Finest Worksong

August 21, 2007

I like to think that sometime in 1986, R.E.M. got around to thinking that all of the music that was being called “industrial” was not taking that label literally enough, and decided to write a song of their own that didn’t just sound a bit like a factory, but also played out the tensions between industrialized capitalism and the workers who operate its machinery.

“Finest Worksong” may be somewhat pretentious on a conceptual level, but its strength comes from its unashamed populism.  With its thundering beat and sweeping chorus, the song is ideally suited to being performed in stadiums, especially as the opening number of a show. The studio recording is dominated by the enormity of Bill Berry’s drum kit, but the blown-out treble of Peter Buck’s  guitar is key to the appeal of the piece, signaling both a nervous urgency in its rhythms, and a harsh, metallic environment with its cold, tinny pitch. Whereas Buck’s parts are sharp and flat, Mike Mills’ bass is sleek, thick, and somewhat elegant when it is foregrounded for brief leads. An alternate version of the track found on the Eponymous record features a brass section that pumps up the chorus, but it’s a bit too obvious and heavy-handed for its own good, and the track is much more effective when it simply implies the fanfare.

Much like “Cuyahoga,” “Finest Worksong” proposes both revolutionary action and reform.  Michael Stipe’s alienated worker may be calling for unionization, or a labor strike, or a full-on Marxist revolt, but the specifics aren’t as important as the message of the refrain: “What we want and what we need has been confused.”  It’s a crucial lyric, not just in that it makes a strong, succinct point in the context of that song, but in that it is essentially the central theme of the band’s entire late ’80s period boiled down into a simple slogan.


49 Responses to “Finest Worksong”

  1. Justin Says:

    Throw Thoreau! Rearrange! Love it.

    I like the horned version better, probably because Eponymous was my first R.E.M. CD.

    What does he mean by “I’m talking here to me alone”? That’s kind of willfully against the populism of the piece, no? That’s why I’ve always seen it more as a personal motivation song, invoking personal change, than a call to arms.

  2. HotPixels Says:

    Yeah, for what it’s worth, I have to throw in on the horns version myself – and I had the original in my head way prior to Eponymous – obvious, maybe, but when I head the alternate it was to me as if some clouds had cleared and I finally saw it all like I thought it should be. 🙂 Or to paraphrase the liner note, “this was the version that should have been…”?

  3. jim jos Says:

    not to subvert the thread, Finest Worksong is an amazing song worthy of much discussion, but big news…

    Check out the REMHQ site, and see that R.E.M. is releasing their first ever live cd. Track listing, date of release are all there.
    The live album is from Dublin in 2005 (not the recent Dublin shows). The cover has a very interesting picture of JMS on it.

    Check it out.

    Oh and second.

  4. Oh my god, the tracklisting for that live album is horrible!

  5. Jerad Says:

    I love how the verse is just one chord chugging along. It is almost evocative of a train barreling down a track, which we know was one of the band’s favorite themes around that time.

  6. maclure Says:

    I’m curious to know why you think the track listing is horrible MP, seems OK to me… a fairly broad sweep from the band’s catalogue with some good tunes in there. With “I’m Gonna DJ” present I wondered if they might skip it off their new album. Glad to see a few from Around the Sun – might make me like those tunes more hearing them live again.

    That cover art (which I’m not convinced about) looks like a super-hero parody, what with the dripping face paint and go-faster stripes logo. Stipe is the All-American anti-hero…

    As for Finest Worksong, what a tune and a great one live. I love it when the song, like some kind of industrial machine, cranks up a gear just before “Take your instincts…”.

    Re: “I’m talking here to me alone”, I picture a union leader or some populist guy thinking this line as he tries to rally the workers, everyone cheering, but he’s disappointed as he doesn’t think his message (“what we want and what we need has been confused”) is actually getting through. It’s just a lot of hot air from everyone, and he wants real change…

  7. That is sooooo not a broad sweep, for one thing. As a single show on a tour, it’s fine, but as a live document, it’s just horrendous. Too many songs from Around The Sun, for one thing. Really boring oldies. They were playing a lot of really interesting oldies on that leg of the tour, and they still put the dullest selections on the album. What about “Leave” and “Me In Honey” and “7 Chinese Bros.”? Surely most everyone would have liked that more than goddamn “Final Straw” and “Leaving NY.”

    What they should’ve done is gone back to the vaults and released a live album for every major era — something from the Fables tour to cover the first three records, something from the Green tour to cover the late 80s, a Monster show, and an Up show, maybe something from the pre-In Time tour.

