May 29, 2007

“Airportman” is the first song on R.E.M.’s first album without Bill Berry. It was also the first song in their first concert without him on June 14th, 1998 at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in Washington, DC. It was the first song at my first R.E.M. concert, and they have not played it since.

The version that they played on that day was even more ethereal than the recording that would eventually be the lead track on Up. If I recall correctly, the percussion was 100% live, and there was a greater emphasis on the chimey sounds, almost like straight-up New Age music with a muted new wave pulse. Stipe’s voice was buried in the mix even more so than on the album, and it pretty much sounded nothing at all like what anyone would have ever expected from R.E.M. back then, or even now.

Opening that show and the album with a song as mellow and atmospheric as “Airportman” was a very bold move, but then again, where the hell else were they supposed to put a composition like that? It’s the sort of track that either goes at the start or nowhere at all. Out of all of the opening cuts in R.E.M.’s catalog, it is by far the most gentle and cinematic as it eases us into the mood of the piece before dropping us into the action of the subsequent track.


33 Responses to “Airportman”

  1. mouserobot Says:

    I worked at an airport right around the time Up was released. I had to leave my house before 5 AM and take two different trains in order to be at work by 7. Airport Man encapsulates this feeling oh so well.

  2. I’ll get into this when I write about another Up song, but I was doing a lot of commuting by train when the album came out, and that colors my memories of it a great deal. “Airport Man” really does a great job of capturing that weird numb feeling of being in transit, though.

  3. wolfy Says:

    This song reminds me of the monthly all-store meetings at Whole Foods Market, where I work-at 6:30am. There’s nothing like walking around downtown Evanston at 5:30-6am. Indeed I get up at 3am and it feels like going to an airport!

  4. 2d Says:

    isn’t it “airportman” and not “airport man”? 😛 anyway, i know many people hate or diskile this song but i absolutely love it. it works great as an opener because it would indeed feel out of place anywhere else on the album and also because it’s chilling and calming at the same time, the perfect song to synthethise the feeling that permeates almost every song on up: that of being in an eerie dream-like state, a surreal state of confusion that flows and ebbs according to the mechanical nature of the instruments. it’s a cryptic and tense piece of music, and all the distant and discrete sounds that are almost buried in the background (such as the spine-tingling chimes) make it more complex than it appears to be. great great song.

  5. Yeah, you’re right, I checked just now. I’d rather it be two words, but eh, it’s not mine. However, as a rule, I will always type Lifes Rich Pageant without the apostrophe, but I will not do the same for “Feeling Gravity’s Pull.”

  6. James Says:

    My thought when I first heard this song? Yeah, R.E.M. (or certain members of the band) has been listening to quite a bit of Radiohead. *Not* meant as a criticism, mind you (quite the opposite – I thought it was a healthy sign the band was still looking outward for inspiration).

  7. bryan charles Says:

    James, i see what you’re saying and my immediate reaction was agreement but then it hit me that Up was out in 1998, still the OK Computer era of (more or less) pop rock tunes. “Airportman” sounds way more like a Kid A tune. i do think you’re right, i just think it’s a little murkier, like maybe there was some mutual influencing going on.

  8. Ignis Sol Says:

    There IS a strong mutual creative relationship between R.E.M. and Radiohead. I believe the OK Computer producer worked on some songs for Up and I think he worked specifically on “Airportman,” a favorite of mine. I saw a documentary where Thom Yorke was singing “Be Mine” with R.E.M.

    The cinema analogy is perfect. I often equate their songs with film and movies in my mind. R.E.M. even refers to films and cinema a lot in their songs (the films and the eyes, put this on your reel-to-reel, “Electrolite”).

    “Airportman” is a perfect song for the harried technoligical lives we were living in the mid-nineties, pre 9-11. Sonically, it represents a wonderful time in music with its quaint arrangement and Michael’s deep-in-the-mix vocals. “Airportman” is a grand artistic achievement. By the way, I like it one word style. It is an example of the inspired creative devices that Michael often employs.

  9. David T Says:

    Speaking of influences/inspiration, I’ve recently (i.e., within the past 6 months) started listening to Wilco. My first exposure to that group was 1999’s Summerteeth (again, my initial listen was within the last few months), which, when I heard it, reminded me in places of REM’s Up. I wondered how much REM the Wilco boys were listening to; when I listened to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot a couple of months later, the feeling was even stronger…the opener on that record (“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”), especially, shares some atmospherics with “Airportman,” especially the chimes, droning feedback, and hypnotic percussion.

