Alternative rockers R.E.M. have long been known for acting unconventionally. Take, for instance, their intention to retire from the public eye, just as they were getting fired up. But like everything the band did, it was done on their terms.
“Technically, the band broke up,” guitarist Peter Buck once said. “But we didn’t really. We’re just not making records or touring. We own a publishing company. We own the masters to our Warner Bros records. We own buildings. We own a warehouse with tapes and stuff that I haven’t even seen. Why go to a warehouse?”.
“I remember the last show was in Mexico City,” bassist Mike Mills remembered, “And I remember going out on stage by myself after it was overthinking, ‘I’ll probably never do this again’”.
That they should end their career on an odd note is only fitting for such an oddly named, and even more oddly-mannered group. Part of the oddness stems from Michael Stipe’s strange childhood. “I’m a few years younger than the others and I didn’t have an older brother or sister who was a music fan,” he told an interviewer. “So for me it was all about The Archies, The Banana Splits, and The Monkees. I wore a little watch cap because of Mike Nesmith and I’m still wearing one today.”
Stipe tended to write his lyrics to the music Buck and Mills presented him. On this occasion, the tune was so jolly, he had to respond accordingly. “The guys would give me pieces of music that were so ebullient and bubblegum that I’d be like, ‘OK, I accept your challenge and I raise you, we’re going to call this one ‘Shiny Happy People,’” he recalled. “It was written to be as pop as it could possibly be, absurdly, ridiculously pop.”
With its jaunty hook, and doo-wop chorus, the song felt like a Monkees track, with a capital M. But considering the loftier anthems the band had previously issued to the world, writing a sugary pop tune was considered daring; dangerous even. “I love it,” Stipe said. “When I listen to it, which is rarely, I really enjoy it. To write a non-tongue-in-cheek happy song is very hard.”
‘Shiny Happy People’ is fluff, but it’s enjoyable fluff. The video is even better fun still, as the rake-thin vocalist bounces from corner to corner, gleefully inviting the viewers at home to join in with him. It wouldn’t be the last time R.E.M. wrote in such a whimsical manner as they would issue ‘Man on the Moon’ the following year.
Nesmith was also capable of writing stuff that emanated directly from the heart, as can be heard on ‘Different Drum’. “Well, that was the way I wrote the song,” the Monkee remembered, “The way it is on Hits. It’s got the twang, and it’s got the balance, and it’s got all that stuff. That’s real kind of mountain music. That’s home-style backyard, a hot Saturday afternoon, and fruit jars full of ice tea. That’s where that comes from. I sang ‘Different Drum’ for John Herald of the Greenbriar Boys like that. He took it home and turned it into the ballad that it became. Linda heard the ballad and made us all rich. So it was great, fantastic.”
Toast of Tinseltown recently threw out a delicious homage to the cap-wearing Mike Nesmith. Steven Toast (Matt Berry) is kidnapped by two nefarious henchmen, one with teeth like a Bond villain, the other wears a hat like a Monkee. They shoot him.
Like R.E.M, Berry doesn’t think he needs to make a distinction between comedy and music, as both are creative endeavours that take up a great deal of effort. “It’s definitely Matt Berry playing songs from my album,” he admitted, “Trying to get it done right and making sure things go well. So no, not consciously, I don’t have to become a character, and it’s not a comedy gig, that is a misconception about my music.”
Other rock stars with a penchant for jocular rockers include Paul McCartney, who composed the Thrillington album after issuing ‘Obla-di, Obla-da’ and ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ to the music-buying public. George Harrison, who thought Monty Python captured the spirit of The Beatles, loved The Monkees: “It’s obvious what’s happening, there’s talent there… when they get it all sorted out, they might turn out to be the best.”
We tend to remember the 1960s as being the decade of truth, but there was a lot of frivolities and hoodwinks that went with the territory. What the decade offered was contrast, something R.E.M were happy to divulge with Out of Time, an album that offered jaunty songs like ‘Shiny Happy People’, with more thoughtful works like ‘Losing my Religion’. But at least they still continued to surprise people up to the end of their career, and even surprised people by calling time on their career. I guess they were believers.