Welcome To The Occupation

April 12, 2007

The next time you listen to “Welcome To The Occupation,” try to imagine it without any drums at all. The character of the song changes considerably, revealing itself to be a bleak folk song about American intervention in Central America buried beneath booming arena rock percussion. The effect is surprisingly subtle. Instead of drowning out the tune, the heavy beat adds emphasis and momentum to a composition that might otherwise feel too still and quiet for its own good. It’s important to note that this is the third time Michael Stipe wrote about this topic — “Green Grow The Rushes” and “The Flowers Of Guatemala” cover similar ground, though their lyrics are rather vague — and he seems rather unwilling to sacrifice his message to intentional obscurity. Despite his obvious disapproval of the exploitation of South and Central Americans and their land, the song is mainly addressed to North Americans who are either unaware or forgiving of these short-sighted, destructive policies. The frustrated sentiment of the song and its studio arrangement is underlined repeatedly at its conclusion: “Listen to me, listen to me, LISTEN TO ME, LISTEN TO ME.”

28 Responses to “Welcome To The Occupation”

  1. Michael Says:

    I feel like I have heard this song without drums. Anyone? Their unplugged session perhaps–or maybe that weird R.E.M. compilation that came out a few years back. I am woefully inarticulate this morning. It was green, had a slipcase, and had “Tired of Singing Trouble” on it. Anyone? By the way, this song is fantastic.

  2. dan Says:

    probably their unplugged session, which i’m not familiar with. it’s not on the [i]in the attic[/i] comp you mention (though there is a really nice acoustic version of “disturbance at the heron house.”)

  3. Star79 Says:

    You are thinking of “In the Attic”, from the I.R.S. years, and it doesn’t have a version of “Welcome To The Occupation”.

  4. There’s an acoustic version of it from the same show that included a few of the acoustic versions on the In The Attic cd floating around, but it’s pretty rare. I wouldn’t recommend it, honestly. I’m definitely a fan of the big drums. They didn’t perform it at either of their MTV Unplugged sessions.

  5. wolfy Says:

    It could also speak about Iraq NOW.

  6. Evan Says:

    Is it too obvious to point out the double meaning of “occupation,” and that the lyrics could also be read as a comment on work (“Hang your collar up inside/Hang your dollar on me”) — even, like a lot of other songs on Document and Green in particular, on R.E.M.’s own professionalization? Seems like Stipe’s fusion of this with the geopolitical theme works as a sort of precursor to Malkmus’ “career/Korea” wordplay on “Cut Your Hair.”

  7. iamsmitten Says:

    The “intentional obscurity” as you say … Stipe’s lyrics are driving me crazy all through my life.

    By the way, nice blog, Matthew!

  8. James Says:

    “like a lot of other songs on Document and Green in particular, on R.E.M.’s own professionalization?”

    Sounds like you may be on to something. “Disturbance At The Heron House” strikes me as a parable (in an Orwell/Animal Farm sort of way) about a culture (like, say, “college rock” or a bunch of zoo animals) being chased and lead by the big business dollar. But I could be reading wayyyyyy to much into that.

    And “Exhuming McCarthy” is a more obvuious example.

  9. 2fs Says:

    By the way: I don’t know if you’ve read J. Niimi’s entry on R.E.M. in the 33 1/3 series (specifically, on Murmur – but if you haven’t, I highly recommend it…although maybe wait until you’ve finished this series!

  10. Yeah, I have read that book.

  11. Justin Says:

    One of my all-time faves, though I’ve never imagined it that way. I will next time. I’ve been greatly enjoying the blog!

  12. Jack Says:

    This is one of my all-time favorite REM songs. They played it when I saw them in ’95 which came as a total shock, since I always thought of it as a “lesser known” REM tune. Really enjoying the blog, and relieved to know I’m not the only one who grew up with the band but still loved Monster and Hi-Fi.

  13. Yeah, “Occupation” has been a surprising setlist staple — it’s been a regular on most of the tours since it was written. I saw them play it a couple years ago at Madison Square Garden for the Around The Sun tour.

  14. Mellow Jazz Docent Says:

    Matthew, thanks so much for doing this. Have been reading you since back in the Pavement Message Board days. I’m studying today and am listening to all the mid- to later albums chronologically starting with Green. Way back when I was in high school (84-88), R.E.M. were my first musical obsession. I was lucky enough to see them several times back in the day and even got to meet and hang with them on a couple of occasions. It’s always great when your heros are genuinely kind people.

