How R.E.M. Took a Bite out of Dogma With ‘Exhuming McCarthy’
R.E.M.'s most topical album yet just kept getting more intense.
"Finest Worksong" opened Document by using the then-current economic situation in America as subtext. "Welcome to the Occupation" took on those who continually wage war in Latin America. Here, the band dives head-long into what they saw as a growing issue in the country's political discourse.
The title connects the red-baiting of the Joe McCarthy era with a period in the late '80s defined by Ronald Reagan's American exceptionalism. The then-new 24-hour cable news cycle told a different story, however, as the country was wracked by government misdeeds, the AIDS crisis, Wall Street excess and worry over the Cold War. As distrust grew, R.E.M. used their growing platform to voice concerns that a demagogue might once again rise in American politics.
R.E.M. seemed particularly incensed by a news story that had dominated the early part of 1987: In February, Reagan had been rebuked by the Tower Commission for his National Security Council staff's role in the Iran-Contra affair. In March, the president admitted that his overtures in this covert operation had "deteriorated" into an illegal arms-for-hostages deal. And it was broadcast for your viewing displeasure.
"All you have to do is turn on the TV," Buck fumed back then, "and you're inundated with complete lies from people who are supposed to be running the country."
That made R.E.M.'s inclusion of a '50s-era clip of Joseph Welch's legendary rebuke of McCarthy during congressional hearings – "Have you no sense of decency, sir?" – all the more cutting and appropriate. (In another throwback move, they began with the sound of a typewriter used by Michael Stipe to complete the lyrics in the studio.) As Stipe sneered, "I'm addressing the realpolitik; look who bought the myth – by jingo, buy American," R.E.M. matched his aggression musically – unleashing razor-sharp horns, an in-your-face bassline and this martial, marching band-type tempo.
"Michael is really concerned — we all are — about this neo-conservative wave in America," Mike Mills told the Globe and Mail in 1987. "With all the repression of personal freedoms, the knee-jerk reactionism, it's the sort of atmosphere old Joe [McCarthy] would fit well into. Hence, the song."
Still, as they sorted through such weighty issues – elsewhere Document tried to untangle the corrupting influence of wealth, those who spoil nature, how love can turn into something dark and the period'' apocalyptic overtones, among other things – they began to worry over finding a target audience.
Listen to R.E.M.'s 'Exhuming McCarthy'
"We wanted to make a tougher-edged, loose, weird, semi-live, in-the-studio album," Buck told Rolling Stone just before Document arrived. "I don't see this as the record that's going to blast apart the chart, although you never know. Weirder things have happened."
Topical, even angry, Document did, in fact, find an audience. Maybe it was a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the dogmatic status quo, or a growing interest in protecting the planet and the public trust. Or maybe R.E.M. had finally found just the right mix of folk and rock, of protest and poetry. Whatever the underlying reasons, flinty moments like this connected: By January of 1988, Document had already gone platinum, becoming R.E.M.'s first million-selling album ever.
“It's a sideways look at the world and us,” Buck said of Document in a 1987 talk with Melody Maker. "It has a kind of Orwellian wry humor. It's not that we're making light of America; it's just that I can't look at it the way Bruce Springsteen does. To me, America in 1987 is Disney World." (In fact, it was later revealed that R.E.M. had considered calling this album Last Train to Disneyworld.)
R.E.M. felt compelled to speak to this troubled era, despite the possible commercial fall out: "It's hard to believe that people can live in a time like this and not be concerned," Buck told UPI. "It makes my stomach churn to read the newspapers." This growing politicization framed Document back then, and has given R.E.M.'s breakout album a fizzy sense of immediacy in the 21st century, too.