The Wake Up Bomb

June 13, 2007

“The Wake Up Bomb” is essentially the dark side of “Crush With Eyeliner.” Whereas the latter is a celebration of creativity and affectation, the former is sung from the perspective of a vain, vapid person who fashions himself into the image of a star for the sake of being famous. It’s rock music as nothing more than a game of dress-up and make believe, and the work of inspired musicians reduced to a string of empty signifiers. It’s what happens when deeply unimaginative people decide to become rock stars, and I’m sure you can make a very long of celebrities who match this description just from the past four years or so.

Stipe’s character is petulant, self-congratulatory, and ambitious in all the wrong ways, but he’s also a bit disillusioned and disgusted by the thing he has become,though not enough to change. The lyrics are not extremely judgmental, but the protagonist of the “The Wake Up Bomb” is certainly one of the more bitter and unflattering characters presented in an R.E.M. song, along with the “Sad Professor,” the creepy sociopath of “I Took Your Name,” and the defendant in “Diminished.”

In some ways, the song tempts the listener to turn on the band a bit — the music is a 70s glam pastiche, and the band’s image in 1995 openly embraced retro kitschiness — but the shallow, blank fashionista of the lyrics is at odds with the character Michael Stipe, whose oddball persona has always strayed far from mainstream expectations of rock and roll stardom. It could be that the lyrics find Stipe imagining himself as the pop star he could have been if he was ever able to repress his distinct, quirky personality.


40 Responses to “The Wake Up Bomb”

  1. protimoi86 Says:

    When I first heard New Adventures, “The Wake Up Bomb” didn’t make much of an impression on me either way. But five years later, it’s really grown on me, and it’s an example of how hard R.E.M. can really rock. I especially love Peter Buck’s little guitar thing at the end. He does this little guitar lick twice, and you might not notice it if you weren’t listening to it.

    This song was one of i think four on Hi-Fi that was actually recorded live, and if you turn the volume up all the way, you can hear a faint crowd road after the last chord dies down. It’s obvious that the last chord was quickly faded out during mixing, but a moment of crowd approval is audible if you listen.

  2. David T Says:

    > “but the shallow, blank fashionista of the lyrics is at odds with the characterMichael Stipe, whose oddball persona has always strayed far from mainstream expectations of rock and roll stardom. It could be that the lyrics find Stipe imagining himself as the pop star he could have been if he was ever able to repress his distinct, quirky personality.”

    …or even imagining the way that he himself might be viewed by some unsuspecting audience member at one of the big arena shows, someone who didn’t come across REM till they were “big” and whose first REM concert was experienced from the 35th row, up on the risers in the back. I love the comparison/contrast with “Crush With Eyeliner…it’s interesting that “Crush” was written several years removed from the last big REM tour, whereas “Bomb” was written (I presume) during the Monster tour.

    Perhaps not ironically or surprisingly, “Wake-Up Bomb” REALLY stood out as a show highlight when the Monster tour made its way through Memphis in ’95, though I can’t admit that I really “heard” the lyrics that night…

  3. Yeah, it was recorded live. I was pretty obsessed with this song before it came out because they played in on the MTV Music Awards and I’d rewind and watch my video tape of it over and over. I recorded it to a tape with a cheesy microphone/tapedeck after a while.

  4. drew Says:

    yeah, that was a great performance, and before the release of New Adventures if i remember correctly: the band coming out and playing a new song, unknown except to all of us who were madly trading Monster tour boots through the post. michael wore little blue jewels on his temples, did he not?
    i’ve always thought “the wake-up bomb,” “departure,” and “”binky,” the new tunes which featured most prominently on the Monster tour, ended up being the least interesting numbers on New Adventures. that said, it was so much fun hearing them live on that tour!

  5. ADB Says:

    Ah, I was just thinking about this song the other day, and hoping you’d get to it soon. I like the Crush With Eyeliner comparison – this is a track that would have clearly have fit neatly onto Monster, tho’ for me it’s more successful than most of the out and out rockers on Monster.

    I’m sure it’s completely coincidental but I can never hear the lines about ‘I had to teach the world to sing’ and ‘atomic, supersonic, what a joke, I’m dumb’ without thinking of Liam Gallagher and Oasis who were huge (in the UK at least) when New Adventures came out. Intentional or not, the lyrics work as a pretty good put down of the shit those guys were coming out with at the time…

    Oh and ‘The Wake Up Bomb’ is one of my favourite song titles ever.

  6. I think “Wake Up Bomb” makes way more sense on Hi-Fi, since so much of that record is dealing with the fall out of very damaged people.

    It’s kinda impossible to imagine those lines weren’t referring to Oasis!

