September 17, 2007

It’s kind of a strange thing for a band of men in their early 30s to release a rock and roll album that begins with a song that highlights the generation gap between its author and his audience, but it also makes a lot of sense. Even though I am currently four years younger than Michael Stipe at the time Automatic For The People was written and recorded, I’m starting to get that “oh man, I’m old” feeling all the time, especially when I think of all the teenagers and college kids for whom the internet has always been a presence in their life. But really, despite a few self-aware “get off my lawn!” moments, the song is not about feeling old so much as noticing that your own youth is over, and that you no longer have any real connection to the “kids.”

Stipe makes deliberate, ironic references to “youth”-oriented songs of bygone eras — “Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley and “Rock On” by David Essex — and the effect is both dismissive and self-effacing, underscoring a bitterness and discontent that lacks a proper target. Do you hate the young people for being young, or because they are not you, or because they don’t appreciate what you have to offer them? The song poses a very serious question: Are you obsolete and irrelevant, or are you just being told that you are by people who don’t have a clue, or are seeking to marginalize anyone old enough to know better than insecure, immature teenagers, but not quite old enough to be the establishment?

The tone of “Drive” is as gray and bleak as its video, a stark black and white clip of Michael Stipe awkwardly crowd-surfing over a bunch of “kids” in eerie slow motion. The song feels cold and still, and even its most dramatic moments come across like a stiff, cold wind blowing dead leaves along the frozen ground.

A milestone note: This is song #100.

42 Responses to “Drive”

  1. Kirsten Says:

    This song is the one that bought REM to my teenage attention. It is plain brilliant. At the time I viewed it from a youth’s perspective – I was the one rocking around the clock, I knew everything and no-one else understood anything – especially the older generation. The song reminded me of the freedom of being young, but gave me this melancholy feeling of knowing it wouldn’t last long.
    The song gives me this image of an older person reminising about being with group of teenagers, staying out late, drinking, dancing then driving home with no thought of consequence. A car full of teenagers, laughing, making out, destracting the driver and causing an accident. Injured and dead friends now haunt this person through the “innocent stupidity” of youth.

    Now, like the rest of us, I’m 15 years older and view it more from MP’s perspective. But not always. I can still muster up some sense of youth and enjoy it as a young care-free teenager as I once could.

    Musically, this song is brilliant. It’s the parts you don’t hear on first listening – it’s very layered. The violin is just plain creepy.

    One of the most brilliant, ingenious, and audacious pieces of music ever presented by man…..

  2. Mr Cup Says:

    The mood between this and Find the River is quite a journey. Drive feels more “I can’t do the things I used to do” where FTR is finding a deeper satisfaction in the things you do now. Part of growing up and moving on…looking for more from life.

    Beautiful song but never saw it as a single.

  3. Justin Says:

    Congrats on #100. Thanks for choosing a great tune.

    This is a song I always like to point out to people who don’t like R.E.M. It’s a real gut wrenching rock dirge, and a really brilliant choice for a single. Ironically, as a teenager I never paid it much attention. As I’ve grown the song has taken on a greater depth. I think you just managed to explain why. Well done.

  4. maclure Says:

    I was a young teen when I first heard this song. I was already a big REM fan but I was too young (and minus the internet) to really pay attention to when REM’s next record was coming out. As I recall, I was lying on the carpet watching “The Chart Show” on ITV and this song and its video popped up as an exclusive. REM’s new single! It was totally unlike anything else on that day and I was blown away… The guitar solo, Michael’s crowd surfing, the bit with water sprayed at the band, and how melancholic it was… it was all incomprehensible to me but at the same time riveting. It left me with an impression of REM as a bunch of very strange guys, quite removed from the way people in other bands carried themselves.

    A musical note: Peter Buck says this songs guitar solo was his nod to Queen – it was written just after FM’s death I believe. I think I even read Peter plays/ed it with a coin instead of a pick as a sort of rock’n’roll homage. When I had this song on tape I loved the solo so much I would listen to the song then rewind half way to listen to the solo again… Perhaps the example of Queen fits with Matthew’s reading of the lyrics. Queen epitomised the energy, the reckless carefree nature of youth in the 1980s but by the 1990s, for various sombre reasons, they were also coming face to face with very “adult” issues.

