October 30, 2007

Throughout the ’80s, R.E.M. was on a fairly relentless grind of writing, recording, and touring, and though I think it was mostly beneficial to their craft, that unforgiving schedule also yielded a handful of somewhat half-baked album cuts like “Kohoutek.” On its own terms, it’s a pretty likable tune with strong contributions of all four band members, but in the context of Fables of the Reconstruction, it’s so completely overshadowed by full-on masterpieces 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 it never quite gels despite containing a bunch of good ideas, or simply forget that it’s on the record at all. The composition is competent but unremarkable; essentially the work of a bunch of guys coasting on their respective talents, and approaching a creative dead-end with their original jangle-pop style.


48 Responses to “Kohoutek”

  1. Justin Says:

    I remember reading somewhere this was one of Michael Stipe’s first fairly straightforward love songs, comparing a relationship to the passing of a comet. I can’t recall the source. And this is hard to swallow, as one thing this track suffers greatly from is the murky vocals. I can barely understand it, and I’m not really compelled to try. I do love that nice falsetto note he holds at the end of the verses though.

  2. ScottMalobisky Says:

    this song is just bland , not bad , bland, uneventful..and yes it would be better if the vocal was more clearly delineated ; there just ain’t anything remarkable going on here to me . I’ve tried to find something , like their tired , trying to put something down –anything?- to fill in the empty spaces. Like when one writes words on the page ‘cuz one can’t stand an empty page ( even if it’s nonsense )…”staring at the empty pages” can drive one mad if one’s gots the writer’s disease.

    once had a Pink Floyd bootleg entitled “The Coming Of Kahoutek”, tripped my balls off to it

  3. Ignis Sol Says:

    Hmmm, what I like about this song…. yeah, Justin that falsetto note – cool….

    Hmmm, how about Michael’s reference to himself? “Michael built a bridge, Michael tore it down”

    Kahoutek was a much hyped up comet that was a major let down….(kinda like this song/UNLIKE the majority of Fables of the Reconstruction).

    And…ScottM., I don’t need that image of you trippin’ yer balls off burning in my head. Like Kahoutek, I wish IT was gone!

  4. Yeah, I was going to mention in this post that one of the problems in the song is that Michael mumbles the hell out of the lyrics, and you barely even notice that he’s singing his own name.

  5. Kirsten Says:

    This is the last of the 3 songs that I don’t like. (2 in a row – makes me look bad). I don’t hate it, I just don’t like it for all the abovementioned reasons. Also, some of those notes are a bit too high for me to sing along to. I do like the Michael reference too, Ignis, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they weren’t even the words anyway. I often skip it, not becuase it is so bad, but because the rest of Fables is so good. Maybe it would come across a bit better on a different album. (Reckoning?)

  6. maclure Says:

    It’s been a long time since I’ve listned to Fables and so I checked the lyrics online for this song to make sure I had in my mind the right tune (I know, I know). As they bore no relation to anything I could recognise I acually had to dig out the song and listen to it again… but then I remembered I do quite like it, after all. Not spectacular, but a good 3/4 album track – something to gently keep us interested before the finale. If I had to award a prize to the band member who made the greatest contribution to this song it would be to Peter for his guitar work which is just crisp enough to make me listen out for it above the other contributions. Those “Michael” lyrics have more than a passing resemblance to the World Leader Pretend about them, don’t they?

  7. xman Says:

    awww, i love this song. sure it’s a big clangy mush, but that’s waat’s great about it. i love the way the rif breaks down in the bridge too..really pretty melodic flourishes..fantastic lyrics..

    Fever built a bridge, reason tore it down
    If I am one to follow.. who will stand alone?

    Maybe you’re not the problem
    scissors, paper, stone
    If you stand and holler, these prayers will talk

    as far as breakup songs go, this one speaks to me a lot more than country feedback.

  8. Concerned Citizen Says:

    Matthew, absolutely love the blog so far — I even listened to Reveal all the way through for the first time because of reading your entries — so excuse the minor quibble…

    … but the song is spelled “Kohoutek,” with an “o.”


  9. Kirsten Says:

    Wow xman, your entry encouraged me to go and read the words. I wasn’t even sure if what you wrote down was from this song, or something else you’d read that you thought was relevant. I’d never seen them before now, I had no idea, they’re not what I thought. It IS actually a pretty good song, I just didn’t understand it. Hmmm, may have to go home and listen to it WITH the words – might change my opinion on this one yet….

  10. Kirsten Says:

    This is what I thought the words were:

    She’s gonna build a bridge
    She’s gonna tear it down
    At least do something
    You left me high
    Like Kahoutek
    You were gone

    Much, much better now!

