“It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” — R.E.M.

Over the last few years, outrage has become much more a feature of public discourse in both the UK and the US than I can remember at any other point in my life.

Everybody seems to be outraged with everybody else on the big issues of the day, but nobody seems to be open to a sensible discussion about anything, at the end of which some negotiated way forward, in the best interests of the country as a whole, might be delivered.

Not so long ago, I could have my views, and you could have yours. At an election one of us would get a government we thought was great, and while the other wouldn’t exactly be happy about the outcome, we’d be prepared to respect the democratic process which had reached a collective verdict. We were invested in the process rather than the result, and accepted the outcome even when it went against us.

Now the battles run on between elections, and even within political parties. Once you knew what a political party stood for. Now even mainstream political parties slug it out like bare-knuckle street fighters with people they disagree with from their own side just as fervently as they do with representatives of opposing parties.

I was on a long car journey this week and, along the way, switched my car radio to the heavy-duty news output on BBC Radio 4, the most august news channel from the most august of British broadcasters. Normally, their output is genteel and refined. But even there, our so-called political leaders were slugging it out with one another.

Not one of them occasionally acknowledged there might be something in what their opponents had to say, or addressed a legitimate concern raised by the interviewer or the audience, so fearful were they of appearing to give ground.

Our elected leaders used to, at least relatively selflessly, put the country first in times of crisis and party second. We could respect that, even when we didn’t agree with them.

Now it seems they put themselves first, party a distant second and the country so far behind it’s barely the tiniest blip on the horizon.

For reasons that are perhaps now obvious, while listening to the normally refined, heavy-duty, sober-minded news output on BBC Radio 4, R.E.M.’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” popped into my head.

“It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, to give its full and proper title, was released in 1987…32 years ago…as a track on R.E.M.’s album “Document”.

But if you remember the world in 1987, you’ll know that world we lived in back then has already ended. “The end of the world as we know it” is a more common occurrence than you might think, but it tends to be obvious only in retrospect.

Back in 1987, Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, was President of the United States. Mikhail Gorbachev was in charge in the Soviet Union (as it was then). Margaret Thatcher was British Prime Minister. Titans of the political world whose impact on their countries…whether or not you agree with what they stood for…none of their successor has been able to match.

In 1987, when R.E.M. released “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It”, Germany was two separate countries and the Berlin Wall still separated East and West Berlin. It wouldn’t be breached for another two years. Thankfully for millions behind the Iron Curtain, when the Berlin Wall came down the end of the world as they knew it meant finding themselves free once more after decades of oppression.

And unless you worked for a military research lab, or some secretive government body, you wouldn’t have known what the internet was in 1987. It would be another decade before the World Wide Web would catch on for ordinary people. The world as we knew it, where communication was slow, difficult and only available through a limited range of media outlets, has also come to and end since 1987.

That’s the trouble with the expression “the end of the world as we know it”…it comes with some baggage.

In normal conversation, it tends to be used to describe unpleasant events, at least from the perspective of the person using the expression… “if politician X gets their way, it will be the end of the world as we know it!” is a cry of the outraged up and down the land.

But sometimes the end of the world as we know it isn’t a bad thing at all…

You’re entitled to your own views of course, but I’ve always thought the end of slavery was a good thing, as was the arrival of equal rights for women, freedom from discrimination on the grounds of race or religion and the fall of the Berlin Wall (to name just a few).

Before those events, each of which in their day was described as “the end of the world as we know it”, the world worked just fine if you were on the “lucky” side of the equation, but it didn’t look so great if you only had the downside of the deal. The ending of those worlds where treating other human beings badly was officially sanctioned didn’t trouble me in the slightest.

Admittedly R.E.M. had a slight more apocalyptic view of “The End Of The World As We Know It” in mind…

That’s great, it starts with an earthquake
Birds and snakes, and aeroplanes
And Lenny Bruce is not afraid

In some reviews of “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” much is made of parallels between its delivery and the Bob Dylan song “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. There’s undoubtedly a hat-tip of some sort between those two “stream of consciousness” songs, but I’ve always thought the bigger clue to the song’s intent was the mention of Lenny Bruce in the first stanza.

