King Of Birds

October 26, 2007

There’s a fair few songs in the R.E.M. catalog that would be difficult to pull off without Michael Stipe on lead vocals, but “King Of Birds” may be the selection that would prove most disastrous in the hands of most any other performer. It’s essentially a majestic ballad about humility, and thus the piece requires a very delicate balance of emotions. You can’t get too grandiose or slick with it, or you miss the point entirely. You can’t undersing it, or you rob the tune of its poignancy. If you foreground the irony, you gut the piece entirely. To nail this song, you have to commit to a lot of contradictions and possess a voice that merits the audience’s empathy without directly soliciting it. I’m not saying there is no one else who could do it right, or maybe even better than Stipe, but that person has to be one hell of a vocalist.

The music of “King Of Birds” maintains the same balance as the vocals — the beat is martial, and the chorus builds to a significant emotional peak, but the arrangement is filled with flourishes that lend the track a creaky, janky, dusty quality. Even when the song reaches its grandest moments, there’s a quiet, insistent jangle of a tambourine there to somehow bring the piece down to earth.

A lyrical note: I’m kinda amazed that up until I wrote about this song today, I never once considered that when Michael Stipe sings “a mean idea to call my own,” he could be meaning “a cruel idea” rather than “an average idea.” I definitely think he means the latter — it makes a lot more sense in context — but it’s a more obscure definition of the word and it’s sort of odd that I’ve known the song for quite a long time without ever thinking of it.


62 Responses to “King Of Birds”

  1. Ignis Sol Says:

    Matthew, this is another great write-up! I like your description of the music: creaky, janky and dusty.

    I love “King of Birds.” It is in my top five. All the lyrics are great, but I am particular fond of “standing on the shoulders of giants.” I know Newton used it and it has a long history of usage throughout the centuries. I like the idea of being held aloft by giants, it reminds me of the old notion of how the world is carried on the back of several elephants.

    The imagery in the song of jewels, sketches, birds, old men, children, horses and of course kings is some of the most evocative in music history. The music is a perfect match.

  2. Oh oh oh! The really key thing is that it’s “standing on the shoulder of giants leaves me cold.” I really like the way that line comes off.

  3. maclure Says:

    Huh, I always imagined the “mean idea” lyric as the cruel definition – but in the positive sense. As in that’s a “mean looking car you have” – strong, fierce and actually quite exciting.

  4. maclure Says:

    What’s “janky”? I like the word and shall make it a mean idea to call my own… once I find out what it means.

  5. ADB Says:

    Ditto “janky” – cool word, what does it mean…? Great song, great write up Matthew – very good point about what it takes to pull this one off vocally. Like you, I never thought that ‘mean’ meant ‘cruel’ in this context until you mentioned it.

    RE: ‘standing on the shoulder of giants’ – this story is probably apocryphyal, but in the UK in about 1997/ 98, a £2 coin was minted and inscribed round the outside are the words ‘Standing on the shoulder of giants’. Rumour had it that the quote was the idea of the then recently elected Tony Blair, who was and is an REM fan. And then f*cking Oasis got their hands on it…

  6. xman Says:

    i concur.

    the lyrics top this song are exceptonal…reminds me of the scientific revolution…the nephilim! one hundred million birds fly awaaaaaaaaay..would be quite a trea to hear this one live.

  7. AlexK Says:

    This is one of my favorite REM songs. “Document” was the first album of theirs that I owned and it still remains my favorite from beginning to end. I guess I had only recently achieved “musical consciousness” when I heard “Document”- “conscious” meaning being awake and aware (as opposed to social consciousness…I’ll let you know when I get there…I’m working on it, though!), and hearing this particular song really made me keenly aware that I was listening to a group the likes of which I’d not heard before. And then to follow up it up with “Oddfellows Local 151”! But that’s a subject for another blog post.

    Love the sitar throughout. If it’s not a sitar, way to go on making it sound like one!

  8. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I LOVE KING OF BIRDS!!! Easily my fave from Document and likely my very favorite pre-Out Of Time song. I love this song for exactly the reasons that Matthew outlined so I won’t repeat them all here (which is why Matt makes a living doing this and I don’t).

