2021 Movie Draft- Round 1 Pick 8- A Sound Day selects- ‘Driver 8’- R.E.M.
A Sound Day’s blog can be found at – https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/77533465
I’m looking forward to both reading and taking part in this event, and thank Hanspostcard for inviting me to do so! I loved doing the “Album draft” here last year, though it was tough to narrow down the list of worthy records to praise and review to a dozen or so, So imagine how much more difficult it is to whittle down a list of songs to that. So obviously, it will have to be a bit random and scattershot for me, since not only will there be hundreds of great songs I won’t be able to get to, there’ll be in all likelihood some great genres and artists that will be skipped over. Anyway, to start it off, no surprise to those who know me well, I’m going with R.E.M. This is a modified version of my 1000th music blog, almost two years back, so it might seem familiar to my regular readers. I hope you enjoy it though and can take something out of it. I start my list with a song that’s almost a personal anthem, “Driver 8.” A single off their 1985 Fables of The Reconstruction album.
Fables…was the Georgia band’s third album, but was a departure for them both literally and sonically. It was the first one they’d recorded away from the Deep South – far away in fact, London, England – and they were homesick. They reactively put together an album of songs reflective of their southern roots they so missed in the British rains. The album also expanded their sounds somewhat, with songs that were flat out country-ish (“Wendel Gee”), radio-pop (“Can’t Get There From Here”) and neo-psychedelic (“Maps and Legends”, “Life and How To Live It”) mixed in with their more familiar jingle-jangle rock they’d mastered on the previous couple of records. “Driver 8” however, has been described as the “protoypical R.E.M. song” with Peter Buck’s jangly, rising Rickenbacker guitar at the core.
Buck says he came up with the guitar bits inside of five minutes and at times has been dismissive of it and alternately saying it’s a rather brilliant little riff. The band say the same basic chord structure and pattern was used again on their hits “The One I Love”, “Bang and Blame” and especially “Imitation of Life.” Likewise, singer Michael Stipe has suggested not to read too much into the lyrics, he didn’t even think much about them but has also said when he listens to it he’s thought “Wow! That’s really good! You’re not the hoax you think you are!”
Really good it is. “Driver 8” perhaps is the closest R.E.M. has come to putting together a classic, ’60’s-style standard riff that would be worthy of sitting side by side with the classics from the Stones or middle-era Beatles. Rolling Stone, in one of the three articles they ran that year about the album, suggested it was the “strongest single” they’d put out to that point and noted it’s “Byrds-like” sound. Why do I love it? Several reasons. I remember the first time I heard it. I walked into a record store in the mall and they were blasting it. I recognized it as being R.E.M. – Stipe’s voice is pretty distinctive- but didn’t know the song. Another R.E.M. song followed and I went to the counter to see what it was. I walked out of the store with a copy of Fables of the Reconstruction, forgetting whatever it might have been I’d gone in looking for initially. The whole album was outstanding but it was “Driver 8” that really caught me.
Not only is it to me a darn near perfect riff, the lyrics grabbed me right away. Oblique as all Stipe lyrics were back in the day, they were decipherable enough to give away two things about the song. It was train-inspired (Stipe says trains and train travel “represent part of ‘mythological America’”) and they were uplifting… inspirational. Now ever since Iwas a little boy, I loved trains and spent a number of hours of my childhood both playing with HO scale model trains and standing around in a park near my house watching freight trains rumble by. So that spoke to me. But what was more, the lyrics really seemed oddly profound to me.
“The walls are built up stone by stone, hills divided one by one” it starts, true enough. Every job, no matter how big or intimidating, gets done by little step after little step. Rome wasn’t built in a day as the saying goes. The chorus of course resonates that theme. “We can reach our destination, but it’s still a ways away.” It made sense to me then, makes sense to me now. No matter what it is I’m striving for, it’s in each but it’s still a ways away. I need to keep on rolling, building it up, stone by stone.
The icing on the cake was a few years after that when I saw the video for the song, which Stipe has called something like “a nice train video for a nice train song.” Flying in the face of the fashion of the mid-’80s, they eschewed hot girls in stylish cars, live performances of them lip-synching the tune or computer-animated characters to have four minutes of footage of, yep trains. Not any trains mind you, a Chessie System rail yard in Virginia. Chessie was a short-lived railroad of the ’70s formed by merging the B&O and C&O railroads of Monopoly fame with another short line, the Western Maryland railroad. The Appalchian/Midwestern rail line with its flashy yellow and orange locomotives and navy and yellow boxcars was a favorite of nerdy railfans like me (it in turn merged with another line and became part of CSX Transportation.) It didn’t get much better than that!
“Driver 8” is one of the fewish songs I can listen to almost endlessly and enjoy. There’ve been times when I felt very low and “Driver 8” reminded me to keep at it… we can reach our destination! The fact that it barely registered on the charts back in ’85, means there’s little danger I’ll get sick of it since I pretty much have to decide when to listen to it. Radio hasn’t given it the “Losing My Religion” treatment, let alone the “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen treatment. In fact, it’s quite a shock to me when I do hear that distinctive opening riff blasting from a radio.
So, that’s my song for today. Do you have a “personal anthem”? I’d love to know what it is, and why. Feel free to tell us about it in comments!