Driver 8

July 16, 2007

Live band karaoke is a weird thing, and it brings out my snobbishness about rock music like few other things. It’s not just that you have to indulge people in their selection of really obnoxious songs — that’s just part of karaoke, you know? — but that you’re at the mercy of a short list of tunes pre-selected by the musicians, and the sort of people who form live karaoke bands, well, they all seem to skew heavily towards the shlock rock end of things. R.E.M. always seems to turn up on these lists, but it’s always the same few songs — “It’s The End of the World As We Know It,” pretty much always. “Losing My Religion” and “The One I Love,” usually. And more curiously, I have encountered both “Can’t Get There From Here” and “Driver 8.”

I saw some dude do “Driver 8” last night. His voice sucked and he was missing his cues badly enough to skip an entire verse, but who cares, it’s just karaoke. The band, however — ugh, I feel like “frustrating” might be the most charitable word I can use. Peter Buck’s guitar parts alternate between the gravity of the opening figure and a light, uncluttered arpeggiation, but the karaoke band flattened all that out into a distorted, generic post-alt-rock crunch. For most of the selections being played, it didn’t really matter if the guitar tone was boring and anonymous, but their thoughtless arrangement sucked the life out of “Driver 8.” The song may be well-written enough to retain a certain amount of charm even when it’s being butchered by an unimaginative cover band, but its most essential appeal comes from the way Buck’s chords and tone evoke the patina of old train lines and the ghostly feeling of abandoned, obsolete industrial sites. There’s a romance, there’s a mystique, and most importantly, there’s a subtext, and if you dumb down the arrangement, you’re throwing all of that out and leaving the listener with nothing more than just another catchy tune.

39 Responses to “Driver 8”

  1. Kirsten Says:

    Great to see you back Matthew – you’ve saved us all from insanity!
    As for Driver 8, this is just the perfect REM song. When I think of their style of music and sound in general, this song just sums it up. Peter’s guitar riff carries the whole tune to perfection, and the lyrics are so strong and full of hope. You can just imagine someone telling a friend to just calm down and take a break from their goals – you will get there, as long as you don’t wear yourself out in the process and enjoy the ride…

  2. Justin Says:

    Driving back to Texas from Colorado yesterday, I watched an abandoned train track pass by for miles and miles. The weird part was, there were flatbed train cars on the tracks. For miles. Like the train just stopped, and everyone walked away, and there it sat. Weeds and cottonwood saplings grew up through the railroad ties and over the rail cars.

    Patina is a cool word.

    Driver 8 is a cool song.

    A few weeks ago, my 4-year-old daughter asked me what the red ball on the wire was.

    Without thinking, I told her: “the power lines have floaters so the airplanes won’t get snagged.”

    This seemed to satisfy her.

  3. maclure Says:

    Agree Matthew, Kirsten and Justin. Driver 8 is a great road song – I’m “on the road” at the moment and this song along with the likes of Low Desert (which also mentions power lines), Texarkana and a dozen more tracks from REM’s back catalogue provide a fantastic soundtrack to being on the move (and are all gaining heavy rotation on my mp3 player).

    I love how at the start of the song the “take a break driver 8” lyrics flow over both the verse and the chorus chords… it’s a great example of a more “organic” (as somebody said on the LMR thread) style of song writing. And what an awesome guitar intro riff.

    Re: REM karaoke/ cover bands. I share your sentiments Matthew. I think early REM doesn’t lend itself to being cut raw and reproduced by functional jobsworth musicians. I heard a cheesy covers band playing in a town square a couple of years back… their version of The One I Love for the Saturday Shopper Mums was technically “correct” but lacked any sort of mystery or subtlety which actually made the song sound flat and repetitive.

  4. Mr Cup Says:

    This song evokes so much for me it feels pointless trying to describe it.
    ………………………….
    Children look up
    all they hear is
    sky blue bells ringing
    ………………………….

    I can’t respond to that

  5. Clive Says:

    This is a quintessential mid 80’s R.E.M. song, musically and lyrically. The song is soaked in imagery of Athens, Georgia. The red soil, the trestle, the kudzu… it’s all there in Driver 8.

  6. Gabriel Peters Says:

    just like “so fast, so numb” it´s R.E.M. in perfectionism. period.

  7. Dark Bob Says:

    This just may be my favorite REM song. This is the song that made me an REM fan. I remember hearing this in 1985 and thinking how cool it was that these guys wrote a great “Train Song”. I mean these were the days when Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson and Phil Collins were topping the charts and to hear this little band from Georgia do something like this was beyond cool.(To me at least). I love Fables. Not saying it’s their best album, but it’s my favorite.

