This is the second edition of Marcus Gray’s definitive encyclopaedic guide to R.E.M., one of the few intelligent bands capable of regularly packing stadiums. Conceived as a comprehensive reference source for the diehard R.E.M. fan rather than the usual sycophantic rawk biography, It Crawled from The South features self- contained and cross-referenced chapters on every aspect of R.E.M.’s career. From their origins, early demos and cover versions through to decryption of Michael Stipe’s wilfully enigmatic lyrics, overviews of R.E.M.’s videowork and the band’s dabbling in politics, Gray has produced a fascinating work which isn’t limited in appeal to R.E.M. fans alone.
Gray wrote the first edition of It Crawled From the South while on the dole in Newcastle Upon Tyne. With the book’s subsequent, unexpected success, he has avoided the easy option of appending a few extra pages at the end and slapping a “Revised and Updated” sticker on the front. Instead, the entire book has been overhauled – old chapters have been condensed, coverage of new albums Automatic For The People and Monster included and an index added. All this might be mere confirmation for some that this is a trainspotter’s guide to R.E.M, joylessly cataloguing every b-side and oddity. Yet while there is a lot of information which will appeal to such sad individuals, Gray has been canny in his arrangement of the material. If you don’t want to know about R.E.M.’s alter egos or songwriting chronology, you can simply skip the chapter.
Moreover, Gray’s writing style is something any biography writer would kill for; clear and simple without sacrificing complexity and detail. Coupled with an obvious enthusiasm which manages to remain critically detached, Gray’s prose makes his subject interesting, whether or not you are particularly interested in R.E.M. themselves. If you have a love of pop trivia, then the chapter concerning the recording of R.E.M.’s various albums yields some brilliant gems:
“The bizarre squawking noise preceding ‘Superman’ is made by a cord-pull Godzilla doll picked up by the band on their visit to Japan in November 1984. Translation: ‘This is a special news report: Godzilla has been sighted in Tokyo Bay. The attack on him by the Self-Defence Force has been useless. He is heading towards the city. Aaaaargh!'”
Similarly, Gray is not afraid to apply the joys of English sarcasm to the idiosyncrasies of his American heroes:
“Peter Buck says the orchestral-sounding multilayered electric-guitar solo on ‘Drive’ is his tribute to Queen’s Brian May. ‘It’s a Les Paul through a big Marshall amp, overdubbed six times and picked with a coin. I know Brian May uses some kind of English sixpence that’s probably three thousand years old, but I just used a dime.’ Unfortunately it was Queen’s bass player John Deacon who used the sixpence, but it’s the thought that counts…”
Perhaps the most interesting chapter of Gray’s book is “The Weight Of the World’ which concerns R.E.M.’s forays into politics in the wake of their international success. This section gives first hand evidence as to the variable impact and effect of celebrities using the media and their own fame to fight “issue” politics. Covering their work with Amnesty and Greenpeace as well as their involvement in the 1988 and 1992 presidential elections, Gray provides a survey which says as much about the influence and status of contemporary music as it does about R.E.M.’s activities.
There is only one question left unanswered by Marcus Gray and that is: what is it that drives people to produce books like this? The sheer effort and sacrifice required to write something this comprehensive and coolly self-collected is mind-boggling. It’s a fine idea for a book….