Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Certain Songs #1695: R.E.M. – “Sitting Still” | Medialoper

Album: Murmur
Year: 1983

. . .

File Under Par

Probably because it was one of their earliest songs, “Sitting Still” is perhaps the purest straight-forward rocker on Murmur, accomplishing two things at once: uptempo joy and wistful nostalgia, which is a pretty neat trick, actually.

“Sitting Still” was originally released as the b-side of the Hib-Tone “Radio Free Europe” single, and the take on Murmur is the same one they used for the single, absent a new Mike Mills bass part and some fixed vocals, which probably accounts for relative simplicity in terms of both the arrangement and the instrumentation.

Kicking off with a massive Bill Berry snare drum hit, followed by Peter Buck smashing ringing chords on his Rickenbacker and Mike Mills playing about 15 basslines at once, “Sitting Still” gets off to a rousing start which overcomes the fact that I still have no idea which Michael Stipe singing on the first verse.

So, how about:

The name of got way all agree
Secret stop stop it will rid
We could ban it in the cyst
We could gather throw a fit

But it didn’t matter, because after every single one of the phrases, Peter Buck and Mike Mills answered with their guitars and bass, both of which were more eloquent that Mr. Stipe, so I listened to the music on the verses, because for me, “Sitting Still” was all about that chorus, which I heard as:

Up to par and candy bars
And kitchen signs but not me in
Sit on top of the big hill
Wasting time, sitting still

They do some really super cool things with that chorus. At first, it’s just those four lines, but the second time around they go back to the chords that open the song and do a post-chorus:

I, I, I can hear you
I, I, I can hear you
I, I, I can hear you

The first time around, it’s just Michael Stipe, but later on, Mike Mills and Bill Berry jump in just a bit early with their harmonies so it’s like “(aaaaah) I, I, I can hear you)”, and it’s somehow lovely and maybe just a little bit sad. Or maybe that’s just the time speaking.

Back in the summer of 1983, more than any other song on Murmur, “Sitting Still” somehow evoked to me what it was like to be young and have the whole world in front of you, both musically and lyrically, especially “wasting time, sitting still.” Now, 35 plus years later, it’s one of the songs that takes me right back to that point in time when I played Murmur a zillion times trying to get to the bottom of it.

There’s a cool bridge near the end, everybody but Bill Berry’s kick and hi-hat essentially dropping out as Stipe sings:

You can gather when I talk
Talk until you’re blue
You could get away from me
Get away from meeeeeeeeeeee

After which they somehow ramp of the emotion and intensity for the final choruses, the peak of which is an overdubbed Stipe adding his own extra-rough “iiiii-hhhhhhhhiiiiiii” during the I final “I, I, I can hear you” after which he asks, plaintively, “can you hear me?”

On June 19, 1984, a few days after R.E.M. played The Star Palace in Fresno (about which more next week), they recorded three songs at the Palladium in Hollywood “Rock of the 80’s” for Showtime’s Rock of The 80s show, and the song they opened with — coming out of spirited performance of “Both Sides of The Line” by Jason & The Nashville Scorchers — was “Sitting Still,” much to my delight.

While I’m guessing that they chose “Sitting Still” in order to match the intensity of the Scorchers, looking at that clip now — which I watched dozens of times in the 1980s — I’m struck by a three things. 1) There’s a mistake, by either Buck or Mills, just after the first verse. 2) None of the hipster Hollywood chicks dancing in the audience they kept cutting to were as gorgeous as Stipe and 3) this is pretty much how R.E.M. must have looked and sounded when we saw them just few days before: Buck & Mills whirling dervishes, Stipe standing still in the middle, Berry keeping it all together both musically and vocally.

“Sitting Still”

“Sitting Still” live in Hollywood, 1984

“Sitting Still” live in New Jersey, 1984

“Sitting Still” live in Germany, 1985

“Sitting Still” live in Raleigh, 2008 (w/ Mitch Easter & Don Dixon)

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