Why Music Matters: REM Automatic for the People

This is the album I say defined my politics. It didn’t, at least not all by itself, but it was released at about the time when I discovered politics and what I believed in. I was 16.

 My GCSE exams were mostly sat in one classroom – the geography classroom, which I’d never had cause to sit in before. I was one of those students who finished exams early, though not early enough to leave the room, so I had to sit for 10 minutes or so at the end of each while waiting for everyone else. The geography classroom walls were covered with posters and one of them was the face of a little girl – the kind they use in NSPCC adverts – with a quote by Peter Ustinov at the bottom. I have subsequently heard the quote many times since, and a lot more since May 2010. It’s not mind blowing but this was the first time anyone had bothered to spell out issues to me and it had an effect.

 “I have never been stopped in the street by people collecting funds for nuclear weapons or war machines – because this is well taken care of  by governments.   But I have seen endless collections for children.”

 Later that year I started my A levels. My A level Sociology teacher was an ex-member of the Communist party (I assume you have to give up membership before becoming a Kentish grammar school teacher, if not before) and was regarded as “quite cool” by our admittedly low standards. He wore DMs and had facial hair. It was enough.

 My A level history teacher, on the other hand, looked every inch the Tory. In the lower school she was the scourge of the young girls, scolding them for having untucked shirts and irresponsible earrings. She was a well built woman, with a solid bust and dowdy clothes. She taught RE with an old fashioned discipline. No-one really liked her. At A level she taught 6 of us European Political History and it turned out she was a Trotskyist. A huge fan of the Russian Revolution, she taught the subject with passion and interest and roused our passion and interest too. She broadened my reading to include European classics (though I’ve still never finished Crime and Punishment) and she gave me a strong grounding on all political issues that still have an effect today.

 These two teachers, and Peter Ustinov, sparked my interest in politics but probably the most influential person on the way I think today was my father. An unapologetic Thatcherite, the kind of person who votes for a blind 3-legged donkey if it’s wearing a Tory rosette, it took a while but I learned that his politics were of the people-hating, generally unpleasant, selfish outlook. He had come from a poor background to a good job with a decent pay packet and huge responsibilities but when talking to him I felt there was something missing from what I thought. Something different. A project for Sociology on the employment of women was the first of many clashes between the two of us over politics – I remember a later one where I took great delight in telling him how high taxes were under the Tories – and, had he lived, I honestly don’t know how much we’d manage to talk about today.

 And so, into this mix, came REM. I’d been aware of their earlier work – the bigger hits: It’s the End of the World; The One I Love and so on. Man on the Moon was different. Sometimes, when listening today, I can still hear this and sometimes I can’t. But to my 16 year old self it had a whiff of subversion. The fact that he even thought we should question what we were told by authority was exciting to me. I was extremely sheltered and naive. Ignoreland was also exciting – it’s full of fury and contempt. Such emotion in a song! Such emotion that isn’t about love in a song! But the great thing about Automatic for the People was that it contained a song that was written for teenagers. These days everybody knows and everybody has claimed Everybody Hurts but it was written with teenagers in mind. All that passion and confusion and self loathing. It has perhaps been overplayed  and I no longer love it as much as I love Nightswimming and Find the River. Nevertheless Everybody Hurts was written for me at that time and it opened the door, gave me validity to listen to the other songs on the album. If I didn’t understand what they were about straight away, that was fine, I would learn.

 Over time I listened more and I appreciated other things. The lyrics. I’m a lyric person – I remember them easily, I like to know what they are to sing along and I like to find meaning in the words. REM I always liked because at least once an album there’s a word Michael Stipe has used that I have to go and look up in a dictionary. Of course the early albums don’t have the lyrics written on the sleeve notes – so in the days before Google I spent hours with a finger on the pause button transcribing songs into a notebook as I heard them, doubtless getting them wrong. But that kind of exercise does make you appreciate the craft of songwriting. And I loved his voice. I listened to a recent radio interview and he said that for a long time he didn’t appreciate or understand the importance of having a distinctive voice. For me, there are days when there is no other option but to get through by listening to Michael Stipe sing. It’s an earnest voice, a voice that wants to offer solutions to trouble, hope to tired hearts and, above all, a little bit more strength to someone jaded by their job, their relationships, their life.

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