  8. Paul Alferink Says:

    Can I say that I really like the bridge in this song. Someone else wrote early that REM doesn’t have a knack for bridges. I don’t know if that’s true or not. It took Peter Buck probably 16 years to learn how to handle a guitar solo, and it’s still not his strong suit.

    This song, however, has a nice bridge.

    “A way to shield the hated heat.
    A way to put myself to sleep”

    This song actually reminds me of Find the River a bit, probably because of the “We can reach our destination, but were still a ways away” sentiment is echoed a bit in “We’re closer now then light years to go.”

    The train thing is an interesting recurring theme. Between Driver 8, Another Auctioneer, some B-side from Green I’m forgetting, it occurs a lot.

  9. morewordsaboutmusic Says:

    HIGH SPEED TRAIN

  10. Jeff Says:

    Just chiming in to say that this song is just about perfect — music, lyrics, the whole bit. Several years ago I read a quote from Peter Buck saying something like, “We could write a whole album of songs like Driver 8 in our sleep, but we’ve moved past that.” (I’m sure I butchered the quote). I remember thinking how misguided that view was. Certainly it’s important to evolve, but I’d trade everything on “Around the Sun” for just one Driver 8.


  11. Oh, yeah; “High Speed Train”!! Has that been discussed here yet?
    😉

    More trains. “Memphis Train Blues.” Intro to “Feeling Gravitys Pull” on the 1985 live versions I’ve heard.

    Back when I first saw the video, I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. I thought the same thing about “Country Feedback”‘s video, and I can remember 0% of that one, as compared to the 25% of “Driver 8” that I remember. Time for a YouTube excursion.

    Driver 8:

    Well, I’ll be darned. Another train: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8IxT6nUVxF0

  12. Alex Says:

    This is the first REM song I learned to play on guitar. Out of respect for the band, I would never play it live. Mainly because I royally suck at guitar and would be fretting (pun absolutely intended) with the technical aspects of chord changes and what-not, but also because PB’s work really captured the essence of the Deep South that this song is about, and I’m definitely “light years away” from being able to express that.

    I also love MM’s harmony vocals “driver 8…driver 8”- almost like he’s paging him to change shifts.

  13. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I teach history and literature and this song for me (to steal some terminology from academia) is the archetypal REM song. It embodies the tone, sound, and feel of REM the band and served as a blueprint (metaphorically) for most REM music until at least Monster. I believe part of the reason many fans have not loved recent REM is that they have stepped away from the “southern gothic” beauty that IS this song and at the core of so many others. In the “In Time” liner notes Peter mentions that the song was recorded and released before he released that the start of this song and “Imitation Of Life” were identical. However, I believe that what he says highlights part of the problem of recent REM (even though I still like most of it) is that even when the song has the EXACT same chords/notes it doesn’t have that traditional nostalgia and mystery because the band no longer embraces that “archetypal REM sound” – purposefully I believe. It is good to want growth and change and I am not even saying that it is wrong or bad that they have sort of eschewed their roots, but that IS why they sound like REM but don’t always feel like REM anymore. Long live Driver 8! A true modern masterpiece of rock, folk, and even country.

  14. Gabriel Peters Says:

    beethoven,
    you got it to the point. great comment!

  15. jim jos Says:

    one of the many things that work so well in this song is the mystique, and the way that its blended with that “Southern Gothic” feel as mentioned by Beethoven Was Deaf. The two elements really enhance the flavor of the other. This song contains so much that is good about early REM.
    Part of the mystique is the music, part of it’s provided by the lyrics. What is the destination? Were are we headed? We know that we can reach it, but its still a ways away. This works on a personal level as well as on a more national level such i.e. politics and/or activism.

    And if that weren’t brilliant enough, there is all of this lush imagery in the verses. “sky blue bells” “Go tell crusade” “tree house on the outskirts of the farm”.

    Plus, the bridge is fantastic, love the harmonica that
    is put there, a perfect touch and of course the harmonizing vocals done by Mills and the drumming of Berry and the great guitar work of Buck. Everything.

  16. Jared B. Says:

    There’s a little video about Athens music history tours (complete with train) on this page that folks might find interesting:

    http://onlineathens.com/stories/062207/news_20070622062.shtml

  17. dumbek Says:

    That “sky blue bells” line is one of my all-time favorite lyrics. So perfect.

  18. jim jos Says:

    Jared B,
    Thanks for the link! Vacation in Athens is calling me!

  19. Andy T Says:

    This is also one of my favorite REM tracks – I work in the railroad industry, but this was a favorite of mine long before my career veered that direction. I’ve always thought the song was perfectly executed, good writing and good arrangement. I even like the live/acoustic versions of it buried on the “When the Light Is Mine” DvD – I had to transfer the audio of one of those to my computer as soon as I heard it.

