Last week my friend Anthony sent me a piece he wrote about an R.E.M. album that was important to him and a college radio program he used to listen to, and I thought I’d start a weekly guest post column and name it after him, and his navel.
Here are the guidelines:
Write a short, original piece (500 – 1,000 words) about a book, film or piece of music that changed how you see the world. Could be a piece of art, play, or concert. Should be mostly true. And completely edited.
Send via my contact info on my About page. I’ll feature my favorites until we run out of Saturdays or good stories.
Enjoy the first one here, and a new reason to celebrate Saturdays.
I’m a music fan. In the true sense of the word, a fanatic. It can be unhealthy at times. I am 47 years old and have been actively pursuing music and new bands since I was in the 7th grade. My level of sophistication has ebbed and flowed. I don’t play any instruments and have never been in a band. I can represent the better and worse qualities of people who are insane about music and bands. The worst is brilliantly encapsulated in a song called Losing My Edge by LCD Soundsystem. A reference to a somewhat esoteric band to relay the nonsensical characteristics of people who are over the top about music is the meta section of this piece, and we can stop with that now.
I have favorite records, but today I wanted to talk more about a record which was defining for me. I think everyone who loves arts or crafts (music, film, books, beer, etc.) has a few defining moments where they knew something was happening and you were able to feel like a participant. The band at the epicenter of that is R.E.M. and really their first four records, but the one that really stands out as the most meaningful is their second, Reckoning.
I spent formative years in Norman, Oklahoma. The home of the University of Oklahoma and KGOU radio. I discovered KGOU in the summer between 7th and 8th grade. They played exotic, strange music and I’ve never looked back as a music fan. Then, one day the unthinkable happened. KGOU’s music had been replaced by National Public Radio. To this day, I’m still pretty dismissive of NPR as a news source. I find it utterly annoying and at least part of the reason is that I still feel like it poached something of mine.
The only saving grace was after 9 PM when locals who loved music would still play college radio-type shows. The one to listen to was Fear of Music from Midnight to 3 AM every Thursday and Friday. I would lay in bed with a radio under my pillow fighting to stay awake to listen to The Cure, Killing Joke, Siouxsie, Talking Heads and all kinds of great stuff. A sense of urgency developed as well. You could get these records, or be stuck with boring FM radio the rest of the week.
It struck me even then how backward Oklahoma was. College radio was taking off right as they eliminated it. MTV launched 120 Minutes, Rolling Stone began publishing a college radio top 10 chart. R.E.M. was the core American band driving this movement from Athens, GA. They mixed accessibility with exoticism. I do realize that others could write this about a myriad American bands and if I were a few years older, the centerpiece to this very well could be the Talking Heads.
R.E.M. had a fantastic EP, a bunch of singles and a full length album (Murmur) out before Reckoning. The band had found their signature jangle pop/Americana mix, giving simultaneous nods to the Velvet Underground, The Feelies and Gram Parsons all at once. Michael Stipe’s vocals were this melodic mumble which allowed for hours of potential decoding of not just song meanings, but what he was actually singing. Suddenly, on the second record he was singing poetic, mysterious words confidently and with his signature power and hint of twang. This record grabbed listeners by the collar in the most polite way. It simply could not be ignored. The flag was planted in the ground, this band was the benchmark for this wave of American music.
Fans of The Minutemen, X, Husker Du, The Gun Club and many others will implore me to pump the brakes and consider all of those bands. I would consider every one of them and put them on a Mount Rushmore of American music for the time, but R.E.M. would be the center bust on the mountain.
Reckoning is an American classic. Truly great albums are not just songwriting or playing. The composition and construction of the album itself becomes a living, breathing thing. This album actually begins for me with the last song on Murmur, West of the Fields. That song seems a bit out of place on Murmur, but would fit better on Reckoning. It was almost as if they were giving a “next week on…Cliffhanger.” The entirety of Reckoning simply flows. If they had done an entire record of power pop like Harborcoat, ballads like Camera or Cosmic Country like Rockville, it might have become boring. They didn’t need a style on this one, they just played and it all worked.
They kicked open the door for countless other bands to make these kinds of records. They celebrated the lack of slick production. Peter Buck redefined the term of great guitarist as he nodded back to Keith Richards, driving melody and rhythm over bleating, boring solos. Mike Mills’ beautiful vocal harmonies make you forget his vital role of arranging those songs and playing almost everything but drums. Bill Berry’s drumming is like a heartbeat for the band. He’s not showy, but he keeps the train on the tracks. The songs are complex on Reckoning and couldn’t come together without the sum of the parts.
Reckoning isn’t my very favorite record, but I might not know what that record is if I hadn’t discovered it.