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Monster 25

1994. I wanted to be a writer. 15 years old. My dad was a football fanzine writer. I decided I could be a writer. Standard Grade English was, if not my best school subject, certainly my favourite. Some bright spark thought the school needed a newspaper, so I joined the team as the music reviewer. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, except that I wanted to tell the world about the return of my favourite band, R.E.M.

Feeling Gravitys Pull

I first heard R.E.M. a couple of years earlier, in Game Zone on High Street, just at the top of South Bridge Street in Airdrie. I didn’t appreciate quite at the time that a guy selling hooky X-Copied Commodore Amiga games on floppy discs from an attic above a hairdresser (it was a salon, right?) was probably entirely illegal. Still, this was my first port of call when pocket-money time came around. I remember standing, waiting for my copy of “Syndicate” to be made and listening to the music playing on the small Sony CD player. Duh duh duh duh duh… duh duh duh. “Dee dee dee dee, dee dee dee dee”. Catchy as hell, unknown to me, and it burrowed right into my brain. I asked what it was. “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” from R.E.M.’s “Automatic for the People”. It was suddenly clear what my next pocket money would be spent on.

Talk About The Passion

Back to the future in 1994, I was excited. R.E.M. had a new album on the way and it sounded like nothing I had heard from them so far. The video for the lead single had an almost alien Michael Stipe, shaven-headed, wearing a now famous star-emblazoned t-shirt. The guitar was loud, abrasive and distorted and Peter Buck was playing a strangely-shaped guitar, upside down (more on that later). Mike Mills had long, wavy hair and was wearing a Nudie suit and looked almost unrecognisable compared to past press photos from Out of Time or Automatic. Bill Berry had a compact, minimal drum kit and was slamming it. The song; “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” and I had fallen in love. Literally. I was at the time falling in love with my teenage sweetheart, and I’d fallen in love with this band.

Somewhat true to form, my precociousness and teenage fearlessness, coupled with a belief drummed into me from an early age that “if you don’t ask, you don’t get”, I decided to exploit my new-found vocation as the School newspaper’s music writer. I wrote a letter (this was pre-email to any great degree) to Warner Bros (WEA) and shamelessly asked for a review copy of the album and 1 to give away for a competition. I didn’t for one second believe I would hear back but a week or so later a small package arrived at the school. The album arrived around a week before release. I remember feeling as if I’d somehow entered a special, higher echelon of society in that I was privileged to hear the album before anyone else.

Of course, of the 2 albums that I received, I kept 1 of them for myself post-review. The other was eventually given away in the competition found on the music page of the school newspaper. To whom? That information is lost to time.

Sadly, I have no memory of listening to Monster that first time through but given how consequential the album became for me, I can only imagine it was something of a revelation. It is no exaggeration to say that this album changed the direction of my life in that it was the one that gave me an intense desperation to play guitar.

Pretty Persuasion

Not long after, I had accosted the school’s guitar teacher, Dougie Smith, and asked him to teach me the basics – outside of the school’s curriculum, as I hadn’t taken Standard Grade music classes. He kindly agreed and rather than teach me from a book, he asked me to bring him a tape of what I wanted to learn. The first chords I learned on guitar were D, A, G, Bm, and Em. The chords for “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” (The trend of R.E.M. didn’t stop there, as I went on to learn fingerpicking from “Drive”, arpeggios from “The One I Love” and “Strange Currencies”, and hammer-ons from “Fall On Me” and the aforementioned “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” among much more).

Being a 15 year old novice, with only the occasional aid of a rudimentary and embryonic internet, and a shyness to ask a teacher who was great but had a tendency to mock and condescend, I had to discover a lot on my own. How do I make a guitar growl like “…Kenneth?” How do I make my guitar repeat like “Bang And Blame”? What was the on-off-on-off guitar sound on “Crush With Eyeliner” and “I Took Your Name”. For a while, based on a misunderstanding of a description in some review, I thought the latter was “reverb”. I even asked my parents for a particular guitar amp for Christmas that would give me that effect. Imagine my disappointment when I realised it wasn’t reverb at all, and discovered it was tremolo. Still, I could make the small practice amp growl like “…Kenneth?” so hey, you win some, you lose some.

Life And How To Live It

As I learned to play guitar on a left-handed Jim Deacon Strat copy, and a small practice amp, I played Monster half-to-death. So much so that I imagine to this day my parents would have a hard time hearing the album. At 15 years old, and a fairly naive teenager at that, Monster was my first real introduction to queerness. I remember reading a past interview with Stipe in which he proclaimed he wasn’t heterosexual or homosexual, but, simply, sexual. That reads a little naff now but at the time I felt like it was astonishing. I believed that didn’t know anyone LGBTQ+ in my life at the time (turns out that I did. He was one of my best friends but didn’t come out until years later), but I discovered differing sexualities through Monster. I didn’t know what it all meant, but I knew it was out there. It wasn’t the only cultural guidance I had at the time by any means, but it was a big part of discovering my own (at the time, disappointingly hetero) sexuality and the differing sexualities of others.

