Can it really be 25 years since REM released Reckoning? Last week’s anniversary re-issue of this jewel in the indie rock crown leaves us in no doubt that the calendar never lies. In my mind’s eye I can still remember listening to it for the first time as a pale-faced teenager after my friend Paddy dropped in with a vinyl copy of the album.
Since then, it has provided no end of pleasure — I can remember me and my friends singing along to Rockville on a roadtrip through the Donegal countryside; and I remember the thrill of hearing So. Central Rain live for the first time when they headlined Slane Castle in 1995.
And then a few years ago in the Olympia, the Athenians opened up the vaults of their back catalogue at their five-night stand at the Olympia and snuck in Pretty Persuasion and Little America into their set. A live EP of songs from Reckoning played at the Olympia was released earlier this summer in digital format only.
On the new re-mastered edition of the album, the production is crisp, so that Peter Buck’s Rickenbacker jangles that bit more sweetly.
Reckoning quickly became one of the touchstones of 1980s college rock; along with its predecessor Murmur the year before, it helped set the template for a million and one alternative rock bands that formed in its wake.
It all sounded so natural: the chiming guitars of Buck, the King of Byrds; Michael Stipe’s wistful vocals, which were more strident and confident than on Murmur but which retained that ineffable sense of mystery and intrigue; Mike Mills’ bass, which so complemented Buck’s melody lines, and his artful backing vocals; and Bill Berry’s kinetic drumming, including his conga playing on ‘Time After Time (Annelise)’.
What it all meant was anyone’s guess. I would devour Stipe’s interviews in NME and Melody Maker from around that time, but he’d remain inscrutable to the last; always just out of reach.
Age has not dated it, either. In terms of the evolution of rock’n’roll, so much changed in the 25 years leading up to Reckoning that 1959 seems practically Paleolithic — but music has not changed all that much in the quarter-century since. In 2009, Reckoning sounds more like a roadmap than a relic.
Yet it was only one of numerous classic albums to be released that year. George Orwell was way off the mark — 1984 was a wonderful time to be alive: The Smiths released their epochal debut album and the compilation of John Peel sessions and 12-inch singles that was Hatful Of Hollow — track for track, one of the greatest records ever made.
Johnny Marr emerged alongside Buck as the indie guitar hero of the age, and Morrissey, like Stipe, was a frontman who seemed more likely to be found thumbing tomes in a library than trashing rooms in a hotel. Shoeless Sixties siren Sandie Shaw sang a slew of Smiths songs too on her comeback EP that year, with the Mancunian quartet as her backing band.
Another great Eighties indie icon who emerged in ’84 was Lloyd Cole, whose debut with the Commotions, Rattlesnakes, is similarly evergreen. Essentially more songs about cars and girls, but with killer quips and eminently quotable rhyming couplets, Rattlesnakes portrayed the drama of romance in all its complexity.
Cole name-checked Eva Marie Saint, Norman Mailer and Citroën, while the guitar solo on Forest Fire burned the house down. Sandie Shaw would also go on to cover the album’s finale, the gorgeous ‘Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?’ on her Hello Angel LP. And 20 years later Camera Obscura would belatedly reply with ‘Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken’.
Joining the ranks of pop geniuses to emerge in that red letter year were Prefab Sprout and the Blue Nile. The former’s superb debut album Swoon, which sounded like nothing else, blending elements of funk, jazz, new wave and synth-pop to bewitching effect.
Another literate wordsmith with a golden voice, Paddy McAloon sang about Cold War chess masters and basketball, but the real bloodsport was to be found in the face-off between the sexes. ‘Cruel’, for instance, aches with a lovesickness that can leave you picking yourself up off the floor: “If I’m troubled by every folding of your skirt/ Am I guilty of every male-inflicted hurt?/ But I don’t know how to describe the modern rose/ If I can’t refer to her shape against her clothes/ With the fever of purple prose.”
McAloon soon followed Swoon with one of the finest albums of all time in Steve McQueen the next year — itself reissued on its 20th anniversary in 2005. And the Tyneside crooner returns next month with the first new Prefab Sprout album in eight years — Let’s Change The World With Music, (although it was originally recorded in 1992).
The Blue Nile, meanwhile, entered the fray with the spellbinding A Walk Across The Rooftops, which was like Raymond Carver with a drum machine. The Glaswegian trio have only released three more albums in the intervening 25 years — but they’re all worth waiting for.
At the same time, fellow Scots Cocteau Twins were busy perfecting their shimmering dream-pop with Treasure, a record that sounds as thrillingly otherworldly now as it did then.
They also contributed the extraordinary cover of Tim Buckley’s Song To The Siren on the 4AD collective This Mortal Coil’s debut It’ll End In Tears, which also contained bewitching version of Big Star’s Kanga Roo and Holocaust.
Labelmates Dead Can Dance also checked in, with the eerie Gothic melodrama of their self-titled debut.
Further south in Liverpool, former Teardrop Explodes frontman Julian Cope was getting Fried, while Echo & The Bunnymen unveiled their masterpiece, the epic Ocean Rain — which, incidentally, they will be performing in its entirety at the Electric Picnic next month.
Proving that we were truly spoilt for choice, 1984 also gave us the Go-Betweens’ Spring Hill Fair, which contained one of the late, great Grant McLennan’s best loved songs Bachelor Kisses — “The world opened up for your looks/ Your hand, that’s all he took”.
Fellow antipodean Nick Cave also emerged from the ashes of The Birthday Party with his first release as leader of the Bad Seeds, From Her To Eternity — the title track would later be used in the classic Wim Wenders film Wings Of Desire.
Back in the USA, the explosion of gritty, urban post-punk bands saw groups such as The Replacements take a giant step with Let It Be (apparently the title was a joke on their Beatles-loving manager), while Hüskur Dü delivered their hugely influential double-album Zen Arcade.
Bringing it all back home, U2 took another stride towards global stardom with The Unforgettable Fire — their first to feature the magic touch of the Lanois/Eno production team. And The Pogues brought Irish folk music kicking and screaming into the post-punk age with their rambunctious debut Red Roses For Me — quite possibly the only album to be named after a Sean O’Casey play.
Not that any TV music channels ever play of any of the above on their ’80s nostalgia shows, where it’s wall-to-wall Whitney Houston (we have a problem), the Pointless Sisters and Bonnie Tyler’s shoulder pads. (If you’re lucky, the might play something from Prince’s Purple Rain.) I suppose we were warned that the revolution would not be televised.
Publication: Independent Ireland
Publication date: 23/08/09