1984: R.E.M. / Reckoning (File Under Water)*
by J A Gray
I didn’t have to wait long for a second R.E.M. album. Just six months after buying Murmur in London, I picked my copy of Reckoning from a local shop called The Record Cabin. I had it on advance order – R.E.M. were still too underground in those days for their LPs to make it to the racks of a tin pot Yorkshire record shop. During the months in between albums, the British music press had begun its love affair with the band, and I pored over every gig review and interview. I could barely stand the wait for Reckoning. Murmur had made such an impression on me that R.E.M. had already become my band, and in a way that resonated on more than one level. They were my new favourites, right enough, but what made it all the more special for me was that I’d ‘found’ them all by myself. R.E.M. were the first band that I didn’t get switched onto via Marcus, or one of his friends, or one of my own contemporaries. The downside of this was that, for the time being, I was also enjoying their music all by myself.
I knew to expect a slight shift in tone with Reckoning from the reviews in the music papers. The new album was more immediate, a bit tougher sounding, more stripped-down. I would have been worried that I wasn’t going to like it, but these same reviews were so full of glowing praise that I thought that was fairly unlikely. I put my copy on at home and was immediately rewarded by the adrenalin rush of Harborcoat, especially the final chorus where a whole carload of Peter Bucks muscle in to propel the song to its conclusion. And there was the already-familiar near-perfect melodic jangle of So. Central Rain, which I’d seen them do on The Tube back in November ’83. And there was Pretty Persuasion, a song so jammed full of rock ‘n roll spirit that you couldn’t help but leap around the room with demented youthful abandon. And the nagging push/pull dynamics of Letter Never Sent – a wonderful, off-centre pop song. And then there was (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville with its irresistible sing-along chorus and country leanings. If it didn’t quite match Murmur for atmospherics and strange charm, it still wasn’t an album you could ever describe as disappointing. Yes the guitars were a little more prominent, with less acoustic guitars being used. There was also generally less reliance on multi-tracking, but the essential band sound remained unchanged. You still had to wonder what the hell Michael Stipe was singing, yet he kept you coming back for more. He sang with such a rich timbre, with hints of poetry and intelligence, but there was little you could nail down with any certainty. He was a master illusionist in those days – the closer you seemed to get to the heart of what he was singing, the more distant any real sense would suddenly become.
Reckoning was the album that started to convince many people that a truly great new band was now amongst us. I remember Marcus getting hooked on it fairly quickly. I was delighted because it was the first time I’d ever turned him onto a band after many years of him leading and me following. And, at last, the album also made an impression on my friend Ed. He’d quite liked Murmur, but Reckoning was a much more direct hit for him. Ed’s conversion was a very good thing in my opinion, because Ed and I had recently formed a band.
I’d known Ed since we were both five. We weren’t close friends back then, but I’d see him around and about with his younger brother Trev. Back in those days, Ed and Trev looked like Russian doll people – identical in all but size. It wasn’t until we got to sixth form though that Ed and I started hanging out. We discovered that we had a sense of humour in common, and also music. Ed had always worn his hair short, but of late he’d started to let it grow. And grow. He always had this ridiculously perverse stubborn streak, so that as soon as his parents, teachers and peers started suggesting that maybe he needed a haircut, Ed dug his heels in with barely concealed glee. By the time we both started sixth form, his hair hung in horrible lank and greasy curtains. On the other hand, he had been playing guitar for some years and was already pretty good at it. He had a genuine Fender Telecaster. He also had a friend called Duncan who could play bass. Pretty soon we had a band. I thought it would just be for fun but these guys were serious enough about it to propose that we actually did this thing in public. Gulp!
We changed the band name as often as we changed drummers, which was just about every gig. First we were Red Tape. Then we realised that that was an awful name, so we became The Transformers. I’m not sure if we were named after Lou Reed’s album, or the robots in disguise from the cartoon, or both. I can’t remember what else we called ourselves. We played at the youth club, at friends’ parties, at a local hall or two. It was amazing to finally be doing something I’d been wanting to do all my life. We went down very well. Heck, there weren’t that many teenage guitar bands playing in small Yorkshire market towns back in those days, so we could have stunk the place out and still been applauded, but I think we were a lot better than awful. I’d not only been force-feeding Ed my R.E.M. records, but also the first two Television albums. Both of those bands would have a lasting influence on how Ed played guitar. Michael Stipe would have a similarly colossal influence on how I sang. In fact, way too much of an influence. It would be years until I even started to find my own voice – Stipe cast an immense shadow.
