R.E.M. in HK

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Last updated on 10 Mar 2006

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R.E.M. in Hong Kong  (Sun, 5/2/95)

'Tickets. I need 2 tickets for R.E.M. tonight. Can anyone help? Tickets needed – urgently!” This plaintive cry echoes around the teeming throng gathered outside the Queen Elizabeth Stadium. It’s repeated at least 8 times in various forms by desperate fans who were too lazy?… unlucky?… or too late at the box office in mid-January. Conservations rebound: “Yeah, “Monster” is a good album – not brilliant, you understand, but it kicks ass!” “I prefer the older stuff. Hope they’ll play some” “Who’s this opening act Zen? Are they local or what?”

The crowd is a raggle-taggle mixture of indeterminate age – mostly mid-twenties, but the odd snowy cap of hair is visible among the shaved Euro-heads and omni-present goatees. (I count 22 before boredom sets in). They are also denim-clad Sino-Samsons and their twittering dates interspersed with slumming yuppies whose ties cost more than a front-row seat ($480). I guess you can say R.E.M. appeal across the board. A recent music poll confirms that they and U2 are the most popular choices of the U.S. collegiate-crowd. Q Magazines notes that “Monster” outsold the new Brand New Heavies LP by 10 to 1 when it went on sale late last year. Went straight in at No. 1 as well with B.N.H. a distant second. Plus the fact that this is R.E.M.’s first tour in 5 years and their local debut and the scene is set for a wild extravaganza.

There’s a bottleneck at the Q.E.S. doors. People mill and eddy outside, gradually converging on the overworked ushers guarding the 2 escalators. They emerge like spawning salmon, squealing and clasping stubs and proceed into the foyer. As Mari and I are sucked inexorably into this maelstrom, I see Goatee Steve (an island acquaintance) looking forlorn. “How ya doin’. Got your tickets?” “No, I was away in China when they went on sale. Just got back. And my sister’s just arrived so we’re truing our luck”. (He’s approached by a slim Chinese youth who’s waving 2 tickets after overhearing this conversation. I see they’re comps – price $0.00 – and wonder where he got them. Steve is asking)… “much you want?” (no response, the guy isn’t sure how much to gouge – he has to discuss it with his 2 friends. So Steve smooths onto the offensive) “Let’s say they’re $300. I’ll give you $600…” (the guy is looking pretty chuffed at this. He’s just made $600 and he wasn’t that interested in seeing the show)… EACH!” (Jeez, maybe I should sell OUR tickets too! After all they only cost #200 – that’s a $1000 profit. Nah, we’re almost in.) Hard to say who’s happiest out of them at this point…

Inside, it’s wall-to-wall chaos. The R.E.M. souvenir stand is mobbed. So is the bar while a hungry queue salivates over the hot-dog stand. It’s 2020 hours – the show theoretically should have started 20 minutes ago, but I can’t EVER recall a HK concert starting on time. I guess a 2030 kickoff with Zen and R.E.M. on about 2115. Mari and I find our backstage seats (K42 and 43) right behind the drum riser. Good viewing. Two longhair guitar roadies are tuning up in front of us while an enormously podgy red-garbed version of the Michelin Man waddles ponderously on stage, does nothing visible and exits. (Looks like he ate all the pies!). Only the first tier of seats adjacent right and left of the stage are blanked out for security reasons. It’s a full-house otherwise. Looking around, we spot a few familiar faces. Some fans are struggling with illicit videos and cassette recorders. I’m wrestling with my cocktail bottle (shaken not stirred). A cool song that sounds like P.J. Harvey unplugged is playing on the PA. It stops, (it’s 2030. Pay up guys!) the lights dim, a massive (“Roarrghgh”) from the crowd as 6 guys amble casually on stage. They vaguely acknowledge the cheering while strapping on guitars, settling behind the drums and – Wallop! The first song is underway. Can it be R.E.M.? There’s 6 of them – too many. But they don’t look like Zen.

I’m scoping out the singer whose voice is suspiciously familiar, but he’s muffled to survive a Seattle snowstorm. Big blue overcoat, woolen ski-cap with an insignia … can’t see details. I know Michael Stipe is shaven-headed, so if he just doffs the cap, then perhaps … wait a minute, who’s that guy in the black/white stripy t-shirt? That’s gotta be Peter Buck! And those notes, that chunka-chunka choppy guitar playing – that’s off “Monster” for sure! So, where’s Zen then? An enigma to be pondered abstractly and spasmodically during the show. Song One ends. The singer strips off a surface layer to tumultous applause, removes his cap and – AHA!!! (but who are those other guys?)

