Exhuming McCarthy

January 10, 2008

Musically, “Exhuming McCarthy” is a peppy pastiche of proven Motown moves — stomping beats, scratching and stabbing chords, fluid bass lines that shimmy and groove inside a tight rhythmic pocket. Despite lifting from some pretty major hits — I definitely hear Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and Smokey Robinson’s “Tears Of A Clown” in there — the song doesn’t come off as a straight-ahead retro R&B number, mainly due to the fact that Michael Stipe and Mike Mills wisely avoid soul affectations and stick to their typical nasal-white-guy vocalizations. It’s a great effect — you get the immediacy and energy of Motown, but there’s also no attempt to distract us from the band’s background. If anything, they own their respective persona fully on this track — it certainly ranks among the most confident vocal performances by either of them in the R.E.M. catalog.

Just as the music connects the dots between several Motown classics, the lyrics of “Exhuming McCarthy” draw a line from mindless jingoism and reckless capitalistic excess to repression and censorship. It’s not the most coherent bit of agitprop ever composed, but the cheeriness of the track is more than enough to compensate for the lyrics’ somewhat vague thesis.


30 Responses to “Exhuming McCarthy”

  1. Mr Cup Says:

    Yep it’s got groove!

    I love a good speech in the middle 8 and those chunky chords stepping back down to the verse.


  2. adam Says:

    didnt see this as vague at all at the time.. this was direct reaction to conservative, reactionary govt.. reagan and all. the 50’s era returning etc in politics -could there be a new blacklist?? this was always great fun live..

  3. 2d Says:

    this is my favourite song on “document” and one of my favourite r.e.m. songs. it’s fresh, original and anthemic, and indeed grooooooooooooovy!!! fun to sing along to. it’s strange that i can’t comment more on it, i just love it.

  4. jim jos Says:

    good call on the overall Motown vibe of the song, musically speaking, I think it especially noticeable with Bill’s drumming the way they are brought into the mix. The drum beat reminds me of Reach Out Ill Be There by the Four Tops. When the horns are added along with the tempo of the bass, it creates a very good musical landscape, highlighted by Buck’s different takes on his guitar parts throughout the song. Almost 60’s camp guitar twang one moment, chopping chords the next.

    The fact that R.E.M. could take such a distinctive sound and make it all there own, through political insights and vocal delivery is almost too good to be true.

    I never really understood the “loyal to the Bank of America” line or whether or not “you’re beautiful more beautiful/honorable than me” were beautifully sarcastic (like many of the lines of the song) or more straight forward.

    meet you at the book burning! By Jingo, buy American!

    Always loved the placement on Document, between WTTO and Disturbance at the Heron House.

    Sadly, this song has only proven to be all the more on target in recent years.

  5. 2fs Says:

    I’d say “loyal to the Bank of America” is a cynical rewrite of “loyal to America” (the quality which the historical McCarthy was supposedly trying to weigh and determine). As for the “beautiful/honorable” bit: I’d have to re-listen to the track, but there’s some interplay between Stipe and Mills playing off the various vowels and consonants in common and distributed among “beautiful,” “honorable,” and “honor above all.” If nothing else, it sounds good!

  6. Kirsten Says:

    Love the bass and Mike’s “It’s a sign of the times”.
    Still my least favourite on Document, but a great song never the less.

  7. Paul Alferink Says:

    Fond of this song. While musically, it might be a weaker song, the lyrics are well done. Love the speech in the middle.

  8. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    This is a middle of the road Document song for me, but one that never gets old as it is so unique in the REM catalog. To me, this song has always simply sceamed Mike Mills with the thumping bass and solo “it’s the sign of the times” vocal (which for me are the two best parts of the song). I would be interested to know if this was a song that was mostly written under his direction or if it came primarily from somebody else. I also love the sequencing here of the three great political protest songs back to back to back: Occupation, McCarthy, Heron House. Powerful lyrical triptych. Although the songs are not of the same high quality if REM has switched the order of Wanderlust and Boy In The Well on ATS they might have achieved a new (albeit inferior) political triptych with Final Straw, I Wanted To Be Wrong, Boy In The Well. That would have been a long, dark, stretch of album though. Good to have you back MP!

  9. Mr Cup Says:

    For oh, ages, I thought the lyric was:

    ‘you’re shopping on stones’

    and thought it was a reference to primitivism.

    Really dig the stipewriter intro too.

  10. lenny Says:

    Stipewriter — good one. It is a good effect, like a news flash is being feverishly typed up, about how the political arena at the time hearkened back to the days of McCarthy (I think adam’s comments are right on). I never thought the message was vague either, especially considering the audio clip from the hearings.

