Stuff I love - Murmur by REM

Its a long time since I listened to 'Murmur' by REM all the way through. I'm doing it now as I write this article.

I first heard it in Spring 1985 and to be completely honest its hard to re-capture the feelings I had about this album when it was new and fresh to me. After all these songs have been part of my life now for 25 years.

The first thing I need to give you is a bit of context. In 1985 REM weren't a band that used to be one of the biggest bands in the world capable of selling out stadium tours and writing songs that even your parents knew. Songs like 'Losing My Religion' and 'Everybody Hurts' were still years away.

Instead they were a minor cult band and probably one of the coolest bands you could name check in the alternative music circles of the time. They were a band that I'd heard of and read about but I hadn't heard anything by them.

At the time my main source of musical cool was Colin Campbell. He was amazingly well informed on music. He was simultaneously listening to all the best current stuff whilst also pointing me in the direction of the classic music of the sixties and seventies. He knew which Dylan, Stones and Beatle albums were worth listening to whilst also pointing out more obscure stuff such as Love and the Velvet Underground. REM along with the Smiths, Go-betweens and the Violent Femmes were his modern favourites.

So I persuaded him to tape me REM's first album 'Murmur'. I was a first year student and due to an accounting issue I'd just found out that I wouldn't be getting a grant cheque for my third term. My parents would ensure I didn't starve but I didn't have money to spare for buying albums. Instead I bought C90 cassettes and taped records from the University record library using my friend Wayne's stereo. I'm  not sure that Wayne was completely struck with a lot of the stuff that I was forcing him to listen to!

Eventually Colin came in with the tape. I think I've still got it somewhere. With a C90 you could fit an album on each side (this was pre-CD when bands were limited to about 40 or 50 minutes on a single album). Bob Dylan's 'Blood on the Tracks' was on the other side (another classic!)

I can't remember when I first listened to 'Murmur' but I remember I was completely under whelmed. At this point in time my musical taste was pretty limited. I'd started off on punk. Then at sixth form my friend Pete Rust had started to get me into some of the more anthemic post-punk bands. Chiefly U2, the Alarm and Echo and the Bunnymen. 

'Murmur' sounded very murky compared with the brighter and brasher stuff I was used to. Listening back to it now the production is quite muddy and not very clear. I guess at the time we would argue that was deliberate. I suspect it was more to do with the cheapness of the recording and the inexperience both of the band and the studio staff. Still it definitely adds a certain character.

Despite the cheapness of the recording this music was more sophisticated than the Stiff Little Fingers and  Damned records which were my previous mainstay. Perhaps it was slightly less urgent although there's no lack of passion. With twenty five years more listening experience I can tell that there is a greater dynamic range in the music. Listening to the first Buzzcocks album for example (which I have done very recently) there is a certain amount of dropping in and out of guitars, bass and percussion. However when the guitars play they tend to play at one level. The tempo too rarely varies. REM on the other hand even at this early stage were varying tempos and the volume of the instruments and using effects to get different textures.

The most striking thing though was Michael Stipe's vocal style. Never as an album been so well named. I'd never heard a vocalist who murmured before. It was hard to pick out anything that he sang. It could have been annoying and certainly the story goes that his record company leaned on him to sort it out. But to me it just added to the mystery of the music.

I guess if I'd listened to 'Murmur' today and felt like I did about it as I did then it would never have got a second listen. I've got hundreds of albums and so I have to hear something in a record to persuade me to give it another go. However in those days I perhaps had twenty albums with me in Newcastle and plenty of time to devote to listening to them (I only had twelve hours of lectures a week). Besides this was REM the coolest band in the world! I had to like it! So I rewound and started again.

I kept at it listening to those songs until I'd instilled them in my very being. When my friends came round for coffee they had to listen to my REM album. I sometimes wonder if I inadvertently put the band's career back by several years with my persistent championing of them to some pretty unsympathetic ears.

A lucky co-incidence then cemented REM's position as my new favourite band. It turned out they were playing Tiffany's in Newcastle. They had a new album to promote - 'Fables of the Reconstruction'. It was one of the key gigs of my life. The ballroom was half empty, the band performed virtually nothing off 'Murmur' and by all accounts they were having a miserable time in England at the time. They'd just played a rain sodden gig in Milton Keynes Bowl in front of thousands of intolerant U2 fans who'd not really given them a lot of love. I can remember very little about the performance. Stipe had a skinhead haircut and seemed to perform a lot of the gig with his back to the crowd. Despite all this it was brilliant. There was an urgency to the performance and despite the small crowd there was a palpable feeling of excitement. 

If you asked me to list my favourite REM albums there would be at least two that I definitely prefer to 'Murmur' ('Life's Rich Pageant' and 'Reckoning' in case you're interested) and probably others that I enjoy just as much (including 'Automatic for the People' for those cynics who believe that I can't enjoy any commercially successful music). Still 'Murmur' was a significant album for me. It was the start of me opening my mind and listening to music outside a couple of narrow genres. It was also the first time I'd forced myself to give an album a real listen against my natural instincts. I'd began to learn to appreciate music for more than just immediacy and obviousness.