact I saw an American band called R.E.M. charge through three songs in about ten minutes that made my head spin and my heart sing. The rest of the show could have consisted of old ladies knitting mittens for all I cared – right there was the greatest bit of TV I had ever seen in my life. It was my own personal ‘Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show‘, although it must have been The Doors rather than The Fabs that I still had on my mind, because the first thing I remember thinking when I saw Michael Stipe standing there at the microphone was “that man looks a bit like Jim Morrison”. Of course, Michael Stipe never really looked anything like the would-be King of the Lizards, even when he had hair. But back then he had a pretty volumous shaggy mane and I don’t think I’d seen a long-haired rock singer under 30 years of age for so long that my tenuous connection can perhaps be excused. But, God, it was exciting! Peter Buck was playing a Rickenbacker and leaping up in the air, and covering as much of the stage as he could. Stipe was hanging onto the microphone stand for dear life and singing in that honey-smoked voice of his. Of course I didn’t know any of their names back then. Nor any song titles. It was their first time on British television.
And the songs were just amazing! The first one had this super-catchy chorus, though the only words I could catch were “in transit”. It was the greatest song I’d heard in years. Right there and then I was looking around sor someone, anyone to share this moment with because I surely wasn’t high on too much pop and sweets – this band was incredible! But there was nobody there but me, so I turned back to the screen. Then they did another one with another super-catchy chorus where the only words I could hear were “I’m sorry”. Why wasn’t the studio audience going ape shit? This stuff was making the hairs on my neck stand up like porcupine quills. Then they finished with a more mellow song, a really beautiful melody too, and another memorable chorus that went “talk about the passion”. It was all over so soon, but I swear knew one thing there and then – I had just seen my new favourite band.
Back at school the following Monday I was collaring anyone who might have given a damn about such things, anxious to compare notes, but nobody seemed to have had the same Road To Damascus experience that I’d had. Jill just shrugged and said they were OK. Ed would eventually get the R.E.M. bug, but it would take a little longer. Was it just me then? The next editions of the weekly music press suggested not – they had glowing reviews of the band’s London concerts. How I wish I could have been there! But a visit to London was on the cards anyway, so I would at least be able to buy their album.
I can’t remember exactly when and why I went to London. It was definitely still 1983, and certainly before Christmas. The half-term holidays must have been and gone, so presumably it was a flying visit. There were two or three occasions when Dad booked us into a London hotel for a weekend away. They’d combine a spot of culture – a play and maybe an art gallery or two – with the supposed main purpose of the trip, which was to meet up with Marcus and see how he was getting along. I think Marcus always met up with us in town. There was no way he was going to have the folks visit the hovels he lived in. He hadn’t been living down there terribly long, and he was struggling to make ends meet. I’m thinking now that we must have had one such family weekend sometime in late November or early December of 1983. I always enjoyed myself on these occasions. London was still fresh and exciting for me. I soon knew where all the best record shops were, and which tube stops I needed to get off at. I’d have a couple of hours to myself to do the rounds before meeting up with everyone at some specified place and time. Then we’d spend some time with Marcus before heading out to the theatre. The next morning we’d go down to the hotel’s dining area for one of those all-you-can-eat breakfasts. I’d never seen those before! The first morning I would run around trying a bit of everything. The second morning I would usually hone it down to the quality essentials, which in my case probably included a lot of sausages and scrambled eggs. Lovely!
My main mission was to pick up a copy of Murmur. For some reason, I didn’t buy a new copy from Virgin or HMV. Maybe they were a bit pricey or something. I got my copy from one of Notting Hill’s two branches of The Record And Tape Exchange (later to become Music And Video Exchange). These were second-hand emporiums which were great if you were shopping for records on a budget, but the very devil incarnate if you were hoping to get some cash for your old vinyl. On another visit to London the following year I took a canvas shoulder bag filled with all my old, and now embarrassing and unwanted, prog rock LPs. I was offered a pittance in cash or an only slightly less insulting exchange deal. I think I took down about twenty albums and came home with three. I never made that mistake again. But on this earlier occasion, I spied a copy of Murmur in the racks and put the money down. As it was still a newly released record, it was still a fairly hefty £4.50, but it looked virtually unplayed. It also looked subtly different than the £5.99 copies back in the megastores. It turned out I had bought an American import copy. It had a thicker card sleeve than the European pressings, and also an inner sleeve.*
When I got it home, I played it straight away. And then I played it again. And again. Over and over. No sooner would side two finish than I’d be flipping the record back over and going back to the start of side one. And there was no question of another record getting a look in, oh, for weeks and weeks. Nothing else measured up any more. I became a one-album man. I fell in love with Murmur like no record before or since. I was beguiled, smitten, and utterly infatuated with what I heard. The songs sounded strangely familiar, and not just the two songs they had played on The Tube, but all of them. Like I had known them my whole life. There was a deep emotional pull there that I’d never experienced before, not even with The Beatles. I could pick out individual tracks here: the perfect power pop of Radio Free Europe and Sitting Still; the anthemic Shaking Through with its jangling piano; the gentle and melodic Talk About The Passion; or the beautifully melancholy of Perfect Circle – but really it was about the whole album. Some tracks were probably better than others, but I never once considered playing just this or that track in isolation. No, I would listen to the whole thing and just wallow. Putting the record on was like opening a door to another world, or at very least, a secret garden with lots of kudzu growing wild and free.