    It’s just depressing — Tourfilm and Road Movie are so great, but Perfect Square is just so bad in terms of setlist given what they were doing on that tour, and this thing isn’t much better.

  8. dave g Says:

    Justin, my interpretation of that line (given that I work in a workplace where everyone bitches about management’s policies and decisions but has no power to do anything) is that anything the “working man” could possibly say in protest to their capitalist overlords is unheard and futile. I think it ties in to the powerlessness and lack of choice Matt expresses in talking about “what we want, and what we need, has been confused” (which I assume means they have no choice in whether they work the conditions provided or not, but do want something much better/different.)

    Or am I completely missing everyone’s point here?

  9. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Finest Worksong is a masterpiece! The music and lyrics works together to express the message beautifully. Its like the music represents the masses of the people surging forward in an unstopable wave to force change upon the world. As mentioned it also highlights both the polical tone of REM’s work of the time and is symbolic of the larger arena ready sound they were using at the time. A great time capsule of its era.

  10. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Oh, BTW, I don’t mind the tracklist at all for the new live CD. A few more oldies might have been fun, and I agree with MP that Leave, Me In Honey, and 7 Chinese Bro. would all have been awesome additions, but they were going to play it a bit heavy with ATS songs as it was the tour for that album. All in all, I’d give it a B.

  11. jim jos Says:

    Finest Worksong, like Begin the Begin, is a great live opener. Funny it should be up here on the day that a live album is announced, because it does capture a lot of what I like about rock shows that truly work. “The time to rise has been engaged” you bet it has. (telling that neither one of those songs is on the live album, but that is another discussion).

    “I am talking here to me alone” always struck me as a great way of saying “before I change something, I have to change myself, I can’t overcome this more widespread horror if I can’t defeat first the troubles of self.”

    Then, when several have overcome themselves, they can meet together and the change can be applied to that greater evil. That is why the song works so well for me and is not at all pretentious. It is first, about the changes needed to be made internally. It is about strength of self, YOUR instincts, YOUR finest hour, the need to be creative (blow your horn) and individual (throw Thoreau). I love how it goes from this attack on a conformist individual lifestyle, to an attack on shifty government policy “Welcome to the Occupation” and the crooked government itself “Exhuming McCarthy”. There are many times when I think that Document is one of the greatest things ever created.

    I really like the Document version of this song way more than the horn version found on Eponymous and am glad that “clearer heads did not prevail”.

    This song, on its (or my) best days makes me really want to think outside the numbers and create a life for myself that doesn’t succumb to what others want from my life, but what I would like.

  12. maclure Says:

    Hmmm, I like some of these other theories about “I am talking here to me alone” better than my own… thanks to everyone for giving me a new perspective on this tune!

  13. Elliot H. Says:

    That album has some of the worst artwork I’ve ever seen. It’s almost funny.

    The tracklist is meh as well, a bit too much Around the Sun.

  14. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Is “meh” a word? 🙂

  15. NN Says:

    Modern hipsters use the word “meh”. You should disregard the opinion of anyone who uses “meh” as a word.

  16. David Says:

    Does anyone else feel that this Live CD/DVD sort of puts a damper on the excitement generated by the new songs and new LP?

    This reeks of “product” and contractual obligation. Does the world really need another version of Losing My religion?


  17. ScottMalobisky Says:

    NN strikes again !! From somewhere out there in the shadows another salvo is launched :)..It is a damn shame about the live CD songlist , really makes one wonder what the band is thinking.. I mean surely they don’t need the money ??!! trying to get acquire more by calling more attention to certain more popular songs ?? ..But then again I guess 2oo Million is better than 100 Million..Just think of what they could have put on there , really makes one wonder ……Oh well, they are the rockstars not I …..Yes yes , this is the ultimate light a fire under your ass to get you moving song..(arguably the HARDEST ROCKING song in the band’s repertoire).. I have to ask you Matthew, what exactly do you think they mean by ,”What we want and what we need has been confused”..? in terms of it being the central theme of their late 80’s stuff boiled down to a simple slogan. How do you figure?..I agree with jimjos about this song being so motivating , really inspires me to self-start, be it a simple jog , or getting thru a work day , or trying to better myself in general .Just WORK WORK WORK –Do It Yourself–don’t rely on the government or anyone else….In other words do as I say , not as I do:)….and I have a feeling I shoulda taken a closer look at the lyrics BEFORE writing this.

