REM’s anger focuses on ‘Welcome to the Occupation’

Listen to me.” There’s a moment at the end of “Welcome to the Occupation,” where Michael Stipe repeats that phrase over and over, sounding more pained and exasperated with each repetition. Does he sing for the occupied, imploring the world to recognize their plight? Or does he play the role of occupier, imploring his subordinates to follow orders? Or is he just himself, the politically aware leader of REM, trying to draw attention to injustice? “Listen to me.”

If the specifics aren’t clear, Stipe’s passion and stance on the subject was. “Welcome to the Occupation” was the second title of REM’s powerful song Document album, but it was the third song the singer had written about United States government intervention in South and Central America. He and his bandmates were increasingly disturbed by what they were learning.

A little history lesson: in the 1980s, under the administration of President Ronald Reagan, the United States supported right-wing dictators in El Salvador and Guatemala and secretly funded anti-Communist fighters in Nicaragua, all within the framework a zero-tolerance policy towards communist leadership groups. These civil wars — with some backed by American money, training, and weaponry — were violent conflicts that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. US-backed right-wing organizations were responsible for the majority (but not all) of the carnage, including human rights abuses such as the murder, rape and torture of innocent civilians.

“It was a secret little Vietnam we had there and it’s not like we’re saving anyone,” REM guitarist Peter Buck said in 33 rpm. “It was wrong. It was just wrong.

The group had been compelled by their interest to include songs about these conflicts on consecutive albums. “Green Grow the Rushes”, in the years 1985 Fables of the reconstruction, referred to the economic involvement of the United States. “The flowers of Guatemala”, in 1986 Rich Living Contest, drew an allegory of widespread violence by means of lyrics on a poisonous flower, or mushroom, that covered the land. REM considered including lyrics to make the message less oblique, but decided against it. It wouldn’t be next time.

“I think I got tired of writing a song that had a lot of stuff in it that nobody could understand,” Stipe later revealed to Q magazine.

Thus, with “Welcome to the Occupation”, the lyrics became more pointed, but no less poetic. Stipe opens the song with “Hook your collar insidea possible reference to Catholic priests, such as Archbishop Oscar Romero, who spoke out against military violence in El Salvador and was assassinated as a result. Line “Held and dyed and flayed aliverefers to juntas dispensing “justice” wielding machetes. A lyric about hanging freedom fighters was apparently taken as a step too far, and it was changed to “Hang your freedom higher.”

But REM did not shy away from other facets of these conflicts, including the implications of colonization, economic struggle and environmental destruction. Stipe contrasts the “feducated and instructed“occupiers with the so-called” primitive and wild» Occupied people, echoing the ancient conquistadors. He distinguishes “Sugar cane and coffee cup(typical Central and South American cultures) vs.Copper steel and livestock(classic US exports).

In “Welcome to the Occupation”, the singer returns several times to the concept of fire – a Document theme, hence the direction of the LP cover to “File under fire” – in lines such as “Fire on the hemisphere below” and “The forest for the fire.” This seems to refer to the global vicious nature of conflict, but also, in a “forest for the trees” view, could nod to the environmental disaster that occurs with the depletion of rainforests.

Just in case Stipe’s angry tone and distressing imagery could be misinterpreted, he made the decision to light up his subject. In concert, he presented “Welcome to the Occupation” referring to the United States and El Salvador. He helped the press release promoting Document‘ in August 1987, “for them to say, ‘this is a song about American intervention in Central America’.” The performer, who in the past had been accused of mumbling his lyrics or making queues on the fly, no longer wanted to be misunderstood.

As Stipe’s vocals and lyrical intentions focused, so did REM’s sound, which achieved clear strength on Document this had not previously been a feature of the band’s aesthetic, at least on record. While Buck’s minor-key twisted tangle and jangle identifies the song as something solidly in the REM’s wheelhouse, he also lets his guitar growl a bit, especially coming out of the instrumental break that leads into the end. last minute of the song. It’s as if his frustration rises with the track.

Whether Mike Mills‘ the bass isn’t as muscular as on some of the other tracks on the album – notably those with a funk tinge – it remains propulsive and the bassist is probably also responsible for the warbling organ that hovers in the middle of the song and gets louder to highlight Stipe’sListen to me” codified.

But it’s the drums that really push “Welcome to the Occupation.” Credit Bill Berry’s smooth and precise playing, as well as those jerky transitions, but also the efforts of Scott Litt in his role as co-producer. When REM and their new collaborator Litt entered Nashville’s Sound Emporium studio in March 1987, Litt set out to give greater definition to the band’s sound with an emphasis on Berry’s drums and vocals. by Stipe. On this title, the percussions crackle while the singer declares, denounces and moans.

Litt and the band were thrilled with the results, with Stipe declaring the partnership “monumental” and the two parties continuing to work together well into the late 90s. The sound of “Welcome to the Occupation” was big, but it all started with Stipe’s approach to a song about important issues. Looking back, the frontman describes REM’s fifth album as an era of significant growth for him as a songwriter, who could create lyrics that “actually resonate on a very deep level.”

“I started realizing around Document that I had skills and honed them,” Stipe said. The Guardian in 2016. “Over time it turned from skill to art and my job was to forget about it all and let instinct take over, and that’s where the great songs came in.”

It’s clear that REM consider “Welcome to the Occupation” one of their “great songs”, a warning against American intervention which they performed frequently while touring in 1987, 1989, 1995 and the 2000s. during the wars in the Middle East. Never released as a single, the song was nevertheless chosen to appear on the 2006 compilation And I feel good… The best of the IRS years 1982-1987.

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