According to guitarist Peter Buck, no song better epitomizes the early era of R.E.M. than “Driver 8.” Released, in 1985, as the second single from Fables of the Reconstruction, the band’s third album, “Driver 8” was the chiming brilliance of the band’s music, rendered in just over three minutes.
“The chord changes, melodies, and harmonies are very representative of what we were doing then,” Buck later reflected.
Before long, Buck even felt it too clearly represented the R.E.M. sound.
“I can write that kind of stuff in my sleep,” he told Rolling Stone, in 1991. “I can write ‘Driver 8’ every day of the week. We all can. In rehearsal, it’s always easy to fall back on a mid-tempo, minor-key rock thing. And we try not to rely on that.”
The actually songwriting that led to “Driver 8” didn’t take place during a band member’s slumber, but it did come together with relative ease. In the liner notes to the R.E.M. “hits” collection Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage: 1982-2011, Buck recounted how the song had its genesis in the casual creative sessions he undertook with drummer Bill Berry while the two were living together in a dumpy apartment building primarily populated by troubled souls in the midst of the transition process out of group home environments.
“I remember Bill came up with the verse to ‘Driver 8,’ and after he showed it to me he said, ‘I need to run to the market, I’ll be right back.’ I think he went to get some beans or rice or something,” wrote Buck. “In the meantime, I came up with the chorus and the intro riff. Bill came back in about five minutes, and it was done. So I played it for him and he went, ‘Alright, that’s great!’ Bill was totally excited.”
When it came time to build out the lyrics, the song seemed to draw its perspective from one of lead singer Michael Stipe’s chief fascination at the time: the American storytelling culture in the South.
“I was fascinated by the whole idea of the old men sitting around the fire, passing on these legends and fables to the grandchildren,” Stipe said.
Perhaps part of the reason Fables of the Reconstruction (or Reconstruction of the Fables, for those looking at side two) is so awash in melancholy Southern lore is the displacement the members of R.E.M. were reportedly feeling while recording their third album on the other side of the Atlantic. After working on their first two full-lengths much closer to home, the band went to London’s Livingston Studios to work with the legendary producer Joe Boyd. By most accounts, the experience wasn’t a happy one. A certain pining for home seeped into the grooves of the record.
“It’s a very wistful, nostalgic thing,” bassist Mike Mills noted. “Like trains—when you think of trains in the night, that tugs at your heart a little bit…. The songs remind me of sitting in my room, fixing to go to bed, and hearing a train a few miles off.”
As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.
The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.