REM Struggle With Writer’s Block on ‘Man on the Moon’

The song was ready. Everything was there: bass, drums, additional percussion and a touch of guitars. The country-rock track, recorded over several sessions, was ready to be shown on REM‘s new album. There was only one small problem. It didn’t have a title, or lyrics, or vocals.

With precious time left to finish Automatically to the people in Seattle’s Bad Animals studio, singer and primary lyricist Michael Stipe had writer’s block. All that guitarist Peter Buckbassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry could do was wait for their bandmate to come up with … something.

As it was, the track, which carried the working title “C to D Slide”, had gone through a long process, beginning with rehearsals/demo sessions that included the instrumental members of REM (i.e. everyone except Stipe). Although Buck, Mills and Berry all had defined roles in the band, they each played multiple instruments, and in these formative gatherings ideas could come from anywhere. In this case, Berry – the drummer – had brought a melodic idea.

“Bill had this one chord change that he came in that was C to D just like the verse in the song and he said, ‘I don’t know what to do with it,'” Buck wrote in the liner notes to Share Lies, Share Heart, Share Truth, Share Garbage 1982-2011. “I used to finish some of Bill’s stuff … he’d come up with the riffs, but I’d be the finished guy for it. I’d sit down and come up with the chorus, the bridges and so on. … I think that Bill played bass and I played guitar; we kept going around with it.”

As REM progressed in their work on their eighth album, so did the song. Buck and Berry presented it to Mills and Stipe before it was recorded as a demo in February 1992 at John Keane’s studio in the band’s hometown of Athens, Ga. (with the singer humming instead of a lead vocal). In several recording sessions with producer Scott Litt in March and April at Bearsville Sound Studios in Woodstock, NY, REM piled layers upon layers of sound onto the track.

Buck recorded acoustic guitar as the main element, then added a Rickenbacker electric (for the chorus), a Les Paul (for the “high chords”), another Rickenbacker (“does backwards strums” on the bridge) and a Telecaster (does the smooth wear parts). He also played the mandolin-like bouzouki on the track – the same instrument that had served as the foundation for another Automatic choice, “Monty got a raw deal.” Along with the drums, Berry played claves, which Buck felt brought “a nice little Brazilian accent” to the finished recording.

After a stint in Bearsville, REM recorded in Miami and Atlanta, then traveled to Seattle to finish the record in the summer, in time for an October album release. The instrumental components were done and dusted, but Stipe was still humming his part. The band felt the track was too good to leave off the album, but it didn’t want to happen as an instrumental.

“I was under tremendous pressure to finish this one piece of music that the band loved,” Stipe recalled Reveal: The Story of REM. “We had already recorded an album’s worth of material, and I was running out of steam. I didn’t feel like I could write another song, and I just said to the band, ‘Give me a few days of walking around Seattle with my headphones on. on to see what’s coming.” I really wrote a walking song which is ‘Man on the Moon’.”

Watch REM’s ‘Man on the Moon’ video

As Stipe walked, his mind began to race. Lyrics began to form with words that evoked games (“Monopoly, 21, checkers and chess” – several hints of childhood, an album theme) and a sly contrast between scientists (Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin) and a man of faith (Moses). A raw one Cleopatra joke about Elizabeth Taylor turned into a line about Egyptian snakes and Mott the Hoople appeared because, well, why not?

As the lyrics began to coalesce, the song’s central figure became Andy Kaufman, the fearless comedian and performance artist who had become Stipe’s hero when he watched him as a teenager Saturday Night Live. “Man on the Moon” was not only a tribute to a clever artist, but how Kaufman challenged the audience’s perception of what he was doing. It ranged from breaking women to performing lousy “stranger man” impersonations – only to free a murderer Elvis Presley impression.

In fact, Kaufman spent so much time subverting expectations that many of his fans didn’t believe the news when the comedian was reported dead, the result of cancer, in 1984. Just as some had held out hope that Elvis was not dead but faking his died to escape the pressures of fame, the Kaufman disciples guessed that Cab the star’s end was just a ruse. The conspiracy idea ties into the chorus, a celebration of skepticism:If you thought they put a man on the moon… / If you thought there’s nothing up your sleeve, nothing’s cool.”

As an aside, “Man on the Moon” contains ideas that reference three famous stars who died young: Elvis, Kaufman and Kurt Cobain. However Nirvana front man would not die by suicide until 1994. By 1992, Cobain had become good friends with Stipe, having long been an REM fan. The “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah” motif was an in-joke because Stipe had railed at Cobain for having too many “yeahs” in Nirvana’s lyrics, particularly in “Lithium.”

“I told Kurt I wanted to write a song that had more ‘yes’ in it than anything else he’d written,” Stipe shared. MTV News.

With more than 50 “yes” lots of nods to disturbed anticipation (“here is a truck stop instead of St. Peters”) and “Andy goofing on Elvis” (complete with Stipe’s own laid-back impression of the King), the lyrics for “Man on the Moon” were complete. And just in time.

“It literally came together on the last day of shooting,” Mills shared Stereo gum. “We had the music done and we all pushed Michael to get it done and he came in with all the good words and melodies on the last day of recording.”

“Man on the Moon” settled in at number 10 on Automatically to the people and was determined to be the record’s second single, released on Nov. 21, a month and a half after the album came out. Even with the soaring, sing-along chorus, the curious lyrics and rustic feel of the track didn’t ensure that this would be a big hit for REM (especially in the midst of an alternative rock explosion). But “Man on the Moon” took rock radio by storm, going to No. 30 in the US, No. 18 in the UK and becoming the band’s biggest hit to date in Canada at No. 4.

A black-and-white video directed by Peter Care (who had also done “Drive” and “Radio Song” for REM) only enhanced the sense of open space in the song – and helped its popularity with frequent airplay on MTV. The clip showed a cowboy-hatted Stipe wandering the desert, doing his Elvis moves and hitching a ride with Berry driving a big rig. The two end up at a roadside inn, where Buck tends bar and Mills shoots pool. As Stipe orders fries, footage of Kaufman plays on the TV and the bar’s residents take over lip-synching duties.

But “Man on the Moon” not only inspired a famous music video, it was also central to a big-budget Hollywood movie. When Jim Carrey starred in a 1999 Kaufman biopic directed by Milos Forman, the film was titled after the song by REM. The band also wrote “The Great Beyond”, among other soundtrack contributions, for the film.

Watch REM perform ‘Man on the Moon’ live

Despite being a solid – but not blockbuster – hit single, “Man on the Moon” became one of REM’s best-known songs, appearing on every best-of compilation with their Warner Bros. period material. Its popularity was aided by the fact that the band would perform the song at almost every show they played in the years following the release of Automatically to the people. The live version pushed the breakneck pace and featured Stipe bellowing “Cooo-ol!” along with Buck’s stinging guitar twists and Mills’ backing vocal acrobatics. REM always seemed to have fun playing it, something Stipe made clear when the band broke up in 2011. The singer said “Man on the Moon” was the hardest song to leave behind.

“To see the effect of that opening bass line on a sea of ​​people at the end of a show,” he said Rolling stones about what he would miss. “And it’s an easy song to sing. It’s hard to sing a bad note in it.”

Easy to sing. Difficult to write.

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