‘Finest Worksong’: REM get loud and political but stay weird

As REM sprinting towards a long-overdue commercial breakthrough in 1987, they came to better understand their strengths as a band – both musically and socially. They also came to terms with everything they had left behind, an everyday life where nothing is guaranteed.

And all that happened in “Finest Worksong,” the opening set in Document. “The moment we wrote it,” Peter Buck said in Reveal: The Story of REM“we pretty much knew it was going to be side one, track one.”

Document reached the top 10 on Billboard‘s album chart, a first even as the band prepared for a switch from indie IRS Records to major-label exposure provided by Warner Bros. They ended up racking up five top five studio projects in a row in the early 90s, including thaw top listsbut this is where REM officially made the transition from college rock upstart to mainstream rockers.

“Finest Worksong” showed that they didn’t shy away from it either. This riff U2-like statement of populist purpose mixed radio-ready, largely improvised sounds with a new lyrical assertiveness. The intention here, Michael Stipe said in Reveal, was to attack “the idea that you can work and work and get what you want and then try even harder. It’s the American dream, but it’s a dream that’s been exploited for years.” He seethes with anger as he sings lines like “What we want and what we need have become confused.”

This topicality was a new development for a band that had largely avoided politics early on, choosing instead to couch their intent in elliptical phrases and equally elliptical guitar figures. They tended to walk a fine line, partly due to a reluctance to be seen as dilettantes, and also to maintain a certain sense of mystery around the songs. “I don’t like sloganeering, especially when it comes to something like this Clash who don’t know what they’re talkin’ about,” Buck once said. “They’re bloody boneheads. People think it’s revolutionary and it’s rubbish!”

By 1984, however, REM was turning a corner when Stipe began to engage with the issues of the day during extemporaneous comments on stage. Document showed that they were now also ready to fully integrate these steadfast beliefs into their musical narratives.

“Rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be about personal freedoms,” Buck said UPI in 1987. “How can you do this and act like a clown, jump around in striped pants and then just go home and not worry about it because you’ve got your million? It’s just sick. I’m not saying that you have to make social messages, but the Motley CrueSearch Van Halens, they have a tool to talk to any disenfranchised lower-middle-class kid working in a garage and tell them something about what’s happening to them – but all they tell them is ‘go ahead and jump.’ A lot of these bands do it on rebellion, but it’s really certainly rebellion. All the kids throw their hands in the air and shout and drink a bunch of malt liquor for about three hours, then immediately go home and go to the mall.”

Buck began by banging on a B string, then REM jumped into a groove when he was the bass player Mike Mills joined the case. Everything fell into place musically on “Finest Worksong” as the initial walkthrough unfolded.

Watch REM’s ‘Finest Worksong’ video

“When I brought it in, I felt like I knew what I wanted and kind of vaguely knew what the guys were going to do, but we played it once and it kind of came out of nowhere,” Buck wrote in the liner notes to Share Lies, Share Heart, Share Truth, Share Garbage 1982-2011. “Mike and [drummer] Bill [Berry] have always been particularly good at coming up with things off the top of their heads that are a little fantastic. It sounded good, but I was afraid Michael might have trouble writing to it just because it’s a B note. That whole song is in B except for the chorus. It reminded me of touring with Gang of four. It had such a vibe about it.”

With nothing left to complete “Finest Worksong” except the appropriate lyrics, Stipe didn’t disappoint – sticking to a unique, exciting associative lyrical approach very much in line with their dream-based name. We hear him admonishing the listener e.g.take your instinct by the reins / Good, better, best to rearrange.”

“Some of the songs are incomplete, and that’s OK,” Stipe shared New York Times in 1987. “I’ve never felt the responsibility to write every song so that it makes perfect sense from beginning to end. But some that have been considered inscrutable and incomprehensible are completely there. If someone really examines a song, I can suffer for there to be something there.”

It can best be heard in REM’s reference to Henry David Thoreau, the 19th century poet: “Throwing away Thoreau, and rearranging.” A friend had told Stipe that he “was of our generation [fellow poet Walt] Whitman, I think, because I was ecstatic, and I liked men and women, and I was a poet in his eyes—though I hated the word poet,” Stipe wrote in liner notes to Share lies, share heart, share truth, share garbage. “Anyway, I intended to write Whitman into the song, but I got mixed up and wrote Thoreau instead.”

This approach gave fans plenty of opportunities to find their own stories in the music. It also allowed REM to push back against misunderstandings. When a protester tried to link “Finest Worksong” to the Gulf War, shouting: “The time to rise has been engaged,” Stipe responded with another REM lyric.Not everyone can carry the weight of the world” he said, citing 1983’s “Talk about the passion.”

If all else failed, you could simply enjoy “Finest Worksong” as a great moment in indie rock—with the emphasis on “rock.” That was a goal here for REM, who took over as first-time producers. Their album from 1984 Bill had a small notation on his spine that read “File Under Water”. Message on Document? “File Under Fire.”

“We got more confident in our ability to play, to do what we wanted to try,” Mike Mills said David Daley in the liner notes for one Document reissue. “In this case, we wanted to try to come out strong and be loud. We wanted to incorporate some of the angle, some of the muscle, some of the things we had seen and learned in touring.”

It all started to come together for REM

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