Not a name you hear much any more, Lenny Bruce was a comedian back in the 1960s and 70s who had a free-wheeling, boundary-defying, thought-provoking…or, depending on your point of view, gratuitously offensive…fast-paced style. He took no prisoners and left no stone un-turned. When Lenny Bruce wasn’t afraid, you knew some perception-bending concepts were about to come your way…

Which is kind of what “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” does…

Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn
World serves its own needs
Don’t mis-serve your own needs
Speed it up a notch, speed, grunt, no strength
The ladder starts to clatter
With a fear of height, down, height
Wire in a fire, represent the seven games
And a government for hire and a combat site
Left her, wasn’t coming in a hurry
With the Furies breathing down your neck

Amongst that Dylan-esque stream of consciousness, Michael Stipe takes us on a bit of a journey, but since we end up with the Furies…the Greek goddesses of vengeance…I think we can take it this journey wasn’t conceived as a particularly positive experience by him.

I’ve always been fascinated by R.E.M.’s pairing together of a very bouncy, jaunty tune with some pretty challenging lyrics. I know juxtaposition is a tried and tested creative device, but it’s always struck me as a little odd that a jaunty tune over apocalyptic lyrics gets the crowd at an R.E.M. concert bouncing around like teenyboppers at their first pop concert. Just watch the reaction from concertgoers in the front row when Michael Stipe goes into the crowd on the video below…

The lines from “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” which popped into my head the other day as I listened to politicians rant at one another on the BBCs’ most serious radio news channel were these…

A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies
Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives, and I decline

I thought a “tournament of lies” was a very apt description of the jousting that was going on. It wasn’t a debate, it was an argument. Each side said plenty of things they must have known were untrue before trying, largely unsuccessfully, to skewer the other side for saying things they must have known were untrue too. This hour-long news programme was not humanity at its best, let me tell you.

In the days when there were only a handful of national newspapers and a couple of radio and TV stations..like back in 1987, for example…there was plenty to fill the available airwaves without broadcasters having to find people prepared to rant for hours on end for the sole purpose of driving traffic from outraged readers, viewers and listeners to make their channel more attractive to advertisers.

The world of limited media opportunities has come to an end since 1987 and that may not have been an entirely positive thing for humanity as a whole.

Throughout history, the greatest changes…the end of the world as we knew it at the time, if you like…only came about when people on opposite sides of a political divide joined forces and worked together to deliver a better result than the one that had been in place previously.

Lots of worlds came to an end and we were all the better for it.

Ironically, the more seismic changes were often implemented by people who had, until shortly beforehand, been the most wedded to the “old system”, and had benefited considerably from the privileges it conferred.

Lyndon B. Johnson, for example, a fully paid-up member of the Southern Ol’ Boys Club, signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, using up an enormous amount of his own political capital in the process.

President F. W. de Klerk, a privileged Afrikaner who headed South Africa’s white minority government, was prepared to open talks with Nelson Mandela and set his country on the path which led to the end of apartheid.

Closer to home, in Northern Ireland there was no peace until Republicans and Unionists stopped communicating with one another only through guns and bombs, and decided instead to seek peace for all their people.

As my journey up the motorway with BBC Radio 4 for company the other day reminded me, nothing changes for as long as people aren’t prepared to work with their opponents in the best interest of us all.

So, in a funny way, I am looking forward to the end of the world as I know it at the moment, where politicians just rant at one another and sensible cross-party solutions in the interest of the country as a whole look an unlikely prospect.

If our political leaders spent less time looking after themselves, and more time looking after the people they are supposed to represent, I’d feel a lot better. In fact, in the words of R.E.M., I’d feel fine…

Here’s R.E.M. with the surprisingly jaunty “It’s The End Of The Word As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”…

The video is below, but if you prefer you can listen to the track on Spotify herehttps://open.spotify.com/track/2oSpQ7QtIKTNFfA08Cy0ku

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