Graham Reid | | 2 min read
When Green was released in late 1988, Allan Jones in Melody Maker said he was reminded “how much REM are the group that U2 so deafeningly want to be: visionary, bold and lucid, prophets of the slipstream, our first line of defence against the mediocre”.
That observation was itself lucid and bold, but you only needed to look at the relative positions of both bands at the time.
In '88 U2 were almost rudderless after their successes with The Unforgettable Fire and Joshua Tree. A month before Green was released they offered up their double album Rattle and Hum.
Although a big seller – not as big as expected however – it also showed the band desperately trying to give themselves some longevity by connecting with America (Angel of Harlem about Billie Holiday) and attaching themselves to coattails (the Beatles with Helter Skelter, the legendary Sun Studio where they recorded Angel of Harlem, Hendrix and Dylan with All Along the Watchtower).
It smacked of desperation and after touring with BB King they famously retreated to think the whole thing up again.
If U2 were wobbling internally, REM were well into their confident ascent.
Green was the first album after they got off the indie label IRS which had nurtured them and scored a US hit album with Document at the start of the year. But IRS couldn't get similar sales going in Europe so the band -- more ambitious than their public persona suggested -- walked and waited for the approaches to come.
With freedom came the bidding war from major labels and Warners got them for an unthinkable sum (think around US$10 million) and a sizable increase in their royalty payment which put them straight at the top of the big league. The band also had complete creative control and the master tapes of albums would revert to their ownership. It was a helluva deal.
But that major label clout saw Green go double platinum in US and everyone was rewarded.
Not bad for a band which, just three years previous, was struggling to get a gold disc despite critical acclaim.
Green was also one of the most interesting and diverse set of songs in their career – because the band swapped instruments to try and refresh themselves. But they also wrote some of their most commercial and invigorating songs, notably Pop Song 89, Stand and Get Up. The politics was still there – Orange Crush and World Leader Pretend – but so too was Stipe's gorgeously empathetic The Wrong Child.
And Peter Buck brought a mandolin into their sound which made them more interesting than stadium bluster rock, and it had a humanising quality.
Also, as Jones says in his liner notes to the expanded reissue of Green, the album ended with Untitled, “a whispered prayer for a wounded world – a song REM couldn't even find a title for, a song beyond such small considerations, something so true and blasted with vulnerable wonder, it doesn't need a name, a song that would be perfect whatever you called it”.
Document had prepared the way, but now REM went global on a massive scale.
Their follow-up Out of Time would sell twice as many, Automatic for the People even more.
Released on the day President Bush was elected to office, Green was curiously shot through with optimism, as if they had wrung the pessimism out of themselves on Document and wanted to offer solace and hope, and sometimes just the visceral, escapist thrill of high intensity rock (Turn You Inside Out).
The expanded 25th anniversary reissue – the original album remastered on one disc, a live set on the second which includes Belong and Low which came out on Out of Time, postcards and a poster – puts Green back into the spotlight, an album emblematic of how one-time college radio bands were now the mainstream (Nirvana's debut Bleach was released six months later) and, if anyone still needed reminding, a great album requires great songs.
Green had them.