How ‘Drive’ sets the tone for REM’s Stark Opus

Before REM had finished making Too latethey had started making Automatically to the people. They just didn’t know it yet.

In December 1990 they traveled to Prince‘s famous Paisley Park Studios outside of Minneapolis to put the finishing touches and create the final mixes Too late, which would be released a few months later. The band recorded a demo version of “Drive” on the final day of mixing for its soon-to-be blockbuster release.

“It wasn’t actually in the run-up to that album,” guitarist Peter Buck told Melody maker in 1992. “When we mix or do overdubs, we all sit together with guitars and just play. I put this thing down on tape and watched [bassist/keyboardist] Mike [Mills] added some stuff. We thought it might be a good B-side to that album.”

But “Drive” became much more than a B-side. Along with two other tracks that can trace their origins to Paisley Park (“Nightswimming” and “Try Not to Breathe”), the sparse acoustic guitar-driven song would eventually set the tone for Automatically to the people sessions. Although Buck, Mills and drummer Bill Berry initially tried to create a follow-up of up-tempo rockers—a sort of counterprogramming to the delicate, pastoral Too late – the faster, harder songs had less appeal, both to the instrumental trio of REM and the band’s frontman Michael Stipe.

The way the group usually recorded was that Buck, Mills and Berry would first create a series of instrumental demos and then Stipe would write lyrics for the ones that intrigued him the most. Buck credits the REM singer with plucking the melodious “Drive” from the scrap heap.

“I had it on a cassette of demos and I was always fast-forwarding through it,” Buck recalled. “I thought it was the most boring thing I’d ever heard. Then, all of a sudden, Michael had these lyrics that defined the song for me.”

It’s ironic, on the song that would stay Automaticfirst track (and lead single), Stipe helps introduce this ballad-heavy record with the line, “Hey kids, rock and roll.” The rest of the band loved the idea of ​​having rock and roll in the lyrics, but not necessarily in the music, although Stipe maintained that he wasn’t snarky, paying tribute to David Essex’s “Rock On” (a similarly sparse recording of the same phrase ).

“Before punk, there were a few songs that resonated with me,” Stipe said Rolling stones in 2009. “One was David Essex’s ‘Rock On.’ ‘Drive’ is a tribute to that.”

Watch REM’s ‘Drive’ music video

But “Drive” was more about telling kids to rock — even “around the clock” in a nod to the genre’s beginnings. The lyrics seem to be about control, with “elder statesman” Stipe (he was just over 30 at the time) reminding a younger generation to think for themselves. Certain lines also suggest a political angle. “Bush-whacked” gives you an idea of ​​what Stipe thought then-President George HW Bush was doing to the country. “Ollie, Ollie get free” could refer to disgraced military man Oliver North, while also recalling a childhood game. Lost youth would be a recurring theme throughout Automatic.

“It’s a subtle, political thing. Michael specifically mentions the term ‘Bush-whacked,'” Buck said. “But if you want to take that as ‘Stand,’ that’s cool, too. You like to think you can appreciate these songs on any level you want. I have a lot of records that I listen to when I’m just doing the dishes.”

With the lyrics mostly in place, REM recorded a more complete demo version of “Drive” in early 1992 at John Keane Studios, a favorite establishment for the band to work in its hometown of Athens, Ga. Before the majority of Automatic sessions to take place in March and April, the group spent a little more than a week in the Big Easy, playing and recording in Daniel Lanois‘ Kingsway Studio.

“We did demos in New Orleans at Daniel Lanois’ studio, which is an old, haunted mansion—supposedly haunted—and filled with kind of nice, old antiques, nice instruments,” Buck said in a promotional video. “And [we] made demos there, some of which ended up on the record. ‘Drive’ is a live take from there. Bass, drums, guitar and vocals – all live.”

The demo recording was so alluring – with flimsy acoustic guitar, deep bass, thunder-cracking drums and Stipe’s rich vocals set against a mass of empty space – that it became the basis for the final track. Again, “Drive” set the tone for Automatic and the work yet to take place in Woodstock, NY; Miami, Atlanta and Seattle in the spring of ’92.

REM would add to “Drive” during some of these sessions. An overdubbed melodica pops up at the 45-second mark, bringing some sweetness to round out the harshness, but also serves as the kind of piercing ring you’d hear in the aftermath of an explosion. But in this case, the explosion is secondary to the aftermath, as Buck’s overdubbed fuzz guitar (picked with a nickel for blunt force) crashes in like a firebomb and sets off the void.