    (Oh, I think the rockier version of this song sucks in comparison to the acoustic album cut.)

    Another small anecdote (sorry, am getting carried away with this post). There was a time in 1992 when this album was played in restaurants/lifts/shops/hotel lobbies by everyone. I think it was because it was acoustic-y, seen as being very cool and REM were really riding a wave of popularity on the back of Everybody Hurts. I just remember on one occasion sitting down to eat with my parents at a Chinese restaurant and Drive’s picked acoustic part chimes in. Although I was well pleased and informed my parents instantly, I thought it odd even then that, given the song’s content and the album’s themes it should be the musical accompaniment to my eating sweet and sour pork balls and lemon chicken…

    Finally, I think Drive sets up AFTP so well. The problem of growing old/ the tension between generations, between the expectations,reality – sometimes despair – of youth run like a red chord through the album.

  5. Dave Greenlizard Says:

    Good work maclure – great post.

  6. Bandwagon03 Says:

    Congrats on # 100 Matthew, keep up the good work.

    I agree with the earlier posts about a somewhat disjointed, outside looking in feeling to this song. I envision a older man looking at a crowd of youth/teenagers and wondering aloud “What happened to me?”

    Justin- Love the “Rock Dirge” comment, very appropo.

  7. ScottMalobisky Says:

    BeetovenWasDeaf’s favorite REM song–(Matthew , what you been smokin’ this morning?)– A top tier fave pour moi aussi.

  8. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Isn’t this the one that Peter had on a cassette of demos and ideas , thought “it was the most boring thing I ever heard” , but then , “Michael had these lyrics which defined the song” ??..For some real old man outside looking in at the inside youth lyrics (I should mention that I never saw that angle in this song BTW..) check out Dylan’s epic Highlands from Time Out Of MInd,..”All the young men, with the young women looking so good, Well , I’d trade places with any of ’em in a minute if I could..”..He sounds almost pathetic when he sings those words.

    According to Mike , “a hopeful message..telling kids to take control of their own lives”…..yeah , back in the day this album really was just so cool , and now I see a lot of artwork with that cover “star thing” motif , sculpture and glasswork , paper crafts and other mediums , in various places……..I guess this album had a lot to do with the popularity and proliferation of that symbol , huh?

  9. Chris Says:

    This is probably your best write-up yet. Nice work.

  10. wolfy Says:

    This is one of my all time faves of REM songs…a bittersweet song, which reflects how I felt around age 35.

  11. ScottMalobisky Says:

    yeah wolfy ..What really gets me about this song is how Stipe is singing hey kids rock and roll and all but the music is not exactly something to rock and roll to , unnerving .

  12. 2d Says:

    this is one of my favourite r.e.m. songs. it’s got so much energy yet it manages to keep it subsided so well, it almost feels like there are electric currents racing under my skin. *phases out*

    somewhere dark, claustrophobic. a dead end alley. a rattling sound from a final breath. a cloak rustling in the slight wind of the acoustic guitar. no words spoken, only a glance of ice meeting a glance of panic. the solo slashes the frozen air like a samurai sword, and, as horrific images pass through the mind of the man kneeled in the sand, there is no mercy in the eyes of the man with no conscience. it’s all over as quickly as it started, as the violins carry the spirit into an explosion of blood blending in with whiskey. a dark silhouette fading in an alley. silence. baby, baby, baby…

  13. karen Says:

    i always thought “drive” was a reference to the pylon song “stop it” as well – certainly not the only song to refer to “rock & roll” or use the phrase “hey kids,” but an important one in the early athens scene r.e.m. was a part of.

  14. Bert Echo Says:

    The violins in the middle of the song brings to my mind a huge storm that is approaching in the distance.

  15. davegassner Says:

    Matthew, thank you for another writeup that pinpoints the feeling I always get about another REM song but could never hope to place into words.

