Orange Crush

June 6, 2008

Though “Orange Crush” owes a significant stylistic debt to Gang of Four, a band R.E.M. have name-checked throughout their career, the song is actually more like R.E.M.’s equivalent to U2’s “Bullet The Blue Sky.” U2’s song predates R.E.M.’s by about a year — by the time The Joshua Tree was in stores, an early draft of “Orange Crush” became a setlist staple on the tour for Document. There are some major differences between the two, but the songs have extremely similar utilities in the context of each band’s live repertoire. Essentially, both songs evoke the sound of “war,” mainly by abstracting martial rhythms and nervous, trebly guitar parts into something that somehow has the same effect in an arena as a thundering metal riff. For each band, the arrival of the song in their set signals two things to the audience:

1) Now It Is Time For Us To Rock Hard, In A Very Serious Way

2) War Is Very Bad; Please Think About That While We Rock

U2 have embraced the abstracted, amorphous quality of “Bullet The Blue Sky,” and have done their best to reinvent the song for each new tour. This is a good idea in pragmatic terms, but in practice, it’s gutted the song, and in some cases, canceled out its original sentiment. Chris Conroy explains:

“Bullet The Blue Sky” suffers from pretty much the exact same identity crisis. It’s been played on every tour since it was written, largely because the band don’t have any other songs in their catalogue that will allow them to show off bruising hard-rock chops. It, too, is a profoundly anti-violent song — it was written in disgust at how the American military was used to subjugate dissent in Central America — but every time it gets trotted out, Bono desperately tries to make it new and relevant by pointing it at some other conflict. On the Elevation tour, he came the closest he’s come to successfully making it matter again, turning it into a sharp attack on gun violence with a hammy-but-haunting riff on the murder of John Lennon by Mark Chapman. Seeing that song shoved down America’s throat when it was played on the first leg of Elevation was remarkable: here was a band that actually did have the balls to say something that large segments of the audience might not like; here was a band who wrote songs that represented their ideals, and performed them with conviction. But after September 11th, the band dropped that level of interpretation from the song, and hearing it played in New York City became a disturbing experience: inside the arena, it felt like the audience was taking the song up as a battle cry, as a “we want revenge” violence fantasy, losing themselves in the brutality of the music and not in its lyrics of condemnation for the exercise of force.

On the Vertigo tour, “Bullet The Blue Sky” has become spectacularly muddled. It’s obviously impossible to sing a song about the American military abroad in this climate without having that song be about the Iraq war, and Bono knows it; he’s been incorporating “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” into the lyric, and suddenly the song becomes bizarrely, schizophrenically, pro-soldier — at last night’s show, Bono quite literally dedicated the song to “the brave men and women of the United States Military.” How are we supposed to take that? Obviously conflicts like the Iraq war can produce a difficult line to straddle — it’s virtually impossible to respect what the soldiers are being required to do, but it’s impossible not to respect the impulse to serve one’s country in the name of idealism. A song about hating the sin but loving the sinner could definitely be a rich gold mine for the band to explore, but “Bullet The Blue Sky” is not that song.

Much to their credit, R.E.M. have never lost sight of what “Orange Crush” is about, and despite being performed on every one of their tours since 1987, it’s certainly not played often enough to become the tired ritual that “Bullet” has become for U2 fans. Lyrically, “Orange Crush” is in a peculiar zone in which the words are a bit too vague to draw out a particular narrative, but specific enough that it’s impossible to remove the song from its context — the American army, and the Viet Nam war. That said, its central theme is easy enough to suss out: In American society, young men are taken out of their ordinary lives and sent overseas, often to perform horrific duties in the name of freedom.

There is certainly some implied question of whether this is a Good Thing, but that’s not necessarily the focus. Instead, Michael Stipe seems far more concerned with what happens to individual soldiers, and how they may deal with being thrown into these intense, life or death scenarios, and how they may cope with being complicit in acts of large scale violence. The chorus of the song is atypical but highly effective; its odd contrast of anguished moans, howls, and incomprehensible distorted words places the listener in the mindset of a soldier thrown headlong into chaos.