The feeling is not only carried in Stipe’s hollow voice, but also in the symphonic strings that mate with the melodica about a minute and a half into the song. According to Berry, the band was in Miami when they decided that strings would benefit some of them Automatic material, including “Drive”. As fans of John Paul Jones‘ orchestrations as a member of Led Zeppelinthey contacted the multi-instrumentalist, who agreed to arrange and oversee the additions.

“Making the string arrangements for that album was actually a great experience,” Jones said Uncut in 2010. “They sent me demos of their songs and we went into a studio in Atlanta with members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. They were great songs, something you can really sink your teeth into as an arranger.”

The strings lift “Drive” but also swirl around its primary instruments, sometimes tangled with Buck’s fuzzy slashes. What began as a relatively subdued, haunting acoustic track turned into something much more energetic: a track that built and built and built over the course of four-plus minutes, only to gently settle back down. Scott Litt (who had co-produced REM’s previous three LPs and would work on this and the next two) believed that the kind of dynamism displayed on “Drive” was a result of the band’s love of Queen.

Watch REM Live at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards

“The arrangement of ‘Drive’ was partly inspired by Queen,” Litt said Moo in 1995. “Pete and Mike are big Queen fans. Queen records, for all their bombast, sounded like each player had a personality.”

In the final stages of work, “Drive” was chosen to be the track that would lead off the album. It would also be the first single released from the album that October. 1, 1992, just days before Automatically to the people hit the stores. Once again, “Drive” set the tone.

As a song without a chorus, “Drive” was an odd choice for the lead single. Perhaps REM believed that after “Losing My Religion”—a tune with a mandolin riff—became a pop smash, anything was possible. “Drive” didn’t quite reach those heights, though this dark gem went to No. 28 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and did even better in Canada and Europe), was plastered on rock radio, and served as fans’ gateway to Automatic.

The song’s video, featured on MTV, also served as a guide. Directed by frequent collaborator Peter Care (of Stipe’s concept), the black-and-white clip appeared to take cues from Anton Corbijn’s crisp band shots found in Automatic CD booklet, but added an element of danger. Strobe lights flash, a crowd of outstretched arms swells like a stormy sea, and REM’s frontman appears to be participating in an unpleasant crowd-surf or the victim of an angry mob. Cutouts are made of Buck, Mills, and Berry, each blasted with a fire hose, in an odd appropriation of Civil Rights-era imagery.

Automatic‘s music videos became more important to the band’s image after REM’s decision not to promote the album with a tour (which had also happened the year before with Too late). However, the band canceled a show in Athens in favor of Greenpeace. At the concert, REM played a handful of tunes from the new record, including “Drive,” which offered a dramatically different approach. Instead of beginning with the eerie acoustic intro as on the record, the performance took the song’s name literally, launching with a piledriver of electric guitar and organ. The live version of “Drive” metastasized into a herky-jerking funk-rock workout.

Although the live re-recording was recorded and released in the 1994s Alternative NRG (also to benefit Greenpeace) and became a B-side, most fans were introduced to the high-energy “Drive” during REM’s performance at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards. That continued to be the way the band played the song Monster trip in ’95.

“We’ve played it a lot, it’s been in pretty much every show we’ve done since we released it, and after a while, you know, you want to give things a little different treatment.” Mills told Stereo gum in 2007. “The MTV Awards, we did, it was fun to do, it was a chance to surprise a lot of people at once. Music is not immutable, it’s organic, and although there are some songs we never change live , it was someone who could do with moving around a bit.”

The live version of “Drive” was released on the bonus disc of rarities and B-sides that accompanied special editions of In Time: The Best of REM 1988-2003. Despite “Drive’s” status as a hit single, the original recording was omitted from the master edition, as well as the career-spanning compilation, Share Lies, Share Heart, Share Truth, Share Garbage 1982-2011 – off the shoulder Automatically to the people‘s other notable singles.

But it remained a live favorite until the end of REM’s performing days, and the band eventually returned to play “Drive” in a rendition that more closely resembled the original recording. It was one of five Automatic election the group carried out at its last concert in 2008 in Mexico City. “Drive” was played early in the show, again helping to set the tone.

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