Saturday 10 December 2016

REM: Generation X

When REM arrived at Slane the Celtic Tiger was starting to stir, but as Ed Power points out, the optimism of that day has since been lost in the ether

Published 27/05/2011 | 15:12

When REM headlined Slane in 1995 they were still stadium rock's awkward gate-crashers.

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Through the 80s, the Athens, Georgia, outfit had specialised in a sort of terminally jittery art-rock. A former photography student with weird hair, front-man Michael Stipe sang in an indecipherable mumble -- and even when you could make out what he was saying, the lyrics often sounded like abstract nonsense. They were a band you played at full volume in your bedroom to annoy your parents. The thought of them playing Slane felt about as plausible as U2 embracing self-deprecating irony.

Everything changed with 'Losing My Religion'. Released in early 1991 this mega-hit with a controversial video elevated them from cult obscurity to the dizzying peaks of pop's food-chain. Four years later, they had notched up three massively popular albums and were going on tour for the first time since becoming a group of global reach. However, by the time they reached Slane in July of that year, things had started to sour.

For starters, their latest LP -- a back to basics rock collection called 'Monster' -- hadn't gone down well with either critics or fans and there were complaints that they were giving it undue attention (and not playing the songs the public really wanted). More than that, REM were rethinking their attitude towards success and fame.

The catalyst was the suicide 12 months earlier of Kurt Cobain, the tortured frontman of Nirvana. Stipe and the Nirvana singer had been friends -- the REM man was one of those who had reached out to Cobain in the weeks before he took his own life. One of Monster's most wrenching tracks, 'Let Me In', was a lament for Cobain. REM made a point of performing it every night.

To add to the air of unreality, the band were being struck down with bizarre ailments. When REM rolled into Co Meath on a blazing hot Saturday, drummer Bill Berry was getting over an aneurysm and bassist Michael Bills was recovering from surgery for a stomach ailment. A few weeks later, Stipe would suffer a hernia and require hospitalisation. They must have felt they were being picked off one by one.

Even by REM's idiosyncratic standards, the support bill was a bit of a hodgepodge. Rather than similarly inclined rock groups, it included two trad acts, a left-field hip-hop group and a gobby Britrock band. In fact, on the dusty trudge from the bus drop-off to the venue it became clear that swaggering newcomers Oasis were getting to be almost as big a deal as REM.

When the line-up was announced in late 1994, the Gallaghers were still largely unheard of. Twelve months on, they'd racked up half a dozen hit singles and were on their way to Britpop iconhood, which explained the huge number of concert goers sporting novelty stick-on Gallagher eyebrows.

Oasis were shortly to release their best and most popular album, 'What's The Story (Morning Glory)' andthis was the first time many people would hear their future anthem 'Don't Look Back In Anger'. Belted out by Noel it seemed to fill all of Meath with its sweeping singalong chorus.

The Mancs were also starting to exalt in their billing as rock's unruly gatecrashers and it showed. One minute they were kicking a football around the stage, the next Liam was having a verbal with an idiot who'd lobbed a rock at him. Roared on by 80,000 punters they were in their element.

REM, in contrast, projected a very visible ambivalence about their stadium status. Stipe's between song monologues were strangely stilted -- he repeated the same phrasing as if reading off cue cards. An artist who continues to have a complicated relationship with fame, perhaps he was trying to critique the absurdity of arena rock. Or, after months of touring, maybe he was too burnt out to fully engage.

Still recovering from surgery Mills wasn't exactly a karate kicking force of nature either, leaving it to guitarist Peter Buck to play the arena rock alpha dog. He couldn't quite pull it off but, bless him, he tried.

The oddest moment was at the end when, perhaps a little bummed out on REM's bland performance, people started chucking rubbish in the air. Soon everyone was doing it. As the sun started to set the sky filled with garbage -- a curiously affecting sight that lingered far longer than REM's perfunctory set.

Sixteen years on most of those in attendance are now in early middle age. Many will look back on the summer of 1995 with nostalgia and sadness. At the time the Celtic Tiger was starting to stir; there was a optimism in the air. It really did feel the worst was behind us. The sting in the tail, of course, is that the very same individuals would suffer the worst when it all fell apart. Saddled with unaffordable mortgages, grinding commutes and young families to support, it is they who have ended up paying for the sins of the boom years. And unlike today's 20-somethings, they don't have the option of shrugging their shoulders and walking away from the mess.

REM brought the curtain down with 'It's The End of the World As We Know It'. As we shuffled back to our buses, little did we suspect it would take another decade and a half for that prophecy to come true.

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