I often wonder what would have happened to R.E.M. if things had not gone so well for them and their crossover into the mainstream in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. They seemed to take such a long time to be the kings of alternative rock that it almost seems they would have been happy just churning out album after album of the kind of material that can be found on this record. I’m sure a lot of the early fans would have hoped that the band had continued on this track too.
For me, the two phases of R.E.M. can be summarised into two timeframes – before and after the introduction of Scott Litt as producer on 1987’s Document. Prior to that record, they’re very much like an American version of the Smiths, only with better harmonies. The sound is roughly similar from record to record, and from producer to producer, until Litt makes them sound like a different band altogether. The standard – although similar approach – would be to split the band’s output between the I.R.S. years versus the Warner Bros years, which is different by only one record, 1988’s Green.
The one thing that irks me about R.E.M. is their refusal to spell some of their songs correctly around this time. Fables Of The Reconstruction gives us Feeling Gravitys Pull and Cant Get There From Here, and those missing apostrophes nearly kill me. Follow-up record Lifes Rich Pageant takes the same approach in its title, clearly placing this era of R.E.M. as the missing apostrophe years.
I’m glad that MTV’s Unplugged shows are gradually becoming more and more available on vinyl. Only the other day I picked up a bootleg of Stone Temple Pilots’ fantastic Unplugged set from 1993. Of course, the really famous ones are Eric Clapton’s Grammy award winning record from 1992, and Nirvana’s swansong show in 1993, also a Grammy winner. Now if they would just release Aerosmith’s 1990 show, I’d be very happy.
As cynical as you want to be about the whole Unplugged thing – a soul-less cash-in by a corporate TV station only interested in producing programming content – it’s become a nice little time capsule of early ‘90s rock and alternative rock. Of course the show is still going to this day, but the last one recorded was by Miley Cyrus in 2014 which shows just how much it’s devolved over time. It’s just a ratings chaser and always has been. In the early ‘90s, it was Nirvana fans and Pearl Jam fans who were propping up the album charts, these days it’s tweens propping up the download charts.
R.E.M.’s first Unplugged set (they recorded another one in 2001) is dated between 1991’s Out Of Time and 1992’s Automatic For The People – effectively smack bang in the peak of their career. They take the time to go as far back as their debut record Murmur( for Perfect Circle), and of their studio albums only Reckoning and Fables Of The Reconstruction are passed over. The set does lean a little more towards the later albums – Green and Out Of Time – which is understandable considering how the music videos from those albums had opened the door to the wave of Alternative Rock which would fill the station for the first half of the 1990s.
The sound on this record is superb, and my only gripe is that the guitars all sound a little too clear and bright. That’s R.E.M. all over though – jangly ‘80s pop guitars rather than an authentic dusty blues guitar vibe.
This was one of the first CDs I ever bought. In fact, it might have been only the second or third such purchase. As soon as I started listening to music obsessively, I joined one of those music mail-order clubs, where you choose a stack of CDs for a really low price, and then they try and send you the latest new release every month. Automatic For The People was in that first stack of CDs I bought from them. I thought then, as I do now, that it’s a perfect album. There’s nothing about it that I dislike, and it’s remained a firm favourite ever since.
R.E.M. fans will have you believe that their earlier albums are where it’s at, but for me, everything they ever did in their formative years leads to this album, and everything they did afterwards was just a steady downhill decline. If somebody was foolish enough to say that Murmur or Reckoning was a better album than this, I’d just laugh in their stupid face. There’s a horrible trend for musos to instantly dislike an album as soon as it’s crossed over into the mainstream and achieved a certain level of acclaim. I’m probably guilty of having done this from time to time. To dismiss this album in that fashion though would be a real mistake for anybody to make.
I’ve listened to this album on a couple of road trips, and it seems to attain something different when you listen to it while travelling. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I think the mood of the album seems to make more sense. R.E.M. are a very American band – they deal in Americana – sometimes to the detriment to their reputation outside their native country, to people who might not necessarily always ‘get’ them; but I think the universal themes of the album – loss, regret and longing – seem to connect better somehow on the road.
Document is R.E.M.’s fifth album, but their first with producer Scott Litt. You can hear how important this addition is, with not only a fantastic sound overall (the album, released on the independent I.R.S. Records comes across like a major label release) but a more channelled direction.
Earlier R.E.M. albums sound to me like a random bunch of Michael Stipe’s poetry set to Peter Buck’s jangly guitar. Here, they sound like a fully fledged band, readily placed on the brink of mainstream crossover.
Whenever I listen to a band’s debut album, and the material on there isn’t really representative of their later work, I always think back to an interview I heard once with John Peel. He was explaining why his musical tastes were drawn to the obscure and away from the mainstream. To paraphrase, he said that a band’s debut is essentially their most concentrated output, and that any subsequent albums are diluted attempts to rehash earlier glories, influenced greatly by record company involvement or, even worse, the fans.
In most cases, I agree with him. But you have to bring a degree of common sense to the party. Anybody who thinks that the first R.E.M. album, Murmur, is their finest achievement would be deluded. Or U2’s debut, Boy. There are many bands who just don’t get going properly until they’re a few albums into their career – R.E.M. and U2 are extreme examples I think, but the same can be said for Blondie.
This is in no way the ‘best’ or even the most interesting Blondie album. Rip Her To Shreds, or Rip Her To Shreads as it is mistakenly spelled on the album sleeve, is the only song on here that stands up to their later output.
I’ve never been a huge fan of R.E.M. I’ve always been slightly suspicious that it took them so long to finally start recording hit albums. I was also put off by them because it was fashionable to like them when I was at college. And it was usually knobheads who liked them – R.E.M. and Oasis.
But I’ve always been a big fan of Automatic For The People, and this album’s really growing on me every time I listen to it. I remember Automatic For The People was one of the first albums I bought on CD – it was one of the five or so CDs I got when I joined one of those music clubs (where they’ll send you the latest chart album if you do absolutely nothing).
Automatic sounded otherworldy back then (and still does now), and this seems much more accessible. I don’t think I’ve ever owned this on CD – I’d probably have listened to it much more than I have if I had it on my iPod, but as it stands I’ve only listened to it on vinyl.
I probably bought it for Shiny Happy People – probably the first R.E.M. song I ever heard and one of my favourite singles, which I think I bought on CD – and I think I was always slightly disappointed that Kate Pierson didn’t sing on all the rest of their songs.