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R.E.M.’s ‘Automatic for the People’: 10 Things You Didn’t Know

How an assist from Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, memories of summer skinny-dipping and a Meg Ryan studio visit played into band’s landmark 1992 LP.

By the dawn of the Nineties, R.E.M. had become that rarest of musical breeds: a globally famous rock band with integrity to match. During the course of the previous decade they parlayed their success as relentlessly gigging college-radio darlings into something far bigger, selling out stadiums while simultaneously avoiding the perils of actually selling out. By 1991, they had nothing left to prove. With grunge succeeding alt-rock as the cutting-edge musical movement, the band was able to pass their briefly held – and bothersome – “spokesmen of a generation” tag on to bands like Nirvana. R.E.M. settled into their roles as bona fide superstars and looked inward for emotion and inspiration. After forsaking the road following their massive 1989 trek, they embraced the studio, using their massive popularity as a license to make music for themselves.

The result was 1992’s lush, melancholy and strikingly mature Automatic for the People. The eighth studio album by Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry plays almost like a quarter-life crisis born out in musical form, with songs like “Try Not to Breathe” and “Sweetness Follows” ruminating on ageing and death, while “Nightswimming” and “Man on the Moon” turn nostalgia into something hazy and even surreal. While the band thought the LP lacked the same uptempo hit potential as some of their prior work, it reached Number Two on the Billboard charts, eventually going quadruple platinum in the U.S., and yielded some of the best-loved songs of their career.

In honour of Automatic for the People‘s 25th anniversary – as well as an upcoming reissue featuring unheard demos from the sessions – here are 10 little-known facts about R.E.M.’s masterpiece.

1. The initial demos were recorded without Michael Stipe.
When R.E.M. convened at their Athens, Georgia, rehearsal space on West Clayton Street in June 1991 to workshop songs for their new album, they did so largely without the presence of their lead singer and lyricist. To inspire creativity, the three remaining bandmates swapped their usual instruments – a strategy they had employed with great success during sessions for their previous LP, Out of Time. Bill Berry took up bass duties, Mike Mills would man the piano or keyboard, and Peter Buck often grabbed a bass or mandolin. Together they settled into a regular routine of musical brainstorming. “We’d write one on Thursday, tape it that night and never play it again,” Buck explained in Johnny Black’s Reveal: The Story of R.E.M. “Then, when we made the record, we had this list of about 25 songs.”

The first fruits of these rehearsals were aggressively in-your-face rockers, similar to those found on 1987’s Document. Of this batch, only one, “Ignoreland” made the final track list. But as the woodshedding progressed, the mood of the music began to change. “The stuff we ended up working on was the stuff that was more discordant, almost morose,” Buck told author Tony Fletcher in his book, Perfect Circle. The melody for what would become “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” emerged early on, as did “Man on the Moon” in a nascent form. It was, as Buck said, “a wide variety of material” that was presented to Stipe as instrumentals by the end of the year. The sonic shift was very apparent to the frontman, who described the new music as “pretty fucking weird” in an interview with Rolling Stone conducted just one day after R.E.M.’s first practice of 1992.

2. The album’s title comes from the slogan for an Athens-area fast food restaurant.

Buck originally wanted to call R.E.M.’s new album Unforgettable, a tongue-in-cheek nod to Natalie Cole’s album of duets with her legendary late father Nat King Cole, which had beaten Out of Time for Album of the Year at the Grammys that February. “I thought it was funny,” he told Tony Fletcher, but fear that others would read the title as “sour grapes” compelled the band to go back to the drawing board. Think Tank Decoy was briefly considered, and for a time Star (taken from the song title “Star Me Kitten”) was a serious contender. “Hence the object on the cover that Michael had photographed and really dug,” producer Scott Litt told Mojo, describing the retro decorative spire that graced the roof of the Sinbad Motel on Miami’s Biscayne Boulevard – not far from Criteria Studios, where much of the album was recorded. “It helps to have some kind of focus in the studio, so the photo was stuck up.”

The image would ultimately grace the cover of their next album, but the title was swapped for something a little less literal: Automatic for the People. At first brush, it read like a sarcastic comment on the band’s own status as a mainstream commercial entity, but in truth it held something of a sentimental meaning for R.E.M. The unusual phrase was the slogan of Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods, a laid-back Southern cooking establishment in Athens that had long been a favorite of the band. The words were found above the front door of the unassuming lime green building, which continues to house what Berry has called “the best soul food restaurant, in my opinion, in the South.” After receiving an order, wait staff respond with a friendly “Automatic!” before dishing up the food. For Mills, the earnest message made it a perfect album title. “It’s like, here’s some songs and we hope you like them,” he told Fletcher.

