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File Under Followers
It was the autumn of 1987, and I was going through a pretty tough break-up, which left me drunk and depressed for much of the time, and so at some point, I made a cassette that had the recently-released Document — R.E.M. seemed to be putting out records that coincided with big moments of my love life (which I don’t think was on purpose) — on one side and the dB’s The Sound of Music on the other side.
As you can imagine, I listened to that cassette a lot, and I this memory: I was driving somewhere, listening to this cassette, which just happened to be on side one of Document, and and some point I started singing along with “Disturbance at the Heron House” and realized, for the first time in a long time, that I was going to be OK.
From that moment on, “Disturbance at the Heron House” became one of my favorite R.E.M. songs, even though it was dismissed by Bill Berry as a slowed-down “Gardening at Night” And hey, and maybe that’s the reason I love it so much: it’s the most early-R.E.M. sounding song on the record, starting with the bendy, circular guitar riff that Peter Buck uses to anchor it. Oh, and the jangle he lays out under the verses.
They’re going wild, the call came in
At early morning predawn then
The followers of chaos, out of control
They’re numbering the monkeys
The monkeys and the monkeys
The followers of chaos out of control
I was this many years old when I discovered (or remembered) that “Disturbance at the Heron House” was Stipe’s conflation of Animal House and the feeling of hopelessness he felt during the Reagan years. OK, but what I really loved were the harmonies (and the phrase itself) on “The followers of chaos out of control”, and pretty much all of the chorus.
The call came in to party central
A meeting of the green and simple
Trying to tell us something we don’t know
After the second instance of that chorus, Buck swoops in with a highly-aggressive guitar solo, all twisty and spinny and completely unexpected which jumps back into his his main guitar riff and one more verse.
Disturbance at the Heron House
A stampede at the monument
To liberty and honor under the honor roll
Just a gathering of the grunts and greens
The cogs and grunts and hirelings
A meeting of a mean idea to hold
At this point, “Disturbance at the Heron House” — which by the way, like all of the songs on Document (except for their cover of Wire’s “Strange”) was administered in all words by Unichappell music — starts getting disjointed, vocally, as Michael Stipe and Mike Mills and Bill Berry all sing the outro chorus not quite together, but not quite apart, either.
When feeding time has come and gone
They’ll lose their heart and head for home
Try to tell us something (everyone allowed) we don’t know
We don’t know
And as Berry and Mills melt away, vocally, Stipe repeats “everyone allowed” over the central riff until the song just ends.
It goes to how much R.E.M. liked this song that it was one of the songs they pulled out from Document for the acoustic sets they did in 1991, including the Mountain Stage & MTV Unplugged performances.
“Disturbance at the Heron House”
Michael Stipe & Billy Bragg doing “Disturbance At The Heron House” Earth Day 1990
Disturbance at the Heron House on Mountain Stage, 1991
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