Automatic For The People ‘REM’ Album Review
On The Needle With Ryan Moeller
Automatic For The People
October 6, 1992
Warner Bros. Records
At the dawn of the 1980s, new bands were emerging from basements and college dorm rooms of teenage boys with a new sound. Over time, music critics began classifying this genre of music as jangle-pop and college-rock. Nowadays, it is known as alternative or indie rock.
On the far side of the pond, The Smiths were exploring the depths of indie rock in their native home of Manchester, England. In America, however, R.E.M. showed what it meant to be an indie band.
R.E.M formed as a quartet consisting of guitarist and mandolinist Peter Buck, singer Michael Stipe, bassist and background vocalist Mike Mills, and drummer Bill Berry. The band formed in Athens, Georgia after meeting each other in an unusual way, according to Berry.
“We were in a kitchen at a party, well three of us, a girl introduced me to, uh, Peter and Michael,” said Berry in an interview at the Capitol Theater.
Musical influences of the band stretch from the soulful sounds of Motown to the art-punk sounds of Television. Berry continued to say, “well, originally [the] Motown stuff my older brothers and sisters listened to,” after being asked about his influences.
”The first real music that was kind of inspiring to me was the stuff coming out of New York in the mid-seventies, Television and Patti Smith.”commented Stipe after being asked about what music inspired him.
In 1983 R.E.M. bursted on the scene with their debut album Murmur under the small IRS records company. Radio Free Europe, the first single off of the album, introduced the world to the new sound of this small band from Georgia. In 1984 R.E.M. released their second album, The Reckoning, under the same IRS records label. Despite The Reckoning still being an indie record and exploring the genre more, the songs still centered around their Jangly guitar sound.
With the release of Green in 1988, R.E.M. began experimenting with new instruments and the instruments each member played. Furthermore, Green was the first album to be released under the Warner Brothers Record label. The signing of this contract allowed REM to move away from what they were used to, something that would be very helpful in the fall of 1992.
“We wanted to write stuff that didn’t really sound like what we’ve done,” Buck stated in an interview, “we were writing songs [and] switching instruments, so I play drums on one, and mandolin on a couple and bass on one.”
Within three years R.E.M. would release their second album, Out Of Time, on Warner Bros. Records. After their succeeding hit, Losing My Religion, the band continued to explore their sound the following year with their masterpiece album.
On Oct. 6, 1992 R.E.M. released their eighth and most ambitious album in their discography. Automatic for The People contains twelve tracks put together by the band in a series of jam sessions. While some influences on the album are not as apparent as others, the sound of New Orleans can be heard on the songs New Orleans Instrumental No. 1 and Drive.
“We did demos in New Orleans at the Daniel Lanois’ Kingsway studio which is an old haunted mansion, supposedly haunted, and us, filled with neat old antiques, neat instruments and did demos there, some of which ended up on the record,” Buck said in a television segment with TMC2.
Furthermore, the swapping of instruments led to news ones fitting in the mix. Organs, accordions, strings and pianos all made the cut for the band’s, more mature sound. Although acoustic guitars and strings have shown up on previous albums from the band, the instrumental approach was very different on this album. Rather than just an instrument used to fill to space, the acoustic guitars and strings on this album were used as a percussion instrument or something to create tension in the music.
Even with a talented set of multi-instrumentalists, R.E.M. turned to an ex-Zeppelin member to help with the album’s instrumentation. Despite being the former bassist of Led Zeppelin, John Paul Jones features his musical touch on the songs, The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite, Drive, Nightswimming and Everybody Hurts.
“John Paul Jones really added an extra element to this record that the last one didn’t have even though it had strings,” Berry said.
Drive opens up the album with powerful lyrics related to teen angst.
“Hey kids, where are you?/ nobody tells you what to do, baby/ hey kids, rock and roll/ nobody tells you where to go,” Stipe sings on the opening track. Over strings, an acoustic guitar, bass and drums, lyrics speaking to college and high school students alike. Lyrics that spoke out to those who were looking to step away from the status quo.
“Drive is just telling kids to take charge of their own lives, among other things,” Mills said in an interview with Melody Maker magazine. The sound and lyrical content of this song marks the tone for the rest of the album.
While R.E.M. is not typically thought of as a political band, they are not afraid to talk politics when a problem arises. Through blaring guitars and powering drums, Ignoreland speaks to the Republican politics of the early 1990s.
“TV tells a million lies, the paper’s terrified to report/ anything that isn’t handed on a presidential spoon,” Stipe calls out from under the crowd of guitars, “I’m just profoundly frustrated by all of this.” With the clever production, Stipes voice sounds as if it is being played through a handheld megaphone.
After the piano ballad of Nightswimming, R.E.M. manages to finish off the twelve track album with a sweet folk-tinged song about remembering life. “Leave the road and memorize/ this life that pass before my eyes/ nothing is going my way,” Stipe sings. The songs opens up with an acoustic guitar and a melodica sounding instrument. The combination of these instruments sound natural together and fit perfectly with the Californian scenery in the music video.
Since the release of Automatic For the People, R.E.M. has gone on to influence many musicians of various backgrounds around the world.
“One of our favorite bands, R.E.M., for some crazy reason have finished and it’s sad,” Chris Martin of Coldplay stated before playing a cover of Everybody Hurts. Furthermore, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana has been rumored to have liked the band before his death in 1994. And as time goes on, R.E.M. will continue to influence more musicians.