First: I chose to use the PROPER/original artwork for Chronic Town. Second, there is no objectivity contained within this review.
So the story begins: Summer, 1982. I was reading the latest version of Musician magazine; Eddie Van Halen was on the cover, but the reason I bought it was for an ultra-rare American interview with The Jam, who, of course, were my raison d’etre. In the opening pages was a section called “FACES” – obviously picking out new artists and giving them exposure.
The first piece was some band from Athens, Georgia, called R.E.M., and it was written by David Fricke. It discussed their debut E.P., Chronic Town, released on the then-very-hip I.R.S. Records. A positive and intriguing set of paragraphs, there were some standout statements that made me stop and think:
“Through it all, Michael Stipe sings with the steely expression of The Hollies’ Allan Clarke, combined with the gutteral bleating of Roky Erickson.” Allan Clarke was (and is, still) one of my favorite singers and influences on my own vocal delivery, so THAT was key…
And the one that sealed the deal:
“The last year has shown there is assuredly a new pop in the American air. It’s already part-dB’s, part-Fleshtones and part-Bongos. Now it’s part-R.E.M. A very big part.”
Do I need to say more? Especially with the mentions of The Bongos and The dB’s – both bands whose spells I was already under.
Around a week or so later, I heard something on our local college radio station that froze me – it was like nothing before and it was a surreal moment. I remember thinking very clearly “I wonder if it’s that band, R.E.M.” Two songs later and the disc jockey came on and said “…and that was R.E.M. with “Wolves, Lower” and I was out the door like a shot; my mother asked me “where are you going?” as I ran past her and I said “I gotta go buy something”. And so it began. It was a good thing, too – the timing of it. The Jam were about to announce their breakup and this new band was the emollient, the way forward and the means for me to reclaim my musical sanity (NOT going to get into that here!). Needless to say, I started seeing them play whenever I could in the New York area (including Hoboken and a trek to Philadelphia, when they later opened for The Police). If Murmur was the cementing of the legacy, Chronic Town was the flag permanently planted with the proclamation of “here we are”.
My I.R.S. vinyl copy (no barcode on back; original gargoyle label; Side A is “Chronic Town” and Side B is “Poster Torn” from the lyrics of “Carnival Of Sorts (Boxcars)”) is worn to death. The only CD version I have was the addition to the Dead Letter Office compilation. And now, on the 40th anniversary of this crucial release, I.R.S./Universal has finally issued this 5-song masterpiece as a stand-alone item – albeit with an inexplicably altered artwork/graphic (editor’s note: what the f**k? Why?). And now I get the chance to review a record that singlehandedly changed my life – I am writing this on the actual 40th anniversary – August 24th. And it’s safe to say that its impact on me was greater than what followed – because this was the first shot from the cannon.
“Wolves, Lower” stands as one of my favorite songs of all-time, by anyone. All these decades later, and I still get the shivers when that glorious harmony on the chorus of “…house in order…” rings through; Peter Buck’s Rickenbacker riff was the perfect antidote to the previous few years of abrasive feedback I was trying to wring from my Ric, since I was firmly under Paul Weller’s influence. It taught me how to play slower, more subtle and subsequently, more melodically. But everything about that song was/is perfect – powerful, poignant and the only way to open that E.P. (and really, R.E.M.’s long-term career).
“Gardening At Night” is a river of gentility and sweetness with a shimmering guitar line and warmly nuanced vocals by Mr. Stipe – the quasi-psychedelic feel is enhanced with (what sounds like to me) an electric sitar strum at certain points and the “vagueness” (which is a diplomatic way of saying “incoherent”) of the lyrics lends a wonderful air of enigma to the overall moment.
“Carnival Of Sorts (Boxcars)” is the first song that would define what became known as the “R.E.M. sound” – the intense opening barrage of Buck’s Ric, Mills’ Ric 4001 bass and Berry’s thump as they explode together and are tempered by Stipe’s (again, hard to understand) lyrical painting about hobos, which makes sense for a train song. But the throttle and fever pitch make the song one of the longest-lasting and most loved in the R.E.M. catalog.
I always thought “1,000,000” was a near-direct lift from The Jam’s “But I’m Different Now”, albeit less aggressive. This was always in rotation on WLIR and the 2nd most heard track from the E.P. (next to “Wolves, Lower”). Punchy, powerful, filled with gleeful abandon and certainly bold with the statement of “…I could live a million years…”, although it may mean nothing at all (!).
Finally, “Stumble”, which I always loved and is possibly one of the THE most forgotten of all R.E.M. tracks. I can’t, at this point in time, remember if I ever heard them do this live. The longest of the 5 Chronic Town tracks, clocking in at 5:40, this is another murky, shrouded-in-mystery masterstroke of simplistic brilliance. After reading the lyrics, I still have no idea what it’s about but it’s the embodiment of R.E.M.’s power-pop mastery.
So now I’ve had the chance to assess and share my thoughts on R.E.M.’s debut – 40 years after the fact. And even though I’m 57 years old, I can tell you, it’s the 17-year old me who’s thinking about it and writing it. And I love this E.P. now as much as I did then. Back then, it kind of saved my musical life – now it helps sustain me.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED – A MUST
Chronic Town is currently available (again)