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Despised By All The Right People

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One afternoon, in the early 1980s, my friend Mitch Easter called up. He was in Winston-Salem at his Drive In studio; I was in my house outside of Chapel Hill working on a new song.  A few years earlier, I had helped him get Drive In together and I liked recording there. We had known each other for a long time but had become close friends while he was a student at UNC.  Mitch is younger than I am and at this point, my band, Arrogance, had been signed to a major label recording contract and I had more experience with “big time” record business having recorded in studios all over the country. Sometimes he would call looking for some advice.

“Do you remember Jefferson Holt?  That guy from Greensboro that was in college with me in Chapel Hill?  Well, he brought this band up from Athens, Georgia last weekend to do some recording. Guitar, bass, drums and singer…the normal line up, but they’re really interesting. The guitar player does arpeggiated parts, the bass player does these counterpoint lines instead of typical stuff and the drummer plays more like Al Jackson, Jr. on speed than a new wave guy. The singer makes these amazing animal noises. The only problem is sorting it all out so that it sounds like a record. They’re competing for a lot of the same aural space. Any suggestions?”

The combo was R.E.M.

I always have suggestions so we talked a bit and the next time I was at Mitch’s studio, we put on their 2-inch multi-track masters and listened to some of the recordings. I remember making a few stabs at mixing “Lower Wolves” and a couple of other songs. By this time, Mitch had things well in hand, and the stuff really appealed to me. Very fresh. Original in the best way. Music that made Toto fans furious. Music that eschewed the synthesizer and drum machines so popular in the sounds of the early ‘80s. Baffling lyrical content that sang well — I mean the sound of the words worked extremely well with the melody and attack of the vocal.

Back in the days before Michael Stipe was trying to “say” anything with his words, he was very gifted at the under-appreciated art of combining vowel sounds and the expletive consonants to create poetry that sings — whether it means anything or not. And of course, meaning can be relatively subjective. Intent verses Content verses Interpretation.

Since I wasn’t directly involved in recording these songs and hadn’t yet met the band, I was able to retain an objective point-of-view regarding their development. Now don’t get me wrong, objectivity is highly over-rated. Give me a passionately subjective point-of-view any time, but this slight distance was beneficial to me when I began working with them for two reasons.

First, I was a stranger to them. The band thought of me as an old studio rat that had been in some horrid ‘70s coliseum rock outfit, not as a peer. This afforded me a kind of anonymity that allowed me to think clearly without any expectations on their part. Nothing to live up to.  Second, they didn’t realize how much experience with major label politics I already had, so it never occurred to them that I might have a secret agenda. And I did. Mitch and I both did.

            We wanted them to survive these early sessions intact.

Let me explain. A label will find an exciting new band. They wine and dine them, trying to woo them into their fold. The band, while trying to maintain some sort of dignity, eventually falls into bed with the label, and like a sophomore in high school with a steady girl, the label immediately starts looking around for something new. Or trying to turn the band they just signed into some band they heard on the radio that has a hit. Or even worse, has a video that looks cool. The second-guessing begins.

By the time Mitch and I went into Reflection Sound Studios in Charlotte to begin recording Murmur, R.E.M. already had a zealous group of fans. Almost Deadheads in their blind enthusiasm. We recognized the fact that R.E.M. was despised by all the right people and loved by just the right people: college kids and music critic geeks. This bunch was eating out of the band’s hand. Hanging on every word. Waiting for every new note. The band had a tangible audience to build on.

“Despised by all the right people,” you say. “How can being despised be a good thing?”

This is how: Where would Madonna be if she hadn’t courted controversy at every opportunity? Her enemies defined her audience for her.  R.E.M. didn’t need to find a controversy to be misunderstood and derided by the music store crowd.  They weren’t “musician’s musicians.” They were a product of the record store, the library, and the college classroom colliding with the ultimate counter-culture, nerd, dance, ambiguous sex party.

The perfect extension of The Velvet Underground and The Doors.

While we were working on Murmur at Reflection, a musician from the DC area dropped by to check out the facility.  He listened for a few minutes, and at the end of a playback he asked, “What kind of music do you call that?”

I pondered his question for a moment then replied, “Alternative.”

His answer was swift and condescending. “Alternative to what? Good?”

This is the kind of attitude held by many musicians of that time toward R.E.M.  These players had been the children of Fusion. ELP, Yes, Asia, Toto. Even King Crimson and Zappa fans had trouble understanding this band.  But guys and girls that read books got them.  Kids new to their instruments sat in their dorm rooms and played along to the quirky, brooding tracks.

Most of the best popular music is easy to play along with.  From country to rock, the art is in the creation of music that connects with a specific audience.  It’s supposed to speak to the people for whom it is intended and totally piss off everyone else.  A hit song is seldom dependant on a virtuoso performance. Being “good” in this context means having a feel, a special sound, a point of view.