Stipe’s empathetic approach no doubt comes from the fact that his father served as a helicopter pilot in Viet Nam. The band have insisted for years that the song is not about Michael’s father, and I’m inclined to agree, at least not in the sense that the lyrics are meant to express anything specific about that man’s experience. The important thing is that Stipe’s connection to his father informs his concept of war, and goes a long way towards humanizing a song that would not have to be anything more than vague signifiers and empty platitudes in order to connect with a large audience.

42 Responses to “Orange Crush”

  1. drew. Says:

    Matthew, you are brilliant.

  2. profligateprofiterole Says:

    If I hd to pick one song to define REM
    this would be it

    now to read the long posting
    does brilliance await me?
    might the posting be as brilliant as the song?

  3. profligateprofiterole Says:

    this song sucks live though, so unnuanced
    at least the version on the Live DVD
    ……….uh,sorry . I meant Digital Video Disk. Is that what DVD stands for?
    I don’t know how it came off in an earlier more vital and hungrier time….

  4. Macphisto Says:

    File under bad ass song! I know the lyrics “high on the roof” but when they sing it live, does Stipe change it to “high on the booze?” The early bootlegs from the work tour are awesome as well.

  5. jim jos Says:

    yeahhhhh.

    Some call this song vague, but, to me, I can’t listen to this song and not think about a soldier’s life.

    “I’ve had my fun and now its time to serve, your conscience overseas”
    reminds me of a few friends I’ve known who had some wild years in their late teens/twenties and then found themselves without a real career path (not that I am doing much better) and turned to uncle sam for a paycheck.
    Orange Crush…agent orange. An American product…mass produced similar to a cola brought to you as an American commodity.

    Never thought about a comparison between BTBS and OC, but I believe I will from now on. BTBS might be my favorite U2 Joshua Tree song, and this is among the many I love from R.E.M. Both bruising war songs.

    Over me not over me, collar me, don’t collar me, Follow me, don’t follow me. I am not sure what those contradictions are about, but they seem to reference ,in some way, the do’s and do nots of a contradictory life of a soldier. Fighting for peace.

    High on the roof,
    Thin the blood,
    Another one on the waves tonight,
    Comin’ in, you’re home

  6. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Orange Crush is absolutely brilliant in its careful juxtaposition of the deadly chemical Agent Orange used in Vietnam with the classic pop culture reference of Orange Crusg soda. This dualism serves as a perfect symbolic expression of the songs conflicted theme of duty to country (which is viewed positively) and citizen soldiers being required to leave their normal life to serve that country in a cause that may be questionable (which is viewed negatively). Hence, Orange Crush becomes the metaphor of both: A killing agent employed in the name of war and a soda that the boys sipped at BBQ’s back home while enjoying summer and spending time with friends and family. It is a great lyric and I’ve never felt it to be vague, simply broad enough to express to points at once. Combine it with the martial rhythm and it is great (always thought Bullet The Blue Sky was too hammy).

    Also, interesting note that may or may not have anything to do with the song, but American soldiers in Vietnam were often given Orange Crush to drink as a safe alternative to the local water sources.

  7. Ben Says:

    For years I wondered what the lyrics were during the spoken word section of this song, and when I Googled them a few years ago it put the song in a completely new context. Stipe (as the narrator) is speaking through a megaphone in that section, reciting some oddly-structured words about the county he lived in back home and how he “knew every back road and every truck stop”.

    Speaking about rural America in the context of the Vietnam War reminded me of the Steve Earle song “Copperhead Road”, and how brilliantly that song describes a kid from the back hills of America being sent halfway around the world to fight people in the back hills of Vietnam, and how horribly ironic that reality is. That song and “Orange Crush” both describe in detail the narrator’s vivid memories of the home they left behind and (especially in “Copperhead Road”) how staunchly they’d defend their home. That basically sums up what happened to America in Vietnam right there.

    I hope that made sense. It’s really, really late, but I just heard the Steve Earle song in the car today and this post reminded me of it. Hopefully you’ll see what I was getting at…

  8. ADB Says:

    Ah, the drum intro that summoned me to the dancefloor of many an indie night in the late 80s / early 90s… this was their first UK Top 40 hit in June 89, and it led to them making an appearance on Top Of The Pops. The cheesy Radio 1 DJ who was presenting (Peter Powell maybe?) gave the song a spectacularly inappropriate introduction – something like ‘Now here’s a nice song for a hot summer’s day – Orange Crush’…!

