Growing up in rural Ireland in the early ’90s meant one thing.
The fashion, culture and music around you were invariably shit.
There was nowhere for decent coffee, for a kick-off, there was also no place in which a young man could imbibe in the finest of Irish stouts. There were bars, but on the basis that we were warned not to even walk past most of them, the idea of drinking in one was altogether a different prospect.
One that would end with you face down in a drain somewhere, safe spaces these were not.
The remaining establishments, well, let’s say I could walk into any number of them now, 20 years later, blindfolded and still be able to tell you who is sitting where. They are those kinds of joints.
Lots of booze, lots of laughs, lots of jovial stories and camaraderie, but they perhaps might need a lick of paint and a younger clientele, or maybe an outreach venue at a retirement home up the road.
There was certainly nowhere to buy anything that looked like decent clothes unless you wanted to shop in the same place that sold school uniforms and a selection of wildly inappropriate flags.
We were all, essentially, square.
There were, in Antrim, one of three options for the consumption of music. The first was Clublands trance cassettes from nearby Cookstown, another rural town that had nightclubs by dint of the fact that it was kind of the middle of other small places and had a market.
People congregated there, and for reasons that remain as yet unknown or perhaps unexplored, they consumed vast quantities of MDMA and danced to really shit trance music in tacky nightclubs slash barns.
The second was country music collections from Ballymena, yes, another rural town, but this time one filled to bursting point with evangelical protestants. Those same God-fearing ladies and gentlemen would never accept anything that sounded like it was produced by a Scooter, whatever the hell that was, and could only accept music if it were produced by one Philomena Begley, or Uncle Hugo and no, you don’t need to Google them.
The third and final option was bad rock music, think Bon Jovi or Nickleback piped loudly through the sound system of a Ford Cortina with its windows down on its 47th lap of said market town… Brothers and Sisters, we are gathered here today to hear the communal confession of one Christopher Flack, of Co Antrim.
I can only apologise in advance, dear reader.
As a teenager, I spent some time listening to Bon Jovi. The nearest thing we got to something exotic was listening to Van Halen and David Lee Roth and those were only on days when Glen and Geraldine weren’t working and had the car, yes, the Ford Cortina.
Now I don’t want to besmirch the good name of David Lee Roth, nor question his work either independently or with Van Halen, but in Antrim in the early ’90s, it didn’t really do much for this writer. Nor did Bon Jovi.
But then it was the mid-’90s and music everywhere was about to change. Even in Antrim.
I was blessed in many ways to be friends with the Melly clan. Seamus, Roisin, Clare and Anne, the most wonderful family you could hope to meet, they brought me in as one of their own and taught me many things, primarily about human communication and picking up wildly obvious hints that I was continually missing.
They also taught me about music.
What I learned very quickly was that while I had met Seamus in school, Anne and Roisin, in being the elders of the clan, had spectacular taste in music. It was through the Melly clan that I discovered REM and Monster. It was, if you remember, the Melly Clan that arranged the bus to Slane Castle, to REM, the same clan that made the magic of seeing REM with 95,000 screaming, jumping, singing lunatics in a field in County Meath a reality.
The Melly Clan were my gateway drug, and what a trip it was.
My ears were open to things I’d never heard in Ford Cortinas, Radiohead, Pulp, Beck, Eels, The Charlatans, Primal Scream, it made me look to Manchester, it made me look to Sheffield, it made me look anywhere that wasn’t the ‘Bailiwick Lounge’, the Castle Centre and Antrim.
But the big record, the one that floored me, was Monster.
I’d listened to some REM stuff with the Melly clan previously, but nothing quite dragged me in quite like Monster. They had released Out of Time and Automatic for the People, both of which had more or less made it to Antrim, but the first few chords of What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? well, they blew the bloody doors off.
What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? was so different from anything I’d hear that it stunned me. If I haven’t heard it for a while, those same chords do the same thing now. There’s a rush of adrenalin, a quickening of the heart, the spine-tingling, hair on the back of the neck standing joy of something that has given you so many memories, given you so much joy in its 25 years and yet it still sounds young.
What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? was the first song they played when they stepped onto the stage at Slane, given the trials and tribulations of the Monster tour, no one was really convinced they were going to appear on stage until they did. Those first few chords. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the pandemonium. The elation.
Monster was the REM rock record. Bill Berry wanted noise and Bill Berry got what he wanted. REM had never done gritty, they’d never done sex, they’d done ballads, grunge and garage scuzz, this was something else.
It was a statement of intent, yes they were still REM but the Emporer had thrown out the wardrobe department and gone down to the fancy dress store, dug out an Elvis costume and was ready to rock and roll.
Monster seemed designed for the tour REM wanted, it was designed for huge crowds, crowd surfing, singalongs, sashaying, swaying and letting it all hang out. They hadn’t toured since 1989, since the idiosyncratic Green.
This had to be huge.
