Reflections On Mike: David Cavannagh

How Do I Love R.E.M.?

Let Me Count The Ways, Chronologically…: Twenty reason to adore a band from Athens, GA.
A personal selection by David Cavannagh

1. Mike Mills’s bass playing on “Radio Free Europe”
In the old days, before Peter Buck learned another chord besides A, Mike Mills would go to fantastic lengths to cover for him. Mills effectively played “lead bass” – a harmonically buzzing Rickenbacker – and is best heard on “So. Central Rain” (off Reckoning) and, especially, this one. Interesting fact: to this day, Peter Buck cannot play a guitar solo.

2. “9-9″, off Murmur
In 1983, before Michael Stipe’s lyrics became of Talmud-like importance, he demonstrated great skill in pureeing his vocals, often obliterating meaning for minutes on end. That he could then add a harmony, precisely duplicating the unintelligible gibberish, showed the mark of the man.

3. The fact that Stipe sounds really like Gene Clark
Gene Clark’s “Echoes” being nothing less than the greatest song ever recorded, Stipe was on to an immediate result. In Stipe, Clark’s sublime, woody burr lives on – words with “r” in them invariably prove most Clarkesque, e.g. “birdy in the hand” from “Begin the Begin.”

4. The line “Jefferson, I think we’re lost” on “Little America,” off Reckoning
R.E.M. folklore would, in time, make stars of Bertis Downs IV and Jefferson Holt. Holt, a lean quasi-James Stewart figure, is the group’s manager, a man whom even professional cider-testers admit has the best job of any human being alive.

5. The two Marquee gigs, April 30-May 1, 1984
R.E.M. achieve perfection in Wardour Street. The first night Stipe is barefoot. They open with “Pale Blue Eyes.” The second night Mike Mills sings “Does Your Mother Know” by ABBA and a large percentage of the audience clamber on-stage for “Carnival of Sorts,” which Stipe sings hidden behind Buck’s amplifier. It is inspirational. The following December, at the Lyceum, R.E.M. play one of the worst gigs in the history of the world.

6. Buck and Mills in the NME (New Music Express), May 1984
In the “Portrait of the Artist as a Consumer” series, Buck lists a host of then-obscure bands as his favorites: Mitch Easter’s Let’s Active, Love Tractor, Husker Du, The Replacements. Mills names his fave albums as Pet Sounds, The Madcap Laughs, and Shake Some Action. Young R.E.M. fans dole out the cash accordingly and are, needless to report, thrilled.

7. “Moon River”
Having debuted the beautiful Henry Mancini tune live in a capella form on the late-’84 tour, R.E.M. do it for the BBC on the Whistle Test, slamming instantly thereafter into an explosive “Pretty Persuasion.” When an American fan shouts “bullshit” during “Moon River” on the US leg, Buck quite rightly, offers him backstage for a kicking.

8. “Life and How to Live It,” off Fables of the Reconstruction
The Fables album, made in the darkest London N22, contains 7 or 8 of R.E.M.’s most opaque classics. The scandalously underrated “Life and How to Live It” bursts open on a 3-part harmony between Stipe, Mills, and Bill Berry, ending on a glorious beseeching yowl from Stipe.

9. “Auctioneer (Another Engine),” off Fables of the Reconstruction
We can’t leave Fables of the Reconstruction without mentioning “Auctioneer,” another mysterious gem. The vocalists growl an obscure ancient myth (“listen to the barter-holler”winking with infectious urgency, with a Great Rock Moment coming in the shape of Mike Mills’s lugubrious swoop up the neck of his bass.

10. Peter Buck’s sleevenotes for the compilation Dead Letter Office
Given a platform to put his band forward as THE American music flame-keepers sans pareil (c.f. sleevenotes of Neil Young’s Decade) or maybe go for a nice poem in lower case (c.f. Patti Smith’s Horses), Buck begins by saying that Pylon were miles better than R.E.M., goes on to belittle a good 75 per cent of his own album and, in his introduction, claims to prefer singles anyway.

11. “Begin the Begin,” off Lifes Rich Pageant
Cracking open the curiously non-apostrophied fourth album, “Begin the Begin” was an angry song teetering on the brink of distortion, with the words “miles standish proud” once heard, proving impossible to dislodge from the memory. Miles Standish- Proud is, we think, a barrister based in Great Russell Street.

12. The call-and-response bit in “These Days,” off Lifes Rich Pageant
In the second half of their most irresistible fast number, Stipe sings “and you … me … you.” In the brief gaps, Mills, almost off-mic, answers “hey! … hey! … hey!”

13. “Right?” “Right!”
On a call-and-response roll, the pair repeat their trick on “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” off Document. It’s worth mentioning what a funny band R.E.M. used to be.

14. The music boxes on “Get Up,” off Green
Bill Berry, in a dream, heard 12 music boxes playing. Relaying the happy news to Scott Litt, he demanded that 12 music boxes be purchased and primed for the middle section of “Get Up.” Litt, cost cutting, attempted to get away with using six and double-tracking them. Berry was unimpressed, so a further six were bought.

15. “Endgame,” off Out of Time
Ludicrously overlooked in all the fuss about “Losing My Religion,” this elegant little tune – basically an instrumental over which Stipe scat-sings – recalls Sunday and Bryter Layter, the lovely instrumentals off Nick Drake’s second album. What a great album Out of Time was. So much better than Monster.

16. Mike Mills’s unbelievable harmony on “Half A World Away,” off Out of Time
The first time he tries it he’s barely audible, so he’s probably just road-testing it. When his chance comes again he’s straight in, yodeling away like the myopic descant genius he so palpably is.

17. The title of “Country Feedback,” off Out of Time
It’s a country song with feedback. Life used to be so simple in 1991.

18. “Fretless”
A sublime, eerie Out of Time outtake which R.E.M. play at the Borderline for their Bingo Hand Job dates in Feb/March 1991. Unhelpfully, Stipe introduced it as “Bizarre Love Triangle” by New Order. It later turned up on the soundtrack album of Wim Wender’s film “Until The End Of The World.”

19. The fact that there are three verses and choruses before the bridge in “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”
Most bands have two. R.E.M. have three. So simple. So ingenious.

20. “Find the River”
It somehow irks the soul that R.E.M.’s best song yet will not be equalled until all this Monster business is over – 1996 at the earliest. They may not even better it. But at least they wrote it. Thanks.

Originally published on 12 November 1994 by Mojo
Source: R.E.M. Collectors Guide


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