    Around 1989-1990 I mentioned to one of my co-workers at the time I liked REM and they said “Oh, them, all their songs sound the same” and proceeded to play some of their songs that showed their diversity, but I don’t think I convinced them, and I’m sure this was one of the songs I played. Some people just don’t hear it I think. My brother, also an REM fan, told me he never cared for this particular song either. Too bad, because, it’s a good one!

  20. maclure Says:

    Re: Paul Alferink earlier… it was me that talked about the fact that REM do dodgy bridges. But I agree with you: the one for Driver 8 is nigh near perfect. It’s simple, a gentle and necessary change of gear, lyrically excellent, elegant and with very appropriate extra instrumentation. A bridge should lift the song – it should be the focal point. If you’re listening to a song on the radio in the background, not paying attention to much of what is happening I imagine (ideally) the change to the middle 8 waking you up to the song in a good way. Sometimes REM nail it, sometimes (ie. Binky the Doormat) I really don’t think they do. On Driver 8, they nail it good and proper.

  21. transformerdog Says:

    a little side note from me –I don’t care if they don’t nail it in Binky, that song will always totally tickle me:)–And Matthew is really on the ball , Driver 8 is the PERFECT song for starting this thing up again, got that stalled HST rolling down the track …Wasn’t this song also a comment on the band’s incessant touring , seemingly never ending (take a break take a break the voices in their heads were saying…) ;”patina” is a sad word for me , makes me think of my dead older brother , the patina on the copper sloped roof thing above the front door of his charming Victorian house in Washington DC…dreaming back in the day…..recognizing the Hissing Of Summer Lawns as not a sound but a barely discernible feeling of…..something …something ….slipping away…… Check out Peter’s fingers in the WTLIS acoustic version , so long and slender , the fingers of a seductive feminine hand ? no, the fingers of an accomplished guitarist. Great great song. Makes me want to write some poetry.

  22. transformerdog Says:

    I don’t know how many of you have ever taken a trip of considerable distance on a train but I would highly recommend it …..if you’re not in a hurry.


  23. Just to be clear, “High Speed Train” wasn’t the thing that stalled the site, I had to put it on hold while I was busy/away.

  24. Ignis Sol Says:

    Like dumbek, “sky-blue bells ringing” is one of my favorite lyrics of all time (another is “I’ll be the sky above the Ganges”).

    I think this is one of the songs they played on the Rockline show back when I was a kid. It is one of the songs that hooked me.

    I was in the back seat of my parents car on a trip back to Muskegon Michigan. We were on the highway (on the Freeway of Love?) in the Detroit area and the show came in crystal clear through the stereo speakers. I am not sure why my folk’s kept this show on. Maybe we were all lost in the lazy haze of returning from a summer trip in the Midwest. Or maybe we were lulled in by the rhythms of R.E.M. and the earnest interview with the band. Maybe it was just a dream….

  25. transformerdog Says:

    yeah , Ignis , Rockline , I remember that ….back when rock and roll seemed so mysterious , like as if the really great artists wer truly not of this realm and plane..


  26. […] Driver 8 Live band karaoke is a weird thing, and it brings out my snobbishness about rock music like few other things. […] […]

  27. Kirsten Says:

    Greg mentioned the video, which I’d have to agree is excellent. What I really love is Michael’s story at the start of it about his train set that he can’t get the batteries for anymore, so it sits on his front porch doing nothing. Not to mention the gorgeous southern accent……

  28. transformerdog Says:

    train imagery is just so —poetic in general–I grew up about 100 yards away from railroad tracks and I used to find it to be so relaxing when a train would roll on by in the night, hearing it approaching from the distance, getting closer and closer, and then receding into the distance; strange in the sense that one might think that something as loud as that would be completely unwelcome for someone in sleeping mode, but yet it was quite the opposite

  29. Kirsten Says:

    transformerdog,
    I love the sound of trains. There was a train line at the end of the street of my grandparent’s house. I use to love lying awake listening to them. When I hear it now, it takes me back to a younger, happier, more innocent time.

  30. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Yeah, some of my happiest childhood moments are being at my grandma’s house in summer and she didn’t have AC so we would sleep with open windows and I loved hearing the trains roll by in the distance.

  31. Ignis Sol Says:

    A train ran west/east from Lake Michigan through the woods behind my childhood house (it’s a bike trail today). The whistle would waken me from sleep in the early evening and my senses in the afternoon. My friends and I used to set pennies upon the tracks so that the train would press them. Sometimes the engineers would toss candeis to us kids playing in the surrounding fields. Drive 8, was that you?

