I Took Your Name

May 27, 2008

Monster is essentially an album about identity — or more specifically, the fluidity of identity. “I Took Your Name” takes that core concept and pushes it to the most evil extreme: Malicious identity theft and deliberate, sadistic defamation of character. There are a handful of R.E.M. songs sung from the perspective of creepy individuals, but the character in “I Took Your Name” is the only one that is played as a straight-up super villain, right on down to the fact that he’s fairly obsessed with making sure that his nemesis is aware that HE is the one responsible for their downfall, like a bad guy in a James Bond movie. That’s pretty crucial, actually. Our antagonist here is defined by his vanity, and he’s overly concerned with style and affectation. Much of the song is about co-opting and corrupting the image of his rival, who I suppose we can glean to be some sort of rock star, given the references to Iggy Pop and master tapes. It’s a pretty funny song, actually — all of the character’s claims, however menacing, are a just bit skewed and over-the-top.

The arrangement echoes Michael Stipe’s delicate balance of the silly and the sinister, mainly by reprising the thick, heavy-handed tremolo effect of “Crush With Eyeliner,” but applying it to a much darker groove. Basically, if Peter Buck’s guitar effect on “Crush With Eyeliner” is a bit like the image of heat waves rising off of hot concrete, “I Took Your Name” is like the disorienting aftermath of getting hit in the head with a frying pan.

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34 Responses to “I Took Your Name”

  1. Brian Says:

    Matthew, this post is making me return to Monster. Thanks!

    Always loved the Iggy Pop reference too.

  2. Paul Alferink Says:

    Best Lyric:
    I’ll be your albatross,
    devil, dog, Jesus, God,
    I don’t wanna be Iggy Pop but if that’s what it takes, hey

    The driving forces in this are Michael Stipe’s Hyper- Aggressive persona, sneer-filled and gravel voiced vocal that largely makes the lyric irrelevant. Then, there is that riff. That riff, as a friend of mine used to say. “That’s a riff with balls on it.”

    About the lyrics, I don’t think the answer to the question “Who’s to Blame” is the Singer. I think the singers is pointing out that the person losing this identity is really at fault here.

    Take the first line. It could mean that the singer wore the clothes that the object wanted to wear, so now the object can’t wear them. Or it could be that the object wanted the singer to wear a certain outfit.

    Also, probably reading too much into the song, the albatross in the Rhime of the Ancient Mariner poem was a good creature that the Mariner shot for no reason, and as punishment, was forced to wear it around his neck.

    I also get a wierd David Bowie vibe. Maybe it’s the Iggy Pop reference (The Iggy Pop/David Bowie relationship is explored a bit (in inspiration) in the Stipe produced Velvet goldmine. Plus, the NASA refence and the numerous musician, and glam rock reference.

    Also, it could be read as the singer with a split personality of sorts. I mean, preformers put on persona. But where the persona starts and were it ends gradually become more and more blurred. So take an individual, a singer, if you will. He’s putting on the clothes to wear on stage to play this loud, crass, in your face stage persona. Gradually, though, he becomes famous. He can’t just be that person on the stage performing. Now he has to make appearance, so he has to be in character. He’s followed by paprazzi, so he can’t let his character down there. Groupies, fans, even newfound friends have all fallen in love with the persona. So the persona, self-destructive as it might be, has taken over entirely. Who’s to Blame? It what the individual wanted. He wanted fame. He wanted to be someone else on stage. Now he’s trapped. Who’s to blame?

  3. Patrick Says:

    My footnote: Special song for me – it was the first song R.E.M. performed live in South Africa. I was there. I caught the hat.

  4. milesy Says:

    It took a while for me to get into Monster. The band said they wanted to make a record they could take on the road, after two ‘studio’ albums. When I saw them in 95 it was this song more than any other that made sense of that comment. Beforehand, I’d hardly listened to I took your name; following the show, it became a must!

    @Patrick: so you are in CT I take it? I had to wait a few more days to catch the first Joburg performance; a great night it was too. Happy days…

  5. Ben Says:

    Hi,

    I’ve been reading this blog for ages and loving it, and finally my favourite song comes up.

    Just wanted to say that I love this interpretation. I always saw it totally differently. I saw it as a kind of revenge song, from the p.o.v. of a wife who’d taken her husband’s name when she got married, worn the clothes he wanted etc., then got screwed over and got her own back. I guess not all the lyrics support that interpretation, but it’s odd how you can get an initial impression of a song’s meaning and it sticks.

    Anyway…

  6. Jerad Says:

    This was also the first song I ever heard R.E.M. play at my first show in Hershey, PA in ’95. Michael came out on stage in a big fur coat and a hockey jersey. I still get good chills every time I hear that first tremolo-ed chord.