    I’m pushing 24 this year, and already I’m growing aware that my time to indulge in that youth scene without beginning to appear increasingly pathetic is thinning, urging me to seize it while I still can. Sadly, I’m not sure a band of odd looking strangely dressed early 30’s men could reach the level of popularity and relevance REM did in the early 90’s; it feels as if times have changed somehow, growing more superficial and impatient.

    I first got into REM in middle high school and this was one of the first songs that did it for me. I remember at the time though not relating to what I saw as the ‘dumb’ behavior of my fellow junior highers/youth culture, and liking this song on its element of detachment and resent to what I was supposed to be a part of.

  16. Bruno Says:

    A great example of Mike’s lower-register, full-voice style on this one. Very confident singing. I love the sound and the phrasing on…

    “Ollie, ollie – Ollie, ollie, ollie – Ollie ollie in come free”

    I just think ‘That is one great sound, that is’. Not many singers own a song the way he can.

  17. adam Says:

    a lot more lively and beautiful then I think you give it credit for.. the song and the video..there a many smiles and moments of jubilation in the clip… the song is somber.. and begins a very somber, gorgeous record – but there is joy here too. fits right in with nightswimming,find the river etc – PS – they shot the video for that here in the San Fernando Valley.. in the sepulveda dam..

  18. bryan charles Says:

    R.E.M. played “Rock On” when I saw them 9/9/89 in Clarkeston MI. I remembered it vaguely and just had it confirmed by the handy R.E.M. timeline. I bought Automatic the day it came out from the Discount Den and brought it back to my dorm room and sat in the chair and looked out the window and listened to it. I was a freshman in college. I remember being spooked by “Drive.” A good fall song, good choice.

  19. Theresa Says:

    This is one of the first R.E.M. songs I fell in love with. It was also the song that made me think, “Man, this is a really good band.” It’s still one of my favorite songs. (I’m writing this like it’s been a long time since I first heard this song, but it’s really only been a few years. Oh well) My sister, who is not a huge fan of the band, also loves song. I don’t have any deep or interesting ideas to share about the subject of the song, I just wanted to say I love it.

  20. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    This is my favorite R.E.M. song. Period. Has been from the first time I heard it. I prefer the darker R.E.M. anyway and this song highlights that “southern gothic” feel, excpet updated (similar to the way “Losing My Religion” did as well). Actually, for some reason I have always sort of associated this song with Losing My Religion, a sort of sequel in feel and tone. In any case this song has always had a special majesty and power to it for me, that I can’t quit explain with words. That said, I DO love the fact that the song climaxes almost at the mid-point and then has a long, slow denouement to the end. That is very rare in pop music. I also love the vaguely Zeppelin-esque feel to the guitars (yes, I am aware of the Jone Paul Jones connection here). This song is one of a few that uses space, or the lack of music, extremely effectively within the song as part of the song in its near-stops and restarts. Finally, Matthew, dead on review of the song. I am in my early 30’s and know that feeling well and do associated it with “Drive”.

  21. Ignis Sol Says:

    I never thought of “Drive” in terms of older generation vs. the younger generation. However, I do see this song as a generational anthem that does include everyone (even guys in their then early thirties). In my mind, this song was all-inclusive. That said, I appreciate your insight, Matthew because it comes from your unique perspective. I do like that idea.

    This song has multi-layers in theme, lyrics and musically. I never really heard the double vocal track until months after AFTP was released. I was in college and had little time to really, really settle down and listen to it. When I finally did, I was amazed and its (and the other songs) intricate beauty.

    Kirsten, I like your take on “Drive” too. The image of an older person hangin’ with younger folks and being the driver, the voice is intriguing. These days, I often feel that when I am with my younger friends. In some ways it makes me appreciate them more because of what I can offer and the fact that good friendships know no age.

    I first heard this song as a video on MTV (so I saw it first). I had an immediate physical reaction to the song. I knew this was something special and my excitement mounted with the expectation of the new album. My new college roommate at the time, Brad, remarked how great the song was. Hearing the line “bush-whacked” near the end of the first George Bush era was as shocking as it was promising. This one song has so much to offer that it can still resonate today.