3. Michael Stipe can be heard laughing at his own poor pronunciation on “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite.”
A brief burst of comic relief on an otherwise contemplative album, “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” bears a large musical debt to the Tokens’ early Sixties hit “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” – so much so that R.E.M paid the band for the rights and recorded a full-on cover as the B side to the single release. “We included this song on Automatic in order to break the prevailing mood of the album,” Buck later said in liner notes for the compilation In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988–2003. “Given that the record dealt with mortality, the passage of time, suicide and family, we felt that a light spot was needed. In retrospect, the consensus amongst the band is that this might be a little too lightweight.” 

Part of the song’s charm lies in the fact that the lyrics are nearly impossible to decipher. Stipe’s distinctive vocal style mashes the line “Call me when you try to wake her up,” into something resembling “Calling Jamaica.” He attempts to sing “Or a reading by Dr. Seuss” in the third verse, but the shout-out to the children’s author becomes something approaching “Dr. Zeus.” Stipe literally laughed off his pronunciation difficulties; a stifled chuckle can be heard at 2:33 in the song.

Ever after the lyrics are decoded, their exact meaning still baffles both fans and the other band members. “I don’t know what that snake imagery is about,” Buck once told Melody Maker. “I’m just a fan.” Mills offered no more insight in the liner notes to Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982–2011, admitting, “I still don’t know what this song is about …”

4. Meg Ryan is responsible for the title “Star Me Kitten.”
“It’s a real perverse love song, demented, but it’s an endearing term,” Buck once said of the album’s ninth track. “It’s not about cats!” Initially known as “Hey Love,” the hypersexual tune came together in just 10 minutes during the rehearsal stage. But from these humble origins grew a formidable studio production, drawing inspiration from a 1976 hit by 10cc. “I was talking to Scott Litt about ‘I’m Not in Love,'” Mills recalled in Reveal. “I’d always loved the song and just the feeling of the background vocal sound; it was something we’d never tried. And Scott said, ‘I bet we can do something which has that sound.'” Litt had Mills sing a series of seven notes into a sampler, which were then entered into a mixing desk. Raising the fader on the desired note created the effect of a lush cushion of backing harmonies.

The song’s title had been changed to “Fuck Me Kitten” by the time of the final mixing sessions at Seattle’s Bad Animal Studios, but it got a name change courtesy of actress Meg Ryan, who was in town shooting the romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle. “Meg Ryan came by and she just loved the song, but she said, ‘You know, when I grew up, if the word “Fuck” was in the title and it was on the cover, I couldn’t buy it in my town,'” Buck told Rolling Stone in 1992. “And we thought, ‘That makes sense.’ You want to reach people. You don’t want someone to arbitrarily say, ‘You can’t hear this.'” Dreading a potential Parental Warning sticker they opted for a switch, but the band was turned off by the blatantly censored appearance of “F*** Me Kitten.” Instead, they tweaked it to “Star Me Kitten,” a wiseass compromise. “I don’t care about the word ‘fuck.’ I use the word in conversation,” said Buck at the time. “But if it means that some kid in Idaho can’t hear it, can’t buy it at the K-Mart …”

The track would get an awesomely bizarre second life in 1996 on the collaborative album Songs in the Key of X: Music From and Inspired by the X-Files. Joining the likes of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Danzig, Sheryl Crow, Foo Fighters and Elvis Costello, R.E.M. teamed up with Beat Generation hero William S. Burroughs for a new version, with the author reciting the lyrics while the band provided instrumental backing. The result was like something out of a Weimar-era nightclub. “It evolved from ‘Lili Marlene,'” a surly Burroughs notes during the intro. “Marlene Dietrich, not one of my favorite people but, that’s where it came from.”

5. “Nightswimming” was recorded on the piano used for “Layla.”
The album’s penultimate track was a rare case of the lyrics being written prior to the music. For Buck, Stipe’s words evoked jubilant summer nights when R.E.M. first began gigging around Georgia. “In Athens, people were real poor. Nobody had air conditioning, you’d go to a show and it’d be 105 in the club,” he recalled in Reveal. “You’d be completely soaked with sweat, dance the night away, and we’d all end up at this place … it was called Ball Pond. There’d be 50 people from the show [who] would go up there, take off all their clothes and go swimming.” 

While the memory might have sparked the initial idea, Stipe has since claimed that the words were less autobiographical and more of an impressionistic view of that uncomplicated time. “It describes something that I touched on a lot later on the record Reveal, which was kind of the summer as an eternity, and kind of an innocence that’s either kind of desperately clung onto or obviously lost, and that’s where that song goes. There are autobiographical elements to it, there are some lines in that song that come from real experiences, but most of it is made up.”

