R.E.M.'s first major label album still stands as a master class in how a band can remain resolute to their own vision while rising above big business demands. Act local; think global indeed
By 1988, R.E.M. were unlikely megastars in the making. The band who had pretty much invented college rock with their strange, inscrutable lyricism and folky guitar jangle were moving from cult status into inevitable mainstream success. The year before, they’d released Document, a dark and monolithic set of deeply-serious songs that had spawned their first top ten single in the form of the anti-love song The One I Love and with sales on an upwards curve, Warners (who had already harvested The Replacements, The B52s and Hüsker Dü) came calling with designs on U2-like crossover for the Georgian four piece.
R.E.M. almost reluctantly and with a huge amount of mischief (the title of Green is as much a comment on the mega dollar deal they signed as the environmental themes that dominate the album) delivered a bright and bold commercial album that still stands as a master class in how a band can remain resolute to their own vision while rising above big business demands. Act local; think global indeed.
Full of what R.E.M. themselves called big dumb bubblegum pop songs including the Doors-referencing Pop Song 89 and the eco-anthem Stand (another top ten hit), Green was Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry loosening up, having fun and enjoying the sunlit uplands after foraging on the forest floor for so long.
Following Stipe’s instruction to his band mates “not to write any more R.E.M. type songs", accordions, mandolins, a thing as verboten as a wha-wha guitar solo, and much instrument swapping took place in Ardent Studios in Memphis and Bearsville in Woodstock. So Green’s first side signals a determination to escape their reputation as serious and politicised young men – Pop Song 89 knowingly throws shapes with hackneyed rock `n’ roll riffs and subverts pop songs clichés; Get Up! is a joyful call to arms complete with the sound of multiple musical boxes being sprung open at the same time; You Are The Everything sings beatifically with Buck’s chirpy mandolin and on World Leader Pretend, Stipe even drops his mask and determines to embrace life only, of course, with Mike Mills keening the word “dreamer” in the background.
But it was all a prelude to the dark heart of the album. For all that sunshine and sixties-style optimism, R.E.M. were still a turbulent bunch and Green takes on a darker hue starting with The Wrong Child, an off-key ballad inspired by Dublin writer Christopher Nolan’s book Under The Eye of The Clock. I Remember California really does blot out the sun as R.E.M. recalls the West Coast Shangri La as a ruined world with Trident submarines patrolling the oceans and the San Andreas Fault yawning open to swallow the whole place up.
R.E.M.’s very own Led Zep moment, Turn You Inside, is similarly apocalyptic, a power chording epic that is actually about, well, having meaningless and vengeful sex. Orange Crush, a leftover from Document, which concerns itself with on-going US militarism provided another unlikely hit single. They did close with Green’s most upbeat and optimistic song – Untitled, a lovely childlike moment in which the band members once again swap instruments as an act of solidarity in the face of what was to come next.
This is a welcome 25th anniversary re-mastered reissue and Warners continue their nostalgia drive with the inclusion of a very good 21-track live album recorded in Greensboro Coliseum in North Carolina in 1989 including many of the terrific songs here and older classics such as Finest Worksong, It’s The End of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) and Perfect Circle.
Maybe R.E.M. had peaked creatively with Document and Life’s Rich Pageant but Green was the start of phase two. It still sounds marvellous - dream-like one minute - strident and clear-eyed the next and it is another reminder that R.E.M.’s sudden split two years ago leaves an almost eerie vacuum. Were they ever here? Will a major rock band be this consistently good again?
It is almost a shock to be reminded of how great Green really was.