Tuesday, December 6, 2016

R.E.M. - Seven Chinese Brothers

And for Buck's birthday, a Song of the Day thing I wrote about R.E.M.on here a couple of years back.

'When I get to heaven, the angels will be playing not harps but Rickenbackers. And they will be playing songs by R.E.M.' Matt Snow's NME review of Reckoning 1984

I can't remember the act of buying of many records that became important to me from my youth. Reckoning R.E.M's second album stands out for me in this respect. I had been enthralled by Murmur more than any album before or probably since. I'd missed seeing them at a sold out gig I'd arrived at too late at in Wardour Street at The Marquee. I'd pored over their interviews and begun to soak up their influences. Now Reckoning was out.

I walked with my sister on a hot Saturday  in April 1984 along the straight road that ran alongside our house from Teddington to Kingston bordering Bushy Park. Across Kingston Bridge and to the independent record store where I would later converse with the owner about the spate of American guitar bands that were making their way to the UK's shores.

The cover in itself was enough. Painted by local Georgian artist Howard Finster it was like some dream evocation of the Mississippi. I bought the record. My sister and I got a couple of cans of what as I'm now relocated to the north would be called pop (7 Up if I recall). I dared her to resist from opening hers 'til we'd made it home. It was a very hot day for April. She didn't get very far before she'd finished the whole can. I didn't open mine until we arrived home. It's been an anecdote between us ever since. One of those small, trivial episodes of life that will stay with you forever. Because it's tied in with the memory of purchasing this remarkable record.

When we arrived I went up upstairs and I put it on I was non-plussed. It didn't sound like Murmur Part 2. I didn't really know what to think at first. I'd expected the unfamiliar sound of Murmur that had become familiar through non-stop immersion on my part. Now I'd have to start listening and learning again. This was what made R.E.M. such a standout band. They never ever stayed still. Their career, for me at least until Billy Berry left, was a driven quest. I came round to the record within a few plays as I teased out its hooks, then began to adore it and it's stayed with me ever since. Always pretty close to the top of the whole damned heap. There are greater and lesser songs on it. I'd divide them into two. Songs as great as any in the band's whole set of work and other slightly lesser tracks with a great feel. The great songs to my mind are the first four tracks on the first side Harborcoat, this, So. Central Rain and Pretty Persuasion, plus Don't Go Back to Rockville and Camera from the second side. The second track on the album Seven Chinese Brothers is up there with any of them.

The song is built on a beautiful Peter Buck three part riff, I imagine played on a Rickenbacker. There's a slight eerie echoey sound before the song begins which I love as much as anything in the track. The lyrics are clearer than Stipe's often are but meaning is utterly elusive. The chorus refers to the Five Chinese Brothers story written by Claire Hutchen Bishop in the 30s and an American bestseller and childhood favourite ever since.

'Long ago in China lived a family with five brothers who resembled each other very closely. They each possessed a special talent. One can swallow the sea; one has an iron neck; one can stretch his legs; one can survive fire; and the last can hold his breath forever. When one of the brothers, a somehow very successful fisherman, agrees to let a young boy accompany him on his fishing trip, trouble results. This brother holds the entire sea in his mouth so that the boy can retrieve fish and treasures. When the man can no longer hold in the sea, he frantically signals to the boy, but the boy ignores him and drowns when the man releases the water.

The man is accused of murder and sentenced to death. However, one by one, his four brothers assume his place when subjected to execution, and each uses his own superhuman ability to survive (one cannot be beheaded, one cannot be drowned, one cannot be burned, and one cannot be smothered). At the end of the story, a judge decides that the brother accused of murder must have been innocent, since he could not be executed, and the five brothers return home.'

There's something about the eternal sentiment of the lyric that gnawed itself deep within me. R.E.M.'s staging and arrangement of their early records was just masterly, they really captured some of the tense joy of later teenage years and early adulthood. I'm so glad they soundtracked mine.

They were immersed in the Southern literary tradition of Faulkner, O'Connor and McCullers but also of Brer Fox and Huckleberry Finn. Stipe's own recalling of it's lyric years later when he came out in terms of his sexuality was slightly different and rather less noble.

There are songs I wrote in the past that were gender-specific. “7 Chinese Bros.” was about me breaking up a couple — and then dating both of them, a man and a woman, which is a terrible thing to do, but I was young and stupid.”

Not so stupid. I think he and the rest of the band were remarkably smart and I thank them now for myself and what they gave me. Among them, three of the best gigs I'll ever see over the following four years. They played this song at a couple of the shows.

Peter Buck used the phrase 'Spooky Gospel' to describe Chronic Town's Gardening at Night. I think it applies here. The backing vocals, the assured momentum, repetition and build will always make it a very special four minutes for me. I'll listen to it and love it until I die. R.E.M created a great companion piece called Voice of Harold which they stuck on their odds and sods compilation Dead Letter Office (great name for a record) a few years later. It has Stipe reciting the liner notes of a gospel album over the backing track to the song. It's pretty great too.

Just a footnote to a Pavement song released on a compilation round about the time of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. It's a tribute to R.E.M. and this album. As good a direct tribute from one group to another as I can think of and says as well as anything what a wonderful, visionary band R.E.M. were, particularly for me in the first seven or eight years of their existence.

'There's some bands I'd like to name-check
And one of them is R.E.M.
Classic songs with a long history
Southern boys just like you and me


Flashback to 1983
"Chronic Town" was their first EP
Later on came "Reckoning"
Finster's art...
Titles to match "So. Central Rain"
"(Don't Go Back To) Rockville,"
"Pretty Persuasion,"
You're born to be a "Camera"
"Time After Time"'s my least favorite song
"Time After Time" was my least favorite song

The singer, he had long hair
And the drummer, he knew restraint
And the bassman, he had all the right moves
And that guitar player was no saint

So let's go way back to the ancient times
When there were no fifty states
And on a hill, there stands Sherman
Sherman and his mates...

And they're marching through Georgia
(They're marching through Georgia)
They're marching through Georgia
They're marching through Georgia
(They're marching through Georgia)
They're marching through Georgia

And there stands R.E.M..'

*P.S. I've just put on that same piece of vinyl that I bought nearly thirty years ago. This article of course is as much about Reckoning as a whole as it is about Seven Chinese Brothers itself. It's still wearing well. It still sounds like one of the best friends I'll ever have.

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