Album: Automatic For The People
. . .
File Under Bushwhacked
It happens to just about everybody, with the exception of Neil Young, Robert Pollard and Prince: there comes a time when you just can’t crank out an album per year, especially if you’re successful. For one thing, success often means long tours, which are anathema to both writing and recording.
So after cranking out six albums in six consecutive years, R.E.M. took some time off between Green and Out of Time, and I figured that it was pretty much the end of yearly R.E.M. albums. And, in fact, that was kinda how the culture started trending in the late 80s / early 1990s: nobody was doing yearly albums anymore. Thanks a lot, Boston!
And so I remember that the release of Automatic For The People only eighteen months after Out of Time caught me somewhat by surprise. I also remember that “Drive” seemed to be a weird choice for the first single, especially considering that it referenced one of the weirder hit singles of the 1970s, David Essex’s “Rock On,” an echo-y, low-key groove that made it all the way to #17 in 1973.
(Oh, and I forgot this — or maybe never knew — but a cover version of “Rock On” by some guy name Michael Damian topped the charts in 1989, mostly because of its association with a movie starring the Coreys.)
In any event, “Drive” starts with a quiet, echoing acoustic picked guitar accompanied by a big Mike Mills bass over which a hushed, reverb-washed Michael Stipe sings, tossing in the “Rock On” reference in the third line.
Smack, crack, Bushwhacked
Tie another one to your racks, baby
Hey kids, rock and roll
Nobody tells you where to go, baby
And then as keyboards — perhaps an accordion, perhaps a synth — are added to the mix, Peter Buck switches from picking to strumming adding even more momentum.
What if I ride, what if you walk?
What if you rock around the clock?
And then Bill Berry’s drums come in on “tick-tock,” and you think that “Drive” has now built up momentum, but that’s not what they’re doing here. The great thing about “Drive” is that the arrangement continually adds and subtracts instruments, up to and including strings, arranged by John Paul Jones, transforming the Led Zeppelin subtext that had floated around their past couple records into text.
Along with the strings is a stinging Peter Buck electric guitar part, swooping in from nowhere and nearly dancing with the strings as “Drive” during the soaring bridge.
Hey kids, shake a leg
Maybe you’re crazy in the head, baby
Ollie, Ollie, Ollie, Ollie, Ollie
Ollie, Ollie in come free, baby
Hey, kids, where are you?
Nobody tells you what to do, baby
One of the things that makes that guitar part so memorable is that, after the bridge, it goes away and stays away, even as every other bit of the arrangement comes and goes.
Michael Stipe has said that “Drive” was about their support for the Motor Voter Bill — though there are references to soon-to-be-deposed President Bush 1.0 and eternal villain Oliver North — and Scott Litt, onboard producing his fourth consecutive R.E.M. album, said that the arrangement was inspired by Queen, and called it “bombastic,” though I don’t really hear that. I hear a variation of Quiet/Loud/Quiet, in this case LessQuiet/Quiet/LessQuiet, and I also hear a perfect intro to the sound of Automatic For the People,” the kind of album you could put on repeat in the middle of the night.
There was also a great video for “Drive,” all done up in black-and-white, featuring Michael Stipe crowdsurfing over a bunch of kids — one of whom was future R U Talkin’ R.E.M. RE: ME? podcaster Adam Scott (who I bet saw The Miss Alans in SLO at some point) — while the rest of the band was firehosed with water while being swarmed by the same kids.
Unlike the singles from Out of Time, none of the singles from Automatic for the People cracked the Top 20, and “Drive” peaked at number 28, probably because it was just too unconventional for the kids to fully get onboard with.
Also: interestingly enough, when R.E.M. played “Drive” in their rare live appearances and even on the post-Monster tour, they didn’t even bother with trying to replicate the studio arrangement, and went with a more funky, er, driving version. It wasn’t until after Bill Berry left the band that they went with the same arrangement they’d done on the album.
“Drive” Official Music Video
“Drive” live at the 1993 VMAs
“Drive” live in Charlston, 1995
“Drive” live in Germany, 2004
“Drive” live in Austin, 2008
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