  18. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Is Ugh a word ? Are you a modern hipster ? Nonetheless , your point is well taken , Sir

  19. Clive Says:

    I have to agree with Matthew about the setlists for ‘Perfect Square’ and the new one. I can forgive ‘Perfect Square’ as it’s almost like a live companion to ‘In Time’ and ‘In View’ in the sense that it ropes in people with their best known songs. The new set list doesn’t inspire me much but needless to say I will still countdown the days to its release like Christmas because anything R.E.M. throws out to the people these days is like bread to starving children. Interested to see how it’s directed too.
    As much as I ADORE and RESPECT them, I am so very fed up of seeing songs like ‘Electrolite’ ‘Daysleeper’ and ‘Losing My Religion’ played live.

  20. ScottMalobisky Says:

    I sorta relate to “what we want and what we need has been confused” as a very conservative slogan, although I AM SURE it wasn’t intended that way …….Everyone is looking for a hand-out, everyone wants a lazy shortcut , well not everybody ,that’s what they want and they think that’s what they need but it’s not what they need at all.What they need is a damn good whacking, a kick in the butt, they need to count their blessings and opportunities and go for it !(as an extreme example think of the panhandler on the corner who remains there because people give him hand-outs , what he needs but not what he wants is to have no one give him a hand-out , no , I’m not usually so uncompassionate sounding and yes I do realize that many of these human beings are mentally ill.) Again, do as I say , not as I do 🙂 . ..”take your instincts by the reins”–THAT I LOVE—now if only I had the balls to take my instincts by the reins and live the life I always dreamed, well, I’m trying….

  21. ScottMalobisky Says:

    “throw Thoreau” ??
    as in throw lines from Thoreau around ? I read Walden’s Pond , been to Walden’s Pond , my oldest sister lives about 10 miles from there…….I love it how when Thoreau was on his deathbed and a concerned “friend” said to him that , “Don’t you think you had better make your peace with God?” To which Henry D. replied calmly, “I wasn’t aware of ever having quarreled with him..”…DAMN, THAT’S AWESOME !! I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  22. Oh man, I don’t think I could ever get sick of “Electrolite.” That song’s absence from this live record was one of the things that made me roll my eyes right away.

  23. jim jos Says:

    I think of Throw Thoreau, that not only does it sound cool, I think of the whole “living deliberately” message there, about having the courage to step outside the herd and live according to one’s own needs, which is the main message I get from this song. That is a great story, never heard of that, I have been to the woods, myself. Thank god they haven’t built condos, like they wanted to, bastards. I threw a rock there.

  24. 2fs Says:

    ScottM above: Yes, but if you “take your instincts by the reins,” are you following them…or reining them in? Anyway, I take “what we want/need…” as expressing the notion that we’re so obsessed with all the COOL SHIT we can get that we’re unaware that we don’t really need it…and what we do need, we’re not getting (whether personally or politically).

  25. Kirsten Says:

    Wow. What a powerful and motivating song. The powerful drums are amazing. And who would have thought that that 1 chord played constantly could be so inspiring and brilliant? I never took this as a political song. “I’m talking here to me alone” means just that. 2fs, “Take your instincts by the reins” I take as grab hold of them and don’t let go! No matter what anyone else tells you to do, you follow your own instincts.

    I also use to think the lines in the 2nd verse were
    You I follow in this time
    I beg you not
    Beg you right.
    which I took to be about more me begging REM (who I follow) to lead me in the right direction. But as they aren’t the right words, I suppose that’s quite irrelevant (though I really do like those words and the general idea!)

    There’s a bunch of other words I want to comment on, but then that would be the whole song, and I don’t want to bore everyone. But just quickly, I like the version without the horns better. They just sound too tacked on, like an after-thought. But maybe I wouldn’t think that if I’d heard that version first….

  26. Ignis Sol Says:

    I agree with Matthew regarding the similiarity between “Cuyahoga” and “Finest Worksong.” To me, this is an appeal (take your instincts by the reins) and a call (blow your horn) to our better senses. We are to use these with all our energy and illuminate the world. These notions are infused with political (worksong – Workers Party) and ecological (Thoreau) references within the song. R.E.M. is in true form especially for that time period circa Document.

    The driving music itself is a force to be reckoned with. It sets a powerful tone that will never be out of style. That is why it remained a concert opener up until a few years ago.

  27. Kirsten Says:

    The new live CD should’ve included “The Outsiders” and when they were in Melbourne, they played “Pilgrimage” – that would’ve made a great inclusion as well.

  28. Ignis Sol Says:

    We all know they should do “Shiny Happy People” with Peter Buck singing, yes singing, Kate Pearson’s part.

