“listen to me.” There is a moment at the end of “Welcome to the Occupation” where Michael Stipe repeating this phrase over and over, sounding more pained and irritated with each repetition. Is he singing for the possessed, pleading with the world to recognize their plight? Or does he play the role of occupier, imploring those under him to follow orders? Or is he just himself, politically aware REM frontman, trying to draw attention to injustice? “listen to me.”
If the details aren’t clear, Stipe’s passion and attitude was on the subject. “Welcome to the Occupation” was the second track on REM’s powerful Document album, but it was the third song the singer had written about the US government’s intervention in South and Central America. He and his bandmates had become increasingly disturbed by what they were learning.
Quick history lesson: In the 1980s, under President Ronald Reagan’s administration, the United States supported right-wing dictators in El Salvador and Guatemala and secretly funded anti-communist counter-warriors in Nicaragua, all under a zero-tolerance policy toward communist-led groups. These civil wars—with one side backed by American money, training, and weapons—were violent conflicts that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. The US-backed, right-wing organizations were responsible for most (but not all) of the carnage, including human rights violations such as murder, rape and torture of innocent civilians.
“It was a secret little Vietnam we had going on down there, and it’s not like we were saving anybody from anything,” REM guitarist Peter Buck said in 33 revolutions per minute. “It was wrong. It was simply wrong.”
The band had been compelled by their interest to include songs about these conflicts on successive albums. “Green Grow the Rushes,” about the 1985s Fables about the reconstruction, referred to US economic involvement. “The Flowers of Guatemala,” about the 1986s Lives Rich Contest, drew an allegory for the widespread violence in the form of lyrics about a poisonous flower or mushroom that covered the land. REM considered including lyrics to make the message less oblique, but decided against it. It wouldn’t be like that next time.
“I think I got tired of writing a song that had a lot in it that nobody could understand,” Stipe later revealed to Q magazine.
Then with “Welkommen til bessetnen” the lyrics became more pointed, although no less poetic. Stipe opens the song with “Hang your collar inside,” a possible reference to Catholic priests, such as Archbishop Oscar Romero, who condemned the military violence in El Salvador and was murdered as a result. The line “Kept and dyed and skinned alive” refers to the juntas who meted out “justice” by wielding machetes. A lyric about hanging freedom fighters was apparently considered a step too far and was changed to “Hang your freedom higher.”
But REM did not shy away from other facets of these conflicts, including implications of colonization, economic struggle, and environmental destruction. Stipe contrasts “fsworn and trained“occupiers with the supposed “srimitive and wild” possessed people, in an echo of former conquistadors. He discerns”Sugar cane and coffee cup” (typical Central and South American crops) against ”Copper steel and cattle” (classic American export).
In “Welcome to the Occupation”, the singer repeatedly returns to the concept of fire – a Document theme, hence the direction of the LP sleeve to “File under four” – in lines like “Fire on the hemisphere below“and”The forest for the fire.” This seems to refer to the overall vicious nature of the conflicts, but may also, in a nod to “the forest for the trees,” give a nod to the environmental disaster that is occurring with the depletion of the rainforests.
Just in case Stipe’s angry tone and disturbing images could be misunderstood, he made a decision to illuminate his subject. In concert, he introduced “Welcome to the Occupation” by referring to the United States and El Salvador. He helped the press release promote Document‘s release in August 1987, “so they would say, ‘this is a song about American intervention in Central America’.” The artist, who had previously been accused of mumbling his lyrics or making lines on the fly, did not want to be misunderstood anymore.
As Stipe’s singing and lyrical intentions came into focus, REM’s sound, which achieved a crisp strength of Document which had not previously been a feature of the band’s aesthetic, at least on record. Although Buck’s minor-key twisted jumble and timbre identify the song as something solidly in the REM wheelhouse, he also lets his guitar growl a bit, especially coming out of the instrumental break that leads into the song’s final minute. It’s as if his frustration is building along the track.
Whose Mike Mills‘ the bass isn’t as muscular as it is on some of the album’s other tracks – especially those with a funk edge – it remains propulsive, and the bassist is probably also responsible for the wriggling organ that soars mid-song and gets stronger to emphasize Stipe’slisten to me” coda.
But it’s the drums that really push “Welcome to the Occupation.” Credit Bill Berry’s steady and sharp playing, as well as those stem-step transitions, but also Scott Litt’s efforts in his role as co-producer. When REM and their new collaborator Litt entered Nashville’s Sound Emporium studio in March ’87, Litt made it a goal to give greater definition to the band’s sound, focusing on Berry’s drums and Stipe’s vocals. On this track, the percussion crackles as the singer declares, declares and wails.
Both Litt and the band were thrilled with the results, with Stipe declaring the partnership “monumental”, and the two sides continued to work together into the late ’90s. The sound of “Welcome to the Occupation” was important, but it all started with Stipe’s approach to a song about weighty subjects. Looking back, the frontman describes REM’s fifth album as an era of significant growth for him as a songwriter, able to create lyrics that “actually resonated on a very deep level.”
“I started to realize around Document that I had skills and I honed it,” Stipe shared The Guardian in 2016. “Over time, it went from skill to art, and my job was to forget everything and let instinct take over, and that’s where the great songs came.”
It is clear that REM considers “Welcome to the Occupation” one of their “big songs”, a warning against American intervention, which they frequently performed on tours in 1987, ’89, ’95 and in the ’00s during wars in the Middle East. The song was never released as a single, but was nevertheless chosen for inclusion on the 2006 compilation And I Feel Fine… The Best of the IRS Years 1982-1987.
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