Tag Archives: How the West was Won and Where it Got Us

Give some to the bass player, part 4 – How the West was Won and Where it Got Us by R.E.M.

Bill Berry: My favourite song is probably How the West was Won and Where it Got Us.

Mike Mills: Do I have a favourite song? […] It’s probably How the West was Won and Where it Got Us.

Scott Litt: There’s one called How the West was Won… they’ve probably talked about this.

Peter Buck: At this point in my life, How the West was Won and Where it Got Us is probably my favourite song, because we just wrote it a week ago.

These quotes are from a documentary made at the time of New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Michael Stipe was unavailable for comment, presumably. I assume the question was “What’s your favourite song on the New Adventures in Hi-Fi?”, rather than a more general one about the band’s whole back catalogue, but it’s pretty clear that band and producer knew what they had with How the West was Won and Where it Got Us as soon as they’d finished it.

Mike Mills had always been crucial to the arrangements on R.E.M.’s records, particularly in their first few years (between, say, 1982-85), as he was probably the group’s most accomplished musician early on. His bass lines – whether driving (eg Carnival of Sorts) or melodic (eg Radio Free Europe) – frequently carried whole songs. He also decorated the songs with piano (Shaking Through) and was almost as recognisable a vocal presence on the songs as Stipe himself.

But it’s easier to gauge his importance in those terms than by saying which songs he wrote, as R.E.M. have never revealed too much about that. Their credits were always split equally between band members (one of the reasons they lasted 30 years as a group). Specifics of composition seldom got talked about in public. Of course, we know that Losing my Religion began with a Peter Buck mandolin riff. It was often said, and has been confirmed by Mills, that Berry was responsible for the bulk of Perfect Circle and Everybody Hurts. But who would have assumed the guitar-heavy What’s the Frequency Kenneth was written by Mills rather than Buck? Yet it was so.

But to return to How the West was Won and Where it Got Us, it’s a pretty great example of the importance of Mike Mills to the band’s sound, since he wrote and performed the main piano riff and the discordant piano solo, as well as playing bass guitar and synth on the track.

It’s a muted opener for a big record, and New Adventures was a big record. The group had just signed an $80m record contract. There’s a certain sod-you quality to leading off with something off-kilter and brooding with a piano solo inspired by Thelonius Monk, something that doesn’t sound like the average fan’s idea of what an R.E.M. record should be. This can only be applauded.

The song’s bass line is determinedly minimal, with a verse part built on just five notes, phrased to basically follow the piano and leave wide open spaces for Berry’s drum groove. Very astute. The chorus is recognisably more Millsian – it’s more legato, with more notes, almost straight eights, in fact (possibly the verse is Buck on bass; he’s miming the bass in the video).

There are other things that make it one of the finest R.E.M. tracks. The “ennio whistle” played by Berry. The intricate drum pattern (again, Berry – one of his finest moments, too). Michael Stipe’s ear-grabbing interjections at the end of each chorus – a more singerly singer might have ruined these, afraid to be so naked. Stipe just puts them out there: part shout, part cry, part whimper, and not a little bit out of tune. Yet they are crucial to the song’s success, releasing all the tension built up by the coiled music. Not so much a case of Give some to the bass player, then, as Give some to everyone.

r.e.m1996
R.E.M. circa New Adventures; l-r Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe

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Laughing – R.E.M.; or, Bill Berry takes Peter Buck to the disco without Peter even realising it*

There’s so much I could say about one of my favourite tracks off one of my favourite albums of all time (Laughing, from Murmur, R.E.M.’s 1983 debut record), but as with Roxy Music’s More Than This a few weeks back, I’m just going to talk about the drum track.

There’s a line that Peter Buck’s spun off in a few interviews down the years, when talking about the bad advice R.E.M.’s members were given by well-meaning but clueless folks who thought they were being helpful. According to Buck, they’d tell the band they should get some disco drums on their records (and girls in bikinis in their videos, and so on). To which Buck would add as commentary something like, ‘Disco drums? On Murmur? Really?’ (A variation on this now well-worn Buckian riff is at the end of this interview here: http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/rem-find-a-return-to-their-religion/story-e6freomx-1226015997695)

I always wonder what Bill Berry makes of this, if indeed he’s aware of it. For, like so many other drummers in the rock underground in the early 1980s, Berry spent half his time playing disco drums.