“Thank you. Good evening.” Says Michael just before swiveling into the mike and leading the band into “Sidewinder”? I’m mildly mortified at not recognising them, but this is my debut R.E.M. gig and my collection only comprises “Green” and parts of “Automatic For The People” on tape. Song Three. I do recognize from the radio. It’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth” with Peter’s jangly jagga-jagga-jagga-junk guitar riff cutting through the refrain like a chainsaw. Stipey is mubbling away with some clean and the first 5 rows up front have ceased to be. Everyone is on their feet and nary a sign of interference from the ushers or security. Just like a good gig should be. The music could be louder though - especially at the back where you’re a micro-second behind the beat after it bounces out of the huge speaker stacks, rips apart on the sweaty, heaving audience and comes in tattered disarray off the far walls. Meanwhile, a nylon mesh-like screen has gone up and random visuals are splayed across them. Round front you can see the show on screen. At the back, it confers a weird translucence, like a partially fogged window, blocking and revealing the scenes on stage.

“Here’s another song. This one’s really cool” says Michael, before walking to the drum riser, grabbing a bottle of water, and giving a fey little wave in our general direction. Haven’t got a clue what it is, but the sino-techno-head next to me is impressed and furtively turns up the record level on his tape. The next few songs appear to be off “Monster”. They’ve got the slightly drony-feedback hum that haunts the LP, but aren’t played with enough venom. Mari thinks they’re the “most unpretentious band” she’s seen. Casual and laidback seems to be the motto of the night. In fact, if it weren’t for Stipey, R.E.M. would be – well, ordinary to the point of oblivion. (Maybe, they’ve nicked the game plan from Zen’s dressing room. That could explain their non-performance!) But, there’s an indefinable gestalt feel to this band that makes them what they are. I’ve heard worse concerts that were technically better.

It’s the end of “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” and Stipey and Stripey are front-and-centre, facing each other, and strumming in eerie unity on two guitars. It’s the first (and only) time Michael plays an instrument tonight and “… in case you’re wondering, my guitar was really plugged in. It’s a prop, but I really want to play”. Amid the laughter, are shouts of “louder” and then comes my favourite quote “… more volume. This isn’t the Government Stadium!” During this concert, the band members show a nifty ability to swap instruments. Bassist Mick Mills (who’s wearing purple flares that Elvis The Fact wouldn’t be seen dead in and a silver lame spangly sort of shirt) plays keyboards on two quieter numbers. “Stripey” Buck is flitting between guitars (electric and acoustic) and banjo while Bill Berry breaks away from his drums to bash a bass occasionally (but who ARE those other guys?)

These internal musings are interrupted by Michael’s longest speech yet. “We were gonna do a Greatest Hits Package, but we lost the books” (tentative laughter from the audience) “so we’ll do a bunch of songs instead. Stay here. Do what you have to do” (I swig some more of thish ecshellent cocktail) “and we’ll do songs for quite a while”. And they do. This is the mid-section of the show and R.E.M. turn schmaltzy. Stipey is nailed in the overhead circular glare of a white spotlight while some crappy disco lights play over the audience. It’s like a Cabaret show on the Q.E.2. He hugs himself, crouches in wacky Zen-yoga postures, poses on the monitors, strips off another layer of clothing and emotes furiously throughout “Man On The Moon” – a song he says is about spirituality, but is … “mis-interpreted. I have no idea why, but it’s something we have to live with.” It’s a horripilatory highpoint for me, only equaled later by “Losing My Religion” (which garners the most applause) and “Everything Hurts” which is near-visceral in its beauty and intensity.

“Everything Hurts” is actually the beginning of the encore. R.E.M. have been on stage for nearly 2 hours and the time has gone – who knows where? The show isn’t stratospheric – it’s stuck somewhere in the lower troposphere, stubbornly refusing to go higher. But the band don’t mind. They’ve had fun and if it ain’t a classic gig, well sometimes that happens (Bob Dylan was the same). Michael begins his final speech. “I’d like to start…” (and is promptly interrupted by fans screeching for umpteen indecipherable requests)… “No, we’re not a jukebox. We play what we want.” He continues with tongue in check to “… take the time to thank the opening band for playing” and introduces the band. “We’ve not done this in 15 years coz I figured everyone knew who we were so what the eff. Anyway, the new guys are Scott (mumble) from Seattle on my left and Dave here. They’re dedicated to everyone who was born in Hong Kong. It’s a shock to see so many Anglophiles here, but it’s been a pleasure to play in Hong Kong for the first time”.

Finally, R.E.M. crank it up for a high-metal ride down Memory Lane as Michael urges us to “… follow me. Oh, follow Me…” and an “Orange Crush” embraces the wildly cheering audience. Goatee Steve has forced his way to the front – a mere 6 feet from Michael – where he’s been frantically collecting discarded lyric sheets from the stage. He’s having a helluva time (and so is his sister). While “Orange Crush” is playing, I know for certain that the final song will be “End Of The World” and I’m writing this prediction down when it comes true. For a few moments, I’m on the private R.E.M. radiowave, privy to their every thought or so it seems. The words are rapped out with doomsday urgency – the guitars spit and crackle in their haste – the drums pound and pulse – the bass booms like an adrenal heartbeat. The song ends, the last notes hover, fading, as the band slice through the silence, down the stairs to the sanctuary of the dressing room. The First Concert Of 1995 is over and a tired, elated audience stumbles into the street and off in search of suds, supper, sleep, sex and society. Who’ll return in 5 days time for Roxette I wonder?

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