    Regardless of who influenced whom, listening to those two Wilco CDs led me to revisit Up for the first time and reminded me how much I really enjoy the latter.

  10. Ignis Sol Says:

    Wilco is a great band. I am more familiar with their “Mermaid Avenue” efforts with Billy Bragg. They opened for R.E.M. a few years back (2003?) at Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival. I assume they are all friends. I have always been meaning to delve into their music. I must check out these albums now. Thanks DavidT!

  11. David T Says:

    Ignis Sol–Glad to pass it on! It was a fellow REM fan who hooked me on Wilco, by the way.

  12. Justin Says:

    I got Up when I was in college, living in a weird town with no real friends. That album, along with OutKast’s Aquemini, became my best pals. The first time I heard “Airportman” was in the car after buying the album, and it shocked me. I actually turned it off (oddly enough “Electrolite” of all things was on the radio) and waited ’til I got home, where the speakers were better, so I could hear it in greater detail. I was not ready for that song, or that album.

    I went out with someone once who was a huge R.E.M. nut like myself, and they panned “Airportman” as their least favorite R.E.M. song ever, even including “Shiny Happy People”. There were no subsequent dates.

  13. jim jos Says:

    well, before there was Wilco, there was a band named Uncle Tupelo which Jeff Tweedy was in. Peter Buck saw Tupelo at the 40 Watt Club (you can not make up this stuff) and then produced their album March 16-20 1992. So Wilco (Tweedy) is tied to REM very closely.
    As is Radiohead. In fact, I believe there is a quote somewhere that while OK Computer inspired UP, it was Up that pushed Radiohead, in part, towards Kid A.
    Yet Kid A is considered to be genius while UP gets critically savaged.

    I love that the review cites Airportman as being cinematic (another good blog observation), because it truly is. To listen to it, inspires low level artificial light, early morning still dark commutes, isolation and most traces of natural human elements being drowned out by the constructed environment.

    I’ve always took the combination of the two words (airportman), that it puts a de-emphasis on the word “Man”, making the human element less existent. Like the character in “Daysleeper” Up is full of these shadowy characters that move at night, unseen and “discounted”.

    I can see that many a long term REM fan, playing the cd for the first time, wanting the jangle of a guitar or the explosive kick off of a Bill Berry drum beat let out a collective “what the hell” when this song was played for the first time, but like almost all of UP, Airportman works so well on its own terms and sadly overlooked.

  14. David T Says:

    Cool info, jim jos…probably old news for longtime Wilco fans, but enlightening for newbies like me.

    And though I’m not sure I felt this way in ’98 (I’m a drummer who took up the drums partly because of Bill Berry’s drumming!), I now love Airportman as the opener for REM’s first post-Berry CD. I almost hear it as REM coming to terms with their new reality as a “band without a drummer,” finding solidarity with the “shadowy figures” who move to a synthesized, electronic pulse…and embracing rather than denying that new reality.

    Or not…but I’m crazy about this CD now either way.

  15. Ignis Sol Says:

    Justin – that’s funny (or sad)! Stop dating some one because of R.E.M. What other songs of theirs would be date-breakers? “Shaking Through?” or maybe “I’ve Been High?”

    Jim jos – I recall Rolling Stone Magazine using the Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” inspiring the Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s” analogy. Peter Buck is a big Beach Boys fan.

    And I do remember Uncle Tupelo from the 90’s. There is a song of theirs on the classic “No Alternative” album from 1993. Other artists include Buffalo Tom, Nirvana and Patty Smith (also loved by Peter Buck).

  16. …and my favorite band, Pavement, whose song on that compilation is about R.E.M.!

  17. Kirsten Says:

    “Great Opportunity Blinks”

    This song is brilliant. It’s everything I love about music, everything I love about REM.

  18. jim jos Says:

    sure, more reason to like wilco, David.


    “there’s some bands I’d like to name check, and one of them is REM, Classic songs with a long history, Southern boys just like you and me”

    …time after time is my least favorite song.

    but then REM put it on their IRS best of…maybe just to make Malkmus smile just a little bit.

  19. jim jos Says:

    you can say that again Kirsten!
    I am seeing so much praise for UP amongst the REM faithful.
    Good to see. Now I will send our collective emails to in an effort to get it raised from 21/2 stars to at least 41/2.

    Second thought, screw em.

  20. Ignis Sol Says:

    I was hoping some one would catch that! I’m not surprised that you did, Matthew.