Regardless of their true meaning, Stipe’s words touched off a friendly competition within the band to compose the accompanying tune. Buck pitched in several melodies, two of which would eventually surface as “Drive” and “Try Not to Breathe,” but Mills penned the winning theme. “I wrote it on the piano at Criteria Studio, the same piano that Jim Gordon did the piano coda to Derek and the Dominoes’ ‘Layla’ on,” he said in Reveal. A close listen reveals definite sonic similarities between the two spiraling, celestial pieces. Despite the instrument’s legendary history, Mills later admitted that it posed something of a challenge to play. “It was tricky. It’s a great-sounding piano, but it’s, uh, not in the best shape of any piano I’ve every seen. But it had the provenance that you like in an instrument, and it was a thrill to play it.”

6. “Monty Got a Raw Deal” was written about doomed actor Montgomery Clift.
Many of R.E.M.’s American fans assumed the track was written about Monty Hall, legendary host of the daytime game show Let’s Make a Deal, but the “Monty” of “Monty Got a Raw Deal” was in fact the late matinee idol Montgomery Clift. Star of A Place in the Sun (1951) and From Here to Eternity (1953), the talented but deeply troubled actor was tormented by his closeted homosexuality as well as his desire for privacy in the very public world of Fifties Hollywood. Known for his smouldering good looks as well as his dramatic range, Clift was permanently disfigured in 1956 following a car accident after a dinner party at the home of Elizabeth Taylor, who arrived at the crash site and pulled a dislodged tooth out of her friend’s tongue. The scars – physical and emotional – were slow to heal, and Clift descended into a haze of prescription drug abuse that would contribute to his premature death a decade later at age 45. 

Stipe was inspired to write about the doomed actor when the band was visited in the studio by a photographer who had worked on The Misfits, one of Clift’s last films (and the last completed work of both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable). “He had photos from [the set] and he was talking about it,” Buck recalled in Rolling Stone. “How much of the song is real, how much of it is about Montgomery Clift and how much is about home, I couldn’t tell you. But we saw those pictures and, while we were recording it, Michael was talking about it.” The music was largely Buck’s, composed one sleepless night after being kept awake by some overly passionate neighbors. “I wrote the main riff on my bouzouki in the hotel room in New Orleans. I don’t know what the couple next door were doing – it sounded like an orgy.”

7. Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones arranged the strings on four of the album’s tracks.
Stipe’s dream of recording “Everybody Hurts” as a duet with Patti Smith failed to materialize, but “Scott Litt had heard some old string arrangements I did for Herman’s Hermits in the 1960s, so they got in touch,” Jones says in Reveal. The four demos were duly dispatched, along with “a nice little hand-written letter from Michael.” The elder musician was suitably impressed (“They were great songs, something you can really get your teeth into as an arranger,” he later told Uncut) and agreed to take on the assignment. When the composition was complete, R.E.M. and Jones convened in Atlanta’s Bosstown Studios to record the parts with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, conducted by George Hanson. “John Paul Jones was great to work with,” remembered Buck in Reveal. “He knows his way backwards and forwards on just about every instrument. He’s a great arranger and a super sweet guy.”

It wasn’t all business. When the gothic orchestral swoops were in the can, they found time for a little revelry. “We all swapped autographs, then went out to dinner, and for a few drinks, and a bit of old-style rock ‘n’ roll behaviour,” said Jones. “Not quite Led Zeppelin league, of course.”

8. The lyrics for “Man on the Moon” were written on the last day of recording.
Buck, Mills and Berry were particularly pleased with one of the first pieces of music to come out of their pre-Stipe demo sessions in the summer of 1991 – a laid-back acoustic strum that gave way to a hard-driving ascending refrain. Temporarily dubbed “C to D Slide” for its distinctive chord change – apparently an accident caused by Berry reaching for his beer – the band liked it so much that they recorded the instrumental backing and slotted it on the track lineup. The only problem? Stipe was stuck for words. “Michael just couldn’t think of anything to do but we knew it just had to be on the record,” says Buck in Reveal. “We’d made a sequence for the record with that song on it with no lyrics and we told Michael to go away for a week and write the lyrics.”

With the album nearly due, it was a particularly bad occasion for writer’s block. “I was under immense pressure to finish this one piece of music that the band loved,” Stipe recalled of the unpleasant time. “We had already recorded an album’s worth of material and I had run dry. I didn’t feel capable of writing another song, and I just told the band, ‘Give me a couple of days walking round Seattle with my headphones on to see what comes.’ I wrote a walking song really, which is ‘Man on the Moon.'”

The words appear almost as a found poem, juxtaposing references to the late comedic performance artist Andy Kaufman – and rumours that he faked his own death as the ultimate prank – with conspiracy theories, board games, and even the Seventies rock band Mott the Hoople in a manner that Buck later described to Rolling Stone as “a surrealist version of heaven.” Stipe himself remained vague on the precise meaning of the words, offering the circular explanation, “I didn’t intend it to be about anything; it just happens to be about Andy Kaufman.” The one inspiration he copped to is perhaps the least obvious. In an interview with MTV News, Stipe explained that the repeated “yeah, yeah, yeahs” were a nod to Nirvana, whom he teased for their gratuitous use of the word in their songs: “I told Kurt [Cobain] that I was going to write a song that had more ‘yeahs’ in it than anything he’d written.”