    Awesome song, definitely my favorite from Document. Also, I never thought of it as a Motowny sound at all, probably because the style of the singing and the lyrics are so far off. Sure there are some horns, but I don’t see any other similarity.

  11. beonetraveler Says:

    Great post.

    This song ranks close to the top for me, maybe because it was one of the first REM tunes that I seriously listened to.

    I think it’s about irony and/or American obsessions.
    –Couching and equating exalted terms like beauty and honor with bank loyalty/patronage.
    –The country’s mid-80’s obsession with, what was perceived as, Japan’s palpably imminent economic dominance (where business acumen was/is equated with combat/combat preparation–hence, I guess, sharp stones, walking on coals)

    The song, to me, conveyed a message of, “Hey, America, calm the fuck down. You’ve been in hyper-patriotic, jingoistic tizzies like this before and where did it get you? Why try to bring shitknobs like ‘Tailgunner’ McCarthy back from the dead?”

  12. Jared W Says:

    This was my first favorite REM song. Document was the 2nd CD I ever bought (Tears for Fears GH was #1… weird).

    I remember listening to Exhuming McCarthy very loud on my headphones, in my room in a quiet house.

    Not my favorite still, but it’s up there.

  13. David T. Says:

    I bought the groups records in reverse order back in the late 80s, starting with Green. This song, on my first listen, made me think, “Oh, that’s where they got the intro for Pop Song ’89 from.” The two are not extremely similar otherwise, but the repeated I-IV chord pattern and the overall guitar-bass-drum sound link the two in my mind.

    Also, I remember getting chill bumps in my senior American History class (’89-’90) when we watched a film on the McCarthy hearings and the phrases from the song’s middle eight were being spoken…

  14. milesy Says:

    Middle of the road Document song? Least favourite? (that old phrase again…). No, for me, this is my FAVOURITE song on Document, today, and for more days than not, if you see what I mean- there are several close competitors.

    Thematically, I always saw it as a pretty angry song, more of a grabbing the nation by the scruff of the neck than a bit of encouragement not to get jingoistic and blinkered. If this is REM’s jibe at Reagan era politics, its closest partner for me would be Ignoreland, with its less subtle vitriol at another administration.

    The drum intro always reminds me of U2s take on All along the Watchtower; and I love Peter’s languid guitar work just before ‘the sign of the times’.

    Document, hey? I mean, what a record…

  15. ScottMalobisky Says:

    neat sounds . those are horns , eh ?
    I’m assuming the suddenly missing lyrics archive is a clever way of illusrating McCarthyism.
    and the Bank Of America is now an actual bank

  16. 2d Says:

    i forgot to mention i always think of “lara croft: tomb raider” when i hear this song, as i remember vividly playing this song (and other r.e.m. songs also) in the background as i was playing the game. it is a very strange association but i always smile when i hear the stipewriter (© mr cup).

  17. protimoi Says:

    I’ll have to give this another listen. I usually skip it when I’m listening to Document, but I don’t hate the song – I just find it mediocre in comparison to some of the other songs it hangs out with on the album.

    More evidence to my recent revelation that Document is actually one of the most experimental albums R.E.M. has done to date.

  18. Flandall Says:

    I always really enjoyed this song. So pointed in the 80s and still apropos these days. I agree with milesy that I love the way Peter Buck’s guitar becomes so languid before “It’s a sign of the times”.

    Oddball comment: It’s odd how you’ll be watching a TV show and a song will leap into your mind. In a recent episode of The Office, they walk on hot coals. “Exhuming McCarthy” immediately came to mind. I was hoping they’d sharpen stones in that episode too. Heh.

  19. ScottMalobisky Says:

    the beneficial aspects that war has on the US economy, Eisenhower’s pointed warning about the dangers of the military/industrial complex–so true and apparently unheeded.

    PB: ” I personally despair of our president , his foreign policy , and everything he stands for …the people that run the US are at best without taste and at worst a bunch of criminals. To me ,America in 1987 is Disneyworld.” Damn, was he looking into a crystal ball at twenty years down the road? Atrocious. No one died when Clinton lied.

  20. ScottMalobisky Says:

    what allows you to pass through smoke, through armed mobs singing the merits of a new regime, tooth for tooth , liberation by purification, and global dissemination of the love of jealous gods, coup d’etat, coup de grace, and the cooing of mothers and doves and screaming men and children caught in the pyre’s updraft, tricks you learned to become invisible, safe among your own, the numb, the haunted, the maimed, the barely alive.

    as the cash register chimes on
    add horns

  21. Figgy Says:

    One of my favourites from Document. It predates my playing of any musical instrument, though at the time I was thinking of taking up the guitar. When I heard the “sign of the times” bit, I really liked how the bass carried the melody and how good it sounded with Buck’s sparse guitar. One of the first times I seriously considered taking up the bass… and that’s exactly what I ended up doing. All Mike Mills’ fault… and Kim Deal’s, and Enda Wyatt’s (he of An Emotional Fish, but that band might not mean anything to anyone here). Life changing. Still love playing that instrument.