OK, for Buck’s benefit, and maybe some readers’, the standard rock drum part divides the bar into eight semi-quavers (8th notes), which are typically played on the hi-hats or ride cymbal. The bass drum is played on the one and the three (the on beats), the snare drum on the two and the four (the backbeats). Sometimes the bass drum is played on both one and one and a half, giving a distinctive ‘boom-boom tssch, boom-boom tssch result’ (which nowadays I can’t help but think of as the ‘Neil Young beat’).

If you switch to playing the kick on every crotchet, so you’re playing four bass drums to the bar (‘four to the floor’ as it’s often known), now you’re playing disco. You’re playing Billie Jean, Boogie Wonderland and Stayin’ Alive. That’s the rhythmic basis of all disco music. It might sound even more like disco if you play 16th notes on the hi-hats (alternating left and right hands) – now you’re playing Chic’s I Want Your Love and Odyssey’s Native New Yorker.

Bill Berry plays disco figures on three out of five of the songs on the Chronic Town EP (Wolves Lower, 1,000,000 and Stumble), on five of the songs on Murmur (Radio Free Europe, Laughing, Moral Kiosk, 9-9 and West of the Fields), on four of Reckoning‘s songs (Harborcoat, Pretty Persuasion (before the final verse), Letter Never Sent and Little America), and on two on Fables of the Reconstruction (Life and How to Live It and Can’t Get There From Here, although he gets surprisingly close, too, on on the ruminative, banjo-fied Wendell Gee). After 1985, disco figures almost entirely disappear from Berry’s drumming repertoire and R.E.M. became notably less light on their feet.

Berry used his disco licks cleverly. His favourite trick was to play disco during the verse and then get propulsively ‘rock’ for choruses. I don’t know whether he picked this up from bands like Wire and Gang of Four or whether it just came naturally to him, but it’s the defining rhythmic quirk of R.E.M.’s early work, much of which ranks as their best (my pick of the later records would be Automatic for the People and New Adventures in Hi-fi, but really my heart belongs to Murmur and Fables.

Laughing deploys all of these tricks. The intro figure vaguely recalls Stewart Copeland (as do some of the reggaeish fills at the start of each verse) before settling into classic disco, with cymbal hits along with the snare drum on the two, giving displaced emphasis to the chord changes. A notable feature is how much space the three players give each other. Mike Mills – often doubling his bass part on single-note piano – defines the song’s chord structure while Buck plays double tracked arpeggios and Mills sustains his root note. It’s all very spare. Buck only starts stumming once Berry switches to a straight rock feel in the pre-choruses. Mills stays relatively sparse (once again) for the first pre-chorus, but second time around brings in a great walking pattern, to lead into the ascending line of the choruses (which again is doubled on piano, a recurring trick on Murmur).

After the middle eight, there’s a half-chorus, where Berry plays his ace: he sticks with four-to-the-floor disco, giving the chorus a whole different kind of movement than it had before. But his final move – and it’s a triumphant one – is to switch to the ride cymbal (from the hats) for the last line of the final chorus, lifting the song to its peak. It’s a masterclass in how to arrange a drum part and shows how well considered the rhythm tracks were on early R.E.M. records, compensating for Buck’s – at this stage – slightly limited guitar work.

As Buck became a more resourceful and more accomplished player, the rhythm section had to work less hard and their standout moments became fewer and further in between, although I remain very fond of Berry’s muscular drumming on These Days and The One I Love, Mills’s bass playing on Losing My Religion, the rhythm-section arrangement on Drive and the all-time career highlight How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us, from New Adventures. If you’re only familiar with R.E.M.’s later records and have always focused mainly on the contributions of Michael Stipe’s vocals and Peter Buck’s guitar, give their early records a listen and join me in doffing your cap to R.E.M.’s covert Mr Disco, Bill Berry.

 

*I’m being somewhat glib. Peter Buck is, above everything else, a music fan. I’m sure he recognised a disco figure when he heard one. It’s just strange that, in the light of Berry’s heavy reliance on such techniques, Buck considered the suggestion that R.E.M. incorporate disco drums to be bad advice.

Can I trouble you to listen to my new EP, Last Swallow?