  7. maclure Says:

    When Monster first came out I was a bit frustrated this musically echoed Crush with Eyeliner so much and that MS was re-using “blame” after having only just sung about it in the previous track. It seemed to stink of album filler because of the lack of originality. Over time, I’ve gone to the opposite extreme and now think this song is essential and part of Monster’s steely backbone. I only started paying attention to the lyrics fairly recently but love the variety of imagery – master tapes, NASA, devil, god, Jesus, God, Iggy Pop. Regardless of the interpretation of the song (and Paul A may have a point above) the imagery is big, dominating, other-wordly and above all powerful. The soundtrack to a dark sci-fi that never was.

  8. Michael Says:

    I’ve been lucky enough to see REM 6 times now, and I’ve seen them open with this, What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? and Lotus. This is the best opener by a mile. When that riff kicks in, and Stipe is standing at the front of the stage looking all charismatic… it sends chills.

    It’s also a song where I think Michael Stipe’s delivery is far better live than on the album version (not that it’s bad on the album version). A feature of his live vocals in recent years has been the ‘shouty’ thing (see So Fast, So Numb, Man on the Moon, Living Well…) I don’t normally like this, it totally kills So Fast, So Numb for me. But I Took Your Name is the exception. When he raises his voice on the last line of each verse, it elevates the song to another level. It seems an appropriate vocal effect for a song that’s about power.

    My take on the lyric is that it’s a successor to Turn You Inside-Out. It’s power games on a massive scale. He’s in charge, and he wants everyone to know it (“if there is some confusion of who’s to blame…”

    I also think the song represents everything that’s great about Monster, and everything that made it an apparent disappointment at the time of release. It seemed too shallow, too crude and simple to follow the beauty of the likes of Nightswimming and Find the River. But ultimately, the years have revealed it, like much of Monster, to be classic. We just didn’t realise at the time.

  9. Michael Says:

    I’ve fallen prey to the rogue smiley…

  10. Dark Bob Says:

    I love this song. Arguably the most creepiest REM song to date. I really love Peter’s guitar on this track. Very dirty,grungy. This is also a cool song to listen to on headphones. This song and Circus envy are my favorites off Monster.

  11. Flor Says:

    I always liked this song but just recently it has become one of my favorites. The lyrics are hilarious and I love all the little sonic details.

  12. Jared W Says:

    Michael,

    I couldn’t agree more on the “shouty” comment. I usually hate when Stipe distorts several songs with it (and conversely takes it DOWN in a bad way on “that sugarcane, that tasted good…” in IOL). But, yeah, it works on I Took Your Name, especially when it’s a set opener.

  13. Patrick Says:

    Milesy – I was in Cape Town, yes. For both shows. I flew to Johannesburg for the first show there too. I’d been waiting long enough. It was too good to miss.

  14. maclure Says:

    I’m ready to close the book on Nestle and outer space…

    Just wanted to heads up the cow bell (I think that’s what it is) addition on verse 3. It just lifts the song nicely for the final third, I’ve always listened out for that understated Berry-esque touch…

  15. maclure Says:

    Excuse me twittering away here but has anyone else noticed that YouTube is turning into much more than a site for videos – people are uploading songs with a picture (album cover / band) and it’s not even as if the songs are rare or live – it’s just the album track with an image. Hmmmm. Anyway, just spotted that someone has been doing this with REM (is it one of you?) this month and here is the album version of I Took Your Name if like me you wanted to listen to the album version but were at work and didn’t have it to hand: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5U8qS4xnrp8

    Oh, and a personal tip. Someone has recently done the same for now defunct and totally underrated British band China Drum’s cover of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights. A must! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBviQXfuu3c

  16. Kirsten Says:

    Maclure-I’m so glad you mentioned that bell! It’s like the total descent from anger into complete insanity. Very fitting for this creepy little song. I always saw it as a bit of a companion/sequil to Circus Envy. My husband once said that Peter sounds out of tune – infact REM often do. Kinda made me like it just that little bit more…..

    Agree on the live ‘shouting’, too. It’s funny – I can’t remember the first song they played when I saw them live. It was quite possibly this one.

  17. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    This song, as has been mentioned, is better in its live format. My impression of this song, while probabaly wrong is similar to Ben’s in that I always viewed it as a spouse who changed their name, but for me some reason it was always a gay couple or a man who took the woman’s name – hence, it led to confusion, both gender confusion and by others in knowing what name to use. The song seems too aggresive and masculine to be from a female point of view. Plus, the timing was around the whole is Michael gay or not debate? Surely not correct, but still how I hear it every time. However, my idea was reinforced in my head when a good friend of mine who happens to be gay said his interpretation was actually similar.