    By the way, I’ve enjoyed reading the review and comments so far on ‘Exhuming McCarthy’ – good stuff from everyone. The theme of the song was always fairly clear to me, though some research on the McCarthy era was needed on my part to appreciate the song fully (however, I like when something that referenced by an entertainer encourages me to go off and learn something).

    The combination of Motown-esque music and the typical Stipe-Mills singing never occurred to me, but I think MP has called it right. The song stands out for that reason. Nice observation!

  22. lenny Says:

    Whoa, blast from the past…an Emotional Fish…
    Every once in a while, I look around the used CD bins to find something from that band. Can’t find them on iTunes — makes me wish I would have bought their CD at the time I loved that one song of theirs on the radio. How’d it go? “With a little pleasure and a little pain, come a little sunshine and a little rain.” (I can’t remember how the bass line goes, though.)

    Also, good points about this song, Figgy — I also like when a song makes you think about something further, or even research a period in history. I spent hours online reading about the exact moment in the McCarthy hearings where the sound clip in this song comes from. It was really the defining moment of the whole ordeal.

  23. Ignis Sol Says:

    I always liked this one and enjoyed the band’s live performances of this. The songs fits perfectly on Document.

  24. Figgy Says:

    Hi Lenny. The AEF song you quoted from is called “Rain” and can be found on their second album “Junk Puppets”. I actually gave that CD a spin over the weekend – a bit patchy in places but some good stuff in there. Their first album, simply called “An Emotional Fish”, is the one I really love. It’s got some great bass-driven songs like “Celebrate”, “Grey Matter” and “Brick It Up”. I don’t currently have a copy of it, but when I return to Dublin on holiday in June I’m gonna search all the CD stores for it – might be able to find a 2nd hand copy somewhere.

  25. Kevin Says:

    Given all we’ve seen in politics this week, it’s a good time for this song. 🙂

    I hold in my hand a list of 80 attacks…?

  26. milesy Says:

    On the subject of the McCarthy hearings, has anyone seen the George Clooney film about that time, ‘Thank you, and Goodnight’- really evocative and relevant for today too. And I’m pretty sure that at one point it uses the same quote (‘Have you done enough…’) that REM used in their middle 8.

  27. Paul Alferink Says:

    I have seen that film, and it does use that quote. Good film. I loved the throw away scene were they interview Liberace and ask him whether there is going to be a misses Liberace soon.

  28. lenny Says:

    Thanks, Figgy — I actually found a used copy of Junk Puppets on Amazon.com, and it is being shipped right now. Their eponymous debut album is also on Amazon, in case you were interested.

    And milesy, I think the film is “Good Night and Good Luck”, but I like your title better. Those are the exact words I always want to hear from a crappy opening band when I’m dying for the headliner to get on stage. (So I say this at the end of every song by the opening act: “Thank You, Good Night!!!”)

  29. Figgy Says:

    Or as the last line of the most famous An Emotional Fish song goes: “Celebrate, this party’s over, I’m going home”. They finished many a gig with that line ringing in people’s ears.

    Wow, lenny, I hope you won’t be disappointed with “Junk Puppets”… I’ll feel really bad if you are, I didn’t mean to hype it up. There are better bands and better albums out there.

    My fondness for AEF is probably very subjective – I like their music but it’s the memories of their early gigs, and how they coincided with an enjoyable period in my life, that mean so much to me. At the time, I hung out with a great bunch of friends who all loved music, drinking, socialising (the “craic”, as we Irish call it) – we lapped up live music whether it be local bands like AEF, Therapy or That Petrol Emotion or visiting acts like The Pixies or They Might Be Giants. Some great nights.

    I’m not sure if she’d recognise any of their songs but my mother will always remember AEF for their sweat-producing properties. Me and some of the aforementioned friends went to the band’s debut album launch, a free gig in a very small, dark, atmospheric but poorly ventilated venue. The crowd was packed so tightly that our feet rarely touched the ground once the moshing started. Three of us showed up at my parent’s place afterwards drenched head to toe in sweat, not entirely sure how much of it was our own. Almost 20 years on, my mum still mentions this horrific sight from time to time.

    By the way, thanks for the tip re: Amazon.

  30. lenny Says:

    Believe it or not, when I dug through my old cassette tapes (after buying Junk Puppets on Amazon) I realized that I had bought the cassette back in 1993. Oh well, at least I can put those songs on my ipod now! I do like the CD pretty much; not all songs are winners, like you said, but I must have liked it in 93 to buy the tape, so I’m glad I have the CD now.

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