REM’s Michael Stipe vents his spleen on ‘Ignoreland’

REM started making their follow up to Too late, just as the album was becoming a multi-platinum blockbuster in the spring and summer of 1991. They wanted to do something completely different, from a musical standpoint. Where their seventh full-length studio release had been delicate (mandolins), pastoral (string sections) and often cheerful (“Shiny Happy People” anyone?), REM planned to bring a group of rockers. This next disc would be hard, fast and loud, the sonic sequel to the crispest material of the 1987s Document and the 1988s Green.

However, these songs proved elusive and the sounds uninspiring. Then REM’s instrumental trio (guitarist Peter Buckbassist/keyboardist Mike Millsdrummer Bill Berry) gravitated towards tracks that were more acoustic-based and shadowy in spirit. Automatically to the people began to discover its brooding sound – and later got lyrics to match, from the singer Michael Stipe.

In the spring of 1992, when REM recorded the album in a series of studios from Florida and Washington to New York and Louisiana, only one of these battle-hardened rock numbers remained in play. It was the song with the working title “Howler Monkey”, a rolling rock epic partly inspired by Neil Young.

“The song was written in Neil Young’s mood — not that he owns it,” Buck shared Melody maker in 1992. “But the Es are tuned to D, like in ‘Cinnamon Girl.’ I’ll admit it; he’s the one I learned that tuning from.”

The muscular, abrasive aesthetic of the instrumental track seemed to provoke Stipe’s thoughts and feelings about the past dozen years of US presidential administrations, including Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush. The lyrics that Stipe wrote were like him later self-effacingly put it“a barely mature response to the Iran-Contra scandal.”

The song was the most biting and specific political critique of REM’s then 12-year career. Of course, Stipe had already become an advocate for left-wing causes and had written a few socially conscious songs (including “Welcome to the occupation,” which was also partly about the Iran-Contra scandal), but nothing had yet come close to this: The lead singer lambasted the leaders and their supporters, listed election years, slammed the media and mocked the current president for unceremoniously throwing up at a state dinner ( “how to walk with dignity with a toss on the shoes“). In between calling his least favorite politicians bastards and shouting “F— you”, Stipe characterizes Reagan and Bush’s America as an indifferent “Ignoreland”.

“That’s what ‘Ignoreland’ is — America,” Mills shared Boston Globe after Automatic‘s publication. “These are people who only get their information from sound bites and TV, and who don’t really bother to research the presidential candidates – or ultimately the more important ones, which are your local candidates.”

Listen to ‘Ignoreland’ by REM

Over the raging backdrop, Stipe frothed about how politics could be played for sports, chanting “Defense, defense, defense, defense…” like a member of a passionate football crowd clamoring for more tax dollars to be spent on the military. “Ignoreland” is angry, but it’s funny and poetic anger, with a surprisingly self-aware twist at the end. “Michael goes against Republican politics,” Mills noted. “And the last verse is truly amazing – ‘I know this is vitriol, no solution, splenic venting / But I feel better having screamed. Do you not?’ It’s really amazing.”

Stipe’s vocals were processed through an amplifier “to get the cold anger in his voice that you get with natural distortion,” according to Buck. The effect also helped his voice mesh with the music’s titanic chomp, a near-cacophony of instrumentation. Berry knocked hard. Mills thundered on a fuzz bass. Knox Chandler, who played on “Sweetness follows,” returned to contribute “rock ‘n’ roll cello.” Even producer Scott Litt got in on the action and played Stevie Wonder on a funky clavinet and snarling harmonica.

None were outdone by Buck, however, as he layered “Ignoreland” with guitar: electric, heavily modified acoustic, and even one played with an EBow. “You have one note held and the other pushes out,” the rocker revealed of his EBow technique of layering and bending notes, “and it makes the feeling really unsettling.”

With all these elements piled on, the recording proved difficult to mix (certainly compared to the more spare songs on the rest of Automatic for the people). Although Buck claimed to be satisfied with Litt’s final mix, Mills and Stipe were less impressed. There was disagreement about how loud the fuzz bass should be, and within a few years both of the band’s Michaels believed that “Ignoreland” should have been ignored by the band and omitted the tracklist.

But fans, especially REM’s more rock-inclined crowd, latched onto the song — a buzzsaw in a land of nail clippers. Although the band did not release “Ignoreland” as a single, the track was picked up by DJs on rock stations and ended up on the charts. It hit no. 5 on the US Alternative Chart, No. 4 on the Billboard‘s mainstream rock chart and No. 43 on Canada’s overall pop singles chart. Not bad, considering there were two Automatic singles that failed to land on any of these charts (“Nightswimming” and “Find the River”).

A month after REM came out Automatically to the people in October 1992, Bill Clinton was elected to the US presidency, becoming the first Democrat to be elected during the band’s term. Although REM did not tour to promote the album (which would have forced them to decide whether “Ignoreland” was now obsolete or still relevant), Stipe performed at MTV’s Inaugural Ball in 1993, performing with Natalie Merchant and 10,000 lunatics.

“Ignoreland” wouldn’t make its live debut until 16 years later, when REM (now without Berry) began playing the song while the George W. Bush administration was in its final stages. On what would be the band’s final tour, Stipe believed the old chestnut became “more powerful” in its live interpretation – in addition to remaining politically relevant. “It just flew up out of nowhere and suddenly took on meaning again,” Stipe wrote in 2008. “I think we’ve played it every night on this tour.”

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