After R.E.M. began to make some retail noise, bands in college towns all over the country began to stand up and be counted.  Our objective for R.E.M., our collective goal, was to get them to the top of the college charts and sell 100,000 records.  No one was thinking beyond that, and our budgets reflected that goal.

R.E.M. was a guitar band in those early days, a throwback to a time that wasn’t blinded by science. They weren’t dedicated to teaching you anything but they weren’t content to be the ultimate party band like their friends The B-52s, either. Intriguing intellectually, they were alternately light and dense. I loved them.

Please understand that bands don’t sit around figuring all this out up front. I don’t care what you read in books or magazines or see on Behind The Music. Bands are lucky if they can agree on where to eat on any given night. A band might talk about direction and what music they love (or hate), but when you’re out playing night after night, you enter a survival mode that creates its own vortex with the van you’re in, the town you’re in, the motel you’re in, the club you’re in, at the center.

In this vortex, you lose some of your personal identity and in the best circumstances, a collective consciousness emerges that is “The Band.” When everything is working right, this consciousness is quite independent of any band member but totally dependant on each band member. When the balance is disturbed, chaos can rule.

No band can maintain its balance forever. Or its innocence.

While touring in support of Murmur, R.E.M. played a lot — clubs, small theaters — they even opened a bunch of shows for The Police. I went to one up in DC and to my astonishment, Michael wasn’t the old Michael I’d seen at the Milestone Club but a shy, under-achiever, barely looking at the audience and delivering his vocals in a particularly inarticulate manner.

When they came back to Charlotte to record Reckoning, their second full length LP, the tone of the band had changed. I don’t recall any direct conversations about the situation, but my impression was that Michael was exhausted and confused about being a rock star.

We started the sessions without Mitch because the band had a very limited period of time set aside to record, and Mitch had previous commitments. The first few days were spent working on sounds and getting a few tracks down. We settled on a routine whereby we’d record tracks into the night, and around noon the next day Michael and I would come in to record some vocals. All by ourselves.

Singing in the studio can be nerve-wracking. Your bandmates and record company idiots stand on the other side of a huge pane of glass judging your every little grunt and whisper. Sometimes this can make a good singer great, but sometimes it can make a great singer choke. I call this “The Fishbowl Effect.”

Reflection had a stairwell that went from the control room down to Studio A. From the very beginning, I’d set up the studio for Michael to have this stairwell space as his own little domain.  A place where no one could see him and he’d feel free. Out of The Fishbowl.

One morning we were working on a vocal for “Seven Chinese Brothers.” The track was this terrific, energetic beast that contained all of the little things I loved about the band, but Michael just wasn’t into singing that day. He barely opened his mouth. Hardly made any sound at all. Where was the guy that made all those wonderful animal noises I heard on Chronic Town only a few years ago?

He was down in the stairwell.

I hit the talkback to let him know I was coming through to make an adjustment on the echo chamber, a large EMT plate housed in an attic over the stairwell. It was really just an excuse to get a look at him, see if I could figure out how to loosen him up a little. Actually, I needed to wind him up a little.

While I was up with the plate, I noticed a tumbled-over stack of old records that had been taken up there to die…old local R&B and gospel stuff mostly. I grabbed one off the top, and as I passed Michael on the way back to the control room, I tossed it to him at the bottom of the stairs. I thought he might be amused. I didn’t expect him to be inspired.

When I fired up the track a few seconds later, Michael was singing, but he wasn’t singing the lyrics to “Seven Chinese Brothers.” He was singing the liner notes to the album I’d tossed him.

If you’ve ever heard “Voice of Harold,” you’ll notice how distorted the vocals are at the beginning. Michael was singing so much louder when he began to sing the liner notes, it took me a few seconds to roll the preamp level back. He made it all the way through the song, we had a chuckle as I rewound the tape and he proceeded to give me the beautiful, one-take vocal of the real words that you hear on Reckoning.

I would never dream of taking any credit for Michael’s great singing on Reckoning, but I think this day was a bit of a breakthrough for him. He seemed more confident after this. The balance of the band seemed to be restored. Later, they shot the video for “So. Central Rain” in Studio A at Reflection with a live vocal from him. You must be very confident to do that. I was quite proud.

We had fun making these records. We even found time for some late night two-track recording, which found its way into the hands of the fans over the years. I believe the version of the song known as “Voice of Harold” appears on Dead Letter Office along with all those fantastic recordings from the Drive In that make up Chronic Town.

Bands like this don’t come along every day. I was lucky enough to be around when the Fates came together and put all things in order so the world could have R.E.M.

Lucky indeed.

 

Don Dixon



 

Author

  • Wayne Rosso

    Wayne Rosso has worked in music and technology for decades. He has worked with such artists as Aerosmith, Bee Gees, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Public Image LTD., Beach Boys, Phillip Glass, Fkeetwood Mac, Rick James, New Kids on the Block, Slash, Evanescence and scores of others.

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