  7. dan Says:

    I agree that this song would be out of place on Monster… although had R.E.M. decided to record a studio version of it, it might have turned out quite differently. I can’t even imagine!

    Matthew, don’t forget to categorize this post!

  8. Scott Malobisky Says:

    I think that one of the more obvious, uncomplicated interpretations of this song would be that it’s being sung from the viewpoint of someone waking up with an atrocious hangover writhing in their bed or on the floor with acute regret as the images of the previous night’s romp come flooding back in glaring kaleidoscopic cringes ,wretching while their grandiose delusions and actions that seemed so brilliant at the time ,” I look good in the glassware”,”I had to knock a few buildings over”, etc etc are ultimately deteriorating into the realization that ” I threw up, that’s all that I done..” etc.etc.. FUN FUN ROCKIN SONG , an REMespue take on Billy Joel ‘Big Shot’, perhaps? Or vica versa…

  9. huub Says:

    I must say that Scott’s interpretation is just as nice as Matthews. They both do it for me. Maybe I like Scott’s explanation more, because I can’t explain “make my T-rex moves” (fucking great line) otherwise than in a going out, partying, getting after girls/boys. For me it’s more like iteotwaiff kinda song, with a really hectic personality, with all kinds of thoughts and plans. ‘I ‘d rather be anywhere else, doing anything’, emphasises this, as e person who wants everything, but doesnt’know what to do.

    As far as MOnster is concerned, I think it couldn’t have been a Monster track. Monster is a depressed (great) album, with -for me- mostly sad songs. NAIHF is a searching record.

    More importantly, it’s a great rocker. It’s one of the only, if not the only, really rock-ending with Bill Berry giving away a little drumshow. Really nice song on my favorite album.

  10. dan Says:

    I wasn’t sure if you were implying this or not, huub, but the “T. Rex moves” line is definitely referring to the band T. Rex (Queen gets a shout out too). There’s probably other such glam rock references that I don’t get.

  11. Paul Alferink Says:

    This song was really a turning point in REM’s career. Up to New Adventures in Hi-Fi, they were a band on top of the world. Out of Time, Automatic for the People, and Monster were HUGE. The Tour was HUGE. And then REM ran away from the spotlight a bit. You could feel it. They either got scared of the spotlight, or got arrogant. The obvious choice for first (or second) single from this album was “The Wake-Up Bomb” The record company thought so. Rock media thought so. I thought so. REM RAN from the radio friendly song, however. Instead, they went with “E-bow”, which, while beautiful, is certainly less accessible to casual fans. And the Album, which was suppose to be huge, like Monster, got beat by a New Edition reunion album (I think) and opened at #2 instead of the expected # 1 on Billboard.
    And then the Super Stardom was gone. Poof. No Bill Berry. Weird Casio beats on the next the albums, and only the die hards fans stick around.
    I always wondered if they could have extended there hyper-stardom a bit if they led (or at least followed with) this song as a single. Maybe it would have served as a bridge to let the band get past up to the more radio-friendly Reveal, that had some accessible gems on it.

  12. Kirsten Says:

    One of my all-time favourite lines is “Get drunk and sing along with Queen”.

  13. Scott Malobisky Says:

    All these years I thought it was :
    “I look good in the glassware
    I look good in mink.”
    ..and “lunchmeat , heart strung”..
    …but it’s..
    “I look good in a glass pack
    I look good and mean.”..and
    “lunchmeat. pond scum.”

  14. Justin Says:

    When I heard this on the Monster tour I thought Stipe was saying “wake up Bob” and I’m like, “Who the fuck is Bob?” It wasn’t until Hi-Fi came out that I got it right.

  15. Ignis Sol Says:

    “The Wake Up Bomb” explodes just before you “Get Up” and lift into a dream….

  16. huub Says:

    @ dan

    Of course it’s a reference to the band T-rex, but I always understood is an a predator way. A predator hunting for – ultimately- getting laid.

  17. maclure Says:

    Yeah, I had different lyrics going round my head for this until just now when I checked them out. Good write up Matthew once again! Re: Paul Alferink’s point above, I think you could make a case for REM possibly being “scared” of the spotlight. They had just toured massively, not without personal injury or cost to themselves, they had just signed a big deal, but I don’t think they strove for world stardom.

