June 18, 2007

Document‘s fire motif is at its most explicit on “Fireplace,” a song that revels in both the destruction and the symbolic cleansing that can come in the element’s wake. According to Marcus Gray’s book It Crawled From The South, Michael Stipe based the lyrics upon a speech given by the Shaker leader Mother Ann Lee in the 18th century, but maddeningly, he does not cite the speech or provide any of its context. However, the particulars may not be all that important — the words are mainly concerned with evoking an image of the ecstatic dancing that characterizes the Shakers’ worship and contrasting that with the stoicism of their faith. The song is rather dark, but there’s a spark of optimism, and a hope for redemption. Let’s put it this way: It’s not the only song on Document that could’ve been called “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”


23 Responses to “Fireplace”

  1. millroy Says:

    The harmonization on the chorus is wonderful beyond words to me. None of my friends understand my love for this song.

  2. tony Says:

    solidarity, millroy. i have listened to document a thousand thousand times and always look forward to this song. i love that weird, off kilter guitar intro and the verse melody is hypnotically primal. yeah. i always considered this song one of the giants of the album. i could do without that sax, but when the song comes back from the bridge you feel the strength of the band. hope i catch this live someday.

  3. Scott Says:

    I have always loathed this song, mostly for its sax solo. It’s the most pedestrian effort on a weak side, but Steve Berlin’s part, though competently executed, signifies college rock’s worst impulses–back when we called it college rock.

    As in: “Hey, what does the new R.E.M. sound like?”

    “It’s great. I heard it on the college station. One song even has that guy from Los Lobos on the saxophone.”

    “Whoa. My older brother likes Los Lobos. He’s in college.”

  4. Kirsten Says:

    Wow, I had no idea this song actually meant something. I’m a bit disappointed, just thought it was a fun song about dancing….

  5. Scott Malobisky Says:

    “they’re picking up the prisoners and putting them in a pen and all she wants to do is dance, wild-eyed pistol wavers that ain’t afraid to die and all she wants to do is dance, dance..”………the percussion , Baby , the percussion …trying to think if there are any other REM songs in which my favorite part of the song is the drums, not my forte the drums, lack the technical jargon to describe the style but it certainly is cool

  6. maclure Says:

    Ditto Kirsten – no idea that this was actually about something. I like the way more things get throne into the fireplace – “shake the rug”, “throw the chairs”, “throw the walls”…

    Anyway, I’m no drummer but this song is in 6/8. There is almost always one song per record that REM do in 3/4 or 6/8. These are often my favourite – the interesting thing about this one is that it’s upbeat and brash (unlike New Test Leper, Half a World Away, Swan Swan H, Final Straw, Try Not to Breathe etc. from other records). Bill hits the snare off the beat in the verse which gives it that great swing and swagger…

    I’m ready to be shot down about this but I first listened to this record before I had any sense of what should/shouldn’t be in an REM song… I dig the sax solo, especially 1.40 when it breaks down and the guitar takes over. It’s true it goes a bit haywire at the end of the track though…

  7. I didn’t really want to get into the sax solo. I don’t think it has aged super well, but I don’t think it’s bad.

    And yeah, the drums rule on it. The drums rule on EVERY SONG on Document.

  8. David T Says:

    > And yeah, the drums rule on it. The drums rule on EVERY SONG on Document.

    Lord ‘a mercy, yes. As a teenager (and wannabe drummer) who had immersed himself in nothing but Beatles records from ’85 till ’87, I heard the singles from Document and wasn’t exactly sure what to make of them…but I knew even then that I might have a new favorite drummer in “that REM guy.”

