R.E.M.’s ‘Monster’ Revisited, 25 Years Later
It’s mid-September and former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck is on a short respite from his recent tours with The Minus 5, Filthy Friends and Arthur Buck, just some of the projects that have occupied his time since his best-known band, R.E.M., split amicably back in 2011.
Yet Buck is still on the move. Two nights earlier, he joined his former band mates bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry for a mini-set of R.E.M. classics, with a revolving set of vocalists filling in for Michael Stipe, and Berry’s son, Owen, joining in on guitar. It was a benefit for Fox Theatre Institute, held at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre.
While Buck notes the three-quarter R.E.M. reunion “was super fun,” today he’s on the phone from the band’s home base of Athens, Georgia, not to talk about that. Rather the matter at hand is Monster, the band’s ninth proper album and one of the most thrilling and divisive records in its catalog.
With its previous two albums, Out of Time and Automatic for the People, R.E.M. had become darlings of MTV and one of the biggest bands in the world with such left-field hits as “Losing My Religion,” “Man on the Moon” and “Everybody Hurts,” ironically without the benefit of a tour behind either album. When it came time to make a follow-up to Automatic, the band’s members agreed it was time to put away the acoustic instruments heard on its previous two efforts, plug in the electric guitars, rock out, and hit the road for their first tour in nearly six years.
“The general feeling was we had done two records without touring, so we wanted to tour,” Buck says. “Playing live is what we do. We felt we’re ready to do this.”
So, in early 1994, the band began to record songs that would end up on Monster at Crossover Soundstage in Atlanta, as opposed “to a professional recording studio,” Buck recalls (though they also recorded at Kingsway Studio in New Orleans, Criteria Studios in Miami and Ocean Way Recording in Los Angeles.) “We were on stage with monitors. I don’t know if we did any vocals there, but we did a fair amount of the tracking there, so we could take the feel of playing live and there were actually people there.” The live setting and the fact they knew they would hit the road in support of the new album, resulted in the more aggressive sound.
The only problem was that those fans who jumped on the bandwagon with “Losing My Religion” and “Everybody Hurts” weren’t familiar with the band’s more rocking side. Nonetheless, Monster, like Out of Time, topped the Billboard album chart (Automatic was kept from No. 1 by Garth Brooks’ The Chase), based on the group’s growing popularity. But a funny thing happened after the album’s release. It eventually became – according to some – the most frequently sold-back used CD in history. If that is indeed true, we can attribute that dubious claim to those new fans, unfamiliar with the band’s harder-rocker side, displayed on the early B-side covers of Aerosmith’s “Toys in the Attic” and Iggy Pop’s “Funtime,” and originals like the soundtrack cut “Windout” and the B-side “Burning Hell.” Monster was largely, loud, abrasive and distorted, with no “Shiny Happy People” in earshot.
Originally released on September 27, 1994, R.E.M. is celebrating the album’s 25th anniversary with a massive reissue that includes the remastered original album, a 2019 remix of the album by original producer Scott Litt, 15 demos recorded during the Monster sessions, as well as a complete concert on the Monster tour recorded live at the Rosemont Horizon, in the suburbs of Chicago, on June 3, 1995.
“What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?,” the first single and video from Monster, set the tone. Released prior to the album, the track and video showed the new R.E.M. Stipe revealed his newly shaved head and Buck’s trademark Rickenbacker was neither seen nor heard, instead he grinded out fuzz guitar, using an instrument that once belonged to Kurt Cobain, gifted to the band from Courtney Love following the Nirvana frontman’s suicide. In the video the once bookish Mills had gone full rock star, wearing a rhinestone encrusted cowboy suit. The song’s title was inspired by an incident involving veteran TV newsman Dan Rather, who was accosted on the street by a stranger demanding to know “what’s the frequency, Kenneth?” Stipe’s words actually have more to do with the onslaught of media and reference filmmaker Richard Linklater, with the lyrics, “Richard said, ‘Withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy.’” The song also features a backwards guitar solo. “We did turn the tape around,” Buck confirms, leaving him to learn how to recreate the solo live.
On R.E.M.’s earlier albums, Buck’s jangly Rickenbacker guitar playing was nearly as synonymous as Stipe’s distinctive vocals, yet for Monster, he mostly avoided that instrument. “I still to this day use that black Ric all the time, but the Les Paul is more appropriate for the grindy sort of things,” he says. “I could have used a 12-string on every song, but I was just trying to be a little different and stretch out a little bit.”
With “Kenneth,” as well as the second song “Crush With Eyeliner,” and album tracks “Star 69″ and “Circus Envy,” all full-on fuzzed-out rockers, Monster earned its reputation for an aggressive album, yet there’s plenty more there. “King of Comedy,” has the band embracing an electronic sound, though it’s played with live instruments. “Strange Currencies” is a soul ballad in the vein of “Everybody Hurts,” only in this case the protagonist is a manipulating obsessive, rather than a sympathetic friend. In “Tongue,” Stipe adopts a falsetto and sings from the point of view of a woman, while “Let Me In” is a plea to Cobain, Stipe’s friend and Buck’s Seattle area neighbor.
