The genre of alternative rock started as underground music by independent artists in the 1970s and became mainstream popular by the 1990s. This transition from the margins to the heart of popular music can be highly credited to the pioneers of the genre, none other than the R.E.M. For a period of time, the band ruled the industry and laid the path for contemporary as well as future artists, gifting listeners with some unforgettable music across three decades.
The song ‘Man on the Moon’ is one such memorable piece that remains a bright star in the musical galaxy. Released as part of the 1992 album Automatic for People, it was penned by the band’s lead singer Michael Stipe while drummer Bill Berry and guitarist Peter Buck composed the music. It shot up the UK Singles Chart and US Billboard Hot 100 in no time and became one of their most popular songs in history.
The lyrics don’t follow any concrete path of narrative. Rather it alludes to several cultural figures and ideas. For example, the song starts with the reference of the American comedian Andy Kaufman who was well-known for impersonating Elvis Presley. “Mott the Hoople and the Game of Life…Andy Kaufman in the wrestling match” is an allusion to Kaufman’s work with champion wrestlers such as Fred Blassie and Jerry Lawler. It also evokes some conspiracy theories about the moon landing and rumours that Kaufman’s faked his death.
Talking about Kaufman’s important role in the song, the band’s bassist Mike Mills told the NME in 2017 “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.”
Mills admitting that it was his as well as the band’s favourite number said, “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.”
While Stipe’s contribution to the song is undeniable, it’s the teamwork that elevated the song to its current status. Mills’ own contribution is laudable. When stripped off the vocals and all the other instrumentations, the bass guitar by Miller appeals to one through its melodic and groovy style. The mainline is rather catchy and needless to say determines the song’s course a great deal.
So, taking Mills’ contribution to ‘Man on the Moon’ into account let’s listen to his isolated bass guitar.