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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Music: How Rock Band Ruined R.E.M.

When I was in high school, back in the Paleolithic era known as the 80s, there were finely hewn dividing lines between music tastes (even if these lines were privately breached all the time). I had transmogrified from a 60s championing throwback via The Velvet Underground into what was then called “modern rock.”

Even there though there existed a schism roughly divided between British bands and American bands. Being a patriot for the most part I stayed with the American bands – The Replacements, Meat Puppets, Minutemen, Husker Du and R.E.M. who all seemed so much less…fey…then their British counterparts in New Order, The Smiths and Depeche Mode. On this too I would come around – partly through the intercession of The Jesus and Mary Chain.

R.E.M. were the great American art rock band, especially for guys like me who had been listening to the Byrds and The Beatles and Buffalo Springfield (The Replacements satisfied the Stones side of me). They put out a string of very good to great albums from 1983s Murmur through 1987s Document before signing to Warner Bros. like Husker Du before them. They were at the apogee of cool.

The first layers of discontent with the band emerged with their debut for Warners, Green, a rich glossily produced White Album –like agglomeration of everything in the band’s arsenal. For the first time the band sounded like they had money. The single “Stand” compounded this by being silly and twee just as the po-faced melancholia that would culminate in grunge was beginning to flood the alt-music scene.

After their big breakthrough record, Out Of Time, which was a commercial if not aesthetic success they cranked out another masterpiece with Automatic For The People, but already the cool was fading away.

After countless albums, some bad (Around the Sun) some underrated (Monster, Up) and some just meh (Reveal) the band is about as loved as, say, the Moody Blues. Not bad, but hardly first rank.

I was kind of psyched for the boys from Athens when I saw that they had a song on hit awesome video game Rock Band – the ultimate music marketing tool for the next generation of fans. Perhaps this would bring them back into the first tier. So what song do they choose? “Orange Crush”.

Now I like “Orange Crush” very much, the slicing guitar riff and the soaring vocals make it feel like perfect anthemic Rock Band material. The reality is it’s a pain in the ass to follow along to, especially to sing, and the annoyance and frustration at the weird double vocal between Stipe and Mills that’s so thrilling to passively hear turns to hatred of the song when trying to perform it.

If I wanted to restore the band’s luster via Rock Band I would choose something like “The One I Love”, simple, punchy, fun to sing and play, or “Begin The Begin.” If it simply must be from the Warners years “What’s The Frequency Kenneth” is one of their best songs and rocks with a nice wallop. Or “Turn You Inside Out.”

Thanks to a bad licensing decision, countless young music fans will hate R.E.M.


Tim Masterson said...

I agree about this song. Something like "Begin the Begin" would have made a much better song for the game. Or, if they wanted to stay with the singles, how about "Driver 8", with its front and center riff? Or even the very singable and fan favorite "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville"? I would love to have that song in the game.

From their Warner catalog, "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" is an obvious choice. Much of their very underrated "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" could be good fodder, as well.

Stacey Frank said...

Hey at least they didn't pick "Everybody Hurts." Can you imagine?