. . .
File Under Confusion
While “Pretty Persuasion” might not be the best R.E.M. song, it’s probably the most R.E.M. song, a absolute microcosm of what made them so great, and — more importantly — what made so many young people decide not just to listen to these kind of songs, but to go out and make their own versions of the these kind of songs.
Find some friends, grab a couple of guitars, designate a bassist, play at the drummers house. Jingle jangle jingle. Jangle jingle jangle. It didn’t even matter if you were as great as R.E.M., because R.E.M. didn’t really seem as great as R.E.M., either. The point was that anybody could do it; the original point of punk rock before it got all codified into the eternal arguments about what was and wasn’t punk.
None of which mattered to R.E.M. No matter how wild their early shows were, once they got their songwriting chops, not even their fastest, craziest songs would ever be mistaken for hardcore, but what they did do was point another way for a whole generation of kids who wanted to make music that wasn’t considered commercial but also wasn’t hardcore. Which is why they called themselves “the acceptable edge of the unacceptable stuff” during one of their MTV appearances during the summer of 1984, the plethora of which was definitely a precursor to their eventual commercial breakthrough.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here, aren’t we?
All I knew for sure in the spring and summer of 1984 was I couldn’t imagine a single human being with ears to hear not falling deeply and irrevocably in love with R.E.M. the moment they heard the cascading heaven-sent tumble of 12-sting Rickenbacker guitar that opened “Pretty Persuasion.”
With the verses full of Michael Stipe and Mike Mills singing in unison words that I’ve never figured out — I think I hear “all has been tried” — “Pretty Persuasion” alternated between those harmony-drenched verses, a pre-chorus that is sparser and features Stipe all alone, and unutterly lovely chorus, where the voices and guitars and bass and drums are all working totally in sync.
He’s got pretty persuasion
She’s got pretty persuasion
Goddamn your confusion
She’s got pretty persuasion
I always liked the phrase “pretty persuasion,” and therefore was happy to learn that it was inspired by a dream that Michael Stipe had where he was photographing the cover of the new Rolling Stones album, which was entitled Pretty Persuasion. Given the timeframe, that imaginary album would no doubt have been much better than the turgid Undercover, and would definitely have a better album cover.
Though not as good of a cover as what R.E.M. ended up with for Reckoning, which traded the general southern weirdness of Murmur’s kudzu invasion for the more specific southern weirdness of Rev. Howard Finster, whose garden provided the setting for the “Radio Free Europe” video. Finster’s painting of a sculpture of snakes was utterly eye-popping and completely unique
Meanwhile back in “Pretty Persuasion,” R.E.M. seals the deal with a bridge that features one thousand jangling guitars, at least twice that many vocal harmonies and some ferocious Berry drum-whacks that cycles back into that cascading guitar, but now super-powered by Berry’s kick-drum, and it’s at that point where “Pretty Persuasion” enters the heavens.
After that, it’s a race to the end, harmonies and jangle and the exact sound that I’ll always associate with R.E.M. right to the very end when Stipe decides to end on “she’s got pretty per-swaaaaaayyyyyy.”
“Pretty Persuasion” live in New Jersey, 1984
“Pretty Persuasion” live in Germany, 1985
“Pretty Persuasion” live in Stockholm, 1998
“Pretty Persuasion” live in Dublin, 2007
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