    I remember (I think in a Q interview) Peter Buck (I think!) saying that early demos of “Be Mine” from NAIHF were more acousticy with string arrangements. Scott Litt or Bertis Downs or somebody said – congrats, guys, you’re recorded a song that will top the charts for weeks! REM flinched, went back and came up with the gravelly, chuggy “lo fi” version we hear on the album. It was never released as a single, although it did find a fan in Thom Yorke… but is it an example of REM deliberatley shying away from the success that came their way in the mid-90s?

    small anecdote: I remember in the week NAIHF was released TWUB was played on the radio to be picked over by some wannabe British rock stars of the day (ironic given the song’s lyrical content). Most thought the song was kinda weird or boring except for Martin Carr of the Boo Radleys who removed himself from the discussion: “I can’t say a bad word against REM, they are quite simply the best band ever…”

  18. transfersystem Says:

    That’s funny Matthew, I did the EXACT same thing with my VHS copy of the MTV Music Awards. In the interceding time between that night and the Tuesday NAIHF came out, that rattly cut was a staple of my various mix tapes…

  19. Scott Malobisky Says:

    damn , Ignis, you were up late …. Sleepless In Seattle…..You shoulda rung up the Buckman , read somewhere that he has a problem with insomnia , these posted times are EST though, huh?

  20. mouserobot Says:

    I’ve always thought that there was a naivete to the narrator of Wake Up Bomb; it’s as if there buying in to the vanity and vapidness of fame and fortune (or whatever) but not really realizing what they’re doing.

  21. Alex Says:

    David T, I also wonder about the “new” REM fan who hasn’t been exposed to the brilliance of their back catalog and only became aware of them recently; say, with the exposure they got due to “Monster”. Do they see Stipe as just another weird (in a GREAT way) rock star in a weird band, or do they see what the REM fans from “back in the day” see, a weird rock star who maybe isn’t sure if he wants to be a rock star in the first place? I think that’s one of the things that really draws me to the band- they are one, big, collective oddity. Also, does this “new fan” wonder what happened after the amps-turned-up-to-11 feel of “Monster”? After all, success in the music business these days seems to revolve around churning out album after album of the same crap rather than experimenting and testing your boundaries, something REM has proven they aren’t afraid of. Does that alienate that type of fan?

    By the way, to stay on topic, when they played this song during the Monster tour stop in Austin, we agreed that it was definitely one of their rockin’-est songs they’ve ever composed.

  22. dave Says:

    I LOVED the VMA performance back in ’95! If I recall, that was also the show in which the band was awarded MTV’s lifetime acheivement award (Video Vanguard…or something to that effect…I believe it was named after Michael Jackson, which was kinda ironic, given that Stipe had been intro-ing “Tongue” on the tour in a very obvious Jackson-esque falsetto).

    Is there anyone out there who could post those clips to YouTube? Or would that just incur the wrath of MTV?

  23. Ignis Sol Says:

    Hey, Scott Malobisky! I was up late in Michigan. I am visiting family. If I was up late in Seattle, I probably would not be online, but I would be….. 😉

    BTW, I love “Be Mine.” One of my favorite music lines of all time is “I’ll be the sky above the Ganges.”

  24. Eclipse Says:

    Mich ael Stipe singing “Lunchmeat, po nd scum,” in that bored disaffected way never fails to make me laugh… but I love the way there’s a pause right after that and then he bursts out, “My head’s on fire!”

    I never imagined the “atomic, supersonic, what a joke, i’m dumb” line referring to Oasis, but it fits and it’s a clever little jab at a sucky band.

    One of the many factors that weigh into what makes a great rock album for me is whether or not I can sing along with it. This is one of the best sing-along songs on what is one of my favorite REM albums. It’s hard not to kind of feel like a glam rock star when you rock out to this song – even if it’s just on your morning commute to work. 🙂

  25. catapult Says:

    I’m probably showing my age a bit here, but the glam rock fashion references in the first verse (metallic sick wraparound…low ass boot cut jean…) have always reminded me of Elton John’s Bennie and the Jets (electric boots, a mohair suit…) which coincidentally, was released in 1973. It’s one of the few Elton songs I’d rank up there among my all-time favorites. *Say Candy and Ronnie, have you seen them yet? Oh but they’re so spaced out.

  26. David T Says:

    > I think that’s one of the things that really draws me to the band- they are one, big, collective oddity.

    Me, too, Alex!!

  27. Scott Malobisky Says:

    Does anyone know of an REM tribute band ? Oh, please say no !! The fact that there are none says a lot; as much as I like other gigantic bands like the Stones , LZ, Floyd, Doors, Skynyrd, VH, Metallica, U2..these bands all have tribute bands out there (some with quite a few)..It seems to me that no one would ever have the audacity or (in a way )the classlessness (not the right word I know) even if they thought they might have the proper pieces to maybe pull it off ..Seems to me that even if someone had these proper pieces and the talent that they would appreciate the band enough to not go there…Like it would be sacreligious or something , like they’re untouchable in that sense….no? Or am I completely full of crap, needingto lightenup a bit perhaps ? Please tell me I’m right about this !..And does anyone know what song they were playing when Bill’s aneurysm thing flaired up?..And note how Matthew posted two very extreme styles of REM songs on one day this time around–was that intentional to illustrate the band’s uniqueness I wonder, to be able to do both of those sorts of songs SO WELL?? Hard to believe they are the same band !