  11. 2fs Says:

    Funny how people’s opinions can differ: this is one of my favorite tracks on this album. Mills’ bassline is brilliant, detouring to neighboring notes to give the droney section more shape. And Stipe? Mumbling? How could that ever be? 😉 Anyway: I’ve always found this one’s lyrics fairly easy to understand, and the “Michael built a bridge…” part revelatory, in that prior to this point Stipe seldom seemed to sing personally. And the falsetto? Just wonderful…

  12. Scott Says:

    One of my favorites, too. It’s like a sequel to “Time After Time” and a prototype for the lyrics of “Out of Time.” If “Fables” had been a Dixon-Easter production, it would be the equal of “Murmur” and “Reckoning” and might overshadow the latter.

  13. Kirsten Says:

    A sequel to Time After Time? Did Mike take those girls from the watertower to a comet?? 🙂

  14. Paul Alferink Says:

    This song would have benifited from having the lyrics brought out more. Not sure why they weren’t, the lyrics are reasonably straight forward, unlike a Murmur song.
    It has it’s moments. But the intro is really jarring, it’s really kind of doesn’t sound like an intro, it sounds like a inbetween part (which is what it later).

  15. ScottMalobisky Says:

    at least this comet didn’t leave 100 plus freakazoids dead in a mass suicide in it’s wake like Halle-Bopp, remember they thought they were going to be picked up in a spaceship trailing it if they died at just the right time or something like that ? how bizarre, they all ingested cyanide I think.

    that’s just it , the words are cool , but you can’t really hear them

  16. Eclipse Says:

    i’ve always loved this song, myself. it’s got a distinct sense of longing, and regret. for me it flows with the album really well; i can’t imagine it not being there.

  17. Mr Cup Says:

    She wore bangles, she wore bells
    On her toes and she jumped like a fish

    You know, sometimes lyrics just don’t matter so much.

    I like the song despite not knowing what Kahoutek was until now.
    I pretty much agree with the xman about the guitar parts. Nice.

  18. jft Says:

    I always had kind of the same feeling towards that song: not essentially bad or misplaced, but not really remarkable (same about “Good Advices”). But in those days they really managed to make even the fillers sound fitting, and that’s the great thing about it. The next time they managed to make an album like this (and those, ’cause it’s the same about CT, Murmur and Reckoning), I mean, with no misplaced filler to it, IMO was in 1998 and since then not again. But that’s my view to it.

    btw (@Matthew), I suppose your spelling of that song is not exactly correct. At first I was irritated by noone mentioned it, but I looked up at several places on- and offline and I am pretty sure that its name is “Kohoutek” with an -o-. Nothing much.

  19. milesy Says:

    Really interesting. Matthew, I think you’ve got the review absolutely right with this one- ‘pretty likeable… unremarkable…’ yeah, that’s about it. However, as I read what you said, agreeing with every word, I found myself thinking, oh-oh, he’s gonna get it in the neck for this, I bet loads of people love this (which is what generally seems to happen with songs that I’m not over-enthusiastic for). But no- general agreement, with a few exceptions- there you go…

    Like Maclure, I had to go and read the lyrics to try to remember the song- and then had to think pretty hard to work out what it sounded like, not having the album to hand. But the lyrics are actually very good, I think. ‘Courage built a bridge, jealous tore it down… Michael built a bridge, Michael tore it down.’
    Good suggestion, Scott- what might this have been with Easter and Dixon at the helm? (but then, I wouldn’t want anyone to change how Feeling Gravitys Pull turned out…)

  20. milesy Says:

    All in all, a classic example of why Fables is the weakest of the IRS albums. (it’s OK, I still like it…). Let’s be honest, there isn’t a single song on the other four that doesn’t instantly come to mind if I’m asked ‘What do you think of…’. Fables has several such songs. It’s not that they’re bad, just… lacking something. Nevermind, I can blame it all on Joe Boyd.

    And I still love Wendell Gee, whatever PB may say.

  21. Libor Says:

    to jft: you are right with the name of the song – I also think it´s Kohoutek – because yes, it is name of a comet, but that comet is named after Czech astronomer Lubos Kohoutek, who detected that comet. I live in Czech republic and Kohoutek is quite usual name in here – it means “cockerel” in Czech, but I know nobody who would be named Kahoutek. I don´t mean this as a critict, I love this blog, I only thought that it´s an interest 😉 Sorry for my English

  22. xman Says:

    whoa that’s cool, libor. imagine a bunch of people named kohoutek.

    stipe made a comment in rollinstone about fables sounding like two oranges being nailed together. he was just joking, but that image always comes to mind for this song.

    hey, are you, the reader, aware that this song has an awesome bassline?