I was soon headhunted by another group. The bass player and drummer had been in local bands that I’d really admired. I’d looked up to these guys as local heroes. But now they were making a cynical, desperate, last-ditch attempt at selling out, and they wanted me to be their mouthpiece. God help me, I tried it on for size. I even rewrote their toe-curlingly awful lyrics so that I could stand to sing them. They were managed by Brian Sommerville, who had once been The Beatles press agent and now lived locally. We rehearsed at his large country house. I wish I’d pumped him for old Beatles stories, but he wasn’t a very approachable man. The rest of the band kept their distance from him too, largely because they suspected that Brian was gay. Now and again one of the band would be called into his office for a meeting and there would be much banter about “taking one for the team”. Yorkshire in the mid-80s wasn’t the most politically correct of environs. If Brian was hoping for a second bite of the pop cherry, he was out of luck. We made one demo recording, played one disastrous gig, and then we all drifted apart. I told the band that the music was trite bollocks. I told them that R.E.M. were the future. They told me I was crazy. I wonder if they managed a half-smile between them when R.E.M. became huge a few years down the line.
In the midst of all of this activity, I left home to start college life in Birmingham. Within weeks I found out that R.E.M. were booked to play at the University across town. At that time I had yet to cross paths with any other R.E.M. fans, or indeed any music nuts willing to take a chance on seeing a band they hadn’t heard of. I went alone. It was the first time I’d been to a gig on my own, and I was a little anxious, but there wasn’t a chance in hell of me missing this.
There was no fanfare, no bright lights, no dry ice. The band ambled on stage. Buck sat down on the drum riser and began to pick out the chords to a gentle version of The Velvet Underground’s Femme Fatale. Stipe’s hair hung over his face in shaggy curls as he hung onto the microphone stand for dear life. I remember him reeking of patchouli oil, probably his attempt to cover up the stench of ‘tour odour’. No sooner did this most understated of opening songs conclude than Buck was up and scissor-kicking away, leading the charge into a frantic version of Harborcoat. Stipe appeared to manifest both introvert and extrovert personality types simultaneously. He mostly stood stock still, but would occasionally step back from his microphone to peel off another layer in what seemed to be an endless hobo variation of a striptease. Or break into brief snatches of a capella folk ditties in between the songs. He had charisma to spare, and you couldn’t take your eyes off him.
After a couple more band originals, things started to get unpredictable all over again. Some expat Americans were yelling requests at the band. Only these weren’t song requests, these were the names of other up-and-coming American bands – bands I’d not heard anything by yet, but would do soon enough. So they did knockout covers of Color Me Impressed by The Replacements, and Broken Whiskey Glass by Jason And The Scorchers. This was an early hint that R.E.M. weren’t alone in the world, but were spearheading a whole wave of exciting new American guitar bands. They’d come in all shapes and flavours, and whilst few of these other groups could touch R.E.M. for quality, depth, and originality, they would certainly brighten up my 1980s considerably.
During one of those long college holidays, sometime in 1985, I went back up north to see the folks, get my laundry done, and eat two or three square meals a day. Ed was still living up there. Word got out about some music and poetry night that some local fella was putting on, and would we play? Certainly we would. Duncan wasn’t around, so we asked our friend Mike Blease to stand in for him. Mike was a laugh a minute. He’d grown his corkscrew hair into a mighty vertical gothic sculpture. He was working on a pretty impressive guitar picking style, but, as Jimi Hendrix once said of Noel Redding, we dug his hairstyle, so we asked him to play bass. Mike tried his level best to big up his new role by continually refering to himself as “Bass-Face Blease” during practice sessions. Our good friend Nick, who was also fronting his own punk band, sat in on drums for us. There was no attempt at proving ourselves with a bunch of our own material – this was a for-one-night-only gig for the sheer hell of it. I called our band Permanent Vacation after an obscure early R.E.M. song that I’d heard on a bootleg tape. We mostly played covers, including (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville from Reckoning. Even the other covers we played had also been done by R.E.M., like Buddy Holly’s Rave On and Roger Miller’s King Of The Road.** Clearly my infatuation was running deep already, and the band had barely begun their remarkable run of albums with which they’d end up pretty much owning the decade.
* Michael Stipe has always insisted that the album has two titles: Reckoning; and File Under Water. In the UK, this dual identity was obscured by the decision to incorporate the more familiar title under the band’s name on the front cover. In the States, however, neither title appeared on the front. In all markets, both titles were printed on the LP’s spine, although only the former made it to the record label.
** The old men in the audience loved our version of King Of The Road. They were impressed that we knew a song that old!
N.B. Reckoning 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 1984 albums of merit:
The Replacements / Let It Be
The Long Ryders / Native Sons
Minutemen / Double Nickels On The Dime
Meat Puppets / II
Violent Femmes / Hallowed Ground
The Waterboys / A Pagan Place
The Psychedelic Furs / Mirror Moves
Echo & The Bunnymen / Ocean Rain
The Pogues / Red Roses For Me