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Tuesday, 6 November 2012

REM - Green (1988)

Top infants in primary school was one of the worst years of my school life: my best friend died of Cystic Fibrosis. After Chris died I was bullied relentlessly by a group of five lads through the rest of school, mainly because I’d been the one whose best mate had died (kids are lovely aren’t they?). The bullies’ usual tactic tended to be to get me into trouble, often doing something quite subtle in order to wind me up until I hit one of them and ended up getting dragged to the Head Mistress’s office for fighting. They would do things like throw my coat into a puddle, or pushing my face into a puddle, or kicking the water from a puddle over me as I walked by – a lot of it seemed to involve puddles. They’d often wait for me at the end of the school day and chase me home; they’d stalk me during school holidays – heckling me about my friend, saying that he died because of my germs, and that’s why no one else would want to play with me.

For a few years, I would often avoid the main gate of the school and exit by climbing over a fence at the top of the football field. I would then make my way home by going the long way, or if the bullies spotted me, I would run to my aunt’s house who lived on the street behind the school. I would spend an hour or so after school around her house playing with her two cats, drinking tea and listening to her CDs. She had her stereo set up with four speakers - one mounted in each corner of her sitting room - I used to think that this was the coolest thing ever. My aunt liked to educate me about music, and made sure that I listened to artists like Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and the Beatles.

In the summer holidays between primary school and secondary school, I was helping (watching) my cousin fix up a Morris Minor for my aunt. My aunt had a garage behind a block of flats near the school, and one day the bullies came over throwing stones and berating me. My cousin, who would have been in his early-20s at the time, spoke to them and offered a deal: they could fight me, but only in a one-on-one fight, and if anyone else interfered, he said he’d get involved.

Without their group strength and the knowledge that my cousin would step in if things got too crazy (though looking back, I’m sure he wouldn’t have), I felt like I could beat them – and I did. I fought and beat each one of them. I’ve never been one for violence, and haven’t been in a fight since I was about 13, but I had over four years of pent up rage and frustration to dole out to them.

The first kid who stepped forward was a weasely lad who always used to sniffle, and was always the one lurking behind the others when there was bullying to be done. I made short work of him, tackling him to the ground and punching his face repeatedly. I remember dragging his face across the grit and concrete of the garage site and feeling satisfied when I made a deep gash in his face, which was by then already starting to swell up with bruises. He ran off, calling me a bastard as he did. The next fight was with a weedy kid, who kept running in circles around me, and didn’t want to fight. I managed to trip him over, and he immediately burst into tears looking down at the tiny grazes on his hands - he too ran away, as my cousin watched on, laughing uproariously and encouraging me to keep going. The next lad jumped me from behind before I could get my breath back, and started pounding away at my face. I managed to wrap my legs around one of his arms and kept kicking him in the back; he rolled over trying to escape and something popped in his arm. He screamed in agony and got up - his shoulder was pulled out its socket. I was getting tired by this point, and the next lad to face me was about a foot taller than me. Rather than trying to fight him cleanly, I decided instead to kick him square in the balls. He collapsed in a heap in front of me, as the last kid - the ring-leader - looked on.

I’d been scared of the ring-leader throughout school, and although I’d never actually seen him in a fight, he had a reputation for being the toughest kid in the school. But for the first time ever, I saw fear in his eyes as three of his friends had run away, and another was crying on the floor. I felt like I was in a video game like Double Dragon or Final Fight, where you have to work your way through a level beating up bad guys until you reached the boss. He started to walk away, but my cousin stepped in and said “you’re fighting him or me, and I’ll fucking deck you.” And with that, the ring-leader lurched at me. We fought for what seemed like an eternity, pummelling each other’s faces with punches; he kept making kung-fu noises when he threw kicks and the “pch” noise that punches made in action films, which my cousin found hilarious. He tripped over one of his terrible roundhouse kicks at one point and fell on his back with the back of his head bouncing off the concrete. With this, I stood over him and stamped on his wrist with all my energy. There was a horrible crack, but the kid didn’t cry. He just moved away, leaning his back against one of the garage doors, looking all sulky and staring meanly up at me. I remember him sitting there, rubbing his broken wrist saying that he was going to go home and play Street Fighter to ‘get hard’ – I don’t know if he meant hard as in tough, or as in erectile. They never gave me grief after that day, and on some deep level I don’t think I could really overestimate how important it was to my long-term sanity to finally be victorious over the people who had given me hell for over four years.

Once the bullies had gone home, I made my way to my aunt’s, who was shocked to see me bruised and bloody with torn jeans and a stretched T-shirt. I cleaned myself up, and my aunt made me a cup of tea. I played with her cats for a while and listened to Green by REM, one of my favourites in her collection and one that I’ve not listened to in at least a decade.

The album opens with the chirpy and poppy ‘Pop Song 89’, with its saccharine riffs and melodic vocals. The lyrics however seem to cast a level of doubt and insecurity onto the song’s cheerful veneer. It is as if vocalist Michael Stipe had realised that REM had garnered international fame that reached beyond their wildest expectations, but didn’t know what to say or talk about, with the lines of the chorus asking “Should we talk about the weather? / Should we talk about the government?” It’s a great opener that reminds me just how talented REM are. ‘Get Up’ is built around a fantastic chord progression. Again we see pop sensibility clashing with self-doubt, as in the chorus Stipe tells us that “Dreams, they complicate my life.” In what sense, I wonder? Is it that of unfulfilled desire – the sense that the grass is probably greener? Or is perhaps that a fulfilled dream may never live up to the fantasy? Or perhaps Stipe was driving at something else entirely. ‘You are the Everything’ is soft and melodic with acoustic mandolins, noodling bass, and an accordion holding everything together. Stipe’s vocals are particularly stirring in this one as he evokes feelings of nostalgia and yearning. It’s a song that combines wonderful melodies with a gripping sense of storytelling. ‘Stand’ is just plain daft, and aside from ‘Shiny Happy People’, it probably ranks as one of REM’s silliest songs. Don’t be fooled into thinking that because the song is nonsensical that it is in anyway bad. On the contrary, it’s a perfect pop song with catchy melodies and not one, but two key changes. This shouldn’t work as a song, but it is packed with so much fun and innocent charm that it is impossible not to be taken in by its spell. ‘The Wrong Child’ evokes the same feelings as Led Zeppelin’s ‘The Battle of Evermore’ - this probably has a lot to do with the fact that both songs employ vocal reverb and stunning mandolin playing. This song really showcases the power of Stipe’s voice, not in terms of its technical range, but in terms of its emotive impact – its ability to really pull at your heartstrings. ‘Orange Crush’ is awesome, a perfect rock song: sumptuous bass, brilliant chord changes and an excellent chorus – what more could you ask for? ‘Remember California?’ has the dark gloomy feeling of tracks like D-7 by the Wipers. It is slow and deliberate, and fills you with a sense of impending doom; the track feels incongruous when considered next to ‘Pop Song 89’ or ‘Stand’, but it fits in well with the flow of the album. The untitled album-closer is probably the weakest song on the album, which is unfortunate as the rest of the album is great. It’s a song about finding strength through love, but somehow the feelings that such a subject should evoke in a song just don’t seem to be present.

On the whole this album is great. I’d forgotten just how good REM could be. I’m going to have to keep hold of this one, and give this album the time it deserves.

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