The Story Behind The Song: R.E.M’s ‘Man on the Moon’ guided by the confounding Andy Kaufman
In the early nineties, America was rich with rock talent. While Nirvana had begun their journey toward the sun and Pearl Jam were equally as imposing across the globe, one band stood out among the rest— R.E.M. The release of their eighth studio album, Automatic for the People, provides a crystalline reminder of their talent and just how refreshing a voice like Michael Stipe’s was in 1992. But perhaps the brightest shining moment on that record was their enigmatic single ‘Man on the Moon’.
The song has become a bastion for the band, often regarded as one of their most beloved. The number was originally titled ‘C to D Slide’ and was likely to remain an instrumental effort destined for the dustbin until the inspirational figure of Andy Kaufman walked into the band’s life, equipped with a conspiracy theory and a desire to question everything.
Forming in back in 1980 with Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe meeting at the University of Georgia, the band soon became one of the first-ever alternative rock groups, providing a unique take on the genre that had dominated the previous decades. R.E.M. were a different proposition entirely to everything that had come before them, using their obscure lyrics, iconic guitar sound and Stipe’s unique vocals to create their own niche. With ‘Man on the Moon’, the band provided a vision of pop’s future, using an expressive sonic landscape to share their narrative.
“Bill Berry is still a very a good songwriter,” bassist Mike Mills told NME in 2017. “He had a lot of musical ideas, then he and Peter [Buck, guitarist] fleshed the rest of it out musically. It was a song that me, Pete and Bill really loved and had musically finished right up to the last day of recording and mixing in Seattle, and we’d been leaning on Michael very heavily for some time trying to finish it.” It nearly wasn’t finished at all, “He was like ‘oh, it’s an instrumental’ and we were like ‘it is not an instrumental – you need to finish it because it’s a story that needs to be told. Whatever that story is, you need to tell it’,” he explained.
The song’s sound followed a similar path for the group but lyrically it was a more complicated process. Stipe was under pressure to find the right words and was up against the clock because the album was due and the record label was becoming impatient. Instead of working through it in the studio, the band took a few days off and offered Stipe the chance to reflect on the music already made. He listened to the track on a cassette in his rental car until he found inspiration.
“When we reconvened, Michael walked into the studio, sang, ‘Man On The Moon’ once, and walked out,” Peter Buck said in the In Time compilation. “We were all stunned. It was one of those magic moments I’ll remember long after the award ceremonies and the photo sessions have disappeared into the mists of time.
“So Michael worked very hard towards the end,” continued the bassist Mike Mills to NME, “And came up with this beautiful lyric that encompasses doubt, belief, transition, conspiracy and truth. Then at the very end of the last day Michael came back and said ‘I’ve got something’. He sang it, we loved it, we put the harmony vocals on it and it was done.” The inspiration came from the surreal comedian Andy Kaufman who operated as a guiding light of influence for Stipe and his usually unusual lyrical style.
Kaufman had made his name in America as the face of chaotic comedy. A cast member of SNL, in fact, the only cast member to ever be voted off the show, Kaufman gained a reputation for stunts and surrealist comedy. He left most of his audiences continually contemplating whether he was being serious or not, trying to decipher the seriousness of the situation in front of them. He was the perfect figure for the song. “Andy Kauffman was a performance artist,” Mills continued. “He wasn’t a comedian; he wasn’t a comic; he was a performance artist. Some of what he did was funny, some of it was annoying, some it was irritating – but it was always provocative. As such, as someone that you couldn’t really pin down in terms of what he was and what he was not. Was he dead? Was he faking?
“He’s the perfect ghost to lead you through this tour of questioning things. Did the moon landing really happen? Is Elvis really dead? He was kind of an ephemeral figure at that point so he was the perfect guy to tie all this stuff together as you journey through childhood and touchstones of life.”
The balancing act of populous gems and personal mantras have always been what made R.E.M a great band. This song remains a shining gem of that ethos glistening in the band’s pop crown. It offers up an entire society’s viewpoint, fitting for one of the most democratic bands you’re ever likely to stumble across.
‘Man on the Moon’ tells us all to open our minds, trust in our hearts and approach life with the knowledge of its innate fragility. The world may have appeared a scary place back then but now we can be certain it is. It may appear to be a simple pop song but, as the track would encourage you to, one must question every lyric and find the philosophy at its core.