“He lived next door to me or across the street,” Buck says. “He’d call me and we’d talk about stuff, personal stuff. It wasn’t like we were best friends, but I knew him. They stayed at my house on the Nevermind tour in Athens. He was an acquaintance more than a really good friend, although I liked him and thought he was a sweet kid. I never saw the bad things people say went on. I don’t doubt the drug thing was real, but I never saw much of that.”
There was no specific inspiration for the sound on Monster, Buck says, though there are lyrical references to the New York Dolls’ “Frankenstein” in “Crush With Eyeliner” and “I Took Your Name” references Iggy Pop. “I loved the Stooges when they were still going,” Buck says. “I went to see them on the Raw Power tour and I couldn’t get in because I was 16, so we just stayed outside and listened, so that type of music was not foreign to me.”
“I’m not saying we sounded like The Stooges,” he adds. “Though ‘I Took Your Name’ may sound a little bit like ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog.” We were just trying show a different side of the band.”
The mandate to rock, however, might have hurt Monster in some regard. “I think that record could have been more diverse,” he says. “We were also working with what Michael wanted to finish.”
Indeed instrumental demos such as “Pete’s Hit” and “Uptempo Mo Distortion,” included on the Monster reissue, sound much more like traditional R.E.M. than the material that made the album. One demo track, “Harlan County With Whistling,” featuring Berry whistling, would resurface a decade later as “Final Straw” on Around the Sun, while “Black Sky 4-14″ became “Until the Day is Done” on 2008′s Accelerate.
Along with the previously unreleased demos, the 25th anniversary edition of Monster also offers a completely different take on the album, with original producer Scott Litt remixing all of the album’s 12 tracks, sometimes using different vocal and/or instrumental takes.
While some fans and artists consider this sort of tinkering with the past sacrilege, Buck’s OK with it. When asked about Giles Martin’s work on the Beatles’ catalog, “The White Album remixes really sounded great to me,” Buck says. As for Monster, “Scott Litt felt that he never really got the mix he wanted and he said when it comes time to reissue Monster, I want to remix it,” Buck adds. “I think it’s great. It’s a little different. I think it’s probably a little more of a commercial of a mix, but the original mix is on there, too, so you can pick and choose or not buy it at all.”
For his part, Litt explained via email, “In retrospect I always thought I could have done a better mix on Monster. The 25th anniversary of the album seemed like a good opportunity to do so. If not now, when? Basically I would say the main difference is that the vocal level is a little louder throughout.”
Indeed, Stipe’s vocals are more audible and clearer, and the 25th anniversary remix offers the band’s fans a chance to rediscover the album’s songs with fresh ears, as does the accompanying live recordings.
True to the band’s Monster mandate of coming up with material to play on the road, the live recording opens with the 1-2-3 punch of “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?,” “Circus Envy” and “Crush With Eyeliner” before dipping back into the band’s catalog.
As Buck points out, while the band was touring Monster, it was also writing and recording new songs that ended up on the band’s next album, 1996′s New Adventures in Hi-Fi. The live set features early versions of “Undertow” and “Departure,” songs that would eventually end up on Hi-Fi. “It was fairly early on [the tour], so there are only one or two new songs, but by the end of the tour we were doing seven or eight. It’s kind of a picture of where we within a month or two of the tour starting,” he says.
Of course, the Monster tour ended up being devastating in some regards, with Berry suffering a near-fatal brain aneurysm on March 1, 1995, while performing “Tongue” in Switzerland. “I actually still have nightmares about the Bill thing,” says the 62-year-old Buck. “He came to me and collapsed in my arms on the stage there…It’s something that’s in the back of my mind almost every time I go on stage with someone over like 30. ‘Holy shit, is this gonna happen again?’ That said, Bill came back from it. We were just pretty stubborn. We just kept writing and recording and playing and doing new songs at soundcheck. On the very last show of whatever it was, a 130 date tour, we recorded the track for ‘Low Desert’ at soundcheck. We probably played it 20 times but that was the first time it came through.”
Stipe and Mills also had emergency surgery on the tour to repair a hernia and intestinal adhesion, respectively, while other events occurred. “I also had my brand new twins with me, who were eight months old when we started and by the end of the tour they were walking and talking,” Buck adds. “It was a chaotic year. Also, we had become a really large band without really noticing it. We had sold a lot of records and were on MTV and stuff like that, but we didn’t tour,” he continues. “Then we went out and there were people waiting for us at airports and outside the hotel. I was kind of shocked actually. You’d go back to your hotel and there’d be 300 people waiting for you. That never happened before and never happened since. It was just that one year.”
In all, Buck is proud of Monster. “It’s a cool record,” he says. “Maybe it wasn’t what our audience expected, but you can’t give the people what they want all the time, because they won’t want it forever.”
Craig Rosen is a Los Angeles-based journalist and author of R.E.M. Inside Out: The Stories Behind Every Song. He tweets at @craigrosen.
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