The One I Love

It was some time in ’95 that I discovered an unofficial interview CD called “Birth of a Monster” or something like that. Interviews from years before. I bought it, of course – I was buying anything R.E.M. I could get my hands on at the time. In it, Peter talked about his guitar influences. Some I was well aware of through my upbringing. Neil Young, the Byrds, the Beatles, The Beach Boys. Others I had never heard of – two of which were Television, and the Gang of Four. Marquee Moon and Entertainment! were both name-checked and both were bought as soon as possible at the HMV where I’d later grow up to spend 5 of my working years. I loved Television immediately, the dissonant ringing, chiming notes in See No Evil reminded me of R.E.M. straight from the off. The Gang of Four took a little while longer. I didn’t understand the abrasive, sharp, biting sound of Andy Gill’s guitar. I later grew to love it.

It was also through Monster that I discovered a wee band you might have heard of. Nirvana. I was a little too young and out-of-touch to have really ‘got’ Nirvana as it was happening. Of course, I was well aware of Kurt’s death. It was impossible to miss it. It was only after interviews with R.E.M. that I realised quite how important Nirvana were to my favourite band, and of course there was the elegiacal plea to Kurt in Monster’s “Let Me In”. I investigated further, becoming almost equally obsessed with Nirvana after the fact. I grew my hair, got myself an undercut, bought a fuzz pedal. I coveted a Fender Jagstang guitar; not only that it was designed by Kurt, but that the prototype was the guitar mentioned above in the video for “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”. Courtney Love had gifted it to the band after Kurt’s death. During the subsequent world tour Mike Mills would play it on “Let Me In” night after night. It would do something quite profound to the crowd each show.

Near Wild Heaven

Having not toured either of the previous albums, R.E.M. hadn’t played live – at least for a tour – for 5 years. It was an ultimatum given to the rest of the band by Bill Berry before the recording of Monster. There had to be a tour, or there wouldn’t be an R.E.M. any longer. Later, delighted at the prospect of the world tour, he told an interviewer, “I got new drums, I get to hit ’em real hard”. My dad, a music fanatic himself seemed to nurture my obsession with this band. Tickets were announced for the S.E.C.C. in Glasgow and we snapped them up. I was going to see R.E.M. live. I was overjoyed.

On March 1st at a show in Switzerland, during a performance of “Tongue”, 1 of 2 brain aneurysms in Bill Berry’s head burst. He was lucky enough to be in the country home to one of the most in-demand brain surgeons in the world. Thankfully, and with great relief to R.E.M. fans the world over, he survived and over time made a full recovery. Unfortunately though, the tour wasn’t quite so lucky. The S.E.C.C. show was cancelled and tickets were refunded, though another show was announced at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh in July. To his eternal credit, my dad was brilliant and got us both tickets for that show instead. I would still get to see my heroes.

Incredibly though the tour felt like it may be cursed as on 11th July just 2 weeks before the Edinburgh show, Mike Mills had to have intestinal surgery to remove a tumour. For a short time it hung in the balance whether the shows would continue, though Mike made a quick recovery and R.E.M. – preceded by the Cranberries – took to the stage at Murrayfield, with no further issue. The tour, though, had one health scare left in store as Stipe suffered a hernia and also had to undergo some surgery in August as the tour trundled on. Mills joked later that Peter Buck was checking both ways any time he crossed a road, he being the only one to escape any health issues on the tour. Buck did also enjoy the company of his recently born twins, Zoe and Zelda, out on the road with them throughout the tour.

Memory of the Murrayfield show is hazy at best, but I do remember being joyfully effervescent for days after, with my R.E.M. tour t-shirt and programme. I would go on to see R.E.M. several times again in my life; at Stirling Castle, at Loch Lomond, at T in the Park, and while others were more memorable; the Murrayfield show feels the most nostalgic. Maybe because it was the first time.

I Don’t Sleep, I Dream

2006 rolled around and almost 2 years after Monster’s release, the band debuted a live film from the Monster tour, shot over 3 nights in Atlanta GA; Road Movie. I’ve no memory whatsoever of how we obtained tickets to the world premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival, but we did. Friday 16th August, 1996 at the ABC in Edinburgh, with Michael Stipe in attendance. I was, of course, so excited: R.E.M. on the big screen. As we arrived, there was a small sting in the tail; a notice on the cinema door apologising that Stipe wouldn’t me able to attend – from memory I believe flight delays were the reason. Still, the movie was incredible and to this day I count it as one of my best R.E.M. memories.

So how best to celebrate Monster’s 25th anniversary than to buy the double-vinyl reissue with producer Scott Litt’s remixes, put it on the turntable and turn it up loud. Plug in the guitar, and play along to every. single. song.

#Monster25

Happy 25th, Monster, and Thank you sincerely for everything that your 12 – oft-under-appreciated – songs have given me. Now to look forward to 2021’s 25th anniversary of my other formative R.E.M. album, New Adventures In Hi-Fi. I’m sure I’ll write about that one come the time, too.

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