There were one hundred and sixty-five shows scheduled across the globe. Between aneurysms, appendices, hernias, ill health and a host of other problems they managed to play one hundred and thirty-five in all if you exclude the rearranged and shifted dates across Europe.
That the album was given a huge tour, that it was given all the bells and whistles, the visuals, and the on-stage dinosaurs, was befitting of a record that changed the world view of the four gentlemen from Georgia.
Gone was the gentle restraint of strings and mandolin, replaced by fuzzy distortion, aggressive pace, amps turned all the way up and a sense of urgency REM hadn’t really displayed before. Not that this wasn’t an REM album, this was very much an REM album it was just wrapped up in a very different package.
If their success had come at a cost, and it could have, this was about saying something different. Every track is a step further away from the mandolins, a step further away from the vocal sound and the harmony, this was deeper, darker, angrier almost. This was an album that was dragged kicking and screaming through three studios, emergency rooms, tooth abscesses, and the tragic deaths of River Pheonix and Kurt Cobain.
What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? related to a vicious beating CBS’ Dan Rather suffered at the hands of unknown assailants in New York City, in the video we see a bald Michael Stipe for the first time. He had not only shorn the locks but the look of the two previous records.
A lot of the content of Monster was about the pressure of celebrity, something that Stipe baulked at and fought against at every given opportunity, he was ever known to be a difficult read at interviews, only too happy to take swipes at writers and journalists alike.
In a world that had Green Day and Oasis, Monster sat somewhere happily in the middle, bringing the audience of earlier records along for the ride in a guitar-laden truck through the heart of middle America. while it didn’t quite make the same kind of noise commercially as the previous two records it was enough to win headline slots at festivals and pull off the massive tour that almost killed them.
It also produced New Adventures in HiFi, recorded while on the road, a record that suggests that if you think you have enough to do, you could probably fit a bit more on your plate. Say nothing of the $80 million record contract signed off the back of it, a contract that was considered to be the biggest in the world at that moment.
Monster is a record that smashes at the idea of the artist as a commodity, something you can contract. In Crush with Eyeliner Stipe lashes out at reinvention, at creating an identity for the camera, for MTV. And Thurston Moore chimes in to sing “I’m the real thing” in an effort to prove the point.
King of Comedy sounds like the most polished, the most commercially ready, though I’ve always felt that was done on purpose, its almost as though Stipe & Co are taking the piss. It opens with the lines “Make your money with a suit and tie, Make your money with shrewd denial, Make your money expert advice, If you can wing it” and ends with the refrain I’m not a Commodity repeated into the ether.
The sex references come in on I Don’t Sleep, I Dream, yet it’s not sexy per se, it’s a little creepy, a little gross perhaps, it might be another suggestion that people look at you differently when you travel with a crew and a record contract. As a line, Are you coming to ease my headache? Do you give good head? Am I good in bed? hardly needs any further description from me.
Star 69 is about an obsession with a phone stalker, the last call return, the constant need for attention, it’s seedy for all the wrong reasons, gritty, grimy. It’s almost unpleasant but gloriously noisy. Strange Currencies is a song about lost love, broken hearts, maybe, somewhere, its a song about what happens when you finally talk to that stalker on the end of the phone.
If rumour is to be believed Bang & Blame could be about River Pheonix, it could also be about any number of relationships Stipe had, the anger in “The whole world hinges on your swings, your secret life of indiscreet discretions” is a call for openness, it’s needy, longing, maybe it is about loss. The one thing we can be assured of with the vast majority of Stipes lyrics is that we will never really know what he’s talking about.
For me though, one of the highlights of the album is perhaps the quietest track of the 12, Let Me In is a song, rather cheerily, about death, about the death of Kurt Cobain, about loss, suffering, and heartbreak. The third verse is a lesson in singing about suicide, about loss, the lines flow in such simplicity yet they give a real in-depth look at the impact of Cobain‘s loss on Stipe, on the band, on a world of music that was in flux.
I had a mind to try to stop you
Let me in, let me in
And I’ve got tar on my feet and I can’t see
All the birds look down and laugh at me
Clumsy, crawling out of my skin
On Let Me In Mills guitar is almost lost, gentle, misty almost, a little on the shoegaze side, if Berry is in there it’s lost on my ear, and has been since my first listen; on Let Me In it’s the Buck organ that brings you along with the lyric, it’s the organ that gives the track its soul and its sadness. It is beautiful.
I’m not often drawn to buying anniversary releases but the package that accompanies the Monster edition is very tempting. It comes as a five-CD, one-Blu-ray deluxe box set that includes the original album, a 2019 remix from Monster producer Scott Litt, unreleased demos and a live recording from a 1995 performance in Chicago.
The Blu-ray disc offers high-end recordings of the lot and a host of video content including the film Road Movie, documenting the tumultuous 1995 tour, and all six music videos from Monster. There is a portfolio book, with liner notes by Matthew Perpetua and unseen photographs. There will be vinyl too, if thats your thing.
Now, where is my money box?