  18. Chris Says:

    This has turned into one of my all-time favorite R.E.M. songs over the last couple of years. Nice writeup, Matthew. We need more songs sung by supervillains.

  19. DGL Says:

    Along with the 3rd-verse cowbell mentioned above, to me this song’s bridge is one of the coolest REM moments ever, with that wailing guitar note and descending bass part. Just perfectly, utterly glam.

    I also enjoyed Michael’s “shouty” take on some of the lines in the “REM Live” performance. What I didn’t like in that version was that I couldn’t hear the descending bass in the bridge. Come on, Mills. Give the public what it wants!


  20. Thank you for calling attention to that descending bass part — I didn’t really have a good way to get that in this post, but I really love that bit.

  21. profligateprofiterole Says:

    Bowler and Dray in the chapter about Monster, called, The Supreme Boner, refer to “the tolling bell in the background” that is “ominously prophetic”…”though Iggy Popp”—he of the ultimate bitter beer face–”is namechecked, ITYN is closer in tone to Sympathy For The Devil than anything by the Ig.” —that’s what it sounds like , a literal big heavy iron bell, not a cow bell……..just as my reference to the “cow bell” in Everybody’s Got Something To Hide ‘cept For Me And My Monkey a few days ago was incorrect; it’s a “shaken bell”, that’s George doin the shakin

    Monster got it’s name , according to Mike, “cuz it threatened to consume us all” .. there were dark mutterings surrounding the whole recording process

  22. lenny Says:

    It’s surprising to me that this post hasn’t got more attention (i.e. more comments). This is a really good song, and I think that the last 4 songs of Monster are probably the most underrated (or perhaps forgotten?) of the entire REM catalog.

    Whereas several bigtime fans really connect with “late in the album” tracks like “We Walk” “Wendell Gee” “Superman” “Oddfellows Local 151″ and “Find the River”, I think that the style of those songs really set them apart on their respective albums. On the other hand, all 4 at the end of Monster have a similar heavy, droning guitar that really makes them mesh with most of the rest of the album, and it causes the listener to look at them on the whole, instead of individually. So, if an oddball like Wendell Gee was at the end, it might make you take more notice. But, that’s just my opinion, for what it’s worth… (By the way, my favorite song on the whole album is “You”, which is just hauntingly beautiful.)

  23. DGL Says:

    I agree that those last four Monster tracks are highly underrated, but to me their similar sound is a bit of a problem. One of the things I don’t like about Monster is the fact that by the end I’m a little weary of all that grinding feedback.

    But you’re right that all those songs individually deserve a reappraisal, and the band seems to agree; they apparently played both “Let Me In” and “Circus Envy” at the Hollywood Bowl last night. Wish I’d been there for that…

    Now if they would just play “You.”

  24. DGL Says:

    Another lyric of note:

    “I dragged your big-ass Daddy Roth car out of the ditch.”

    Typically obscure reference from Stipe. I had to look it up.

  25. Paul Alferink Says:

    Yeah, not sure why the don’t play “You.” I love that song also. That pulsing guitar effect may not be recreatible live is my only guess.

  26. Michael Says:

    Here’s a live version of You from 1995: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u7TGkBrgoZI

    The video’s slightly out of sync with the sound, but it sounds pretty good. They’ve been pulling some unexpected nuggets out on the tour so far (Ignoreland, Harborcoat, Circus Envy), so who knows? We might see You yet…

  27. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I have a theory about You, I think it was written for River Phoenix and it is painful for Michael to sing it so it is avoided. This is purely a hunch, nothing to base it on.

  28. Kevin Says:

    One of my favorite tracks on the much-maligned Monster. Then again, I’m also a Bob Dylan, so I have a soft spot for “Fuck You” tracks.

  29. Kevin Says:

    Uh, Bob Dylan FAN. Not a Bob Dylan. Sorry about that.

  30. Patrick Says:

    We’re all a bit of Bob Dylan Kevin. Or is Bob Dylan a bit of all of us?

  31. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    The answer my friend is blowing in the wind . . .

  32. Paul Alferink Says:

    According to the movie I’m not there, Bob Dylan is really a whole bunch of people. So Kevin really could be a Bonb Dylan

  33. profligateprofiterole Says:

    I can’t believe I’m uttering these words but, …..I think I just heard that same bell at the very end of Wrong Child (!) Somebody tell me I’m not deranged……

  34. RedParakeet Says:

    Why is the tremolo never used when it’s played live but it is on C.W.E. when that is live? That’s odd. I always have the tremolo on my amp when I play it on my guitar.


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