What did I find so attractive? Stipe’s voice, for sure. And also Buck’s ringing guitars. Also the way that Mike Mills and Bill Berry sang backing vocals which weren’t always straight harmonies, but were often totally different parts that weaved in and out of the lead vocal. But more than any of this it was once again the whole picture rather than the individual elements. Murmur has a spooky, swampy, Southern Gothic murk about it. It’s an album filled to the brim with atmosphere, intrigue, and mystery. The record is full of great pop hooks and melodies, but they are all understated. Stipe’s vocals are more buried than most lead singers could live with. Nothing is laid out on a plate for the listener – they have to work hard to catch what a lyric line might be.** On another album, this might be a muddy disaster, but the album was expertly produced and engineered by Don Dixon and Mitch Easter. It doesn’t sound chaotic or confused, like say much of The Psychedelic Furs’ Talk Talk Talk does. Maybe it’s because Buck’s guitars chime out rather than wash over you, but there’s just enough clarity and punch here for this often experimental approach to work.
I took that album with me everywhere I went. I took it to friends’ houses. I remember sitting there in a room with my best friend Nick, and with Joanna, Marie, and Janet. Joanna had been my girlfriend (for all of about three weeks!), but she was now seeing Nick. There was always a lot of that sort of thing at school – it was like changing partners at a dance. I still see it going on today. Of course it hurt like hell, but Nick had tried his best to be a gentleman about the whole thing. Nick caused me pain like only a best friend can, and on more than one occasion, but he was also a lovely, soulful person and a good mate despite everything. He was passionate about his punk rock and his politics. He later became a union rep, and though he never moved away from where we grew up together, he never fell victim to the small-town mentality. He lived an alternative lifestyle right on the doorstep of a traditional, right wing, Yorkshire market town. Sadly, I’ve lost touch with him, but would dearly love to see him again sometime and talk about old times. It was not long after stealing Joanna from me that he switched his attentions to her best friend Marie, and they would stay together for many years. I couldn’t help wishing that he hadn’t made the Joanna detour first, but hey ho. He got both of them to sing in his various punk rock bands, though you could always tell they were doing it more out of loyalty to Nick than any real love of the music. Janet was Joanna’s next-door neighbour. Silly as a goose but with her heart in the right place. I remember all of us sat round at Janet’s house listening to Murmur. I really hoped that someone would see the light and join me in my newfound evangelistic fervour for R.E.M., but yet again there was another round of polite nods, and “it’s OK”s. I wouldn’t find any fellow zealots until I moved away to Birmingham the following year.***
For the longest while, whenever I was asked what my favourite album was, I would answer “Murmur“, without skipping a beat, but then, slowly, my loyalty started to wane just a little. I was even seen out with other albums under my arm! Eventually I found myself thinking that the album was starting to sound maybe just the tiniest bit dated. I actually felt guilty about no longer having Murmur as my favourite record – like it was a kind of betrayal. I suppose the first flush of young love has passed, but it’ll always be up there with the very best even though a year or two may now go by in between spins. And whilst R.E.M. themselves would go on to make many more excellent albums, they’d never quite recapture the otherwordly spook of Murmur.
* I also seem to recall that some or all of the UK copies back then had the group’s name and album title printed in red rather than the more standard pale blue.
** For many years R.E.M. made a point of never printing the words to their songs. In retrospect, one suspects that the main reason could well have been Stipe’s lack of confidence in his earlier lyrics, rather than the oft-quoted stance against making their records too easy to assimilate (and thereafter dispose of).
*** I’d not been in Birmingham long, when I was shocked one day to discover that Radio Free Europe had started to jump. Had I actually worn my LP out already? It played alright on my friend Bill’s stereo, so I bought another copy, slipped it inside my prized American sleeve, and gave Bill my original album in the new sleeve. And so, to this day, I still have a European pressing of Murmur inside a U.S. cover.
N.B. Murmur is currently available, in remastered form, as a ‘Deluxe Edition’ double CD pack with a contemporaneous live show on the second disc. An older, single-disc remaster in the ‘I.R.S. Years’ series is also still available which contains the original album plus a small selection of bonus tracks.
My other nominations for 1983 albums of merit:
The Replacements / Hootenanny
Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers / Jonathan Sings!
Echo & The Bunnymen / Porcupine
Bob Dylan / Infidels
Tom Waits / Swordfishtrombones