R.E.M.'s Automatic For The People - the story behind every song

5 October 2023, 19:00

R.E.M. and their classic 1992 album Automatic For The People
R.E.M. and their classic 1992 album Automatic For The People. Picture: Steve Rapport/Getty Images

31 years on, was the band's 1992 classic their best album? Michael Stipe and Mike Mills take Radio X through the tracks.

By Martin O'Gorman

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Released on 5th October 1992 Automatic For The People came hot on the heels of the enormous worldwide success of Out Of Time, which had made R.E.M. one of the biggest bands in the world, after a decade of crafting a unique independent career.

But the record - R.E.M.’s eighth studio album - was born at he time of George Bush, the Gulf War and the full impact of the AIDs crisis. Michael Stipe and Mike Mills took Radio X’s John Kennedy through the album track by track and recalled how these influences created a dark, yet beautiful set of songs.

R.E.M. on Automatic For The People - track by track

Stipe says of the record: “We had lived through our twenties and I was 31, we started writing this record in our thirties. That’s a time of life when start kind of re-examining who you are as an adult, who you were as a younger person. And I think all of that went into the mood and the themes of this record."

While the mood of the album was much darker, Automatic For The People still connected with people and went on to sell 18 million copies around the world. It was a phenomenal hit in the UK, eventually being certified seven times platinum.

R.E.M.'s Automatic For The People album
R.E.M.'s Automatic For The People album. Picture: Carolyn Jenkins / Alamy Stock Photo

“With Out Of Time, we had got tired of ourselves. We had proven that we could write a certain type of song. We didn’t want to continue doing that, we wanted to really challenge our limited skills and push them as far as we could.”

Mills agrees, saying: “We were just in an extremely creative mode. Anything went at that point, we were willing to try anything and see if it stuck to the wall.”

R.E.M. at the time of Automatic For The People: Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Bill Berry and Mike Mills
R.E.M. at the time of Automatic For The People: Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Bill Berry and Mike Mills. Picture: AJ Barratt/Avalon/Getty Images

What did the title Automatic For The People mean?

The enigmatic title was a typically local reference from R.E.M, regarding their hometown of Athens, Georgia. "Automatic For The People" was the motto of Weaver D's Delicious Fine Foods, a restaurant based in the city. The slogan was used by owner Dexter Weaver instead of the phrase "you're welcome".

Posted by Weaver D's Delicious Fine Foods on Monday, August 15, 2022
  1. Drive

    R.E.M. - Drive (Official Music Video)

    Michael Stipe: "I owe a big deal to David Essex for writing Rock On, which was a big hit in the United States. That song was a beacon of light to me as a very young man, along with Elton John’s Benny And The Jets. They were both very oddly produced singles, but they were beacons of light to me as a young teenager, discovering that I was different to everyone else. And not just in terms of my sexuality. Those songs indicated to me a direction that I wanted to go in."

  2. Try Not To Breathe

    Michael Stipe: “It’s about a woman at the end of her life, looking at the people around her and urging them I think to easily embrace or acknowledge what’s happening.”

  3. The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite

    R.E.M. - The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite (Official Music Video)

    A playful Stipe pays tribute to the 1961 hit The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

    Michael Stipe: “It was not my choice to put it on the record… There are songs I feel I was lyrically lazy, this one I lyrically a little too over-caffeinated! It’s a song I hear and I cannot stop singing for four days after I hear it.”

  4. Everybody Hurts

    R.E.M. - Everybody Hurts (Official Music Video)

    A big ballad that still means a lot to people, accompanied by a memorable video.

    Michael Stipe: “Everybody Hurts is one of those songs that when you’re in the mood, it’s exactly right - but when you’re not in the mood for it, you can skip right over to the next one.”

  5. New Orleans Instrumental No. 1

    Michael Stipe: "This song is saturated in New Orleans. It has that delta, dank, darkness, four in the morning kind of feel of a place as magical and mercurial. When you’re there you know you’re there, when you’re not, you miss it."

  6. Sweetness Follows

    R.E.M. - Sweetness Follows (Live from Glastonbury Festival, 1999)

    Michael Stipe: “I remember we hired a cello player and he or she was warming up and played this [makes groaning sound]. I said, Woah. Do that again! I love loops. Loops that repeat and repeat, they provide for me and for my voice a bed, or a grounding on which to do other things.”

  7. Monty Got A Raw Deal

    Michael Stipe explains this is about 50s film star Montgomery Clift: “At Elton John’s 50th birthday party at the Cheateau Marmont in Los Angeles, I was invited to the dinner and it was a pretty august group of people there, including Dame Elizabeth Taylor. Courtney Love was sat at my table, and she urged me to go and present myself and I did. It was pretty awesome to be able to tell her that not only had I written a song about her friend, but I’d written her into the second verse.”

  8. Ignoreland

    R.E.M. - Ignoreland (Official Lyric Video)

    Stipe rails against the political status quo in the US, with a song that opens: "These bastards stole all the power from the victims of the Us V Them years / Wrecking all things virtuous and true".

    Mike Mills: “There’s a great deal of venting in that song, both lyrically and musically. Sometimes you have anger and you have to let it out, and thank goodness we have music for that outlet. There is a lot of music in that song, a lot of instruments. It’s a beautiful cacophony, that really captured how we felt about the political situation in America.”

  9. Star Me Kitten

    Mike Mills: “Scott Litt and I had been talking about 10cc and how cool I’m Not In Love is as a song. I said, How did they do that? And he said, What you do is you record your voice onto eight or ten different tracks and you can play it with faders, as an instrument. So that’s what we did - it’s a whole lot of me.”

  10. Man On The Moon

    R.E.M. - Man On The Moon (Official Music Video)

    Michael Stipe pays tribute to the confrontational stand-up comic Andy Kaufman with references to his weird art film My Breakfast with Blassie.

    Michael Stipe: “There was a big challenge for me, which was to write a song with more ‘yeahs’ in it than a Nirvana song. And I managed to do that!”

  11. Nightswimming

    R.E.M. - Nightswimming (Official Music Video) [British Version]

    Mike Mills: “Peter wrote that it was a competition to see who could write a song to those lyrics, but I don’t remember it being that way at all. I was just something I was messing around with, so I would sit down at the piano and goof around with it and Michael said: Keep playing that and he started coming up with this beautiful stuff for it.”

  12. Find The River

    Mike Mills: “One of the things about this album is that we managed to use the accordion a lot without it sounding cheesy. And that’s not easy to do. People are used to polkas or Weird Al or what have you, but to make it plaintive or evocative… we were surprised at that. But it worked really well. It really adds a tone to this record.”