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R.E.M. – Sitting Still


One of the best parts of being a pop music fan is the rare thrill of discovering, for the first time, a truly amazing artist. It might happen after listening to something someone recommended, or upon reading about a critically acclaimed new band.  Or it could be that rare occasion where you stumble upon something you’ve neither read nor heard about and it just sounds incredible. Whichever the case, there is nothing more joyous then that first listen where you hear the opening notes or chorus of a song and think “wow – this is AMAZING – I have to tell everyone about this.” For me, this happened when I first chanced upon the band that would go on to become the biggest alternative group of all time, R.E.M.

When I moved to New York City from Seattle in 1981 to attend university, I was paired at random in a communist-bloc-like dorm room with someone with whom I had almost nothing in common. I was from the West Coast, somewhat wet-behind-the-ears, and painfully earnest; my roommate was a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker with the snotty attitude to boot. We shared absolutely no common interests but for one: we were both music nerds with huge record collections. As much as I disliked my roommate, his terrible attitude and equally terrible taste in clothes (Sasson jeans anyone?), I LOVED his taste in music. His collection consisted largely of the latest import 45s from the UK, including all of the soon-to-be-chart smashes by ABC, Orange Juice, The Jam, and Soft Cell. These were bands that I had read about but had never heard, since they were at this time largely absent from US airwaves. And because he was from the city, my roommate knew exactly where all the great record stores were located, including the one that would become my go-to musical haunting ground for all of the 1980s:  St. Marks’ Sounds on St. Marks Place (8th street) in the East Village. Sounds specialized in selling discounted promotional versions of the latest hit albums  – i.e. the ones that were given free to radio stations and retailers – as well as indie and import singles. It was an amazing place, and I spent many a Friday afternoon taking the subway down from campus and then hours pouring through Sounds’ alphabetized racks of records.

On one such trip in the fall of 1981, my roommate purchased a 45 on the indie Hib-tone record label by a band from Athens, Georgia that he had read about in the Village Voice, then NYC’s pre-eminent alternative newspaper. Not wanting to look uncool, I decided to purchase a copy as well. We got back to our dorm room and immediately put the single on the turntable. The A-side, Radio Free Europe, was a percussive pop anthem that sounded great, much like a great lost single by The Jam, i.e. an American rock band version of Beat Surrender. We then flipped the record over and played the b-side, Sitting Still. It was a revelation.

A stunning melding of Byrds-esque folk harmonies and new wave syncopation, Sitting Still sounded like nothing else on the radio at the time. The verses steamroll along, veering between major and minor chords, building and percolating with ever increasing intensity until they culminate in the absolute knock-out beauty of the chorus and its refrain of “I believe in love.” I remember hearing the song at that moment and thinking, “what is THIS?” It was as if a band as harmonically astute as the Beatles and as punk-forward as the Ramones had emerged spontaneously and fully-formed from the ether. I was hooked.

Sitting Still and Radio Free Europe both ended up appearing two years later on R.E.M.’s first full-length major label album, Murmur, which topped most critics’ polls in 1983 as the best rock album of the year. The rest is history – two more critically acclaimed albums – Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction – followed by world-wide chart topping albums and top 10 singles and ultimately their greatest success in the early 1990s with the Out of Time album and the classic Losing My Religion. All of these subsequent records confirmed R.E.M.’s reputation as a band that created great, forward thinking alternative pop, but for me, their greatest moment was their first, on that b-side of the single I purchased in 1981. Sitting Still did not chart in either the US or the UK, but it still remains one of the band’s best. Remarkably that single, which I still own, is now worth over $1000.

remEntered chart:  did not chart

Who could sing this today and have a hit?   DNCE, maybe, although they sound more like the Cars than early R.E.M.  I hesitate to suggest One Direction once again, but they do embody the best parts of R.E.M. – the power pop melodic chops and harmony – and unlike R.E.M., you can actually understand their lyrics.

1 Comment »

  1. Great post about a great song. I always heard the chorus as “I can hear you” but one of the joys of early REM is trying to figure out what on earth Mr Stipe was saying most of the time and giving it your own spin.


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