Rock: A punk for the Nineties

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The Independent Culture
MICHAEL STIPE throttled his mic-stand, and tossed its lifeless body to the floor. He sat on the stage, lay on the stage, threw John Travolta disco poses, jumped onto monitors, and, for most of the time, jolted and twitched like a malfunctioning robot during that sequence in a science- fiction film when its head is about to explode.

But I shouldn't tempt fate. Although this was show 71 of REM's Monster tour, it should have been number 119. Forty-three gigs were cancelled when drummer Bill Berry suffered a double aneurysm, and five were lost to bassist Mike Mills's "adhesion of the small intestine", whatever that may mean. Bearing this is mind, I'd like to know the phone number of their doctors, because at Edinburgh's Murrayfield Stadium on Thursday, REM were in ruddy health.

The show erupted into life with "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?", filling the stadium with harsh-toned, cutting guitar and Stipe's equally penetrating Dalek vocal. "Crush With Eyeliner" was boiling hot on its heels, followed by an unrecognisable blast of Devo funk metal. The singing started, and it turned out to be "Drive", a dusky air from Automatic for the People. Other songs from that lugubrious album got the same overhaul. On vinyl, "Try Not to Breathe" is based on the last words of an old man hoping for death. In the declamatory live rendition he sounds as if he's got a good few years left in him yet. Previously, Stipe had called Automatic a punk album, to justifiably incredulous responses. Tonight, you could see his point.

REM have rewritten their history. Introspective, college eggheads? Certainly not, says the revised biography. They've always been snorting, stampeding rock buffaloes. "Everybody Hurts" and "Strange Currencies" may be richly romantic hugging ballads, "Bang and Blame" may remind you of the band's twinkling Byrds arpeggios of old; otherwise they played only their most incendiary riff-fests. There were three new songs, and each had fewer chords and more decibels than the last.

Guitarist Peter Buck pirouetted, Mike Mills stood with his legs so far apart that he threatened to split his trousers (a fetching pair with silver lightning bolts up each leg). Additional guitarists Scott McCaughey (of the Young Fresh Fellows, and of Peter Buck's spare-time band, the Minus 5) and Nathan December added to the racket.

But it was Michael Stipe's show. He took the stage in a black jacket and what seemed to be a kilt. The jacket came off to reveal a tartan dress, and the dress came off to reveal an orange T-shirt and jeans. For all of REM's rocking, they remain nicely askew (for most of the gig, the light show consisted of an array of lampshades like a fleet of Ed Wood flying saucers).

Stipe's rambling chats to the crowd are a case in point: "Right, so, we're gonna play another song. Then we're gonna play another song after that. Then we're gonna play another song after that. And it's going to carry on like that for some time." His following being what it is, there were probably hundreds of amateur lit critics unpicking this oracle's layers of meaning, but I sincerely hope not. Personally I doubt whether many of his lyrics mean more than, say, "A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a- wop- bam-boom". Whether or not you agree, tonight was not the night to analyse the mysteries of REM. It was the night to let yourself go and have a fantastic time.

Question: What has one head, two chins and four necks? Answer: Jimmy Page! Get it? No? Well, the decades between Led Zeppelin's final flight and the Page and Plant reunion have left Jimmy with a distinctly froggy face, so that accounts for the two chins. As for the necks, three of them belong to his guitar. A one-necked instrument was enough for Hendrix, but Page needs a hydra contraption that resembles a mutant set of bagpipes, and has more strings than a harp. Not to be outdone, the drummer pounds away with two sticks in each hand. Restraint? We'll leave that to Wagner.

A well-preserved and well-muscled Robert Plant is still able to holler and whine like a banshee with a stomach upset. Why say "Yeah" when you can say "Yea-bebebebebe-yaa-ee-aa-ee-aiiiiaaaaah"? Page scrambles up and down the fretboard (or fretboards) as if it were an army assault course. No wonder that the pair have played together so rarely since 1980: it's just too exhausting.

Exhausting, that is, for the audience. At Wembley Arena on Tuesday, everything was so Byzantine, so unremittingly epic, so multi-layered and multi- segmented, that we could have done with an interval halfway through the concert - or preferably halfway through each song. For not only was there a voice rocketing one way and a guitar zooming the other, there was also an orchestra and an Egyptian string and percussion ensemble. Believe it or not, I saw someone in the crowd playing air violin.

"Gallow's Pole" was a mad, world-music whirl; "Kashmir" had an exotic Arabian fiddle solo longer even than one of Page's guitar marathons; and you'd have to be Fred Astaire to tap your feet in time to the orchestra's unusual cross-rhythms. Still, at least it was educational. Did you know, for instance, that the winding groan of the hurdy- gurdy sounds like a violin, a pipe organ, a guitar and an oboe, all playing at once? There was a lot more head-scratching than head-banging at this show.

But heavy metal has always had pretensions, has always considered itself grander, more mystical, more technically accomplished than mere pop. If you choose to see half of Led Zeppelin in concert, you should know what to expect. To Page and Plant I say:congratulations on such a bold and challenging comeback. To any prospective audience-members I say: bring along a block of Kendal Mint Cake to boost your flagging energy levels.

REM: Milton Keynes Bowl, 01908 234466, tonight.