However the words came together in Stipe’s mind, the results passed muster with the band. “Michael came in with it, asked what we thought and we said, ‘Don’t change a word. It’s perfect,'” said Buck. The song was recorded the same day the completed album was handed over to the record label.

9. The video for “Everybody Hurts” was directed by Ridley Scott’s son, Jake.
Equal parts country lament and slow-burn Stax-style ballad, “Everybody Hurts” was born out of instrument swapping at the pre-Stipe rehearsal sessions. “Bill wrote most of it,” Mills recalled in Rolling Stone. “He came in with the chords on guitar. We were actually playing with Bill on guitar, Peter on bass and me on drums. It sounded terrible. We thought, ‘This sucks. Let’s demo it playing our own instruments, [and] play it right.'” Even then, the group was doubtful that the tune would ever see the light of day. “It took a few weeks of messing around, but we ended up with the template being one of those Otis Redding ballads with Steve Cropper doing an arpeggiated guitar part, something like ‘Pain in My Heart’ or ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,’ one of those kind of things.” Ironically considering his role in the song’s genesis, Berry himself barely plays on the album version of the track. Instead, Buck’s $20 Realistic drum machine keeps the metronomic beat.

Clearly an album standout, “Everybody Hurts” was released as a single in April 1993. For the accompanying music video, the band tapped Jake Scott, son of legendary Blade Runner filmmaker Ridley, to direct. The crew closed off a section of Interstate 10 outside of San Antonio for two days to stage a massive traffic jam, which engulfs a car driven by Stipe carrying his bandmates. In a reference to the Fellini classic 8 1/2, fragments of the character’s internal monologues are expressed through subtitles as they wait impatiently for the roads to clear. Ultimately, a messianic Stipe exits the car and leads a procession of weary road warriors off into the distance on foot.

The clip earned four Moonmen at that year’s MTV Video Music Awards, drawing the (faux) ire of the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch, who crashed the stage in his Nathaniel Hornblower persona to lobby on behalf of his band’s equally cinematic clip for “Sabotage.” Despite the protest, the award was well earned, and many noted Stipe’s acting talent. “Michael is probably the best artist I’ve worked with in terms of understanding his performance, even though he’s so insecure all the time,” Scott told Spin in 1995. “In ‘Everybody Hurts,’ he felt exposed and agoraphobic and I think that worked for the video. It’s rare that somebody has the confidence and awareness to look awkward and quite afraid in front of the camera.”

10. At the time, fans erroneously believed that Michael Stipe was near death.
The gruelling 11-month global trek in support of 1988’s Green had left R.E.M. exhausted, and they opted out of repeating the process for 1991’s Out of Time. The band continued to abstain from touring after the release of Automatic for the People, but the decision would have the unfortunate consequence of stoking a morbid rumour. Following the AIDS-related death of Freddie Mercury in November 1991, Stipe’s bony appearance caused the tabloids to speculate that he too was suffering from the autoimmune disease. Few thought twice when the politically vocal front man wore a baseball cap reading “White House – Stop AIDS” to the 1992 Grammys, but the decidedly dark, downbeat new album, filled to the brim with mediations on death, caused many to wonder. Now the notable absence from the road raised alarm among fans.

At a time, the little-understood illness was met with hysteria rather than facts the press. Mills was quick to shut down any such reports, dismissing them succinctly as “bullshit.” A greatly irritated Buck elaborated in Rolling Stone, saying, “What can you say about it? We’ve all been tested. We have tons of insurance, millions of dollars’ worth. Not that it’s somebody’s business, or that I care one way or the other what people think. But I know Michael passed the test just two months ago.”

Stipe himself reportedly hired a private detective in an effort to uncover the source of the rumours, but he was initially reluctant to discuss on the matter in public. “I was upset by it for about ten minutes and then I thought I realised where it came from and dismissed it,” he said later. “I decided not to answer it because I thought, number one, it was meaningless gossip, and number two, I really didn’t want to further stigmatise AIDS by stepping forth and saying, ‘I’m not in any way associated with this.'” Two years later, Stipe would speak further about the incident, and his sexuality, in an interview with Q. “I think AIDS hysteria would obviously and naturally extend to people who are media figures and anybody of indecipherable or unpronounced sexuality. Anybody who looks gaunt, for whatever reason. Anybody who is associated, for whatever reason – whether it’s a hat, or the way I carry myself – as being queer-friendly.”