  9. Rob Says:

    Matthew, this is probably the best post you’ve written yet. I’ve always admired the way that REM can write political songs that manage (for the most part) to avoid being dogmatic. With so many “Bush is bad” songs around at the moment it’s always good to hear something a little more nuanced. Like the last few Bright Eyes albums, which steered clear of sloganeering to paint a picture of what it is like to be living in a place where you feel out of step with what the government are doing. That being said When The President Talks To God rocks…

  10. albert Says:

    When I first heard Orange Crush on the radio way back when, I think I teared up. Finally, the world would understand. I realized in that moment my concerns about commercial success diluting the band’s artistic core were unfounded and that I could continue in my reverie, as they would continue making phenomenal music. The song is an amazing accomplishment, capturing everything that REM had been up to that point and distilling it down to one kick ass song that would explain it all to anyone who still didn’t know. The One I Love unlocked the door. Orange Crush kicked it open.

  11. profligateprofiterole Says:

    never knew that about Stipe’s father being a helicopter pilot. What kind I wonder? Like a fighter-pilot raking the jungle with machine-gunfire in a Cobra? or a transporter/Medi-vac type in a Huey? or what? Big difference. Either way that would make for some interesting dinnertime conversation in the Stipe household.

  12. Dark Bob Says:

    Excellent review Matthew! Also, Beethoven was deaf I think you are dead on. Not much more I can add except that Orange Crush is a Magnificent song. Another example of one of REM’s Finest Hours.

  13. profligateprofiterole Says:

    good D-Day anniversary posting BTW.

  14. profligateprofiterole Says:

    a bit off topic but…
    some things are just too weird

    I was listening to The Wrong Child a couple of days ago for really no particular reason, not within the context of the entire record, just punched it in on Rhapsody (actually, I’m thinking now that the reason may have been that it’s on Kevin’s worst five list…. Hairshirt also on said list I should mention); anyway, I just wanted to take a listen again to it because it had been a while…..And I must say that it has NEVER SOUNDED MORE BEAUTIFUL !!!—I was blown away, maybe it was the quality of my headphones……..And at the very end there’s a tolling bell that sounds just like the one in the last verse of I Took Your Name (!) I never noticed that before..so I listened again to make sure I wasn’t losing my mind and sure enough it’s there. So, I went to the MP-ITYN posting and mentioned it….

    But that’s not the weirdest part……..Today I’m sitting outside, reading and catching rays, and I notice car after car coming down the street to my dead end of the street, and parking, and lots of well dressed people getting out of the various cars, so many people and cars on this street ! Never has there been so many cars on this street, and now they are lined up for fifty yards or so extending down both sides……So, I asked somebody, “Hey? What’s the occasion anyway?”, thinking it was something happy…….Turns out that the kid with muscular dystrophy who lived in the house at the curve of the cul-de-sac just a couple of doors down, a classic The Wrong Child type case…I would sometimes (though very rarely) see him sitting in his wheelchair…He died a couple of days ago at right around the exact moment that I first heard that tolling bell !……Really kinda freaked me out…. God Bless Him…….

  15. maclure Says:

    It’s a bit hard to follow a comment like that (profligateprofiterole if that is your real name?) or a post like that (an excellent bit of analysis from MP).

    I guess I just want to say a bit more about the musical side of this really. This song may contain my favourite Buck riff. It’s classic REM – open chords, Em to D progressions. I know Nirvana are/were supposed to have one of the best guitar songs in rock but this runs them close right here. Music-wise, it’s actually very close to The One I Love in some respects but with the overdrive, the lyrics, the loudspeaker and sitting on top of a choppy bass and drums you’d never really think it at face value. Oh, and I like the official video, but not this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsW4-XE64-I

  16. maclure Says:

    Ah, poo. A typo. That should be Nirvana are/were supposed to have one of the best guitar SOUND’S… (although looking at it, maybe “songs” fits too).

