REM: “If we couldn’t be successful being who we were, then we didn’t want to be successful”

Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck explain how they created 20 of their greatest singles

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10 E-BOW THE LETTER
From the 1996 album New Adventures In Hi-Fi. Released: August 1996.
Chart positions: UK No 4, US No 49

Shot through with the device of the title, “E-Bow The Letter” is another of REM’s unapologetic anti-single singles, heavy-duty avant-folk-rock that concedes nothing to radio sensibilities. Stipe’s intense, garrulous lyric, based on an unsent letter to an unknown second party, is underscored by a guest vocal from Patti Smith. Whatever is vexing them is inscrutable to the casual listener; indeed, obscurely compelling as the song is, it seems from one angle like a deliberate attempt to shed extraneous fans. While “E-Bow…” rewards the devout and persistent REM fan, it went over relatively poorly in the US. Strangely, however, in Britain, it would prove their biggest-selling single to date.

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PETER BUCK: An ‘e-bow’ is a little magnet that vibrates the strings and gives off this rather mournful, oboe-ish sound. Robert Fripp used it a lot. It was a totally unhip device during the punk era, which is kind of why I got into it.

MIKE MILLS: We first met Patti Smith in 1995. We’d asked her to sing on a previous record, but her husband, Fred, who was still alive at the time, was very protective of her, he wouldn’t allow her to work and I’m not sure she wanted to. So then, a few years later, she was thinking about stepping out again and we asked her to come sing – she actually joined us for “Dancing Barefoot” at the World Theater in Chicago. And not long after that she agreed to perform on “E-Bow The Letter”.

MICHAEL STIPE: We did have an ability to release the most unlikely songs just to push radio as far as we could push them, get more good music on the radio. And there was… for a while. “E-Bow The Letter” sounded the death knell for us being able to do that! But I think it represents some of my best writing.

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9 BAD DAY
From the 2003 album The Best Of REM. Released: October 2003.
[eventual chart position: UK no 8]

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“Bad Day” doesn’t so much nestle as bristle alongside the greatest hits package from which it’s taken. Not unlike Wire’s recent return to the direct ferocity of their Pink Flag days. “Bad Day” derives its energy from the band’s collective anger at the appalling misadventures of George W Bush and his neo-con goons, particularly since 9/11.

MIKE MILLS: Certainly, “Bad Day” is an angry song and we are certainly angry at our government. But the problem is also the acquiescence of the American press. It’s their job to question the government and they’re just blithely going along with whatever George W Bush says. It’s appalling. America is very definitely tilting to the right in a very bad way.

MICHAEL STIPE: The songs we ended up choosing for the best-of were much louder, much harder and in-your-face songs. It’s not easy to be an American right now. I’m not claiming myself as one of the so-called experts on the 24-hour news channels, but from an emotional point of view, I would say that the country is going through… you know, we really are a young country and because we’re so fucking powerful, people forget we’ve only been around for a couple of hundred years. We are like teenagers, we’re brash, we’re loud, we’re opinionated, we’re kind of brilliant but really dumb at the same time and this country has never experienced the kind of loss
of innocence that the attack on September 11 brought about on that scale. It would have been a tragedy for it to have happened anywhere in the world, but for it to happen in the US… I have to say, it’s an entire nation that has been cosseted, myopic, geographically so separated – that’s how we’re brought up. Unless you’re very rich and have great schooling, this is the geography that’s instilled in you. Mexico doesn’t exist – it’s this big brown puddle below Texas. Canada is this big, grey hinterland above Detroit. We’re not taught about the world. The percentage of Americans who hold passports is shocking. And discounting Pearl Harbor, this was effectively the first time we’d been attacked in our own land. I personally believe that with our current administration, there’s a degree of betrayal that’s going on in terms of why things are happening around the world, why certain things are happening at home. They’re using this whole emotional thing, but they’re not answering any of the questions, like why this happened. It’s not digging below the surface, it’s simply taking the anger, frustration, fear, and converting it to a certain agenda.

PETER BUCK: Certainly, with “Bad Day”, it’s the first chance we’ve had to have our say about what’s going on in the world right now. It’s about the way that the media is over everyone’s shoulder to such a degree that no-one makes choices any more, they just get told what to do. It’s like, hey, this is what’s patriotic this year, you have to agree with it. Well – I don’t agree with it. It blows my mind that somehow in present-day America, they’ve twisted it so that if you don’t agree with the ‘president’ who wasn’t actually elected, then you’re not a patriot. What’s more, you’d think that the people who should be supporting US troops should be the government. Yet while those young people are over in Iraq getting killed, the US government has passed a new tax bill which cuts benefits to veterans and schools for military kids. I know if I was over there in 100 degree heat, risking my life to ensure oil fields were safe, I’d feel a little pissed-off that my benefits were disappearing so that multi-millionaires can get a tax break. Which, by the way, I will be happy to get!

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