  9. narcizo Says:

    did I “block” the comments’ section?
    I apologize…

  10. narcizo Says:

    ..Anyway, all I wanted to say was:

    A drumming discussion about REM? Cool!!
    Was really loking forward to it.
    Yes, it’s a 6/8 song; I must say that Bill Berry is a very underappreciated drummer. His style could be described as “doric”: solid and accurate, simple yet very focused on small details – check out, for example, the way he uses the hi-hat or the ride cymbal in order to “flourish” the basic rhythm. He never tried to be impressive: yes on snare fills, no on rolls and look-mom-no-hands-stuff. Also, he has a “trademark beat”; in many songs he switches from snare to a snare-tom simoultaneous hit (check out “Losing My Religion” or “Bittersweet Me”, for example, and also check out Dave Grohl’s drumming in Nirvana’s “All Apologies” for the influence).
    Short list on BB’s cool drum parts:
    Wolves, Lower
    Laughing (intro)
    Little America
    Tighten Up (yes, he could be funky!)
    Feeling Gravity’s Pull (check out the live version on “Tourfilm”)
    Begin The Begin
    The Flowers Of Guatemala
    Lightnin’ Hopkins
    I Remember California
    How The West Was Won… (where the drum part is an eerier, slower version of “Leave” – that’s why he’s a cool drummer).
    Sorry for the long and perhaps boring post, but I couldn’t help it; for me it was like a tribute!
    I’ ll shut up next time…

  11. dan Says:

    As a non-drummer, it’s really cool to hear people who know about this kind of thing talk about why Berry is a great drummer — it confirms my vague and unfounded opinions with hard evidence!

  12. David T Says:


    > He never tried to be impressive: yes on snare fills, no on rolls and look-mom-no-hands-stuff.

    Yes, yes, and yes!! Above all, Bill’s drum parts serve and enhance the SONG rather than call undue attention to themselves (though they end up memorable in their own right, too…nice trick, that). And I love your observation about the “signature Bill Berry beat”…so true. He gets more mileage out of using the toms as part of the main backbeat (rather than relgating them exclusively to fills) than just about any drummer I’ve heard.

    Love your list–amen on all counts (I got goosebumps thinking of the first time I heard that drum part on Begin the Begin). To that list I might add a whole ton (!), but especially Harborcoat, Welcome to the Occupation (on which the fills anticipate those heard in The One I Love), World Leader Pretend, and The Wake-Up Bomb (as well as Fireplace, the song that started this discussion!).

  13. Bruno Says:

    Once again, as mentioned several times in the last post I was part of – ‘Talk About The Passion’ – each musician stressed the song – in the same way that Stipe avoided cliches and straightforward lyrical themes. And that approach emphasized, propelled and accented parts in such exciting ways. To me, it was often less-is-more – the right approach to bring the song to another level while avoiding any (as mentioned) look-ma! stuff.

    Can you imagine Begin the Begin or Harbourcoat for example if Bill pulled huge rock rolls all over the place and Buck played standard ‘rock’ chugging bar chords hehe!

    This reminds me, the songwriting philosophy of an REM-crazy band I played in back then was along the lines of ‘often it’s not what you play, it’s what you don’t play’. Of course we didn’t quite pull it off so well!

    REM had the sense to avoid all the cliches and over-the-top stuff found in much of rock/pop music and the songwriting smarts to take everything somewhere else entirely.

    Sorry to babble, this idea is quite central to my love for their stuff.

  14. maclure Says:

    No, no, people, stop apologising – this is all good discussion. I play guitar and so listen to bass+lead and the odd keys part but I’ve never paid massive attention to Bill’s drumming so thanks narcizo for your comment. And agree with you Bruno, too.

    Some musicians and bands demonstrate their skill through virtuosity – that is, they push their instruments to the limits with the most technically demanding pieces. But I tend to think it is harder, subtler (is that a word?) and more rewarding when musicians use their skill in sparse and deliberate ways and carefully craft their songs to create a desired mood. It’s like this with other art forms – art, writing, even cooking – too many ingredients creates mush, but a very careful selection of ingredients can create amazing new flavours…

    REM, with the exception of Mike, are not virtuous musicians, but they are intelligent and careful. Vedder said of Buck’s guitar playing (at the Hall of Fame speech) that Buck “finds the gaps”. I liked that – Peter is excellent on chord choice, use of feedback and selection of appropriate “guitar noises” but I have yet to hear a thrasy, reverb-laden, fret-ripping 4-minute solo from the man and I don’t think I ever will.

    Oh, and I should add that the best REM instrument is Michael’s voice – extraordinary!

  15. Bruno Says:

    REM are not virtuous maclure?! Bad musicians! Not virtuous and true! Just kidding – I think you were aiming for virtuoso or similar but I agree with your post completely and you are opening the door for me to add more (I’ll try not to apologize this time).