  29. Ignis Sol Says:


  30. Mr Cup Says:

    Buck Naked….hmmmm…

  31. Mr Cup Says:

    This is another fave. Gauranteed to get me moving every time.
    Always took from the personal viewpoint, inkeeping with the motto ‘you can’t change the world but you can change yourself’, so ‘get up’ and do something about it. His finest pep talk.

    Agreed Kirsten – THE most econimical guitar riff ever. (maybe). Great bass, drums, harmonies and vocal. Often wish Stipe would sing with the fervor and intesity he approached this song with.

    Was never sure that the lyric was ‘throw’ or ‘through Thoreau’. As is often the case there are many possibilities. It is through this song I came to read Walden Pond though. I heard it was bought by Glen Frey some years ago to help preserve it – what happened?

  32. Paul Alferink Says:

    I always preferred the non- Horns version, and I owned Eponymous before Document. . .
    Best Line is obvious
    (What we want, and what we need has been confused)
    It’s funny, because I was thinking today, “Jeez, it’s only a matter of time before REM comes out with a live album. Buck has said that at some point they would do it.” I wonder what they’ll do and when they’ll do it . . .

    I think it’s okay. I would have liked to have seen Begin the Begin on there. A Murmur or a Chronic Town song would have been nice. I always love Fall on Me. A bit surprised ITEOTWASKI isn’t on there somewhere.

    And you know that LMR and MOTM and WTF,K are going to be on any live album they do. Which is a shame, because LMR isn’t that special Live, arena style.

    “I Took Your Name”
    “So Fast, So Numb”
    “Boy In The Well”
    “Everybody Hurts”
    “Electron Blue”
    “Bad Day”
    “Ascent Of Man”
    “Great Beyond”
    “Leaving New York”
    “Orange Crush”
    “I Wanted To Be Wrong”
    “Final Straw”
    “Imitation Of Life”
    “The One I Love”
    “Walk Unafraid”
    “Losing My Religion”
    “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”
    “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville”
    “I’m Gonna DJ” [previously unreleased]
    “Man On The Moon”

  33. Paul Alferink Says:

    As a side note, I started my new job Friday. Limited internet, which sucks, but I took a walk over lunch, wandered into a used record store, and found the Automatic Box Set, which I had been looking for for years. Snatched it up. Listening to the goodness that is Green B-sides on CD. I missed them. I don’t own a record player, so the vinyl box set had been collecting dust at my parents for some year now. . .

  34. Figgy Says:

    Although I had heard The One I Love on radio a couple of years earlier, I consider Finest Worksong to be my introduction to REM. Never being into the heavy metal crap my schoolmates liked in those days, I wrongly assumed that I simply didn’t like loud rock songs… until I discovered this one.

    Stipe’s voice was like nothing I’d heard before – so distinctive, it drew me in. I’ve always liked his gnarling delivery of phrases like “been engaged” and “rearrange”. Like most of you, I find the lyrics work well as motivation for both personal and public activism.

    My first REM concert was back in 1989. I went along with a mate, both of us familiar only with Document and a handful of other songs (from LRP and Green). Finest Worksong was the breath-taking opener that night. With a strobe light placed at the base of his mic stand and trained solely on him, Stipe danced so manically through the intro and in between verses that we thought he’d collapse before the final bar. Looked really cool flailing in that strobe light, one of my clearest memories of that gig. A brilliant performance.

    And so began my obsession with REM…

  35. ScottMalobisky Says:

    good point 2fs about perhaps “reining in those instincts” very good point , great angle ,although that’s not what he means (trust me, the music is too forward moving and rocking to suggest an act of holding back, know what I mean?) …. He could be talking about negative selfish instincts I suppose, an anti-laissez-faire approach to life articulated ..

    now that I see that songlist spelled out like that above , it doesn’t seem QUITE as atrocious as it did earlier, still very dissappointing though

  36. Mr Cup Says:

    That was my first live REM experience as well (Green Tour). I too was blown away by the energy and mania of Stipe’s movements. He was like the Tasmanian Devil from Looney Tunes. Phenomenal. This song an obvious highlight.

  37. Figgy Says:

    Yes, Mr Cup. The Green Tour was fantastic and I haven’t seen the same energy from Stipe on any other tour I’ve caught since. I know many might disagree, but for me REM in 1989 were at the peak of their game, still youthful, hungry and energetic, pulling songs from those first 6 flawless albums. What a back catalogue they had to drawn upon, even back then.

  38. Figgy Says:

    This “REM Live” collection doesn’t really excite me. Talking of the Green World Tour,I think I’d rather spend my cash on a DVD copy of “Tourfilm” instead (to replace the VHS copy I left back in the old country several years ago).