    Anyway, like many others from the old days, I sort of lost interest sometime around Out of Time and really did not give the later stuff much of a chance. I re-assessed a few years ago, but I’m enjoying listening to this stuff again and finding some real gems.

    I’ve even finally come around to realizing that Monster is pretty great!

    Thanks again!

  15. annie z Says:

    i think they played ‘occupation’ mostly at the MSG show since it was the day after the fated 2004 election… and we were being ‘occupied’ by dubya again.

  16. EK Alex Says:

    ‘Document’ is to my mind, REM’s best mid-period album and this is one of the standout tracks. Acoustic live versions of the song played before the album’s release confirm the song’s folk leaning. Like most songs on the album, it still stands up very well. These guys are spoiled for choice when constructing their live sets.

  17. Ignis Says:

    It’s cool to be in the same company as others who also appreciate (and recognize) the Latin American trilogy of R.E.M. songs.
    Now let’s tackle his Sir Isaac Newton themes (gravity, “shoulders of giants,” apples falling, etc…)

  18. Mary Alice Says:

    well I think it’s a concert staple because it is rockin’ and sounds good in a big live concert setting. But even more so I think they are very proud of it…I have heard all members of R.E.M. say they wish it had been a bigger hit and all thought it had the potential to be so …ah they’re like parents blinded by their kiddies thinking they’re the best kiddies in the world! It IS a pretty good song, though.

  19. jim jos Says:

    i like that others share the same opinion as me in regarding the term “occupation” the occupation of a country, or of ones line of work perhaps. Not ones passion, not ones ideal, but their cold occupation.

    “hang your dollar on me” perhaps here Stipe is thinking of his own job, of being a musician, and explaining it in a way that many an accountant or banker can relate to. Doing something for the money involved even though one is educated, they are also mad, primitive and wild and these are urges that go unsung in the day to day manifest.

    “Listen to me” is both demanded, urged and pleaded by Stipe as he turns the phrase.

  20. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I think writing in the 2007 its easy to forget or overlook the strong socialist/leftist tone to this song. During the Cold War when this song was written its politics were even more bold and anti-American than they may seem now. Stipe seems to be crying out against the western/American/capitalist exploitation of Central and Latin America in a much more obvious way than he previously had. Hence, the heavy drumbeat and martial rhythms seem very appropriate when combined with the title of “Welcome To The Occupation”. Other than the typically semi-obscure lyrics of 80’s REM this song is pretty strait-forward, a call for change, in a sense a call for revolution. Musically, it is a powerful and complex and a highlight on an album full of highlights.

  21. […] it never works quite as well without Bill Berry beating the hell out of his snare drum.  Just like “Welcome To The Occupation,” the enormous sound of the percussion fills the negative space in the arrangement without weighing […]

  22. Mr Cup Says:

    I always imagined this scene:
    A guy sees an ad in the paper and rocks up for his first day of work only to discover that the ‘occupation’ is a war zone. Just hang your coat up there, grab your rifle. Lunch will be taken at 12 sharp. Pythonesque!

    ‘sugar cane and coffee cup, copper, steel and cattle’ and the preceeding instrumental break is among my most treasured moments in the REM canon, by the way.

  23. Scott Malobisky Says:

    this is a really marvelous song in my opinion, not typical or straightforward in any way shape or form, so mysterious in a way, hypnotic but so rocking in turns and vaguely extra intelligent like even more so than usual it’s clear that the band knows something I don’t know ..Clearly, a second tier favorite of mine . I totally agree Mr. Cup with your assessment of that part of the song ,add that full sounding DON-TAH DON-TAH –has to be a bar chord—double guitar whack that blasts one back to the realm of keen coherence from that instumental break you speak of , that sequence is DA BOMB , Dude, DA BOMB. Fucking powerful.

  24. Mr Cup Says:

    I’m glad you feel that way Scott!
    Best transition from ‘G’ to ‘D’ chord EVER.

  25. transformerdog Says:

    interesting point about the word “occupation” ,jimjos..
    I NEVER thought of it that that way… “I never”….

  26. and i never thought, that we was gonna see each othe. Corrina Eudora.

  27. ScottMalobisky Says:

    ok , Corrina , I’ll bite …..do I know you ?

  28. that’s why it will never wor. Andreas Tennyson.

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