  23. Clive Says:

    Kahoutek is the turning point of Fables, after ‘Green Grow The Rushes’ the album starts to wind down with songs that, on first listen, sound weaker and less finalised, but they may end up becoming your favourites in years to come when/if you’re tired of hearing the others.

    That said, there is no doubt that the song suffers from two things:

    1. There is no real need for Michael to mumble the words quite the way he does. It only serves to make the song more unaccessible and sound a bit tired and half-hearted.

    2. The production (like on ‘Green Grow The Rushes’) is poor, the sounds all mesh in to one and it just sounds a bit dirty and a bit mono.

    The live version of this song is much better (I mean the 1984 tour not the recent Dublin Rehearsals) – because Michael’s singing is more direct and obviously there are no production issues live. The lyrics to this song are actually pretty good and, as someone else mentioned, it’s another great Mills/Berry rhythm composition with a nice bass line from Mike.

  24. Dark Bob Says:

    Fables is my favorite REM record. It wasn’t a record that I liked immedietly. It took quite a lot of listens but eventually grew on me. I think the production value could have been better. But I think this record really captures the true essence of REM. It truley captures a sense of time and place. Kahoutek is my least favorite song on this record. Not a bad song, but weak compared to the others.

  25. gluefoot Says:

    i’ve always adored this song.. sure, it would’ve sounded better with more brash production, but then again the fact that it teasingly fails to burst out of its skin is part of its enduring charm.. i would love to have heard it live..

  26. Dave s Says:

    I like the song, and I think it’s one of Mills’ strongest bass lines.

  27. dan Says:

    never really noticed the tune until they played it live at one of those working rehearsal shows. i heard that falsetto note at the beginning and kinda fell for it. talking about its lyrics is ridiculous — all i ever got out of it was “like kohoutek,” and i don’t even know what kohoutek is. i enjoy its murky non-descriptness a lot in the context of Fables.

    ultimately, not a strong album track, but if it were on Dead Letter Office it’d be a beloved lost gem.

  28. Jared Says:

    I think it’s a really pretty song. Just not a sing-along.

  29. ScottMalobisky Says:

    the American rooster go cock-a doodle-do
    the Czech cockerel go kykyriki
    it’s all in the onomatopoeia

  30. ryan Says:

    I can’t imagine Fables without Kohoutek!

    Also, Kohoutek and Cuyahoga always remind me of one another… Maybe it’s the yearning in Michael’s voice when he intones these similarly sounding names in their respective songs… But also, from a non-musicians perspectove, once you get past the intros, both tracks seem to move at a similar pace.

  31. adam Says:

    always a classic REM song – kind of what REM was all about in the early years… if every song were ‘masterpieces’ like the ones mentioned – it would be a whole different album.. these songs inbetween – all emotion and jangle and rock and murkiness.. the mystery of REM… is what made us all fall in love with the band.

  32. narcizo Says:

    I simply love this song. I adore the bassline, I love the murkiness, the fact that I can’t understand s#it from the lyrics, …I can’t say anything else. It’s just timeless, and like the melodies we sing, we make our own, end eventually transforming them into something else.
    It’s something made to belong to all of us.

  33. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    One of the most boring and bland songs in the entire REM backcatalogue. Not the worst, but certainly the least memorable. The only thing that makes the song stand out at all is the held, falsetto note. MP, your review is spot on.

    I did learn something though, for some reason I always thought Kohoutek was an Indian chief, had no idea it was a comet.

  34. RPI Says:

    I take it this was chosen because of the coming of Comet Holmes for us Northern Hemisphere residents? If not, nice coincidence.

    Fables is REM’s most underrated album by far. The murkiness of the vocal works. In fact, I can think of nothing to complain about regarding Kohoutek. If you don’t like it, your ears or head don’t work right.

  35. Elliot H. Says:

    At first I hated Kohoutek, but after repeated listens I really like it. The beginning part reminds me of this cosmic-like scene (much like a comet) with everything swirling and crashing, it’s very cool. Once Michael’s ultra-mumbled lyrics kick in (to go with Peter’s ultra-jangled guitar, of course) the song is like taking of shot of pure early R.E.M. straight to the jugular. Mike’s bassline is also one of his best.

    Overall, I think this song helped make Fables my favorite R.E.M. album

    PS- I really liked the lyrics of this song as well, especially when it switches from “(emotion) built a bridge, (emotion) tore it down” to “Michael built a bridge, Michael tore it down.” Like it finally dawned on him that it was his fault.