  22. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    By the way Scott, good memory! I love this little commnity we all share here!

  23. Ignis Sol Says:

    BWD are you saying “And for this gift I feel blessed. Our little group has always been and always will until the end?”

  24. ScottMalobisky Says:

    I feel like it’s 1994 again , this song , OJ back in jail……..

  25. jim jos Says:

    I always loved the line “Smack, crack, BUSH whacked”- as true now as when it was written.
    “nobody tells you what to do, nobody tells you where to go”…so true. I understand that so much now.
    When you are at the fork in the road, and adulthood lies in front of you, it is natural that you wonder what to do next. You are looking for signs, but whether or not you see them, and, no matter what you choose to do, life and adulthood are going to happen to you.

    Maybe you’ll ride, maybe you’ll walk, maybe you’ll drive to get off, baby.

    Congrats on song 100.

  26. Kirsten Says:

    I remember seeing them play this one live on TV at the MTV awards in 92/93. It was my first glimps of them live. They played the “jazzed up” version which I do like (although the album version is/has so much more). It was also the first time I ever saw Michael dancing. Wow, what an experience! I remember he was dancing and looked over to Peter who was laughing at him, then Michael started to laugh and I just thought how much fun they seemed to be having. They loved what they were doing. I loved what they were doing. That day sealed it for me if it wasn’t already. Wish I had taped it.

    Just a note on Ignis’ “double vocal” comment. I forgot to mention it. It makes the whole song so much creepier and makes it all feel like it’s in slow motion.

    I can’t express my love for this song, there are no words to describe it. I’ll just end up repeating myself and boring everyone. So I’ll leave with this highly understated comment:

  27. Paul Alferink Says:

    Love the song. Love the video. I always saw in the video that there is an individual who is allowing the crowd to control him in every way, while the song is desperately telling youth that they don’t need to conform, that they can’t fight it and not allow themselves to simply be carried along by the crowd.

    Best line:
    Hey kids, where are you?
    Nobody tells you what to do, baby.

    The song, as I see, is the older, liberal guy, telling the greatest liberal voting block, youth, to stop being apathetic. DO SOMETHING! VOTE! Remember, this album came out in an election year (or shortly thereafter, I forget) And the first line is “Smack, Crack, Bushwacked” and the country had just lived through 4 years of Bush.

    The singer knows though that it’s kind of a lost cause. Youth never votes in droves? And why are they going to listen to an old guy? Isn’t he who they aren’t suppose to listen to, by the songs own advice? A catch-22 if ever there was one.

    And Scott, they song that Buck mentions not liking before Stipe wrote lyrics for it is “Everybody Hurts.” Mills added that Stipe “polished a turd” with that song. Poor Bill. . .

  28. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Ah Ignis, how I miss the glory of the 90’s Seattle scene. Although I live in Utah now I was in Texas and Washington during that time of my life. Saw Pearl Jam at the Gorge summer of 2006 and just found the show I attended in sale. Bought it, great momento of a great show and great live band. The show fills 2 full discs, Pearl Jam is so awesome. I sometimes wonder what would have happened had Kurt Cobain lives and Nirvana had gone on. They certainly would have lost popularity (even Pearl Jam, who was far more commercial did that), would they have kept soldiering on making music? Would it have been as good? Kurt famously said he wanted Nirvana’s sequel to “In Utero” to sound like “Automatic For The People”. So many unaswered questions. At the very least Kurt could have lived and saved us from the horror of the Foo Fighters!

  29. Ignis Sol Says:

    hey, bryan charles rock’n’roll. Are you from Michigan? Cheers to Michigan, “say yes to Michigan!” That is my home state. I now and have lived in Seattle for a long time now. East side to the West side….

  30. 2d Says:

    i never understood why “drive” was so hugely popular as a first single, but “e-bow the letter” flunked. they are similar in atmosphere, and while the former is a bit catchier, the latter is more arty and haunting. so so strange. i guess it all had to do with momentum. “drive” rose on the wave of affection for r.e.m. after “losing my religion”, while “e-bow the letter” sunk in the disappointment of “monster” (that i never never got but hey…)

    very annoying.