    “Driver 8” inspired me to write a short story called Pressed Pennies about this not too long ago. It is based upon my train nostalgia.

    I can still recall the scent of the spilled coal in the air around the tracks. And that clever Chessie cat.🙂

  32. gabriel peters Says:

    we are off the rails.
    now we are trains ourselves.
    no wait and see.
    we are off this place doen´t mean
    we are some where else.
    this is all I know:
    keeping still to watch the engines
    come and go.

  33. Bandwagon03 Says:

    Man, Beethoven you so nailed it. I think when REM fans hear this song, it DOES bring back a sense of how wonderful the band was then, everything that the band embodied, stood for, etc.

    When i saw the band for the first time in Charlotte on the Green tour, there were 2 guys sitting behind us in their 30’s or so. Just before the band would start the next song, everytime they yelled “Driver 8”! In hindsight maybe it was more of a attempt already for those fans to remember what the band had been, and how far they had come/changed.

    They did play “Good Advices” though, so, you cant turn that down… 🙂

  34. Elliot H. Says:

    I just love the way Michael sings the line “she is selling faith on the go tell crusade.” It just sounds so…dire.

  35. Carolann Monroe Says:

    If I could only ever hear one of their songs again, this would be it.

  36. Kevin McGlinchey Says:

    I can’t give a good reason but this has always been one of my favorites. Moody undercurrents with glints of hope…killer twisted harmonica…great sum of R.E.M. parts.


  37. […] such as “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” “Life and How To Live It,” “Driver 8,” and “Can’t Get There From Here” that it’s hard not to either notice the way […]

  38. DJ Says:

    Since nobody has posted about this song in over a year, I imagine this wont ever be read……. however as much as I enjoyed all the write-ups of these songs, it feels to me like you avoided this one. It seems like you decided to talk abou karaoke instead of delving into your feelings about the actual song. Either way this project was brilliant and a great daily journey for me. Thank you Matthew!

  39. Terry Knouff Says:

    This song “Driver 8”, must be included with other great “works” of Southern art and literature. Of course it’s evocative of things Southern, but not in a forced or falsified way, it’s the genuine article. The song, to me, is a sketchbook, non-sequential, not narrative. The writer(Stipe ?)paints pictures of the south, maybe an idealized South, and he does it with a few spare words, but he allows each picture to conjure up more than a thousand words of it’s own. It also feels like an invitation to see the end of something, the last traces of a “culture”, I hate to use that word, for fear it reminds one of “southern culture on the skids” (not the band) the washed up south of bigotry, hatred, xenophobia, jim crow, hillbilly snobbery,etc…, no, I mean the south obscured by all that, the South people lived in, and even enjoyed, the South that is worth sharing a song about. So here’s were I draw a comparison to “Driver 8” and r.e.m., and the Beatles and the songs “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”. The Beatles where massive, of course. International artists, who hobnobbed with world leaders, jet-setters, millionaires, and so forth, but two of their finest songs where incredibly provincial, set in a very specific time and place known well to them, but far removed from the sphere of international superstars and the like. You can imagine r.e.m. saying “Let me take you down, ‘cus i’m going to, Athens,GA, and instead bankers wearing macs, we’ll show you tree houses, powerlines, trains, and instead of “Blue Suburban Skies” you’ll be treated to the “Hated Heat” and “Sky Blue Bells ringing”, all equally powerful imagery, and I think, of an equally insular view. For instance that line:”a way to shield the hated heat” (if that’s in fact what he says)sums up what I’m trying to say , because to my way of thinking, an alternative ear might hear, not that the speaker is protecting himself from the heat, but that the heat itself is, or was, a shield, like a brier hedge, protecting the south, the livable southern culture, from the outside world (whatever that may have seemed to be) Let’s face it , the south didn’t change with the Reconstruction , but rather with cheap air conditioning and the TVA power to run it. When I lived on the very fringes of the south, east Texas, in the early 80’s when “Driver 8” came out, I felt like I understood at least a little of what r.e.m. was alluding to, although that south didn’t exist there and then. By the early 80’s the Dallas metroplex was already the “test market” for the rest of the US, something impossible to imagine just 30 years prior. It was on the cutting edge of the “New South” (if it is in fact, the south, much of the rest of the country thought so at least) what with posh suburbanites in their proto SUV’s (picture early 80’s Chev Suburbans) “Driver 8” was a ray of hope, to me, and it sounds like to others here as well. A beautiful echo, a half faded picture of something almost gone, but worth considering, a south that would be worth reconstructing, but sadly, may never rise again.


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