  36. jim jos Says:

    I really like this song, when the line goes “Like Kohoutek, you were gone” there is something about that which gets me every time. It is one of my favorite songs on Fables, to be honest.

  37. protimoi86 Says:

    the beginning of this song always reminded me of a movie. it’s like we’ve just cut to a scene and we see chrome wheels rolling as our protagonists go for a ride. but not just any ride, they’re on a mission…

    hey it’s late, i’m drunk what do you want. amazing song, gets me every time.

  38. ScottMalobisky Says:

    this song reminds me of a song on Unforgettable Fire , trying to place it…..(serious insomnia tonight , I hate when his happens , wide awake at 3:30 AM)

  39. milesy Says:

    Is that ‘Indian Summer Sky’?

  40. Kurt Says:

    This is a hands down favorite of mine. That high note he hits at the end of the “chorus” nails ti for me.

    Top ten of all time for me.

  41. Ian Says:

    Kohoutek or however you spell it is one of the best R.E.M. songs
    Ian oUT!

  42. DJ Says:

    While I will say that in a musical sense this is certainly not the best song on the album, lyricaly it might be. If you actually take the time to listen to the words they are both moving and sad. The relationship described in these words is at the same time both universal and very personal. Of course in typical early Stipe tradition that is probaly why they are so hard to understand. I still think this is a better song than it is given credit for.

  43. Karenia Brevis Says:

    I have to say I really love this song and find it really heartbreaking. “Like Kohoutek, you were gone.” I’ve had moments in my life (and one relationship in particular) where that really spoke to me.

    I also found it really cool at the time that a band would name their song after this long-forgotten comet that had utterly failed to live up to all the hype. I have vivid memories of my dad leading all of us kids in a walk around our neighborhood one night in 1973 to go witness this spectacular Comet Kohoutek, and all we did was walk and walk and walk before giving up and going back home.

    This seemed to be to be a classic GenX memory (maybe just for the older GenX-ers), perhaps an all-too-telling moment for a generation whose entire existence up until then had been a series of spectacular promises that had never lived up to the hype. And R.E.M.’s use of it also seemed to be a crack forming in the until-then impenetrable wall of Baby Boomer imperialism that was still smothering popular culture. (The year Fables came out, the vast majority of the students on my campus seemed to be listening to the “Big Chill” soundtrack en masse. People who preferred R.E.M. were viewed as a bit strange.) We’d get many more such cracks, of course — grunge and Cobain and R.E.M. as an immensely popular band in the early 1990’s. But in 1985, “Kohoutek” would have to suffice.

  44. beonetraveler Says:

    The song that got me hooked. When I told a friend I hadn’t really listened to R.E.M. he brought me his Walkman (yep, I’m old) and said “You’ve gotta hear this.” The comet, building a bridge, tearing it down, leaving something behind…well, that was it. I needed to hear more and figure out what the heck this tune was about.

    My friend’s interpretation of the lyrics was somewhat different from those I’ve since read on the internet (e.g., “Healing our forgotten wound…” vice “Maybe you’re not the problem…”). I realized R.E.M. is a journey. Which reinforced in me the notion that only Stipe knows for sure. I read a 1991 Rolling Stone interview (told you I’m old) during which Stipe was asked about a line from the chorus of “Sitting Still.” Stipe said the line was “Up to par but Katy bars the kitchen door, but not me, in” I knew I was over my head in trying to figure him out. Still, deciphering the word soup is the funnest gig going in music.

  45. Teddy Roosevelt Says:

    You’re nuts, this is the best freakin song on the album.

  46. Gary Says:

    Ditto, this is my all-time favorite R.E.M. song! I have an early live recording and Michael sings: “Linda built a bridge / Michael tore it down”. Hopper or Stipe I do not know!

  47. Gary Says:

    Sorry, I have to correct myself. I just dug out my CD’s of R.E.M. mp3’s and found the version I had in mind. September 25, 1984, Durham. Michael introduces the song by saying “This one’s brand new.” About halfway through, the line was: “MICHAEL built a bridge / LINDA tore it down”, and you can hear it clearly.

    I also wanted to point out the little known fact that some of the lyrics from Kohoutek appear in the strange coda on some pressings of Reckoning. Freaked me out the first time I read that online and listened to it!

  48. chad Says:

    Fables was the first REM record I ever bought, about 15 minutes after Driver 8 stopped me in my tracks right after it came out. Listened to the record hundreds of times; loved Maps, dug Life, and worshiped Gravity. Now, 25 years later, which one still pops into my head with regularity? Kohoutek.

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