  17. Rob Says:

    In a classic case of missing the point entirely, when REM performed this on Top Of The Pops the presenter announced it as “Orange Crush- particularly nice on a hot day.” They then turned in a wonderfully insane performance, Stipe in a suit but with no shirt holding the megaphone so close to his mouth to disguise the fact that he couldn’t lip-synch.

  18. Theresa Says:

    I always liked this song, even before I knew anything about what it was about. I was in Chicago the night before last, and they played this. I thought that it was great live. It was the first REM concert that I’ve been to, and the whole thing was an incredible experience.

  19. Andy Says:

    I’ll go out on a limb and say this might be their best. Until recently, I would’ve never considered saying that, but not long ago, I was in the right frame-of-mind and the song just blossomed for me. AND, since I’m throwing around superlatives, I might also say that the video is among the best I’ve ever seen by anyone. It’s all there, clear as a bell yet–as Rob said earlier–without being preachy. Direct and subtle.

    And I love the vocals, particularly the rhythms of the megaphone-soliders marching-medlody-counterpoint craziness toward the middle and end.

  20. ivan Says:

    this is the song that made me an R.E.M. fan. i can’t remember if i first heard it on the radio or on an episode of 21 Jump Street (they were tracking down some AWOL soldier, but anyway I loved it and bought Green soon after. haven’t gotten off the bus since.

  21. andrew Says:

    Green was probably the first real album I was exposed to as a seven-year-old kid thanks to my older siblings. Orange Crush was a particular favorite of mine. But over time I’ve gotten so accustomed to the song, that I don’t really think of it when I think of great REM songs. That is until I went to my first REM concert in Chicago a couple of days ago. Their performance of OC blew me away. I’ve been listening to this song for 20 yrs, and REM somehow made it seem as if that was the first time I heard this song. Matthew’s exceptional review of this song was also fresh in my mind during the performance, and that probably helped too.

  22. 4trak Says:

    I personally find this song is a bit vague – once I had found out it was an anti-war anthem, I wasn’t too surprised, but even so it doesn’t exactly punch its point across. Still probably one of the best off Green, though.

    Also, cheers for the free advertising to my own blog, and hurray to WordPress for the randomly generated related-postings feature for its part in that…

  23. Mr Cup Says:

    The thing I love here is the sound. It’s just a freekingly* exciting soundscape that always, always, always ends far too soon. Maybe that’s a good thing.

    Blistering guitar riff from Buck. Those first two notes and the ‘wacka wacka’ guitar bit are supreme. Sitpes voice is like acetone and the multi tracked vocal a blowtorch. Great drums and shimmering harmonies, helicopters, military parades and megaphones fill out the sound so well. But my favourite thing is that little percussive fill. And that ‘wacka wacka’ guitar.

    *Freekingly is now an official werd. Use it often.

  24. Jared W Says:

    Has anyone noticed that the “soldiers marching” sounds at about 2:10 are (in my opinion) identical to the sounds in Tears For Fears’ “Break it Down Again” (at about 4:05)? I wonder where they were pulled from, and if they are indeed the same.

  25. Matt Says:

    I’m quite certain that “Orange Crush” was not performed at all on the ’99/Up tour. Am I mistaken?

  26. adam Says:

    first heard this on bootleg cassette I got while traveling in London when I was 17 – it was performed that year on the WORK tour – before it was on Green. thought it was the coolest thing.. the chorus had quite a hook.. before I even knew what it was about – and before all the extra efx were added.. and the megaphone stuff etc

  27. maclure Says:

    Mr Cup said what I was trying to say. Thank you, Mr Cup.

  28. Paul Alferink Says:

    Theresa-
    It was a good show, wasn’t it. My only complaint (besides my seats) was about this song. The revamped bridge makes it impossible to shout out 1-2-3-4! which I did with such gusto when I saw them do it live before.

  29. Mr Cup Says:

    You’re welcome maclure.

    Has anyone heard the instrumental version? I heard it just once many years ago and remember thinking how utterly dull and lifeless it was.
    It was like an elevator western.
    I can’t remember if it was just the vocals had been removed or many things. Anyone?

