Phthursday Musings: Monster
or, Strange Currencies indeed
Couple weeks ago, I did the sort of thing I generally don’t do: I ordered a reissue box set. Specifically, this one:
While I do have some reissue discs around (all the Pavement albums for example) I generally skip reissues. I normally find that the add-ons simply aren’t that interesting to me. Most bands, if a track didn’t make the album, it’s because the song is lousy. And also most bands, I’m just not that interested in hearing demos, and also not super interested in live shows. There are always exceptions, but I’ve never been super into bootlegs like some friends.
Monster warranted an exception, for a few reasons.
The album came out a month after I started college, and I was stoked at the time. It wasn’t the first album I’d made a point of buying the day it came out, but it was the first one where I went and bought it at midnight. So, yeah, there are layers of nostalgia involved.
Why was I so stoked? Well, my online handle at the time was Murmur, which I took from the name of R.E.M.’s first album. (I guess it could be argued that my online handle is still Murmur, because it’s not like I ever adopted a different one.) Over the last couple years of high school I morphed into a pretty big R.E.M. fan. I got my hands on a used cassette copy of Automatic for the People at a record store in Atlanta in 1993 or whatever and I wore the thing out. (For the record, my three favorite albums of theirs, I think, I’d rank today as Automatic, then Document, then Reckoning, but you might have to ask me again some other time to see if I change my mind. Note also that Document would have been a terrible online handle, and Reckoning probably even worse. Murmur was a good choice.)
Nostalgia aside, conventional wisdom be damned, this album has aged surprisingly well. It was not supposed to. Yes, it’s fairly obviously of its time. But there’s a really narrow window of time in there where things could be a particular kind of loud, brash, and fun… and I think that window closed almost immediately thereafter. A lot of what followed that was vaguely in the loud, brash, fun, poppy vein just no longer connected the same way. Keep in mind that I still argue that 1997 was the best year in rock! But anything which seemed to kind of follow the Monster template after 1994 wound up being like… Spacehog or whatever, with less effective affectations of cool.
So, anyway, I got the Monster box set. And I like it ver ver much. 1994 is still cool.
1993, on the other hand…
My friend and his daughter were in the car earlier this week with the radio on. His daughter started humming along with the song playing, which he didn’t recognize.
This song, as it turned out, was Robert Plant’s “29 Palms”, from his 1993 album Fate of Nations, which is probably the most 1993 an album title could possibly be.
I remember the song from it getting extensive radio airplay when it came out. I listened to it this week, which, halfway through, led to this exchange:
Me: oh my god does this song sound like 1992
Him: IT DOES
Him: and not the good kind of 1992. if that exists
Now keep this in mind. One month after Monster came out, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page released No Quarter, their mostly live MTV Unplugged album. See, there was a break that occurred somewhere in there. On one side of that break was “29 Palms”. On the other side of that break, thanks to the magic of MTV Unplugged, Led Zeppelin was more or less just like Stone Temple Pilots.
Just this week, for the first time I can remember, I heard Metallica on Chicago’s main classic rock station. The thing is that Metallica isn’t really super out of place next to, say, AC/DC, and certainly not next to Guns ‘n’ Roses.
But “29 Palms”? It would sound completely wrong on a standard classic rock radio station today. Don’t take my word for it:
Now, it’s easy to say that Nevermind is what changed everything, no further discussion necessary. But that feels really redunctionist to me. That doesn’t explain why Ten is, with fifteen years of remove, sort of a reboot of Boston. I mean, really, isn’t “Alive” our “More Than a Feeling”?
Here’s a riddle for you. Name five artists who arguably peaked in the ‘70s, who are still played all over classic rock radio (and not just classic rock radio), who have any song of theirs released after 1994 played on any commercial radio station today.
Here’s another riddle for you. Name five artists - nah, name one artist - who arguably peaked before 1994, who has had any song recorded in the last twenty years that you’ve heard on any radio station.
So I mentioned having a cassette copy of Automatic for the People.
My first job was at a veterinary clinic. I worked there for two years, from the beginning of my junior year of high school up until when I left for college. I worked mornings before school, which still seems kind of impossible to believe, and also weekend mornings, though typically just an hour or so a day. Any dogs or cats staying overnight, I’d let them outside or I’d change their litter trays, and I’d feed them, and then clean up behind.
I had one other task: mowing. The clinic was on a fairly large lot so this mostly meant using a John Deere riding mower. The mower was loud, but not so loud that I couldn’t use some kind of headphones. That’s where I wore out that cassette.
Most of what I listened to then was classic rock. Automatic was a transitional album for me. This seems kind of ridiculous, since R.E.M. had been around for a decade before Automatic came out. But even as many albums as my dad brought the house, I grew up in a place where, I think, I simply had no exposure to anything which was new but not also super popular. But, inexplicably, in 1992, R.E.M. was gigantic.
The idea of being on a riding mower outside Doc’s hospital listening to a cassette Walkman, it’s all kind of ludicrous.
I was so happy when I got to college. Alive. More than a feeling. I had found the river.
I guess all this is what made Monster such a big deal. It was huge when it came out, and at college, pretty much everyone was into R.E.M., and it all just felt like it fit together so well. Like I’d thrown off the shackles of youth.
Listening to it today, I find it to be a very optimistic sounding record. I don’t think most of what I listen to qualifies as “very optimistic sounding”. I’m the guy with the Spotify playlist called “sad sack shit”, after all.
But really… I just think it continues to sound like a great rock album. Like something you should want to go back and listen to over and over again for years. With the windows open, a breeze coming through, “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” on the stereo, I don’t think nostalgia was really the point of all this. I didn’t feel transported back. I just felt… in tune.
Maybe the reason why I’ve had a hard time taking this theme and going anywhere with it is because it really is that simple. I’ve had a surprisingly hard time just being in tune sitting in my office. Getting a nice day, having relatively few external stressors, working, and just being in tune… way more novel than it ought to be.
Anyway… I guess it’s time to lobby the classic rock station.