    As to the “standing on the shoulders of giants” line – it is a quote from Sir Isaac Newton who famoulsy said that if he “had seen farther than others (referring to his groundbreaking scientific discoveries) he had only done so by standing on the shoulders of giants” (Newton was referring to men like Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, etc.)

    So in that context it makes perfect sense to use it on a British coin. Although i’d love to think that it was Tony Blair’s sly way of giving a nod to the band.

  9. HotPixels Says:

    Well, I’ve never really looked up any R.E.M. lyrics before, so I always thought it was “a MAIN idea to call my own” – as in, my own spark of creativity and not just “the shoulders of giants” – but I guess that means I had more or less gotten the same thing out of the line in the end… ?

    BTW: meant to say, thanks for the WFMU show – a good listen.

  10. ryan Says:

    Yeah, I agree with Maclure’s take on “mean” – more slangy, I suppose. It always struck me that it was his idea and he was proud of it – making it mean… man.

    Awesome song – definitely gives a lot of weight to Document as a whole and in my mind ties in nicely with some of the avian themes explored earlier on Disturbance At The Heron House.

    Also, it’s always struck me as a precursor to World Leader Pretend – although that may be more in the music. Having said that, I think it’s every bit the equal of WLP.

  11. AlexK Says:

    According to Urban Dictionary (a reputable source?), “janky” means “of inferior quality”. Matthew, is that your definition as well? Definitely fits the context.

  12. Andy T. Says:

    I always thought it was “a MAIN idea” as well, I’m glad I’m not the only one. Definately one of my REM faves. And Document was also the first REM album (cassette) that I ever listened to, King of Birds being the first song (after The One I Love) to grab my ear.

    A few years ago I was given Alan Simon’s “Gaia” concept album(CD) and I was inspired by that to compile my own version of it – a mixture of songs and instrumentals by various artists that tie into the holistic “Gaia” theme, all crossfaded and such. I chose two REM songs – Talk About The Passion, which was an obvious choice with its theme of World Hunger, but the other song I chose was King of Birds – and I actually made something of a medley of the two, a little over half of Passion, with about 90% of King of Birds following.

  13. jim jos Says:

    it is both “mean” and “main” is it not? Mean first, then main. I always thought it was mean as kind of a 50’s slang term as well.

    “mean jacket there, pops” says the 50’s greaser as he gets off his motor bike.

    everybody hit the ground, everybody hit the ground.

    Some very good writing and very good music to go along with it. Agree with you MP, Stipe is the ideal voice for this song.

    Standing on the shoulders of giants, leaves me cold.
    I love that line, especially the way that its song.

  14. ScottMalobisky Says:

    I’ve always thought that maybe in some only an insider would know sorta way that the “standing on the shoulders of giants” line was some kind of convoluted reference to the band , a warped compliment maybe, like as in , “Hey , if these guys weren’t so good these observations of mine wouldn’t exactly make a lot of sense, I’d be looking pretty silly up here..” Although that wouldn’t explain the “leaves me cold” part unless he means that IT DOES make him feel feel cold in the sense that he realizes that maybe he ain’t shit without them ?? No Stipe solo records to speak of, eh?…highly unlikely my theory I suppose but I thought I’d spit it out anyway , I never liked the “everybody hit the ground” line , that part especially falls flat in Tourfilm. I think this song is kinda weak in Tourfilm in general…Always loved the “thumbnail sketch jewelers stone part though.”________Sincerely, Oddfellow

  15. ScottMalobisky Says:

    in the jingle janky morning I’ll come following you …

  16. Mr Cup Says:


    Easily top 5. Often higher. Crowning jewel from my favourite album.
    This song references Newton, another fave (fall on me) references Galileo…hmmmm. Both end up feeling the pull of gravity.

    And no mention of Birdy?

    …the water is evening out
    …the catacombs are filling in…

  17. Paul Alferink Says:

    Great song. Great live, especially the “the water is evening out part.” Although I always thought it was “The water is leaving me now.” Oh well.

    Best Lyric:

    I am king of all I see, my kingdom for a voice.

    I always got the Mean as in the math term also. I actually see math all over this song, which is wierd. Part of it is the “Singer, sing me a given,” line, given being a geometrical proof term. Also, the “Standing on the Shoulder’s of Giants” was made famous by Issac Newton.