  30. Paul Alferink Says:

    It was a Kereoke Version. Same Song, No vocals.

  31. Tim Says:

    Very observant Jared W, they are indeed the same…

    I have thought recently about trying to rank all of REM’s 200+ songs from 1 to 200. Orange Crush would certainly be in my top 5.

    One of the first two or three songs that got me into R.E.M. and my all time favorite live

    I was probably 16 or older before I knew this song was referring to something other than the soda pop.

  32. Patrick Says:

    Best introduced by Michael singing: “Be all that you can be, in the army!”

  33. milesy Says:

    One of Bill’s finest hours, good song; didn’t know people rated it quite that highly though, the competition is a bit tough for it to make my top 5 (or even 20)…

    On another note, I know Matthew has said he will not do Accelerate on this blog, but I’m wondering if DJ will be one of the remaining songs. After all, he has reviewed a fair few songs that were not released as album tracks but were live regulars at some point. I heard DJ first in 05, so I guess it might need to be included.
    But would it have to be filed in ‘non-album’, as it was then? No, surely it would need a new ‘Accelerate’ category. But then the right hand side of the blog would look kind of odd with Accelerate (1): where are the other 10? Maybe they’ll need to be covered after all. Matthew..?

  34. maclure Says:

    Milesey, I refer you to the end of the Shiny Happy People thread. With time, there may yet be more than 1 song in the Accelerate category…


  35. I’ll do Accelerate, just not in 2008, or maybe even 2009.

  36. Andy Says:

    My question is:
    when this blog becomes a book (think of it: a page per song), do we all get a “thanks to” in the acknowledgements?

    …or .000000000000001 percent of the royalties?

  37. Rob Says:

    Further to what I said earlier about REM on Top Of The Pops, I have been searching You Tube for their 1995 performance of Crush With Eyeliner, but to no avail. Again the band were miming, there were Japanese kids dancing on podiums and invading the stage and three guys (that I later found out were the members of Grant Lee Buffalo) dressed in bear costumes with Top Of The Pops stickers on their asses, which the kept waving in front of the cameras. I swear I didn’t dream this. Did anyone else see it?

  38. Kirsten Says:

    Wow, what a great write-up Matthew. And excellent comments from everyone. I don’t have much to add that hasn’t already been said. The guitar, the drums, the helicopter and the megaphone – complete perfection. The video is also perfect and I think of it every time I hear the song.
    Oh and it kicks ass live! (I had the pleasure of seeing them play it in 05)
    One of their best – classic REM.

  39. Ollie J Says:

    Has to be one of the best singles released by any band.

  40. Ignis Sol Says:

    Oops, I forgot to comment on this… I did not realize how far behind I was…

    “Orange Crush” came at an integral time of my life – a time of transition and decision. Sometimes encroaching adulthood is war, and I don’t mean to diminish the theme of this song, but this is the context for which I connect with this song. I remember being young working third shift at my first job ever and it came over the music system. My co-worker said, “I don’t know what it means, but it is a great song.” And he had just returned from active duty! Well, I knew what it meant. My young mind knew. I just quietly munched my waffle fries as “Orange Crush” turned into Roy Orbison’s “You Got It.”

  41. Matthew Stockwell Says:

    Re Rob’s Crush With Eyeliner comment – I vaguely recall podium dancers – not kids, I think! – on a TOTP broadcast from Japan. I am now listening to this in my Japanese apartment, with my Japanese girlfriend; ‘our song’ is ‘At My Most Beautiful’.

  42. Neil Hamilton Says:

    On the off chance that Rob, or anyone else, will be reading this, you didn’t imagine the REM Top of the Pops Crush With Eyeliner performance. I don’t think they were miming, because TOTP abolished that requirement by 1995 – in fact, I believe it was a tape of a live performance on the Japanese leg of their tour that year.

    There was one bear, and one foxy Japanese girl on the stage, along with the rest of the band. The “kids” you are remembering were probably the ones in scenes from the promo video that was spliced intermittently with the broadcast.

    Still, that was a memorable performance, and I wish I could say I found it, but no.


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