“I think that’s sold out…”
We were 18, barely. We’d travelled down from Stoke on the National Express to snag tickets because nobody had thought to invent the internet yet. We’d navigated the Underground like fumbling fuckwit student types. Eventually, we’d made it to Hammersmith. And we’d sauntered up to the Odeon box office with cash in hand and dreams in our addled minds of a date, just a couple of months later, with our new favourite band. In keeping with their left-field (willfully awkward) MO, just four European dates would accompany the release of REM‘s forthcoming fifth album Document. Hence: London. Hence: sell-out. Hence: misery.
“Oh, sorry – no. I’ve a few left at the rear of the circle. How many would you like?” He looks up from his screen, as breezy as you like – clueless as to the emotional wringer he’s had us spinning around in for, ooh, five or six seconds: the blink of an eye but it was a lifetime. We grab three and get out while we can. There’s only so much cliff edge, life-threatening drama a muddled teen can take.
Two months later, we’re back and, yes, we’re at the rear of the circle – second to last row, to be precise. The stage is a league away. Hammersmith Odeon’s vastness is something to behold. In the air, though, a buzz. Support act 10,000 Maniacs are due and the venue is already full. There’s a cheer as the houselights dim and the stalls stand as one (though the Odeon – nee Apollo – now typically goes seat-free for gigs, in line with many similar theatre venues, this was rarely the case back then) – a genuine rarity for an opening act. Buoyed by across-the-board approval from the UK press for recently-released third album In My Tribe, the Atlanta group are leading a pack of US acts whose twisting of alt. guitar shapes has by-passed the traditional punk and hardcore routes in favour of folk: a pastoral guitar pop that is accessible but still distinct and fiery. They are a wonder. Natalie Merchant hops and twists along the edge of the stage in as free a display of Bad Dancing as we’ve seen in an age. Debbie Harry and Brian Ferry both breathe a sigh of relief. She tries to cajole Michael Stipe onstage to join her on ‘A Campfire Song’ but he’s having none of it. They exit like headliners, which is apt, as within the year they return here to do just that.
In the toilets, people swerve the queue and use the basins: a first. One uncaring fella does it and others let loose their dignity alongside their bladders. This is the new rock & roll, clearly. The interval is a blur of preparation, serious readying for the unknown. REM’s handful of UK tours to date have been at university hall level. Perhaps put off by their cool reception at U2’s Milton Keynes Bowl show in 1985, they didn’t even bother with the UK for previous album Lifes Rich Pageant. In front of us sits a fella wearing a shirt from that tour, a string of North American dates down its back: Pageantry ’86. Cool. (Twat.)
House lights dim. Four stick figures shuffle onstage. A handful of sharp double chops by way of intro, accompanied by lights that flash in time into the crowd: the effect blinding, disorienting. Then, ‘Finest Worksong’. The lead track from Document won’t make it onto anyone’s turntable for two long days yet. It’s a thundering squall, a howlaround confirmation that their previous record’s inching towards a fuller, beefier sound was part of a deeper intent. A roar as it ends. ‘These Days’. Chaos. ‘Welcome to the Occupation’: another new one but the crowd is engaged and they get this shift and they like it. ‘Driver 8′: one of a dozen songs tonight where the intro causes a wave of recognition.
Stipe – as the weeklies’ reviews a few days later will confirm – is wearing a butcher’s apron, alongside a 10,000 Maniacs t-shirt and typical Stipe get-up of baggy pants, boots, blazer. He speaks on a handful of occasions but it’s not entirely clear what he’s saying. The pace is breakneck.
‘Orange Crush’ next, not quite the song it would eventually become. ‘The One I Love’ is the first new song that feels instantly memorable. A brace of ‘oldies’ – ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull’ and a searing ‘Begin the Begin’ – keep us on the hook. ‘Exhuming McCarthy’, unplanned dicking about that leads to a cover of ‘Wipeout’, a step back to ‘Wolves, Lower’ with Stipe asking if we’d spotted the re-arrangement (general consensus – well, of course), ‘Superman’, a pulverising ‘Just a Touch’. By now, they’re prising out diamonds at random. They close out with three tracks from Document: ‘Oddfellows Local 151’, ‘Lightnin’ Hopkins’, ‘It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’.
Seventeen songs and they exit. We wipe away the sweat and prepare for one more assault: nearly done. Nearly done? We’ve not even started.
They return with their cover of Wire’s ‘Strange’ and a terrific take on ‘Life and How to Live It’ from Lifes Rich Pageant. Off they go. Much stamping of feet and we roar them back. They squeeze three songs into this second encore: ‘I Believe’, ‘Disturbance at the Heron House’ and ‘Fall On Me’. Are we sated? We feel sated. Surely we are.
No one moves. Encore three is where is gets weird. Stipe returns alone and he performs Hugo Largo’s ‘Harpers’ acapella. It’s the closest we’ve been to him all night. That voice, detailing less of that bottom end burr and more of his higher register where there’s a fragile purity, fills the hall. Robyn Hitchcock, Peter Buck’s close friend, joins them for a silly but spirited cover of Iggy Pop’s ‘Funtime’. And then we’re done. Stipe, Buck, Berry, Mills spend a moment at the front of the stage before leaving to a crazed, sustained ovation. Close to two hours of new REM and old REM is something no-one on these shores has ever seen before. We’ve not seen them play to a crowd this large (indoors) before. We’ve missed the subtle leap in both popularity and stature of this ‘cult’ American guitar act, a forming up of their hardcore in the two years since they were last here. We were here and one day we’ll tell anyone who’ll listen that we were here. This pivotal, important show, this night where something changed forever.
The house lights come up. “Come on – let’s get going before the pubs shut.” Obvious words, wise words, hugely memorable words… Rows and rows of seats to negotiate. Shuffling and stumbling, we start to rappel from the rear of the Odeon.
And then… As people exit, as piped music plays through the venue, more clapping, more cheering. It builds, gathers momentum and volume. There’s a moment, and everybody senses it, where you either commit or you leave it. Common sense suggests the latter. So we just fucking go for it.
It takes five minutes to get them back on.
By now, the venue is perhaps a quarter empty, the aisles are rammed, people stand on seats. Now near the front of the circle, we can see Stipe’s smile as he returns. What were they thinking backstage as the clamour built? A half hour encore and they want more? “Keep the house lights on so no-one gets hurt.” And that, Stipe stepping off Planet Stipe and swapping flight of fancy for admirable health and safety awareness, is what transforms the next three minutes into something wondrous and unspeakable. They play ‘Radio Free Europe’, perhaps the ‘biggest’ unplayed song they have at their disposal. And then they’re gone, and then we really let rip, and then we quieten, make for the exits and allow them their due. There’s hungry and then there’s greedy.