  18. Justin Says:

    I’ve heard bootlegs from the Green tour where they play this song, and it fills this huge stadium with such grace and stateliness, I just picture the whole crowd in rapt awe. Definitely a good tune.

    That extended note at the end is a constant reminder of my teenage stupidity. I used to struggle all the time to try to hold that note as long as Stipe seems to. As I learned more about music and studio wizardry, I eventually realized that inhuman note is just trickery. Curses!

  19. ScottMalobisky Says:

    wow , the lyrics ANNOTATIONS certainly give some previously not mentioned info…Birdy ,too…Cool thought , Paul , the arithmetic mean

  20. Michael Black Ph.D. Says:

    I have always understood “mean”, in this case, to suggest rudimentary but effective, or humble yet utilitarian.

    Clearly, though, it could work a variety of ways.

  21. Dave Greenlizard Says:

    I totally agree with you, Justin. The version I have is totally hypnotic, vulnerable/strong. A whole stadium together, in their hands. Magic. If I could wish to see any show that REM have done, it would be from this period, and it would include this song.

    BTW I had a different bootleg – of the same show I think – and the song was titled “King of Byrds”. Nice touch, I thought.

  22. This truly is one of their best songs live — I have a few live versions, and the one on Tourfilm, and I really wish they’d bring it back to the set. I think it’d be a lovely addition on the next tour, for sure.

  23. ScottMalobisky Says:

    vulnerable /strong
    rudimentary but effective
    humble yet utilitarian

    I’m high but I’m grounded
    I’m brave but I’m chickenshit
    vicissituded but intermittently insouciant
    The Golden Ass in The Antic hay (hey hey hey )

  24. Norbury Says:

    I love this song too. Also the ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ is a quote from Isaac Newton, so Oasis have just as much right to use it as R.E.M.

    I always thought ‘mean’ meant ‘great’ in this song.

  25. ScottMalobisky Says:

    it’s like karaoke , words there to sing along to , I wonder if my neighbors appreciated my morning wake-up call …….

  26. ScottMalobisky Says:

    that shoulda been The Antic Hay, novel by Aldous Huxley
    thanx for putting up with me , my cad-like qualities

  27. Daniel Limburg Says:

    I always thought that the line “mean idea” was saying that it was the slang for mean – as in solid/fantastic/cool… Not like you said poor/bad. One of my favorites.

  28. Mr Cup Says:

    I like the ‘standing on the shoulders of giants, everybody is looking on’ line.

    So vunerable or embarrased by the fame thing (he don’t get it!).

  29. Dark Bob Says:

    “Old man don’t lie so still, you’re not yet young, there’s time to teach” A cool line. Use your wisdom to teach the young before you become senile.

  30. maclure Says:

    Darb Bob – this is a good line, but “you’re not yet young” always confused me – surely, “you’re still young”/”you’re not yet old” would make more sense? But this is Michael Stipe after all…

    When the Oasis album was released in 1999 with the name Standing on the Shoulder of Giants, I realised then the name had a small typo. The Newton quote and the Stipe line are about standing on the shoulderS (plural) of giants. Oasis prefer to stand on just one shoulder, perhaps the one closest to the 6 pack of beer, I dunno.

  31. Ignis Sol Says:

    I always thought the “mean” meant more than just its simple and varied definitions, but more for its implications. The character has a mean idea – one that makes him uncomfortable, but it is a necessary one he must execute for the children who carry reservations.

    Of course it references the line, “A meeting of a mean idea to hold” from Disturbance at the Heron House from earlier in the album. Plus, there are the similar couplets (at least style-wise) ending the songs (“Everyone allowed/Everyone allowed” and “Everybody hit the ground/Everybody hit the ground”) Due to these, I have always linked the two great songs.

    I believe Sir Isaac Newton borrowed the “standing on the shoulders of giants” reference from other sources, too. Michael’s fascination with gravity/Newton is very interesting, as I have noted before. I am re-reading A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. The last two sections are called Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton. The Newton chapter begins like this, “Isaac Newton was not a pleasant man” and ends with a summation of how his campaign against counterfeiting led many to the gallows. Everybody hit the ground, indeed.

