REM‘s second album, 1984’s Bill, bore a curious phrase on the LP’s spine: “File Under Water.” It was a moniker, an in-joke, or even an alternate title that referenced the ongoing theme of water in the album’s lyrics, from “Seven Chinese Brothers Swallow the Sea” to “These rivers of suggestions drive me away.”
When REM released their first best-of compilation, 1988’s Eponym, the compilation had another moniker: “File Under Grain.” This time it was a reference to the wheat field cover art as well as the subject of the LP’s lone single, “Talk About the Passion”, which was about hunger.
A few years, and albums, later Billand about a year before Eponym hit stores, REM repeated this exercise. Lead singer and primary lyricist Michael Stipe had noticed that many of the songs that made up the band’s fifth studio album Documentfeatured fire – from burning coals in “Digging McCarthy“and burning destruction in”Welcome to the occupation“to a fire house in”Oddfellows Local 151“and a literal chorus of”Fire!“in”The only one I love.” When it was released in the summer of 1987, Document had “File Under Fire” inscribed on its spine.
Of course, the most obvious example of this theme was in the second song on side two, “Fireplace.” Like the song that preceded it on the album, “The One I Love”, the track featured both a connection to fire and the use of repetition by Stipe. Where “The One I Love” repeated the same verse three times, but changed a word in the last repetition to emphasize an ugly cycle (“A simple prop“became”Another prop“), “Fireplace” changed the last line of its chorus each time in an attempt to depict escalation.
The first time the floor is cleared for “sweep the rug into the fireplace.” Next time they shall “sweep the floor into the fireplace.” Before long it is “throw the chairs into the fireplace“and then finally”throw the walls into the fireplaceWhat begins with, apparently, the burning of dust and crumbs, ends with the destruction of the structure that the fireplace is intended to make habitable. Fire and brimstone, indeed.
As it turns out, “Fireplace” has a significant religious connection. According to many REM biographies, Stipe’s lyrical inspiration for the song was a speech given in the eighteenth century by Mother Ann Lee, the leader of the first American chapter of the Shakers. Before she became known as Mother Ann, Lee joined this religious sect—also known as Shakin’ Quakers because of their dance method of worship—in her native England, where she was persecuted for her faith. These included the imminence of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, an adherence to a life of simplicity and, perhaps most radical among Christian religions, celibacy as a preferred lifestyle.
After being treated violently and repeatedly imprisoned in Great Britain, Mother Ann sailed with eight followers to the American colonies, a few years before the Declaration of Independence, with the idea of gaining religious freedom. When the Shakers settled north of Albany, NY, they began to believe that Mother Ann was Jesus Christ in female form – essentially “the second coming”. She and her followers encountered more violence and imprisonment as they tried to spread the Shakers’ worship to New England. Nevertheless, new chapters of the sect were established in the wake of the Revolutionary War and Mother Ann’s death in 1784. Their membership was damaged by the practice of celibacy, and the Shakers declined over the last few hundred years, although one, two-person chapters continue into the 21st century. century in Maine.
Despite the Shakers’ extreme reaction to a civilization they felt was out of control (perhaps reflected in Stipe’s recitation of “Crazy, crazy world / Crazy, crazy times“), the sect is best known today for their simple, strong craftsmanship of furniture and for their love of dance and movement as a method of worship. Each Shaker home had hooks mounted on the wall on which to hang their chairs. This would allow a strict cleaning of the floor, as well as providing space for dancing.
Listen to REM’s ‘Fireplace’
Both of these elements are represented in the chorus of the REM song: “Hang up your chairs for better sweeping / Clear the floor for dancing.” In the end, of course, everything including the floor, chairs and walls ends up in the fireplace. Considering the other political content of Document, it’s likely that Stipe made some kind of modern connection to Mother Ann Lee. “Fireplace” could be a cautionary tale that righteous anger of any kind can slowly consume the structures that are needed.
Stipe’s cryptic lyrics were matched by the strange, sharp instrumentation, which includes an off-kilter beat from drummer Bill Berry. In a review for New York TimesJon Pareles called “Fireplace” a “hard rock waltz with a modal, hypnotic riff.” Peter Buckthe guitarist responsible for the riff, explained that REM was hoping for weirder results when he made Document.
“This time we wanted to make a harder record,” he said Rolling stones in 1987.”[Predecessor] Lives Rich Contest was a bit like Bryan Adams records – I really liked the record, but it was very direct in a lot of ways. This time we wanted to make a loose, weird, semi-live-in-the-studio album. We wanted to take a slightly tougher stance.”
Part of the loose, weird approach was provided by saxophonist Steve Berlin, most famous as a member of Los Lobos – although he also worked with Replacementsthat Go-Go’s and Believe no more. Co-producer Scott Litt had previously teamed up with Berlin and brought him in near the end of Document sessions. His midnight sax took the place of a typical Buck guitar solo, giving “Fireplace” a jazzy edge as it ended the song in an explosion of freewheeling bebop honking. Never before had an outside musician been given such a prominent role on a REM LP.
“Obviously this one was big because REM were pretty big,” Berlin shared AV Club in 2012. “I was a little nervous going into that field, but it was a lot of fun. Even though they had been successful, they were still experimenting. They had a lot of fun making that record. The vibe in that room was that they really enjoyed themselves. They were happy with the way they sounded and the way the record went and the way the world received them. It was just a real honor to be a part of it.”
The guys in REM must not have thought that “Fireplace” was much better without Berlin’s presence. The band only performed the song 10 times in concert in their entire career, the last instance coming in 1989. “Fireplace” remains a stranger, lesser-known entry in the REM canon, though – as with the Shakers – the craftsmanship is rock solid.
Top 100 ’80s Rock Albums
UCR takes a chronological look at the 100 best rock albums of the 80s.