R.E.M. had finally hit the so-called big time with Out Of Time, a largely acoustic album of love-inspired songs that showcased the band’s penchant for melody, harmony and intelligence. So how to follow it up? Why, release one of the most downbeat songs of the band’s career as the lead single to an album about death, of course!
mp3: R.E.M. – Drive
JC and I (and numerous commenters) have mentioned the bizarre habit of releasing the most unlikely or unrepresentative songs as singles that plagued R.E.M. throughout their career. I mean, even their debut single wasn’t the mix they wanted! When I heard Drive, the first taste of the band’s eighth studio album, I was horrified, yet at the same time, not entirely surprised. This was as dark and maudlin as the band had ever sounded. Yet, after a couple listens, it had grown on me hugely.
In spite of its rather gloomy nature, there’s something about Drive that is undeniably catchy. It may be no coincidence that it has been compared to David Essex’s Rock On – the line “Hey kids, rock ‘n’ roll” seems pretty blatant. The truth, however, is that the line was written as a homage to the song Stop It! by Pylon (them again); its entire lyric consists of repetitions of the lines “Don’t rock ‘n’ roll, no” and “Hey kids!”
What might also come as a shock is producer Scott Litt’s revelation that Drive’s arrangement was heavily inspired by a band that both Mike Mills and Peter Buck were big fans of – Queen. Yep, THAT Queen. “Queen records, for all their bombast, sounded like each player had a personality,” Litt explained. So, Pylon, David Essex and Queen, then. All of a sudden, Drive becomes one of the most intriguing songs in the R.E.M. canon.
As for those lyrics, well according to Mills: “[it’s] just telling kids to take charge of their own lives. Among other things,” while Buck claimed: “It’s a subtle, political thing. Michael specifically mentions the term ‘bush-whacked’.” He also uses the word “baby” which I’ve always thought is a term you have to be careful of using if you want to be considered a serious songwriter. Maybe Stipe is using it in its more hipster way, where “baby” is everyone rather than the object of one’s affections. That would fit with the song, but I can’t be sure. That aside though, it’s Stipe’s delivery and the rhythm of his vocals that actually make Drive a bonafide pop song, even if it really doesn’t sound like it at first.
With hindsight, it’s easy to understand why Drive was the first choice of single. It certainly introduced the mood of Automatic For The People to audiences, though it remains a mystery why an album whose primary theme is death became one of the decade’s biggest-selling records and the one most people still associate R.E.M. with.
Drive was released in the UK on the 1st October 1992. It entered the charts at #11 in its first week, making it the band’s second-highest position. It dropped the following week and disappeared from the Top 40 altogether before the month was out. In truth most of the sales in that first week was probably due to the plethora of formats and fans like me wanting to own them all.
The 7” and cassette had World Leader Pretend from Green on the flip. Clearly the label was still trying to flog that album to new fans! The standard CD format added the Leonard Cohen cover First We Take Manhattan. This first appeared the previous year on the superb Cohen tribute album ‘I’m Your Fan’. It’s one of the best covers R.E.M. ever did, and arguably one of the best covers of a Leonard Cohen song by anybody (JC adds…..I’ll second that!!!)
For fans, however, the CD single was a tad disappointing as it didn’t contain anything we didn’t already have.
The second (so-called “Collector’s Edition”) CD was heaps more interesting. As well as the title track and the Cohen cover were two unreleased songs. It’s A Free World Baby was a song recorded for ‘Out Of Time’, but cast aside. Peter Buck subsequently stated that he cannot understand why they decided not to include it (and Fretless, another song that will be discussed in due course) on ‘Out Of Time’. One theory is that its lyrics never really fit with the album’s overriding theme of love. It’s also a bit quirky in its structure, Mills’ bassline being the dominant instrument. It’s not unlike Belong in my opinion, especially when you get to the uplifting chorus. Maybe that’s why it didn’t get included – two similar songs and Belong was the better fit. Nonetheless, many fans feel this song shouldn’t have been relegated to b-side status, and its subsequent appearances on the soundtracks for Friends and Coneheads further added to our exasperation. And then there’s the use of “baby” again…
To round it all off, the second CD also contained Winged Mammal Theme. Now this is one of those R.E.M. b-side instrumentals they often did, only unlike many of the others, this one does deserve at least one listen. It’s like the band is attempting to write their own theme for Batman – it even contains one member (not sure who) singing “Batman” in the background! It’s led by Mills on piano, and while it can’t be said to be any serious attempt at creating an album-worthy song, it’s passable and mildly amusing.
Nerd corner: Finally, my research has revealed that Discogs lists a UK 12” of Drive. There are three reasons why I’m certain no such item exists:
1) I’d have it if it did, and I don’t!
2) I was working in Our Price at the time and made sure a copy of every format was reserved for me!
3) UK singles chart rules permitted a maximum of four formats per single release to be eligible for a placing. With the 7”, cassette and two CDs, a fifth format would have impacted on the chart position as one format would not have been counted.
I therefore conclude that the listed 12” – which purports to contain the same tracks as the standard CD single – was never released in the UK. However, a European release was made on 12”, and I reckon that’s where the confusion lies.