I wanted to kick things off with a 12″ single, a single that I love, but perhaps shouldn’t as much as I do. In R.E.M’s extensive discography, no song divides fans quite as much as Shiny Happy People, and listening to the song it’s easy to see why. It’s different, the standout departure on a record of departures, 1991’s Out Of Time – on which the band dropped the electric guitars and alt-rock feel of Green for acoustics and quirkiness. I adore Out Of Time¸ and consider it to be the bands best, and there’s no song on it which I’ve enjoyed quite as much as Shiny Happy People. Joyous and a little odd, vocalist Micheal Stipe described it as “a fruity pop song written for children,” vocal elsewhere about his dislike for the track, claiming in a 1995 interview that he “hated” it. As such, it’s a track that is never played live, but one which was reworked for an episode of The Muppets as Furry Happy Monsters (video below).
Released: 1991 Label: Warner Brothers Records
Variant: Unknown Purchased from: Vinylfreak, Roskilde
If it is a fruity pop song for children then maybe the boundless joy it brings me as 22 is misplaced. Maybe I shouldn’t get the urge to dance or simply nod along (as I often tend to do instead). Maybe I should try and see it the way Stipe sees it, as a creative misstep which intended to push the band’s envelope, but was only an ill-fated endeavour for its creators. Stipe adds that “it was written to be as pop as it could possibly be, absurdly, ridiculously pop” and it is. It’s sweet bordering on sickly, upbeat, expressive and insanely catchy. On first hearing it way back when, the chorale melody rooted itself in my brain for days, and writing about it now I still hear it gloriously crisp. For me, Shiny Happy People is a fountain of good feelings. As ludicrous as the song is, it benefits from its attempts to frolic as much as it can. Shiny Happy People has the capacity to cheer me up instantaneously. From the first opening string arrangements endorphins are triggered, and the sudden uptake in my mood borders on miraculous. It’s a real summer song, all rainbows and euphoria, unrestrained and unburdened, and I like it a great deal. I particularly like the video as well, which does a good job of capturing the aloof nature of the song.
I have two particular memories of Shiny Happy People that stand out above others. The first takes place on a train ride back to Chichester from Southampton, at 23:44, at the end of a long but near-perfect day. It was the day I conducted my first ever interview with a musician, that musician being Wil Wagner of The Smith Street Band. I was trying something new, and it worked out, and I later saw his bands show elated – that elation only added to as the set progressed. Already exceedingly happy, I boarded my train home, played Shiny Happy People a couple of times and watched the south coast roll by in a blur of street lights, every fibre of my being dancing at the end of the day. The second memory I remember instead as a blur, laid spread-eagled on the couch of my old student house, the last man standing at the end of a party, half-empty (or half-full) glass in hand, with my brain unconsciously going to YouTube and playing Shiny Happy People. Riding the high of drink and smokes I settled back, closed my eyes, finished my beer, and sang along internally, a huge grin on my face as that later bridge gives way to jubilant bouncing.
Shiny Happy People is a song for the happiest of moments, and a song to brighten the darker moments. On this 12″ single it’s accompanied by a Side B consisting of the obscure Forty Second Song (which I’m not especially keen on), and an acoustic take of the bands best-known song Losing My Religion. This acoustic version does justice to the original, recorded on Rockline in 1991, interesting in terms of the percussion used, which gives the rendition a very intimate, stripped back feel. I picked the 12″ up in a record store in Roskilde, Denmark, which I stumbled upon when exploring the city. It was an interesting find, one of those stores with a unique feel, polished wooden shelves and a small set of sofas in the corner. Lots of records, but also lots of open spaces. After picking up the record for 100 Danish Kroner I found Shiny Happy People on my iPod and played it a couple of times to complement the mood travelling to new places puts me in.