  32. ScottMalobisky Says:

    “shoulder” , what a weird word , why the hell is there a silent “u” in there , one of the most blatant inconsistencies in the English language, boulder too…..and ,yes, Ignis , Newton borrowed that , refer to lyrics annotations at right

  33. Ignis Sol Says:

    I am trying to teach myself this song on my guitar so I can perform it for friends and family. After viewing the YouTube link of “King of Birds”, I am humbled. Mygod, Michael is such a great singer!

    I also want to learn “Daysleeper” and “You are the Everything.” Anyone got any crickets?

  34. xman Says:

    i’ve heard newton was a lifelong celibate. voltaire or one of those enlightenment poofs clowned on him for that.

    king of boids…

  35. Kirsten Says:

    Wow, I’m another one who thought it was Main Idea. I also thought it was Main Idea in Disturbance at the Heron House. I’ll just blame it on an accent thing….

    Scott, I also thought “standing on the shoulders of giants” was a reference to the band, but unlike you, I thought “Leaves me cold” was because he knew he’d be nothing without them at that gives him the cold feeling. That also ties in with the Mean idea to call my own – he’d like to be able to do it WITHOUT them.

    I love the live version on Tourfilm. “Who drew the short straw?” Mesmerizing.

  36. huub Says:

    this is the first I really notice the tambourine in this song, and the first time – thank you seventies – someone associates it with down to earth. Thanks again Matthew!

  37. Kirsten Says:

    Great writeup Matthew. Brilliant song.
    Bill carries this song, it’d be so much less without that marching beat. It has a strange lure, has a strange lure….

  38. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Yeah, Newton was celibate and was proud that he died that way.

  39. PatrickD Says:

    Absolutely one of my favorites – like an earlier commenter, I always associated this with mathematics/science, and viewed “mean” in that context. But I also associate it with “Yertle the Turtle” (“I am the king of all I see…”), so take that for what it’s worth.

  40. ScottMalobisky Says:

    I wrote a song to commemorate those currently in jail for public intox. Called it ‘Cell Libaton Day’

  41. ScottMalobisky Says:

    cell libation , I mean , whoops, oh Lordy , well I did it again..

  42. Kirsten Says:

    I am sooo excited! My REM Live CD FINALLY arrived from REMHQ! (When I say finally, it actually took less than 2 weeks which is really good from the States, but it was still an antagonizing 2 weeks). I’m only half way through the first CD, but so far so good! Michael shouts I Took Your Name more than sings it – he sounds as excited to be there as the audience! I’m going to listen to the other half on my walk home tonight and the 2nd CD tomorrow night. Can’t wait for 5 O’clock!!
    Booked in the DVD in for Saturday (spent last night convincing my husband to go out) – lots of screaming, dancing and jumping up and down to be done – Can’t wait!!!!

    OK, gotta stop thinking about it now, getting a little too excited for work! Can’t wait for them to tour again!

  43. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Kirsten , you got a husband ?!
    Does he like REM even half as much as you do ?
    Or is he into Midnight Oil , diesel ,and dust ?

  44. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Kirsten , so once you convinced your husband to go out what did you do at home without him ?

  45. Kirsten Says:

    What do I do?? REM BABY, R.E.M.!!!!! I have Saturday all planned. Close the curtains, put on the dvd and run it through the stereo for better sound, turn it up WAY too loud, then just jump around and sing along and scream a bit like I was really there. Oh yeah, and don’t forget the drooling….

    Nobody likes REM as much as I do! (I’m sure a few people on this site would love to dispute that.) I do have him hooked on a couple of songs so he does have a mixed tape I made him. Shiny Happy People, Orange Crush – no surprises there, but he really likes Find The River. Didn’t know he ran that deep. And no, not Midnight Oil or Diesel (though I like them both) he’s more of a Skyhooks fan.

  46. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Ah, I’m such an idiot, LOL, I didn’t realize that you really did convince him to go out BY HIMSELF ; I was trying to be funny , thought you meant that you had convinced him to go out –like together — DUH, I gotta start paying attention !!!!!!

  47. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Does Michael know you have a husband ?

  48. Mr Cup Says:

    Skyhooks ey?….not going to guess his age Kirsten….did anyone else hear Bisky’s heart snap back there?

    I once missed a pizza guy as a mate and I were cranking Tourfilm REAL loud. I was probably 6 ft from the door but just didn’t hear him.
    Later that night (not much later) the smell of burning electrical wire permeated the room. Blew my speakers.

