How REM took a bite out of dogma with ‘Exhuming McCarthy’

REM‘s most topical album to date just got more intense.

“Finest Worksong” opened Document using the then economic situation in America as a subtext. “Welcome to the occupation” welcomed those who are constantly waging war in Latin America. Here the band dives headfirst into what they saw as a growing topic in the country’s political discourse.

The title links the red-baiting of the Joe McCarthy era to a period in the late 80s defined by Ronald Reagan’s American exceptionalism. The then-new 24-hour cable news cycle told a different story, however, as the country was beset by government misdeeds, the AIDS crisis, Wall Street profiteering and Cold War anxieties. As the distrust grew, REM used their growing platform to express concern that a demagogue might once again rise in American politics.

“This is the kind of year Joe McCarthy would come back,” Peter Buck told UPI in 1987. “People would start paying tribute to him. If he were still alive, he would be a hero.”

REM seemed particularly upset by a news story that had dominated the early part of 1987: In February, Reagan had been reprimanded by the Tower Commission for his National Security Council staff’s role in The Iran-Contra Affair. In March, the president admitted that his revelations in this covert operation had “escalated” into an illegal arms-for-hostages deal. And it was broadcast to your viewer’s displeasure.

“All you have to do is turn on the television,” Buck quipped back then“and you are inundated with complete lies from people who are supposed to run the country.”

REM’s inclusion of a 1950s clip of Joseph Welch’s legendary rebuke of McCarthy during congressional hearings made it— “Have you no sense of propriety, sir?” – all the more cutting and appropriate. (In another recurring move, they began with the sound of a typewriter being used by Michael Stipe to complete the lyrics in the studio.) While Stipe scoffed, “I turn to realpolitik; look who bought the myth – by jingo, buy American,” REM matched his aggression musically – unleashing razor-sharp horns, an in-your-face bass line and this martial, marching band-type tempo.

“Michael is really concerned – we all are – about this neo-conservative wave in America,” Mike Mills shared. Globe and Mail in 1987. “With all the suppression of personal liberties, the knee-jerk reactionism, it’s the kind of atmosphere, old Joe [McCarthy] would fit in well. Hence the song.”

Yet while they were sorting through such weighty questions — elsewhere Document tried to unravel the corrupting influence of wealth, those who destroy nature, how love can turn into something dark and the apocalyptic overtones of the period, among other things – they began to worry about finding an audience.

Listen to REM’s ‘Exhuming McCarthy’

“We wanted to make a harder, looser, weirder, semi-live album in the studio,” Buck shared Rolling stones just before Document arrived. “I don’t see this as the record that’s going to blow the chart apart, although you never know. Stranger things have happened.”

Current, even angry, Document actually found an audience. Perhaps it was a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the dogmatic status quo, or a growing interest in protecting the planet and the public trust. Or maybe REM had finally found just the right mix of folk and rock, of protest and poetry. Whatever the underlying causes, flint moments like this are connected: In January 1988, Document had already gone platinum and became REM’s first million-selling album ever.

“It’s a sideways look at the world and us,” Buck said of Document in a conversation in 1987 with Melody maker. “It has a kind of Orwellian wry humor. It’s not that we’re making light of America; it’s just that I can’t look at it that way. Bruce Springsteen do. To me, America in 1987 is Disney World.” (In fact, it was later revealed that REM had considered calling this album Last train to Disneyworld.)

REM felt compelled to speak to this troubled era, despite the possible commercial decline: “It’s hard to believe that people can live in a time like this and not be worried,” Buck told UPI. “It makes my stomach churn to read the papers.” This growing politicization framed Document back then and has given REM’s breakout album a fizzy sense of immediacy well into the 21st century.

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