    OK, without going on toooo much (after all Matt’s great blog is for this purpose no?), this topic – the quality of REM’s musical approach – was a key for me when I was absolutely knocked out by them from Chronic Town through to Life’s Rich Pageant, then after that here and there (notably, Automatic For The People), but for me they lost some of their magic as they progressed beyond the first phase.

    What I mean was their fantastic songwriting sense. For me the following was the killer combination: (1) great songs packed with mystique, timelessness and that southern mumbling, droning obscure quality but still filled with wonderful knock-you-over or move-you melodies, harmonies and musical parts, (2) Stipe’s whole sound, aura and themes – those strange and wonderful hard-to-understand but often better for it lyrics and the “oh-oh-oh ohhhh”s that he would hold onto for bar upon bar (Maps and Legends is a good example) that you couldn’t help but give your best Stipe impersonation along with and (3) an approach to the playing and production that, was as much about about superior instincts/abilities in terms of SONG (so many to choose from but the first that springs to mind is that wonderful cyclical feel to the piano on Perfect Circle – I felt like it wanted to repeat forever) as it was about all these subtle nuances that were hiding in the mix and there to discover on later listens (the lower harmony on the chorus of Begin The Begin for example).

    There are so many bits like that that I just love about those songs – the parts that sit back in the mix and make you just go ‘Wow’. I could name tons that did it for me.

    Like I said, you opened the door!

  16. Bruno Says:

    Oh, by the way, guitar is my instrument too. But you gotta love those drums.

  17. Eclipse Says:

    I really love “Fireplace” and have been enjoying reading all the discussion of Berry’s drumming, etc.. I never knew this song was really about anything more than being caught up in the throes of having a good time, but it’s hard for me to think of it as anything more than that – I like it that way.

    I think one of the things I really love about REM is that they are not really about guitar solos or big drum riffs or making sure every member has a big standout “Lookit ME!” moment in their songs, but rather, about coming together as a tight, cohesive unit. They complement each other and let the music speak for itself. The lyrics get to shine and the attentive listener is rewarded in clever musicianship rather than in big badass solos. This leads to a lot of repeated listening that is always enjoyable and often illuminating…

  18. Ignis Sol Says:

    I concur with Eclipse about how repeated listenings can be illuminating. I took me nearly ten years of listening to “Find the River” to really distinguish Mike Mill’s beautiful background “ahhs” behind Michael’s singing in this tune’s version of a chorus (bridge?).
    I was listening to “Fireplace” on my iPod over the weekend while relaxing (drinking) on the beach during my vacation. Instead of skipping over it to listen to “There, There” by Radiohead, I let it play. It put a smile across my face. The driving force of the rhythm is so irresistible. The repetition of “crazy, crazy…” lyrics building upon themselves with Michael’s excellent vocals is mysterious and somewhat mischievous. Yes, Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin’s flawless sax solo is dated, but that is okay because it gives the song a flavor (or as sign) of the times and ties it into a particular time and place. They cannot be bad. If it is bad, just throw into the fireplace!

  19. maclure Says:

    Virtuous and true! Like it – yeah, I use “virtuosity” in the sense of musical skill but I can see that I perhaps invented this meaning of that word…

  20. millroy Says:

    Lighnin’ Hopkins! Yes! First song I though of when you folks started talking about drums. Can’t wait for that to be featured now.

  21. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    One of my least favorite REM songs! This song crawls by without ever doing much, and the one part that stands out – the sax solo – sounds ridiculously out of place and silly; Not to mention very dated today. Always makes me think of Glenn Frey’s “You Belong To The City” and that’s never a good thing.

  22. adam Says:

    this has always been one of my faves.. and fits in perfectly right in the middle of this record… and the sax solo.. amazing.. I recently had the chance to interview steve berlin – and he fondly remembers recording that.. being a friend of peter’s etc – hip, cool los lobos sax god.. added something really cool and different 20 years ago this summer

  23. adam Says:

    i still think this is one of REM’s greatest, though least celebrated moments – production rocks on this song too.. I know its an oddity.. but REM could use the occasional oddity these days

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