  28. Kirsten Says:

    Hey Scott, have a drink and relax a little – you sound like you’re getting a little worked up there!!

  29. Adam Says:

    “I’m sure you can make a very long of celebrities who match this description just from the past four years or so.”

    I think you have a word missing? “…long LIST of…?”

    Trying to be helpful, not a dick. 🙂

    I still love your blog.

  30. dan Says:

    scott, i hope you can handle this news, but…

    also, i *think* they were playing “tongue” when bill had his aneurysm.

  31. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    The Wake-Up Bomb has some of my favorite lyrics in any song, many of which have been discussed above me already. As to the loss of superstar status with this record let me say this: E-Bow the Letter is a very challenging first single, but that generally is allowed as the first single is usually released in advance of the album, it is not uncommon to release the “obvious” single second. Examples being U2 releasing The Fly and then Mysterious Ways oof of Achtung Baby, or even REM releasing Losing My Religion (not expected to be a hughe hit) ahead of Shiny Happy People. However, I think that The Wake-Up Bomb was too rock to be a big hit single. Many of the casual REM fans did NOT love Monster, they wanted the more subdued textures of Out Of Time and AFTP, and Wake-Up Bomb was too Monster and there hope that REM would write another LMR or Everybody Hurts left and they tuned out.

    BTW, anyone else think Hi-Fi seems like a mix of the style and tone of Monster and AFTP?

  32. dan Says:

    scott, hope you can handle this news, but…

  33. Aerothorn Says:

    Not related to the post at hand, but a little question I had:

    According to my calculations that I got from sales data, R.E.M. is currently (if Around the Sun is anything to go by) 20 times more popular in Britain – or at least, a 20 times greater chunk of the British population bought it. 20 times seems insane. Why do you think R.E.M. is so much more popular there? If you look at the sales data, it started emerging around Green and the difference just got bigger and bigger – R.E.M. selling more with every record, as opposed to them peaking here with AFTP and Monster.

  34. ADB Says:

    A few years back, there was an REM tribute band called Are We Them? doing the rounds. I remember seeing posters advertising gigs in London, but I could never bring myself to go see them…

  35. catapult Says:

    A quick Google search revealed the following tribute bands:


    Chronic Town-

    Then there’s RwEeM, who is advertising for new members-

    I’d be very curious to hear from anyone who’s seen these bands or others like them.

  36. maclure Says:

    REM Tribute band> That myspace group look terrible – Just because you`re bald doesn`t make you Michael Stipe! (No offence to bald people). Anyway, London c.1995 I saw an ad in the NME for an REM tribute band called Monster. I tried to arrange a trek across the city with my mates to see them in a pub. It never happened, perhaps for the best.

    Where do you get accurate sales data from Aerothorn? I lived in both the States and the UK during the 90s and often wondered at the higher profile/better reception to REM in the UK. I think their star has dimmed in the UK too… but they still shift records in Europe, South America and other places.

    Song when Bill got his aneurysm> `Its the end of the world as we know it, and I DONT feel fine`… or `Everybody (including Bill) Hurts`… `I see Stars 69`… Sorry, that`s dark. Just my dry British wit.

  37. Alex Says:

    No, I think it was a medley of “POP Song ’89/Everybody Hurts/Stumble/Fall On Me”.

    That’s terrible. I apologize.

  38. maclure Says:


  39. Scott Malobisky Says:

    I just think that the REM vibe of more luv luv luv and less guns guns guns is more accepted and tapped into in the generally more liberal and less sexually repressed , more progessive intellectually and politically and I gotta admit sometimes uncomfortably towards the socialist end of the spectrum, Europe……Ever see footage of those hige outdoor shows on the last tour there ? Massive throngs of people all goo-goo eyed agog in these huge outdoor venues just mesmerized by their heroes, almost reminds me of when Mussolini would give a speech ..or Dah Fuhrer to the hypnotized ignorant masses.Speaking of which, I think Ignoreland should be the very last song you do . Now that is ONE INTERESTING SONG !!!

  40. Kenneth Says:

    My favorite part of this song is the organ. It’s in the back doing its own thing. In the first verse, it initially runs down identical to the chords on the guitar, but when the chords come round again, it goes up the keyboard. It’s as if she’s [organ] gone, “you know what? I don’t want to go the same way as him [guitar]… I’ll go the other way”. Then in a later verse, it plays what the guitar plays later on the song in the ‘solo’. I suppose the two instruments are flirting with each other in some way.

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