  49. Kirsten Says:

    I haven’t told Michael yet, but it’s OK ’cause I’d dump him in a second for Michael anyway…..

  50. Kirsten Says:

    Mr Cup – COOL. That’s what we need! Don’t you love it when you can feel the music vibrate through the floor? And for the record, I’m a far bit younger than my husband, so don’t put me up there at that age!!

  51. Ignis Sol Says:

    Hands of My Michael, Kirsten 🙂

  52. Kirsten Says:

    Oh crap. Competition. Damn, you’re probably in with more of a chance than me I fear. That’s alright, he’s too good for me anyway – wouldn’t do him the dishonour.

  53. Mr Cup Says:

    I have a much better amp and speakers these days. I think my ears would bleed before the speakers got too stressed. Great for drowning out these yapping dogs that live next door!

    How is the guitar going Ignis? Stretching your pinky all the way up to the 5th?

  54. Andy Says:

    I’ve always merged “time after time” and “king of birds” in my mind. I start singing one and end up with the other…

    (I also do that with Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band” and “Same Old Lang sine.” …did I just reference dan fogelberg on an REM blog? Sorry about that…)

  55. ScottMalobisky Says:

    really like Dan Fogelberg Netherlands, an album for when one is hopelessly unhealthily paralyzed in unrequited love, laying on the couch smoking square after square in one’s underwear , orifices crusty unshowered and unkempt in the throes of despondency/dependency ,unfinished SPAM cans scattered, for days as the relationship crumbles around you (or the relationship never starts) …….that’s when Dano hits the spot. defines it when it hurts..then you shed your human skin and develop your snakeskin–this metamorphosis without even really realizing it’s happening– until one day you wake up and discover what a hard man you’ve become, half bird-god half machine. And it almost scares you. but any human will tell you that anger is an easier emotion to deal with than pain. this constant drip of pain which became my mind.

    who is the singer for the Sky-hooks, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, formerly known as Lew Alcindor ?

  56. lenny Says:

    Andy — I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who links “time after time” with “king of birds”. I always thought of them as great companion pieces to each other.

    And by the way, don’t feel bad about referencing Dan Fogelberg… I referenced Cheap Trick on this REM blog, for the “Pop Song 89” page. Cheap Trick was the band I listened to in junior high when I should have been listening to REM… (didn’t get into REM until high school).

  57. ScottMalobisky Says:

    shoulda been anger is an easier emotion to deal with than SADNESS, thus one makes the transfer. thanx

  58. Ignis Sol Says:

    Mr. Cup, my pinky is getting a good workout on this one.

    Actually, the mechanics of this song are quite straightforward. If I do goof on that part, I will just sing over it really loud “awayyyyyyyyy!”

  59. Karenia Brevis Says:

    First, I did see them perform this song during one of the encores on the Green tour, and it was a magical as people here were thinking it must have been. This and “Perfect Circle” had the whole crowd hushed. It was simply amazing.

    Maybe this is just my dumb idea, but I always saw “King of Birds” as a scary song about violence. The “point to point/point observation” has a vaguely military air to it, as does “everybody hit the ground.” And what makes birds fly away, say if you’re walking in the woods in a rural state like Georgia? A loud noise, such as a gunshot, would be one thing. What would make the kind of noise needed to make a hundred million birds fly away?

    When Newton talked about “standing on the shoulders of giants,” he was expressing gratitude to all the important thinkers who came before him — essentially, the entire cultural heritage of Western civilization. But to this narrator, history, culture and progress leave him cold. He wants to restart the world from scratch, basing everything on this “mean idea” that he calls his own. It’s mean as in base, insignificant, small, nearly worthless, but it’s his. That’s all that matters. Everything else has to go. It reminds me of Ted Kaczynski, the mathematical genius, sitting in his shack mailing bombs, or every group of genocidal madmen that wipe out the calendar, proclaiming that Year Zero or the End of History has arrived.

  60. There’s definitely a Yertle the Turtle thing going on here.

    “I am the king of all I see…”

    “Standing on the shoulders of giants” Yertle stands atop a stack of turtles so he can see more to be king of.

    “Everybody hit the ground” The stack of turtles falls at the end of the story, leaving Yertle king of mud. Though if he was still on his back he’d be king of all he could see: birds flying overhead.

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