    I agree with David’s comment earlier that this new live CD/DVD announcement has dampened the excitement generated by the recent rehearsal gigs and the promise of a new album. I’d pay good money to see a movie of those recent performances in Dublin. In fact, I was hoping for such a release. I dreamt of fly-on-the-wall documentary scenes leading up to night one, pre- and post-gig interviews, footage of the live performances, etc. The idea must have crossed someone’s mind at the time that capturing all of this on film would make great viewing.

    So apart from this particular hope of mine being dashed, the October release of the live collection means that the new album probably won’t see the light of day until 2008. With the longer timeframe, should we worry about the new songs getting over-produced to death?

  39. Kirsten Says:

    Just realised I already have a bootleg version of this show on order, so I’ll have it in about a week anyway. Sorry guys, but if you’d done this earlier you could’ve had my money instead of leaving me desperately buying illegal copies….
    That goes for the other 40 or so Live Bootleg CDs that I have.

    They’ve left off Animal and Worst Joke Ever from that performance. I would’ve put them in instead of I Wanted To Be Wrong and Final Straw.

  40. Mr Cup Says:

    I may be on my own here, but I love the live cover. Very Spiderman!

  41. ADB Says:

    Ah, this one is particularly special to me because it’s the first REM song I ever heard, knowingly anyway. I was vaguely aware of them before 1987 but, to my eternal shame, I had them confused with REO Speedwagon…! I do remember seeing an advert for ITEOTWAWKI and thinking what a cool title it was, but that was it. Anyway, a friend lent me a C90 tape with Document on one side and Rum Sodomy and the Lash by The Pogues on the other. I vividly remember the first time I listened to it in my bedroom and by the time I’d heard that fantastic intro and Stipe had sung “The time to rise has been engaged” I was hooked. I’ve never had as immediate, unequivocal and profound a reaction to hearing any other band for the first time before or since and 20 years later, here I am, still reminiscing about it… I always thought it was ‘Throw, corrode and rearrange’ by the way – which I kinda like better.

  42. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Mr. Cup , it was Don Henley , I believe, that bought Walden’s Pond to preserve it. I think it is successfully preserved for now…….gonna email my sister and ask her.

  43. Ignis Sol Says:

    I had a Thoreauesque experience this past weekend while hiking and kayaking in the vastness of Washington state Cascade mountains, waterfalls and rivers.

    Peace. Solitude. Sobriety. Pleasure. 🙂

    And the greatest of these is……….

    (Now, I guess, I am throwing Thoreau)

  44. Mr Cup Says:

    Thanks Scott. I stand corrected.

    I was pondering what sort of life Thoreau was getting away from back in the mid 1800’s and how that compares to today. The thing that scares me the most is that Civil Disobedience could’ve been written last week.

    Nothing really changes.

  45. ScottMalobisky Says:

    actually Henley and his deep-pocketed Hollywood pals bought property abutting the pond to save it from development, the pond area itself is not for sale

  46. huub Says:

    Industrial sound? Matthew, you should listen to some industrial music Bill R. made in his younger years with Ministry , Chris Connely and other, thát is industrial sound ;-).

  47. Bandwagon03 Says:

    I find it amazing that no one has commented on the origins of “The finest hour”, after a little research, of course i discovered Mr. Churchill. I now am a big fan of his, read some books about him, etc.

    Another classic example of how REM and other bands are a great “jumping point” for other ideas…

    And, oh yea, its a great song!!


  48. […] 4, 2007 “Chorus and the Ring” is like a distant cousin of “Finest Worksong,” at least in the sense that its arrangement emulates the sound of machinery, and its lyrics contrast […]

  49. Travis Kirspel Says:

    “Finest hour” was a Churchillism, but I always like to correlate it more strongly with Whitman’s “One Hour of Madness and Joy”:

    O something unprov’d! something in a trance!
    O madness amorous! O trembling!
    O to escape utterly from others’ anchors and holds!
    To drive free! to love free! to dash reckless and dangerous!
    To court destruction with taunts–with invitations!
    To ascend–to leap to the heavens of the love indicated to me!
    To rise thither with my inebriate Soul!
    To be lost, if it must be so!
    To feed the remainder of life with one hour of fulness and freedom!
    With one brief hour of madness and joy.

    Many of their lyrics seem to carry on a certain Whitmanesque quality. Their very stance within popular culture seems to reflect a lot of his qualities from some hundred years prior. The Thoreau reference also seems to drive it home.

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