    “Unseen Power of the Picket Fence”
    ‘Time after time was my least favorite song,….!’ I, however, really like “Time After Time.”

  21. dan Says:

    Pavement is my favorite band as well, and I discovered them because of “Unseen Power of the Picket Fence,” which I sought out after reading about it in Marcus Gray’s R.E.M. book.

    They also did a cool version of “Camera” and the occasional “Green Grow the Rushes” in concerts.

  22. Mary Alice Says:

    again not much left for me to say but I, too, love this song. To me Up is an album you only truly appreciate after you listen to it a couple of times, and the first song being so different from their other stuff is a good challenege to give it a couple of chances.

  23. ADB Says:

    I would love to have seen the audience reaction to this when REM played it at the Free Tibet gig – kinda like Spinal Tap’s Jazz Odyssey ‘hope you like our new direction’…!

    I think opening up with this track was a great statement of intent for the post-Berry era: it’s Year Zero and anything goes, but I’m sure I read somewhere that Peter Buck felt it was a mistake, and that the sequencing of Up was rather rushed in the run up to its release.

  24. If I recall, I don’t think people were very freaked out or anything, it just kinda washed over the audience, and then they played “Losing My Religion” and people obviously went totally mental for that. It was kinda like a three minute intro, you know?

  25. Jerad Says:

    I was right up front for that Tibetan Freedom Concert when they opened with this song. I remember looking around and noticing that there was a general look of bewilderment on everyone’s faces. I don’t think that anyone was quite sure if this is what it was supposed to sound like or if something was horribly wrong with the mix. It was the first song of their set, after all, and enough other things had gone pretty poorly at this show already. It definitely wasn’t the R.E.M. that anybody expected, but it ended up being a pretty good show.

  26. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Matthew, I’ve always thought it would be incredibly post-modern and ironic (and a ton of fun) if REM did a cover of Pavement’s “Unseen Power Of The Picket Fence” as a b-side or something. Oh, to dream . . .

    As to “Airportman” I always loved this song and remember hearing it and thinking two things:

    1. Wow! REM is really going to shakes things up without Bill banging on the drums, and

    2. It’s obvious that Radiohead opened up for REM on the last tour.

    As to why critics love Kid A and rip Up – I believe its all in the commitment to the ideal. Kid A is experimental and a complete break from Radiohead’s past (or at least a near complete break with OK Computer as the bridge) and they pursue that direction for the entire CD. REM is very experimental with “Airportman” but the rest of Up, while incredibly experimental, still falls firmly into the REM sound. I think for critics REM didn’t go far enough, they wanted an album of Airportmans – which is ironic because for the casual fan REM went too far. You can’t win sometimes.

  27. Martijn Says:

    Beethoven Was Deaf, that would be really cool if R.E.M. covered that.

    In fact, the Pet Shop Boys once did sth similar: some guy/band wrote a song called “We’re The Pet Shop Boys”, all about the PSB influence on their own music.
    The Pet Shop Boys themselves then went on to cover it for a b-side.

  28. lazysimon Says:

    …and then Robbie Williams covered that song too on his Rudebox album (emphasising that it’s the PSB version he’s covering, not the original), and had the PSB produce his cover!

  29. Scott Malobisky Says:

    Is Peter Buck the Airportman ? Might this be the soundtrack in his head as he woke up to the cartoon characters on the ceiling at Heathrow on that fateful April morning……I guess us mere mortals will never know….oh right, that moment of notoriety occured a few years after this song was recorded. ROCK ON PETER !!! Hey Man , did you really say , “I AM REM !!” as you were being subdued up there in first class? What really happened anyway ?? this mere mortal would really love to know??……..I think the biggest reason why I like this swath of insightful blur-fur is that I know the killer song that lurks a few seconds down the audio rainbow and the transcendental moments that are sure to follow in perfect cathartic order.

  30. […] 9th, 2007 As if the metronomic ambiance of “Airportman” was not enough to signal Up as a departure from anything the listener might have previously […]

  31. […] songs on Up nudge in a similar quasi-electronic direction — “Falls To Climb,” “Airportman,” and “Parakeet” come to mind — but “Hope” is the most elaborate and […]

  32. ChampionOfTheWorld Says:

    I’ve been on a TOTAL BECK kick this past week . What an amazing artist, discovering all his shit via Rhapsody. Has a song on The Information called Movie Theme……similiar to this , especially the very beginning..

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