Thursday, September 22, 2011

The day your favourite band breaks up

Do you remember the day your favourite band broke up?

I do - it was today.

REM have been together longer than I've been alive.  From the day I first heard them as a ten year old in 1993 they seemed 'old' to me, and the end always just around the corner.

The possibility of longevity with integrity was one of many things I learnt from these outstanding artists.

I feel like I've always been just catching up to them.

I got into REM just as they were hitting the peak of their commercial success, not that I knew it at the time. I was in Grade 5 and my oldest brother had just acquired three albums - the newly released Automatic For The People after hearing a few of the songs on the radio and a schoolmate put Murmur and Document onto either side of a casette for him. Those three albums captivated us both. It was my first real experience of albums rather than chart singles. I'd never heard anything like Murmur and Document in particular before.

He later picked up Life's Rich Pageant, Green and Out of Time and I felt like I had all the music I'd ever need access to.

Despite them being one of the biggest bands on the planet, few of my primary school friends seemed to know anything much about them so I had noone else to share the love with.

That is until Year 7 when an REM lyric - "What noisy cats are we?" - on a pencil case was the basis for the first conversation with one of my first, and now one of my best, friends at school. And, incidentally, the biggest influence on my music collection.

After Monster and New Adventures in Hi Fi their commercial popularity was waning, but my enthusiasm for their music only gathered more steam.

In the six months leading up to the release of Up in October 1998 I listened to nothing but REM. Nothing-but-REM. My mate and I made a small festival of it to the bemusement of our friends, me moreso, and I anticipated the release of that album like no other before or since.

With my brother overseas though, I had to buy it myself. I caught the bus from Lower Templestowe to Heidelberg on the day it was released to buy it at JB Hi Fi. I got there about 11am; it wasn't arriving until about noon. So I wandered the streets listening to one of those earlier albums on my walkman. On the bus on the way home I looked at the CD and wondered how many more these guys would put out - they were 40 now, surely they must be just about done!

Up proved to be the definitive album in shaping my music taste, and how I listen to music. I played it for the first time in my bedroom that day, hoping for the 'return to form' (ie. a replica of Automatic For The People) that critics were talking about - and would for the next 13 years. Instead, as I hit play on my CD player in my bedroom, I got Airportman, and a bunch of relatively weird, radio unfriendly tunes. It was far from what I expected. I hated it.

At school on the Monday, my REM buddy was surprised by my reaction and urged me to give it another try. I'd never really considered music as something that grew on you as you listen more, picking up on the nuances and subtleties of the art, as the need for hooks and catchy melodies faded. Heck, I still listened to Fox FM and largely chart pop-music that was easy to digest. A couple of weeks later, away for Melbourne Cup weekend with my parents, I spend the weekend listening to Up and letting it grow on me. From that time on I began seeing music differently.

The albums since Up haven't set my world on fire. They're good, have some great songs, but none of them really stack up against the first 10 or so albums for me. But, while I always felt an anxiety for REM to redeem their commercial standing, it never really mattered.

They made the music they wanted to make. And unlike the Liam Gallaghers and Anton Newcombes, they seem to be a bunch of genuine, decent guys. They believe in something beautiful and shared it through their music. And I respect them as people (from what I have read/heard) not just musicians, making my attachment to the band that little bit more genuine.

As much as I'd have loved another album from them, it's almost a strange relief that they've given it away. Now I can finally catch up and can look at them for their 31 years of greatness, not just what they are 'now' or will be 'tomorrow'. Murmur isn't what REM used to be, it is as much what REM is/was as Around The Sun.

Over the last ten years many other bands captured my imagination more than they did with the new music, but the REM section of my music collection - all 15 albums plus the extras - is the most significant part of it.

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