Saturday, November 11, 2006

R.E.M. and U2

Via Falstaff, I just read this fine piece by Slate’s Dan Kois, comparing the careers of U2 and R.E.M. in the 1980s and 1990s. I love both bands, or used to back in the days when I actually listened to music and life was something more than a bleak wasteland littered with books and films: being more of an “albums person” than a “singles person”, I spent weeks on end being obsessed by, in turn, U2’s War, The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and yes, even the reviled Zooropa; and by R.E.M.’s Murmur, Out of Time, Automatic for the People, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Up and Reveal.

Am slightly more of an R.E.M. man overall, though I suspect U2’s superstar status/high profile has led some listeners to undermine the quality of their music, which has been extraordinarily good for close to 30 years now (they started off as a school band in the late 1970s). Also, much as I love Michael Stipe – his effete preciosity, his soporific voice, the obscure lyrics and some of the self-consciously campy things he does in music videos (watch “Lotus” or “The One I Love”) – Bono is still my pick for the world’s greatest singer.

At any rate, they are both great bands, their work taken together covers a vast spectrum and has enriched popular music immeasurably – so why not appreciate both instead of getting into the “R.E.M. vs U2” debate? You know, it's all about life’s rich pageant and so forth (that’s the title of an early R.E.M. album incidentally).

P.S. One point where I disagree with Kois is his casual brushing aside of R.E.M.’s achievements in the 1990s. That’s the period when they did some of their finest, most challenging work. On that note, do read this excellent piece by Jaideep Varma, from a 1999 issue of Gentleman magazine: “The World’s Finest Band: How R.E.M. went beyond the American Dream”.


  1. Aww! Now see what you did. Here I was trying to be all extreme and fan-like and you have to go spoil it all by being all reasonable and stuff. No fair.

    Also, Bono the "world's greatest singer"??!! Surely you jest. Even if we limit this to a) living b) men who are c) lead singers in d) non-defunct bands I'm still not sure I'd pick Bono.

  2. Well, actually I was limiting it to living men - and you can throw in "singers in the English language" while you're at it (because otherwise there's that Himesh Reshamiya fella - just kidding). But no question, Bono really is superb - and again, possibly underappreciated as a singer because of all his grandstanding/political posturing/adopting of stage personas like The Fly etc.

    More than one person has told me in recent days that I need to have my "reasonableness" beaten out of me with a barbed mace.

    Name your five favourite R.E.M. songs, dude.

  3. I, in the mode of Bruce Springsteen, am a big old U2 sentimentalist. "Uno, dos tres, catorce - one, two, three, fourteen: that is the correct math for rock and roll." Struggling to find my feet in a new city and a new job, it was the wheeling riffs and angelic falsettos of 80s U2 that kept me going, rooted in the half-real, half-imagined continents of The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum. And 90's U2 were my morning and evening ragas for months. I'd wake up to Mofo and go to bed with So Cruel.

    Bono's voice now - imho - seems to be a dreadful ruin of its old glorious self, but tasteless as it may be to adore him with all the posturing and sabbath economics and what not - I adore him.

  4. "i'm a bono and my name is rockstar". or is it the other way around? stipe vis-a-vis bono's always a better bet than stipe v/s bono. what one can do, the other cannot.

  5. It is like the musical version of Godwin’s Law.

    Godwin’s Law - As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

    Desi Version - As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Narendra Modi approaches one. [by Greatbong]

    Muscial Version - As a blog grows longer, the probability of a post on U2 approaches one. :)

  6. All this "world's greatest singer" business is basically confined to rock, right?

    Even if we only consider the English language we have all the jazz and blues musicians to reckon with, including Ray Charles, BB King, etc.

    In any case, unfortunately the British and the Americans neither have a stellar operatic tradition (which would have created a Domingo or Pavarotti), nor a robust folk tradition (producing the divine, divine Camaron de la Isla).

    So, barring jazz/blues, you're sort of restricted to looking for musical talent in rock and contemporary pop, which are rather limited to begin with.

  7. Swati,

    "Among the living male singers who perform mainly in the English language, Bono is my personal favourite." Is that better? :)

    Amit: ya, I saw that comment by GreatBong on the DesiCritics mail group. But are you hinting that my blog is long? Fie! Only 628 posts so far, averaging 700 words per post. Vyasa's Mahabharata is much longer.

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. Whitelight: why'd you remove the comment? You're allowed to express the opinion that both bands did little of note after the early 1990s - dissent being the spice of life and all that :)

  10. Albums on I.R.S Records were probably the best 80s could get. Aside the music it spawned the whole independent music scene, which has saved us from today’s world of corporate rock whores

  11. no, i thought i was repeating the things which were already said in the write-up. i read it after i had posted.

  12. It was already said in the Slate article.

  13. Your blog is not long long. I mean it has been around for some time now. That too in my timeline.

    I hope you keep writing these small posts regularly and someday, insa-allah, your blog will be longer than Mahabharata.

    Aan do, aan do!!

  14. And amongst all english singers, dead or alive, I rate U2 next only to Pink Floyd. You do know that no one can surpass David Gilmour in Comfortably Numb, right??

  15. World's greatest male singer in English ... what, you guys have never heard of ANU MALIK?!


  16. A thousand apologies, dude! I completely forgot about "It's raining, it's heart is paining, it's paining..."

  17. I'll give you Bono on "Pride" or "One" - even the most-lathered shower singers can only dream of perusing those notes-but Stipe's poignant clairty on "South Central Rain " or the even the wistful undertones in theunplugged version of " Find the River" give him my vote.
    peace to you. great site

  18. i'm more of a u2 fan than an rem junkie, one reason being u2 lyrics are more poetic than rem's. u2 are coming out with an album called "18" with -- you guessed it -- 18 songs as the syllabus for u2:101. really wish they would stop doing that. too many compilation albums of studio recordings make the band look boring.