  31. Mario Says:

    I agree with 2d. This song was more popular than E-bow the letter because it was the first sigle after Out of time, and Monster was a big disappointment. That two songs are similar to me too.

  32. ADB Says:

    Funny that there are a few mentions of Nirvana and the Seattle scene in this thread, because I’ve always thought of Drive as being, in one way, a riposte to the whole grunge thing. Up until 1991 REM had been at the forefront of a generation of alternative bands. Then between Out Of Time and AFTP, Nirvana released Nevermind and the whole Seattle thing blew up, a whole new alternative scene was created, and suddenly REM were kind of the elder statesmen. For me Drive is REM repositioning themselves – distancing themselves from the new, rebellious “kids” who “rock and roll” with a slightly world weary ‘seen it all before’ lofty cynicism (tho’ as MP says there is an element of self-effacement inherent in that too). Interesting also, that MP mentions the ‘youth’ songs that Drive references – ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ fits very much into that genre and, tho’ I know it’s Man On The Moon that Stipe has said was influenced by Teen Spirit, I like to think Drive was too, on some level.

    Anyway that’s my theory – it’s one of my favourite REM songs, I still can’t believe it wasn’t included on In Time, other than on the bonus disc. I just love the dramatic arrangement and the minimalism of the lyrics, and the way they use and subvert tired old rock cliches to such great effect. The video is cool too. One question though – what’s ‘ollie olllie income free’ all about? For years I misheard it and thought it was a parody of a Hare Krishna chant – ‘hare hare, hare hare incomplete’….!

  33. Clare Says:

    This song was the first song that moved me enough to actually want to buy an album (I had bought others but mainly to “fit in” as teens do rather than actually feeling anything for the artist). Right from the intro & the first time I hear Michael rage “Smack, crack…” this song still grabs me by the throat & still powerfully transports me back to my GCSE year at secondary school. I hadn’t had the easiest time lower down school & though having a solid circle of friends always kind of felt I didn’t quite reach my own expectations of what I wanted to be…or measured up to my friends. Ironically when I bought this album it circulated around the common room faster than “fresher” flu, & to continue with ADB’s observation AFTP did mark a distinct transition in the British music scene. (thank God, there’s only so many power ballads a teen can take!) Grunge definitely followed on from this swiftly, and I believe if anyone from bands of that genre were asked about their feelings for this album there wouldn’t be much negative feedback. To be brief I guess Drive constituted my REM awakening & marked a poignant time in my own development….made adolescence slightly easier to bear.

  34. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Best Line :
    Maybe you’re crazy in the head , Baby

  35. Clare Says:

    Yeah, maybe I am

  36. […] Drive It’s kind of a strange thing for a band of men in their early 30s to release a rock and roll album that begins […] […]

  37. Kirsten Says:

    I hope we all are.

  38. Paul Alferink Says:

    I like to point out that E-bow is more a spoke word poem over not as melodic a song as drive is, with a clearer melody. Spoke Word poem do not make accessible songs.

    As much as I like E-Bow.

  39. Kirsten Says:

    I don’t think EBow was a very good choice for a single at all. It has nothing obvious to offer the teenager listener – it’s too complicated and simply not cool.

    I love it, though.

  40. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    The title of “E-Bow The Letter” is unwieldy and difficult also. The song would have been more accessible had it simply been christened “The Letter” or some thing. Things like that matter when it comes to sales and radio play.

  41. Kirsten Says:

    I love the dead-pan, trance like feeling of Drive. I can’t compliment this song enough. It’s just perfect.

  42. Tim Says:

    So I’m on a college field trip with random college students from all over the US this weekend, and on the radio in the van, Drive comes on, and I think to myself: I’m probably the only one who knows this is R.E.M., but much to my surprise, I kid you not, every person in the van sang along to the entire song.
    It was quite surreal.
    I guess R.E.M. affected more people in the 90’s then I remembered.

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